Bedstead

The old noun is enameled iron. The fabric bears the impression of another old noun, mangle. The glasses’ thin delicate lenses are actually made of glass. The wide eyes and smiling face are turned full on toward an about-to-be-blinding light.

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As things lose their immediacy of reference and become mere historical artifacts, the names they once had (“mangle”; “bedstead”) become hard, ironic, and unforgiving. The trusting smile that the picture shines toward us isn’t like the smile we return, because the man in the picture isn’t thinking, “Little do I know.” He is innocent. If he should say “bedstead,” the sound in his smiling mouth would lack the overtones demanded by our third-person knowingness. The reproduction would be low-fidelity, as if it had been played by a Victrola invisible within the image frame. Only we outside the image frame have been equipped by the passage of time post-flash to hear ourselves wanting to believe, “Little does he know.”

In the flash, “Little does he know” underwent a change of tense to “Little did he know” and the image acquired a caption. In the language of the past it can now say, for instance, “Bedstead.” Post-flash, we translate such words into bedtime stories that we force-read to ourselves, making believe that seeing what no longer exists (for an illuminated moment, a bedstead) can somehow come to mean understanding what no longer exists (forever, a bedstead). But the translation is a language we don’t understand ourselves. Now that the bedstead’s touchable knowable actual iron has passed out of reach in a flash, little can we know.

Source: Jack Delano, “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Engineer John Johnson.” January 1943. U. S. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001016175/PP/. Photoshopped.

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