Seen from on high

When a camera on the Brooklyn Bridge opened its shutter to admit light reflected from the American battleship New Jersey one day in about 1916, it recorded an image that not many Americans at the time would have called Futurist. In the retrospect of a century, however, the attribution has become obvious. Historical decay has dissolved most of the understood significance of the craft full of men traveling down a river, and little else of the image remains except the formal arrangement of its shapes and volumes. As of now, the image has become as simple as black and white. Seen that simply, it almost demands to be interpreted allegorically, as a picture story whose two narrative elements are billowing smoke (say, in Futurist terms, a metonym for energy) and violently distorted perspective (say, in Futurist terms, a metonym for motion). The battleship in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Life on a Battleship” is named The Masculine.

But a moment earlier, the camera’s perspective on the battleship of 1916 was different. For the duration of that instant of exposure, it could have seemed possible to articulate a sense of the ship in language. It might even have seemed possible to speak of the perspective in the language of literature, via something poetic  like “seen from on high.” From on high, see:

If you were able to see from that angle and make the translation into a human emotion, one of the reasons may have originated in the cultural optics of experience. The experience and culture of parenthood, for instance, teach us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that to be seen from on high is to be seen as a whole. Seen as a whole from on high, like a child, the battleship comes to seem childlike itself: big-headed, short-limbed, topheavy. Paddling down the river on a course that isn’t quite parallel to the Manhattan shore, it seems to toddle and waddle. It hasn’t succeeded in being lithe. Grace isn’t yet in its repertoire of motions. It hasn’t yet crossed under the bridge into the future prophesied by the Futurists.  It is a battleship whose possible ways of moving are still in their babyhood.

Perhaps the greatest insight bequeathed to the future by the Futurists was an idea about peace, or at least about that sort of baby peace: the idea that peace is unstable under conditions of change. About seven years after a camera recorded this pair of stills for the static record, for instance, another view from above, this one itself in motion, reordered the stills’ static shapes into a more mature geometry of ideal arcs and platonic trajectories. On September 5, 1923, a sergeant whose name actually was Ulysses Nero released a bomb from a bomber in transit above the moving primal matrix. The bomb exploded, the Futurist wish for a violent death  was granted, and thereby the battleship New Jersey was enabled to sink from view into the third dimension beneath the image plane.

Up to then, its range of movement was confined to two-dimensional passages across the surface, and the only remaining memory of those movements is an archive of stills. But what the Futurists may not have taken into account is that those stills may constitute in themselves a geometry of recombinant form. Seen in the archive and then remembered outside the archive, moving at last as they rise back into memory along a vertical axis, they redraw themselves and plot an optical illusion of life.

Sources for the images of USS New Jersey: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and Photoshopped for contrast and detail.