Crystal by crystal, the promise was made unbreakable. One sunny day in 1905, a Mr. Sam Atkinson offered to lift us down from our vantage in the sky and feed us a first class meal. Read now from an 8-by-10-inch glass plate spangled with silver halides by employees of the Detroit Publishing Company, the news of his offer is still spreading. Fixed to the glass by a chemical taxidermy, both Mr. Atkinson’s word and the firm wall that holds it up to the camera are now good forever. Within the borders of that plate, too, all of the land surrounding the word-upholding wall of Sam Atkinson’s St. Charles Hotel has become a containing plenum for the Atkinson transaction. Filled to overflowing with images of the first-class, it is a fertile earthen ware. Once upon a time a camera stopped to take on light from that vessel, and what entered the opening shutter then was receding perspective, cloud, blurry busy motion, traces of time cycling through the persistence of vision. For a fraction of a second, the camera recorded history going about its business of shaping its urn on the wheel.
Before the camera there also lay, once, a first class steamer, and athwart the gray city it was white. Sleek skin of a hot pulsing machinery, the white form moved into the camera’s field to mark the passage of a different color through life. Along such a passage, every voyage is an ascent. And once, a camera belonging to the Detroit Publishing Company was waiting in the sky for that ascent: prepared to receive the first class craft, make the liquid curve of its hull comprehensible as an image, and then lay it to rest on clear glass.
The photograph “Looking up Main Street, Buffalo, N.Y.” is in the Detroit Publishing Company collection in the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994011399/PP/, with copyright date of 1905 in the MARC record. However, the image reproduced above is the version photoshopped by Shorpy.com at http://www.shorpy.com/node/10659. Click it to enlarge. In detail, the sign looks like this.