Mirror and bowl. Window communicating light to an interior and lens collecting light across an exterior. Contemplative light and active light; sphere and separate sphere. Hand, reaching across; hands at the opposite edge, in pockets; hands, holding braced against the body in the middle an apparatus for seeing out that does not see in.
(Parmigianino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” about 1524, and “Two men in high silk hats, one with Kodak camera, on the White House grounds, Washington, D.C.,” April 22, 1889. The photographer’s name was Painter. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures /item/2002723173/.)
On its online Library of Congress page, this photograph is dated July 1939, titled “Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” and indexed under “segregation.”
If you’re less than 30 years old, the time may have come for you to learn formally that the frieze at the top and bottom of this print is the pattern of sprocket holes along the edges of a roll of 35-millimeter film. The negatives produced by that phototechnology were tiny, just 24 millimeters in one dimension and ordinarily 36 mm in the other, and in the absence of any electronics their resolution couldn’t be high. So the sense communicated most immediately by this photograph is something not visual (say, its composition of forms) but historiographic — that is, the word “Colored.” That word evokes emotion, but the emotion is word-based and its word-based non-visual origins are multiple and incompatible. Depending on who you are and how your politics are oriented, what you see in this picture of a word may evoke either anger or nostalgia. In 1939 Russell Lee took the picture on assignment for a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, but if he were a Fox News cameraman in 2020 his product would be seen under a different regime of intention.
But in 2020, electronics can be brought to bear. In Photoshop I open the Nik filter called Dark Contrasts, and it darkens the word’s context and fades its ambiguities to black.
Now I can see the clean shirt and the rest of the clothing layer. As of 1939 the baggy pin-striped pants with high waist and narrow white belt were flashy-fashionable, as was the hat with its low crown, big ribbon, and dramatic curves. “I display,” they say. “Consider loving me.” But all around the clothing layer, now, is a grime. In 1939, when the word “Colored” was simply an aspect of the environment, the grime was latent and unseen. In 2020, the phrase “dark contrasts” helps us see it. The control reveals the grime to be not just a layer of visual effects like the clothes but a corpus of blackened qualities pervading both the image and its historical contexts, from the negative’s photosensitive surface to the darkness inside the camera and from the grime on the walls to the statute that erected them. From the dark image that then results we can learn that it isn’t the clothing that is to be loved; it is the colored man.
About him we can ask the dark: what was it to have been that thirsting body within its layer of clean clothes? And if the visual regime of Fox News prevails, what will it be again?
From left to right the words dance past. As words, they claim to mime a song of pain. “Badly handled,” they say they are crying. But the words “badly handled” are visible, only: particles of gray prime-coat, mutely darkening a surface.
But an image isn’t a surface. If it is seen to be dancing from left to right, it is dancing all the way to the depths of itself. On their page the New-York Tribune’s gray paragraphs are separate from one another and static, but this horse en pointe and the three men with clubs work with one another in a single moving mass. In fact, they seem to belong to one another, as if they had been conceived in unity by someone raising his legs toward a barre as his body thought through an idea about space.
Close to the image but still outside, one more paragraph frames the unity as an expression of a concept such as “pain.” Pain is kinetic in the transformation of the word stone from noun to verb, but it also distressingly latent in the fear-adverb inside. The image itself has attempted to make a break with uncertainty by perforating one of its own imaged windows, but of course that can’t let us in. Read from outside image, the term inside can only signify terra incognita. We will never see far enough inside. Never again will this horse descend from pointe.
But the custodian of the horse-image has noticed some other words within, and keyed those to a history preserved in words outside. With that key the Library of Congress’s online link teaches us the image’s coordinates in time: “Photo shows the garbage strike in New York City, Nov. 8-11, 1911.” It adds a coordinate in space, “The lamp post sign is for East 57th Street,” and with that we may seem to have escaped from ahistorical image and reentered the chronicle of time through which we pass. Year by year we have been stepping away from the image’s cobblestones and leaving behind the people inside, and now that they are interred where lies the year 1911, we seem to have broken free into a margin-free, illimitable field of vision. Far from sight or memory of the horse on his cobblestones, we may think that the East 57th Street we see now is a state of being that we actually know: the state we see on today’s TV, decisively erased from print’s black and white: a finally permanent history of a stage across which will now go dancing — forever, and forevermore unregulated! a corps de ballet of hedge funders and international criminals.
But the horse with the sore on his hip and the men with clubs haven’t finished dancing themselves into realized being. They have only begun their translation from life to image, but having begun, they have begun putting on immortality. For them who started dancing and for us who have seen the dance, East 57th Street will remain a 1911 coming again and again to mind. There, in the mind, 1911’s stony thoroughfare will remain under the control of men with imaged clubs who have been authorized to force us, when the time comes, back to the barre for the next position.
She was Phoebe Snow, the white-gowned heroine of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American business history: Earnest Elmo Calkins’s series of streetcar advertising cards (1903-1917) for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. This was the onset of Phoebe’s dream.