View; toy

Between June and August 1923, President Warren G. Harding traveled by train, car, and ship through the western states, delivering speeches as he went and becoming the first president to visit Alaska. On the return leg of the journey, he died in San Francisco.

His surviving itinerary tells us that it must have been June when Mr. Harding struck this pose before a stereo camera owned by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, Pennsylvania. “President Harding in the ‘Cab’ of Great St. Paul Electric Locomotive, Falcon, Idaho” proclaims Keystone’s written supplement to  this event in its business history.

Postprocess the stereo pair with Photoshop and an anaglyph program (red-and-blue stereo glasses required) and you’ll have an approximation of what a customer of the Keystone View Company would have seen in her stereopticon in 1923. The image is vivid once again, and the 3D and the words printed below it assure you that vividness is reality. But something within the image frame seems out of scale. The cab of the Great Electric Locomotive could only have been designed to receive a human body into itself, but this body doesn’t fit. It and the locomotive’s greatness don’t seem to belong together. The man is less vivid than the machine.

Well, the man and the locomotive occupy different registers of body language. For the moment, the cab is playing host to a man in a suit, and the man is playing engineer. But for the man’s elbow-out-the-window engineer pose a suit is the wrong costume, and of course (and in the cab of the Great Electric Locomotive this is sad) this man is so grown up, ex officio, that he couldn’t dress any other way unless he could somehow change himself and start being an engineer. Posing in his suit in the midst of the Great Electric Locomotive’s magnificent apparatus of wheels and springs, the passenger can’t make himself at home in the cab. It is not his. Whatever power the passenger can bring into play outside the cab, the Great Electric Locomotive will continue exerting its own force over steel as a labor.

By contrast, the business of the Niagara Falls scenic trolley line is strictly play. In this image, some laborers are visible along the rails ahead of the car, but the image has properly allotted everything human within the car to a role subordinate to rushing water and soaring trestle and industrious cargo.

This is a picture about seeing. The railroad was laid to help its passengers see the river, and then the picture was taken to help us see the result. In their image, the passengers have gone invisible, as they should. They are now absorbed entirely into the business of seeing and being seen. They are not just at play now; they are play. Unlike the man with two months to live who showed himself in a window of the Great Electric Locomotive, those who submerged themselves in unseenness before the sight of the river have now become invisible players of the game whose winners win deathlessness. They are play forever because they are play everywhere. They are not visitors to a cab; they are that which moves with a river.

Here: spin the wheel and test for yourself. Which has more life now, which will have more life now and happily ever after: the man in the hesitantly named “cab” of the Great Electric Locomotive or this little tin energy, inviting us to board and then roll toward life forever?

The moment you saw it, you knew.


The Great Electric Locomotive: . Photoshopped.

The scenic railroad: “Niagara Gorge with Michigan Central Cantilever Bridge and Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, New York,” between 1880 and 1899. . Photoshopped.