Cameo

A daguerreotype dating from about 1855, this is object no. 84.XT.1582.3 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum,

http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/49685/unknown-maker-american-fireman-in-uniform-holding-a-brass-musical-instrument-american-1855-1856/?artview=dor240842

Daguerreotypes can be erased from their metal backings as easily as the marks on a chalkboard, so the ones that have survived the era of their making are framed behind glass, like this one. Not shown here is the other half of the frame: a hinged cover, velvet-lined. It swings into place over the glass, doubling the protection of the image. .

[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument]
Post-processed for contrast and detail.
By 1855, American daguerreotypes were marketed in standard sizes — the bigger, the more expensive — and this one is the size called ninth-plate: the second-cheapest, at 2 by 2½ inches (https://cwfp.biz/platesizes.php). With its mercury surface enriched by tinting and set off in velvet with gold, the glittery little thing has been made into a gem. Whatever it was in 1855, it now asks to be understood as precious.

The museum has given the gem a provisional title, in brackets: “[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument].” In the absence of more specific information, the museum adds that the fireman’s name is lost, and so is the history of the act of heroism commemorated here by his medal and, presumably, his photograph. All that now remains of his value is a transmutation of his person. It is now purchasable as a work of lapidary art, as in his lifetime it was purchasable as flesh.

On October 1, 1851, at 5 PM, Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. [. . .] Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time. An intelligent and very well-behaved man, a mulatto.

We have to put the name “[Henry Williams]” in brackets too; the text makes that clear with its relative clause beginning “who has taken the name of.” Likewise subordinated to the status of a relative clause are the words “His master, who is his father.” Everywhere else, Thoreau’s paragraph is overflowing with Thoreau’s beloved details: the name of a county in Virginia, the name of the place where [Henry] slept, the insurmountable $100 difference for [Henry] between being free of his father and being his father’s possession. We owe this information exclusively to Henry Thoreau’s record. Aside from that, all we will ever be able to know of intelligent, well behaved [Henry] is what was once assessed in the market by his body’s raw material value as an alloy of white and black.

The fireman in his uniform is a civil servant like the Boston policeman. His service entails that he is to be known of by his externally visible attributes, not his name. If we’re accustomed to thinking of firemen as white, seeing this black fireman may make us stop seeing, for a moment, and start looking. But only for a moment. In his jewelbox, the fireman plays a cameo role.

Content though blind, had I no better guide

In the Library of Congress’s William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, the carte de visite print is labeled on the reverse in what looks like twentieth-century penmanship:

11197v

At the time when this image was formed, “contraband” was the ordinary colloquial term for a slave who had escaped through the lines to the Union forces and at least a hope of freedom. Lexicographically considered, it’s a nonce-word. Everywhere else in the dictionary, “contraband” refers to a thing, not a person, so the penciled markings you’re reading now on a slip of light-sensitized paper amount to a one-word history of American slavery considered as a mercantile institution. Whatever image may be visible when you turn the slip over, it will have no recorded name. It will not be a human image; it will be an image of a thing.

What that thing-named-contraband is, what it has, is something that a photographer somewhere, some time between 1862 and 1865, considered worth his while to transport into a studio for posterity to look at. Perhaps it was the looped and windowed raggedness. At any rate, the looped and windowed raggedness is almost the only trace of content that survives in the faded and discolored albumen on the card’s obverse.

But after all there are new ways to see this superannuated image. A single pass through Photoshop restores some of the contrast between the man and his impassive architectural setting, for example. The splendor of his image’s gilded double margin shines again as well. On our side of the image, at least, some of the light that once transited through a lens on its way to the past seems to have been returned.

It still has no name, but now it seems to promise us the chance to look at it with decent duteous human love. To see it might be a step — perhaps a first step that can’t be followed by a second step, but at least a step — toward perceiving and taking into ourselves an idea of sorrow. Emboldened by that idea, emboldened too by our distance in time from the unquestionably dead-now and copyright-free contraband, we carry his image once again into a photostudio.

Then we close the door on it. Then we feed it into an apparatus running Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Detail, Topaz In Focus, Lucis, and a battery of superimposed Nik filters. Then we look.


Once the contraband was led out the door of a studio on a no longer recorded day in the 1860s, his name was lost to history. But a century and a half later, we can at least recover one historical datum that wasn’t recorded then: the contraband had to be led out because he was blind. Once upon a time people could see that. Once upon a time people dressed him in their rags and perhaps spoke his name to him. Now we know again.

Once too, perhaps, people could also read the look on the man’s face. But the lexicon on the back of his image doesn’t seem to be written in that dead language.

Source: Library of Congress, item https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010647919/. The quotation in the subject line is from Milton’s “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon His Blindness.”

Product placement with revelation

As they soared over the junction where the streetcar track divided and transport could go two-way, it happened.

Suddenly the beer bottle grew huge and the white man in the boater looked up in surprise at the black man. Rigid, with bulging eyes, the black man was staring into a zone just above the other white man, the one in the thinking cap. Seen as yet only by the black man, light had begun descending on his table as it descends on the high places where to see is to know love .

Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003663800/. Photoshopped.

Portrait minus face

 

Miss Vixen, mascot of USS Vixen, probably between 1899 and 1901. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001025/PP/. Photoshopped.

Bibliographical note: the text in this link refers to Vixen as a funboat. In the MARC record, however, the word is gunboat. And I’d guess that the record’s stated terminus a quo for the photograph, 1890, should be something like 1899. According to Wikipedia, Vixen was built in 1896 as a private yacht and commissioned in 1898 for service in the Spanish-American War.