From where we stand on our hillside, the train at a station in Michigan can’t be seen. It’s there, however, or perhaps it was there a moment ago. We know, because a cloud of smoke is drifting away from the station. In a zone just outside the visible portion of this image, a steam engine is, or is about to be, somewhere else in space and time.
“Michigan Central railroad station”
Click to enlarge.
The image comes to us now trailing a Shorpy comment stream, and from there we can learn that this building in Michigan is located at 401 Depot Street, Ann Arbor. Still standing and in good repair, it looks much as it did when this image of horses and derby hats was captured. Two more images in the stream, captured at approximately the present time, demonstrate. One of the two is a download from Google Street, and with its help we can take a virtual walk around the building, just as if we were alive on the spot.
Simultaneously, from a dig where the stream cuts through the past, a researcher reports that The Awakening of Helena Richie, one of the plays advertised on the billboards to the left of the street, ran on Broadway from September 1909 to January 1910, then went on tour in the spring. That locates a terminus in time for the mixed group of buggies and cars in front of the station. The year when somebody put his head under a photographer’s dark hood to see the group this way was 1910, two years after Henry Ford’s Model T, forty miles down the rail line in Detroit, had begun changing the mix. The camera could record the mix but not the change. Photography is the art of stillness in the momentary.
But then, blurred a little by his passage into and then out through the stillness, a man carrying a winter overcoat but wearing a summer suit began climbing the hill from the station. Because he wasn’t in the stillness then, he will never stop now. Trudging toward us along a borderline between the seasons of his year, he is headed past the camera toward a destination somewhere over the camera’s shoulder. His course is set toward a space created by the educational conventions of perspective between ourselves and the composition’s foreground. If the lesson is successful and we bring ourselves to think of him coming to rest there, he will have left the picture’s depicted fraction of a second and arrived in a future.
However, that future isn’t depicted in the picture itself, and it can’t be depicted anywhere else because both the man and the fraction of a second when he was have vanished from time. It’s true that while the camera’s shutter was open, the man’s left foot in its buttoned shoe seemed still, as if it could claim a place, no matter how tiny, in a finally fixed and stable history. But of course it couldn’t. Freeze-framed on the pavement by the camera’s virtual way of seeing, visible there only as an illusion of motion stopped and about to start again, that not really unmoving shoe is something like a visual equivalent of grammar’s future perfect tense: the representation of an action completed (Latin perfectus) with respect to a moment in the future.
In that grammatical sense, perhaps every instant when a shutter opens and closes and time seems to stop is a perfect instant. It may be that an image is only an a perfect instant confined within a frame. Of this moment in 1910, at any rate, nothing remains except what is interior to its frame. As unconfined creating light passed westward through the exterior and away along its track, the end came for everything: the horses on their dirt road, the railroad station which is now a restaurant with a railroad theme, the men in their derby hats. But when we put the frame around our tiny image of the man walking up a little hill toward us, we locked in the illusion it had created of a moment held still for us to see, forever. It was a moment in the interior, with the end locked out.
Then, at the end, we let the man escape into the end. Hold his image up to the light, let the light penetrate, and look. From its foreground in the past, this picture seems to extend toward the invisible place over our shoulder where the man with his suitcase will finally have gone.