Waxwork with sound

Once upon a time a U.S. Navy radioman named C. W. Allen served on seaplanes based at the Panama Canal Zone and flew with a camera. His photo album is now in the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and viewable online at


It includes this image of the Navy zeppelin Shenandoah traversing the canal in 1924 or 1925 with its mooring ship Patoka. I’ve previously posted some attempts at reconstructing it, but because editing software keeps improving, the merely historical interest of the original,

grows only more attenuated by the year. It’s small, its resolution is low, some of it has been whited out by the corner stickers that Radioman Allen used to glue it into his album, and every time it’s reseen its aesthetic sense becomes harder to experience in the emotional form of memory. Think of the surface noise of its epoch. It was bad then, even before vinyl and then digital. Now . . .


Now, in the workroom of a mortuary, you wouldn’t be able to hear this waltz if it were played over the speakers — not as you would have heard it in its own epoch. Now, instead, you’ll be under obligation to look down at the table where a silent waxwork has been made to appear.

And if something then starts sounding through you, you won’t be able to silence it. The sound coming from your mouth will be an affront to the silence of the past, but it won’t be motivated by any intent, bad or good. It will be a sound that can’t help itself. Think back. Beside the waters of the Zone, a mechanism was wound up with a crank, a needle descended on a spinning shellac surface — right? — and a song welled up automatically.

This business day in the mortuary, you think, “I sound like I’m alive!”


This post doesn’t appear in the current WordPress version of “The Art Part.” It was originally posted on May 28, 2010, at https://jonathan-morse.blogspot.com/2010/05/tycoon-classic-studio-pose.html, and I repost it now as a comment on Rebecca Rukeyser’s essay “If One Woman Told the Truth about Her Life,” https://www.thebeliever.net/if-one-woman-told-the-truth-about-her-life/.

During his great period, Edward Weston returned over and over to a view of the face from below, at an angle. That’s the pose of some of Weston’s greatest images of the human, such as “Tina Modotti with Tear” (http://jonathan-morse.blogspot.com/2009/07/windows-car-drugstore-light.html) and “Galván Shooting.”
The power behind each of these images was great enough to stop and redirect its subject’s progress through time. The instant when the shutter of Edward Weston’s camera opened and then closed was as definitive a change as the signing of a surrender. In that fraction of a second, Tina Modotti and Manuel Hernández Galván became ceded imagery. From now on, so far as history is concerned, they will be part of that which was taken over by Edward Weston and remade. Aes perennius, their lives have been replaced by shadow and angle and undying light. From now on, things will be different for them.
USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945
But what of Weston’s image of his friend Robinson Jeffers? If our reaction to one of  Weston’s seizures of power eventuates in words, what will happen to us when we read Weston’s conquest of the face of a poet?
In 1933, when Weston seized the image at the top of this page, Jeffers wasn’t just a poet; he was universally believed to be a poet. His long lines in their vaguely classical prosody told stories of rocks and hawks and incest and violent death close to the elements along the California coast, and his admirers were fond of dropping the name of Aeschylus. That claim on history was to die during the Second World War, embarrassed to death by Jeffers’s lofty pronouncements that it didn’t matter in the slightest who won, because all of us are doomed! doomed, I say! But Weston’s 1933 image is of a face at the moment when it seemed in contact with the same power that was helping Weston see.
In words, Jeffers’s medium, Weston once tried to think about that power after an unpleasant encounter with the lionized sculptor Jo Davidson. Passing judgment afterwards, Weston awarded himself a laurel made of words: the title “portrait photographer.” But when he thought about what those words had cost him, his grammar broke down. The subject “Twenty years of pleasing others” was so awful that Weston couldn’t bear to see it through to conclusion in a predicate.

Davidson was jealous of my work, his aggressiveness was a defense. My portraits of Jeffers made his bust of Jeffers look weak. That’s the whole story. He had to keep his exalted position on a shaky pedestal. Now I know my portraits, and I realize they seldom reach the importance that my other work has, not even when I make them for myself — with intention. In the first place my professional routine worries me, so I throw my best creative effort into trees, rocks, peppers, to escape the other: I admit, too, that twenty years of pleasing others,– probably I have made near to five thousand portraits, always trying to please the sitter, for a price, this must often tinge my conception when I work for myself,– habit! This is my ‘out.’ But I do know when I rise above habit, often enough to place me far ahead of Davidson, often enough to have me considered by some very fine minds, the best portrait photographer in America which means the world so far as I know from reproductions.

— The Daybooks of Edward Weston. II. California. Ed. Nancy Newhall (Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973) 161 (May 19, 1930).

Still, all you have to do to understand Weston’s missing words is place a pair of wordless images side by side: Weston’s portrait and Nat Farbman’s 1948 Life magazine photograph of Jeffers with the Davidson bust.

This photograph shows Robinson Jeffers diminished because postwar. But the change hasn’t remade his face into a tragic mask; it has only lent it to a professor at his retirement party, posing between his tribute bust by a commercial artist and the manuscript of his speech of acceptance. Weston’s photograph has no props except the poet’s own hand, and it’s different in another way too. Weston has used his repertoire of studio techniques — the rapt upward gaze, the pin spotlight aimed at the eyes — as an extension not of his subject’s face but of his own hand. Weston’s Jeffers isn’t posing; he has been posed. “I am nothing but a photograph,” says the image, without words but as clearly as as words could speak if they spoke the language of the sun — “but to be nothing but a photograph is the quiet destination of my short noisy transit through language. As I’m about to show you, a poet’s words are only a way of bringing you closer to the poet’s image. To read a poet’s words is only the first stage of reading the poet. Reading is only another way of seeing.” 

That is: a view of a face seen by Edward Weston reduces to a grammar. It is the most minimal of grammars: a single word, an adjective in transition to a pronoun without a referent and out of time. It strives only to say: this.

Robinson Jeffers, a poet of the sole self, never learned how to write that referentless language. Wallace Stevens, a poet of poetry, did learn at the end of “The Man on the Dump,” where the poet he has envisioned into existence realizes that he has been searching all along only for the definite article: “the the.”

                That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed.

Vision came to the man on his way down through the dump’s strata of meaning. A counterpart to that advent, Edward Weston’s way of reading a face was a way of seeing upward. And perhaps a Weston way of reading in our own time, post-Weston, would involve us in looking at the shape of words from below, reading upward from language’s roots in the soil of the human and toward the space in light where an image comes to be.

From the binary stars a whisper

The singer James Joyce, author of a short story about a man who heard distant music, shelved this concert review in Leopold Bloom’s library.

“The Dead”; Ulysses 17.1373

Observing a bewhiskered black body in morning sun, Mr. Bloom remembered nights before and thought, “They shine in the dark, perhaps, the tips.” The hungry black body moved toward him, was captured by his field, and became a satellite. Two desiring bodies making a little island group, his cat and he were seen by a storyteller to be orbiting each other in harmony.

Ulysses 4.15-42

Almost impenetrable: the new model

This morning she looked like this.

Of course an industrial chemist might need a microscope in her lab, but this one is just a toy: small and lightweight, without a fine focus or a mechanical stage. Besides, she’s holding it backward.

But the look of joy on her face is art’s triumph. The makeup is right, the dentistry is right, the lock of hair falls just so, and the stage is empty. Artfully deployed, the new model sees with joy into nothing.

Nature I loved, and, next to nature, art

This gunmetal-blue ladybug was introduced into Hawaii in a successful attempt to control an insect pest called the spiraling whitefly. But it also does an efficient number on aphids like the one whose not yet fully eaten body lies, for the moment, above.
“Liberty Loans. Official Liberty Bond car, and tank,” Washington, 1918. Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016869097/. Contrast and detail restored. Article: “British Tank Invades Capital. Crew of Tank Collect Big Tribute for Liberty Loan.” Washington Times, April 19, 1918, pages 1 and 2.