A moment ago, the words readable in this New England vista of elms and steeples were saying only “McDaniels Drug Store.” Then, however, in a tumult of galloping hooves, the words “Keene N.H. Aug 12 1911” stamped themselves into place with a demand for understanding. From that instant, so long as it shall remain in the image, the word Keene is to be understood as the term here in the picture. As it takes dominion over that meaning, here imposes an unambiguity on the vista, forcibly unifying the multiple connotations of its two steeples with the single denotation of the sign that declares itself to be McDaniels’. Burned into the negative like a permanent scar, the white word Keene will continue being read even after the fire engine has completed its passage through the image frame and it is no longer August 12.
Passing through at a gallop, the men of the fire engine whip their steaming apparatus on toward an only slightly different here. Atop the apparatus, they race for the laureate idea that fires can be put out and (therefore) change can be forestalled. Also, because for them that idea is a smoking, sweating, horsedrawn thing, they can’t travel any significant way beyond the frame. On August 13, when the fire is out, the term Keene may still (therefore) mean here. But even as the fire engine rushes away on August 12 toward the new here, it is carrying away with it, beyond recovery, a Keene’s worth of fragmented images specifically timestamped August 12. On August 12, during the instant just before they became a part of the record, those things meant — those things were — life lived in Keene, life lived as Keene. Now, read as aftermaths of August 12, they are only components of a record. In that record, the outlines of the dead letters K, E, E, N, E remain what they always were: whitely unambiguous. All the other items that make up the image, however, have been changed. What they are now is only what we can see, and what we can see is only aberration and focus error.
Source: “Horse-drawn fire engine, Central Square.” Photograph by Bion Whitehouse. Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County, resource identifier hsykwh590 (15-37), https://www.flickr.com/photos/keenepubliclibrary/14556429244/in/photostream/. Photoshopped.