Who knows if this emanation is an innate property of all snapshots and security footage, or if it was truly given off by the suspects themselves? It was certainly hard not to project it onto them. In their caps, they looked unlikely, at best. They weren’t even adequately disguised.
Either way, the tension between their appearance of cool disregard and our retrospective suspicion of appallingly sinister intent made the images disturbing.
Police released them to the public in a reluctant roll of the dice three days after the bombings. They knew these photographs would most likely tip the suspects off. What they couldn’t have known was how much chaos would ensue: a murdered MIT security officer, a carjacking, a terrifying shoot-out, a capture, one suspect’s death, a getaway, a regional lockdown, and, finally, thermal images of a teenage male huddled inside a boat in Watertown.
In art, people routinely talk about colors being “warm” or “cool.” Whole images, in a different sense, can have a “warm” or “cool” affect. Unleashed emotions are warm, or hot. Restraint and deliberation tend to be cool. Great art — a Jackson Pollock drip painting, for instance, or a portrait by Ingres — often sustains a volatile tension between the two.
Scientific imagery is inevitably cool, even if its subject — a baby in utero, a nuclear explosion — is emotionally hot. But what happens when the instrument producing such imagery is literally detecting heat — is giving us the clear outlines of a warmblooded human animal hiding in someone’s backyard?
And what happens when that person is believed to be a callous murderer, yet to be brought to justice?
We might want to ask troopers Mathurin and Fairchild, who were seeing these images in real time. With their helicopter’s fuel reserves running down, this strange film must have unfolded incredibly slowly for them. Whatever was happening (was the suspect preparing to come out firing? Would he blow himself up? Would he shoot at them?) must have seemed to be taking forever to happen. (Later, Fairchild’s colleagues praised him “for his cool performance in what was a very hot, and very fluid situation.”)
Seeing these thermal images, I was reminded of Don DeLillo, writing about the experience of watching video artist Douglas Gordon’s radically slowed-down version of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” What he saw, wrote DeLillo, was “something near to elemental life; a thing receding into its drugged parts. Janet Leigh in the detailed process of not knowing what is about to happen to her.”
That, in a way, is how it felt after a week of high drama and a long day of “sheltering in place” — everything suddenly narrowing to this tiny glow, this “heat signature,” like the small, lingering square of light you see on old TV sets after they have been switched off. A thing “receding into its drugged parts.”
“Jahar man if u can read this just turn urself in for the sake of ur parents,” one friend texted the fleeing suspect that day. It was too late.
In the end, these images are, perhaps, not “like” or “unlike” anything. Yet the more they resist interpretation, the more mesmerizing they become. They are a disturbing amalgam of fiction and hyperreality, of the shadows in Plato’s cave and Superman’s X-ray vision.
Certainly, they make you wonder, as you drive through the quiet streets of Watertown, or Newton, or Arlington, or Jamaica Plain, if it will be possible soon to return to normality, to what DeLillo called “the strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that’s not the movies.”
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.