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Book Review: The Whale's Eyelash


Book Review The Whale's Eyelash Edited by Timothy Prus Reviewed by Sarah Bradley There is no chance I could blunder into a description of this book better than its own: “The Whale’s Eyelash is a play written through the medium of 19th century microscope slides. The men who made these slides were known as mounters. Each slide contains a specific dramatic moment in a universe of its own, and together they tell the story of the Whale’s Eyelash — a story about what happens between the appearance of humankind and its passing away.”

The Whale's Eyelash. Edited by Timothy Prus.
AMC Books, 2014.
 
The Whale's Eyelash
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley

The Whale's Eyelash
Edited by Timothy Prus
AMC Books, 2014. 192 pp., 7½x9½".


There is no chance I could blunder into a description of this book better than its own: “The Whale’s Eyelash is a play written through the medium of 19th century microscope slides. The men who made these slides were known as mounters. Each slide contains a specific dramatic moment in a universe of its own, and together they tell the story of the Whale’s Eyelash — a story about what happens between the appearance of humankind and its passing away.”

There you have it.

Equal parts absurd and brilliant, The Whale’s Eyelash has the outward bearing of something like a collector’s edition of a Shakespearean play, although its oddness is announced in the first few pages in the breakdown of acts and scenes: Act I, Scene 1 — Horn of Rhinoceros, Diatoms from the Stomach of a Japanese Oyster, Leg of a Spanish Fly, Monkey Testicle. Can you see something happening in that assortment? Maybe something to do with male virility? Within the slide titles and with occasional assistance from the images themselves, I can see the fall of Adam and Eve, representations of sexuality, intoxicants, jokes (note the placement of the slide titled “Celebrities of Former Times”) and ruin, and some that remains opaque. Timothy Prus is perhaps too clever for me. Regardless of my understanding of the arrangements, the images are spellbinding, like tiny time capsules, windows into other worlds.

The Whale's Eyelash. Edited by Timothy PrusAMC Books, 2014.
The Whale's Eyelash. Edited by Timothy PrusAMC Books, 2014.

Organic specimens fill the page with the near symmetry of biological patterns, at once abstract and descriptive, occasionally revealing marvelous translucent iridescence or presenting strange depth — a reminder that (for the most part) these aren’t photographs but sculptures of very limited dimensionality. We instantly recognize the human fetal foot or the body of an insect, but wonder at the colorful diatoms spilled across the page like confetti and the shimmer of lapis lazuli, guessing at the strange fibers of the human eye and odd cross sections of tiger whisker. A trapped air bubble or deterioration can unexpectedly contribute to composition; the undulations of tissue bear striking resemblance to aerial landscapes. A few “photographic curiosities for the microscope” work their way in, presenting Saturn, a Chinese theater, a £20 note. Cellular structure is humorously replicated in the meticulous rows of aristocratic faces pack tightly into the microscopic space. Act V Scene 2 consists of a single gorgeous slide: a bouquet of flowers delicately arranged using the colorful scales of butterfly wings, a moment of beauty in the midst of parasites, pestilence and death.

The Whale's Eyelash. Edited by Timothy PrusAMC Books, 2014.

Sharing a page spread, the last two slides depict the very large and very small — a sample from the pyramid of Cheops and a cross section of the nose of a mouse — and we end with a curtain call. Each slide is reproduced in totality, revealing the lovely details of its construction, curving handwritten script, intricately patterned papers. Having first peered into the expanded universe within, it is astonishing to see its true scale. Short bios of the mounters close the book.

The Whale's Eyelash. Edited by Timothy PrusAMC Books, 2014.
The Whale's Eyelash. Edited by Timothy PrusAMC Books, 2014.

Regarding the title: it is the name of the first slide, but whales, of course, don’t have eyelashes. What some do have, however, is baleen, which when separated from the animal does have an eyelash-like countenance, and was once referred to as such. It is the baleen that is responsible for nourishing the whale by filtering tiny organisms from the water — a fitting title for this filtration system of a book and its constant fiddling with scale, expanding and contracting, focusing inward at frozen miniature worlds to glimpse the grand scope of human existence — and winking all the while.—SARAH BRADLEY

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2014 by:
Sarah Bradley
Cristina de Middel
Melanie McWhorter


SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. Some of her work can be found on her website sebradley.com.

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