By the exit from a crossroads one day in 1917 there stood no. 3594, underground in her clean blouse and her necklace. In 1917 she was accessorized with a name as well, but by now that has probably been erased from the record you’re seeing.
You may desire to say something self-assuring like “Nevertheless, I won’t forget no. 3594’s act of cleanness in the dark.” But since you know what has probably happened to no. 3594’s name, you probably shouldn’t. Just try to see without memory. Whatever memory is, it no longer has power over what remains to be seen of no. 3594.
On October 19, 1915, Woodrow Wilson traveled to his political base in Princeton to cast his vote on the historical record for the Woman Suffrage Amendment, and a photographer for the Bain News Service was present as the president boarded his train for the return trip to Washington. The leather carrying case that held the photographer’s glass negatives remains visible to history, hanging by its strap from a spike on a telegraph pole. For aesthetic reasons, however, I’ve edited it and the pole out of the version of the photographer’s record that you see here. What I desired was this ascending diagonal with a possibly triumphant smile toward the apex. That allegorical moment, I decided, would be more fun to see than any ill-comprehended antique.
Wilson had begun his political career there in Princeton: first as a professor of history at the university, then as its president, then as governor of New Jersey. But (as history in the twenty-first century is now re-reminding us) as president of the United States he was a Southerner presiding over a cabinet full of Southerners, and on February 18, 1915, he was in the audience when, for the first time in history, a movie was shown in the White House: David Wark Griffith’s history-hymn to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation. Earlier, at Princeton, he had presided over an erasure from the historical record of evidence that the university had once had black students.
On the visual record, a century later, you see the faces of two black men in servants’ white jackets. One of them, the one on your right, may or may not be about to start or finish smiling. Princeton University was to admit and acknowledge black men before it admitted or acknowledged women.
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?
The carrying case in the man’s right hand would have held 8-by-10-inch glass plates for the camera in his left hand. The camera would have been a serious professional instrument; its lens is marked with the brand of an important German manufacturer, C. P. Goerz. And the portrait of the man is the work of an artist who understood how much his instrument was capable of. In the foreground, his feet planted on the earth and his massive hands grasping the instruments, is the subject who forms the composition’s human center. Though the equipment he holds is expensive, he is dressed in rags. He is black. In the background, off center and out of focus, ostensibly only a detail, a white man leans with casually crossed legs against a door frame.
That man is out of the sun. He isn’t mentioned in the caption that was composed for the glass negative’s paper jacket some time between the turn of the twentieth century when the image was made and the middle of the century when it was cataloged by the Library of Congress, but for the author of the caption that detail wasn’t necessary. The object before him as he wrote it up for posterity was a work of art, having effect over us who have become posterity only so long as we care to pretend we are bounded within its 8-by-10-inch image frame. There, within, the black man holds his sway under rules of visual composition and a let’s-pretend acceptance of the continuing existence of the historical present. Anywhere else, of course, he is non-existent. He was once a form becoming itself amid a manifold of histories, but at any spatial or temporal point recorded there he has always been imperceptible. The names of the photographer who took the picture and the librarian who may have written the caption appear to be lost to history, but they once had at least the potential of being known to the record in full human detail, as if they were the knowable, lovable characters of a novel. Not so, though, the man in the picture.
The caption tells us that. It reads, “Negro, the photographer’s assistant.”
If it had been written as “The photographer’s Negro assistant,” it would have identified the man by his profession and a personal trait. If it had been written as “Gordon Parks, the photographer’s assistant,” it would have given him a name and the possibility of an imagined life. But “Negro,” just the undifferentiated common noun, has a uniquely zero significance. As Bloomsbury afternoons drew to their end, Virginia Woolf would, we are told, sometimes laugh to Clive, Lytton, Maynard, Vanessa, and E.M., “I must go home and feed the Jew.” That substitution for “Leonard” or “my husband” identifies its subject as a singular member of a class. It scorns to individualize him with a name, but it does identify him by a trait that its speaker considers worth being aware of. But “Negro,” without the definite article, is traitless. It has no definition, and its etymology is only a spectral name: black.
It will do no good for you to look at the black, because you won’t be able to see in. But look anyway. You won’t learn the proper name of what you see on its surface; you won’t even learn to call it, with anything like Virginia Woolf’s native fluency, “the Negro.”
But what will loom into the image frame is a black face, and that will turn out to be a caption in itself. Communicating the possibility of undying form, it will tell you: “I live because I have become the blackness that is my name. I am Negro, the photograph.”
passage of mortal breath shaped by ideal curves into a form with an ending:
pulse for the destined dead:
Restored detail of “‘Elmira Cornet Band,’ Thirty-third Regiment, of the New York State Volunteers, July 1861.” Civil War Negatives and Related Prints Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013648631/
Published in 1888 for the Cotton Bale Medicine Company of Helena, Arkansas, this pair of store display cards, each one measuring about 11 by 14 inches, is housed in the Library of Congress in relic state: faded and damaged and mounted for preservation on a backing sheet. In 1888 it wouldn’t have been seen this way. To imagine it as it was then, we probably won’t be able to escape our education. I, at least, find myself imagining literarily. When I display the poster before my mind’s eye, I find myself thinking it into a setting like Jason’s store in The Sound and the Fury, smelling of pine and heat.
But I also have the photoresources to reconstruct it physically, without regard to any shelfspace it may fill in the library of the imaginary.
I look at what I have done and I think I have helped something made of pictures and words escape from time. That thought turns out to be the consequence of an optical illusion, however. The illusion has enabled me to think I can now move in close to “Merit and Success” and read again the fine-print phrase “free to all,” but of course I can’t. When I teach Ulysses in the years that have followed its day in 1904, I have to bracket a word into the text to make sure the class reads Poldy’s throwaway in “Lestrygonians” as a constative, not an imperative: “All [are] heartily welcome.” All used to be understood to mean everybody, but that sense seems to have gone obsolete. Rhetoric has lost something that sounded somehow grander than everybody: not restricted to the mere body or the mere human but universal.
And of course the fine print in the lexicon of the Remedies also says free.
I have reconstructed that word too, but reconstructed it in a time when the people of the bales can read it and write memos of their own. In 1888 that word on this page wouldn’t have been read as ironic by the readership for which it was intended, but it turns out that reading takes place now across a different spectrum. I have also reconstructed the page’s 1888 colors, but even that purely spectral act turns out to be complicated by words. Post-1888 terms that we have to know now when we read this page, for instance, include not just color but also colored and the colored.
And in the sky, cottony clouds . . .
Metaphor too has undergone a change of clothes. There are no remedies for this ceaselessness. Language, it turns out, never was color-fast.
Laying hands on a circle and a quadrant, he brings them into alignment with his eyes. It is as if he is working with a pair of instruments for guiding light. What he holds he sees through and into and with.
Slightly eccentric with respect to each other, a body formed of metal and idea and a body formed of flesh and sense have approached, for an instant, and been held steady, for an instant, in a touch. For an instant, they have become a coupled form imposing an ordinance of light which they obey.
Source: Louis Van Oeyen, “Champion Jack Johnson at wheel of his 90 horse power Thomas Flyer,” September 6, 1910. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011649816/. Image cropped and post-processed to restore contrast.
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. .
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.
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:
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.