Between a river valley in 1898 and you, there has passed this image of the no longer moving. Clouds, ripples and all, everything now visible within the black border has been dulled and stilled.
One of the incidentals in there is an episode from the history of steam. What you see acting it out is a powerful little locomotive known as the Mother Hubbard which saved money for some Pennsylvania railroads like the Lehigh Valley by burning low-quality coal in an oversized firebox supported by the engine’s big drive wheels. The type didn’t spread far beyond Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields and didn’t last long; it separated the engineer from his fireman, it sometimes killed him when the engine threw a piston rod up through the cab, and when engines grew bigger its firebox couldn’t. But when Mother Hubbard was mobile, Americans communicated by postcard, and this was one of the the Detroit Publishing Company’s cards. It was the work of William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), who traveled America’s rails on Detroit Publishing’s behalf in his own special car.
The photograph of Yellowstone Falls on the bulkhead is Jackson’s own icon. Dating from 1871 and the first photograph ever made of the Falls, it is a contact print made from a glass negative measuring some 16 by 20 inches, hauled into and out of the canyon by mule train. In a less strenuous era and a less strenuous part of the nation, someone still took painstaking brush and pigment and colored in the Black Diamond.
It’s easier now.
The current technique’s business model is monthly rent, and its business name is Lightroom. As long as your credit lasts within the room, it proposes to enact and perform memory for you. Now, because you have tapped a credit card, you are entitled to believe that you see clouds passing above the damp riverbank where you stand in sunlight.
This month I paid for you. The door opened, the Room let you in, and now you believe you once saw what you see now. Subject to the terms of the agreement, you began believing you were on a river path to a place where earth is soft beneath Mother’s breath-warm steam.