Conservation as love

Marked at the top of the negative with what is probably a filing date, “8/10/[19]21,” this photograph of a ship probably dates from the spring or summer after the ship entered service in November 1920. Originating in the date and immediately moving offsite to reference sources, that’s the textual history of this image. Of the rest of the image’s history, the part that remains inside black borders, little remains. We can’t even really see the forms it depicts until we’ve tagged them with guesses originating in text: the word smoke, the word gun. We will have to look right through one of the image’s blank spaces before we can locate anything capable of being understood and uttered — a name, at last! — and then write that into a literary text leading to a satisfactory The End. Probably delivering an A’s worth of irony, for instance, might be something like,

Dreadnought Nagato: to become the only Japanese battleship that survived World War II.


But computer technology offers us a second try at seeing within the frame. Just (it is so easy now) post-process this image with (for instance) Photoshop, bring to bear an artificial intelligence mediated by programs named Topaz Clear AI, Topaz Sharpen AI, and Topaz DeNoise AI, and within the frame there will reappear, after the lapse of a century, a man: an officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, his eyes shadowed by the visor of his cap but his whole body communicating senses of words such as watchful and alive. The effect is almost as if the image’s photochemistry were recreating an affective intention. See, says the intention; see, in the first instance, the recovered trace of my silver halide crystals. In the second instance, they will have prepared you to love me.


And if the love within the image is a sign of a love that existed before the image . . .

Offered for eleven euros on April 28, 2019, this is a presumably French photograph dating, to judge from the clothing and the deckle edges, from the 1950s. Its commercial history online is no more than that. The image has numerous tag-names, but the forms within it have none. They are nameless now; only shapes given temporary form in a distant past. In the recent past, somebody decided that their significance was no longer worth deciphering and carried their picture out to the flea market.

Colorized baby photograph source

But after the image took its temporary form it was supplemented with the persistent trace of a pre-existing  desire.

Photobigbang copy, 300

Somebody with a tube of photo-tinting pigment decided to make the little girl’s dress look pretty, so down went a layer of pink. Then the desire extended to the decorations on the young woman’s dress. She had already brushed her hair and put on lipstick, and her cherry buttons were so cute and red . . .

The photo technician was an amateur, and photographs back then had to be waited for after they were taken. The retouch job probably hadn’t been anticipated, and this print was probably the only one made at the time. That was the usual course. Mistakes, such as the excess of red on the cherries, were vulnerable to the arrow of time. Once having been made, they entered history irrevocably, without possibility of correction. Faced down by history, the amateur capped his tube and walked away, and the young woman’s face entered its posterity shrouded in monochrome.

But once, for a moment unrecorded except in the seen fact of its having occurred off the record, somebody may have smiled as he picked up a newly uncapped tube of color and moved it toward contact with a not yet touched surface communicating at the molecular level that there now existed a woman and a baby, and (off the record) they were loved.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress,


Frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command:

all I need is my Shelley book and my bra.

Source: Edward H. Hart, “USS Massachusetts, Figure of Victory,” between 1896 and 1901. Sculpture by Bela Lyon Pratt. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Corrective lens

The provenance of this stereophotograph of the World War II Japanese battleship Musashi isn’t indicated online, but a lot of its art history is preloaded. The shell-deflecting curves of the ship’s armor, for instance, are prominent in its image for reasons having to to with the history of Art Deco, and the camera’s heroic angle, gazing raptly upward, was probably designed in the studio of Alexander Rodchenko, artist of the totalitarian. Then too there is the matter of the photograph’s dramatically dark tones, which were probably generated in-camera by a red filter.

In the eye, then, per design, the twinned Musashi artworks, one image for the left eye and one for the right, are massed and ungraspable and black. Blocking out the light, they push together into your senses, take control, and merge into a single black ingot. After that, the ingot is no longer something capable of being seen, in the light, from without. It has become the material for a stamping mill broaching darkness within.

Forty years earlier, a different ship in a different world looked as innocent as a maiden as it struck a happy pose and waved its flags with both hands. The ship was wearing white, too, and the camera was looking down at it as if it were little. I can imagine Musashi having been photographed by a professionally adoring, professionally upward-gazing modernist woman like Margaret Bourke-White or Leni Riefenstahl, but the idea of a happy little boat seems to have brought out something protectively chivalric in Messrs. Underwood and Underwood’s cameragentleman.

But the happy little boat happened to be another battleship, with a battleship’s single purpose. Guns got bigger and armor got thicker in the course of the battleship’s half-century of naval dominance, but from the beginning of the era to the end, the corpses floating in each successive wake followed only one model of naked form. If the older corpses seem somehow simpler than the more recent ones, that’s only because more of their historical detail has been eaten by the fish.

This believing in an illusion of simplicity is an ordinary error committed by beginners at living in time. Because we were once younger and more ignorant than we are now, we think the world was younger and more ignorant too. But in these two particular artworks, the error can be corrected by a simple trip to the eye doctor. The corrective process isn’t just good for us, either; it’s also educational.

Go ahead with it, then. To begin the process of correction, assemble each stereo pair into an anaglyph. Then bring the two anaglyphs into juxtaposition. This formal art-maneuver will reduce the historical distances between the two images — distances across time, distances between democracy and fascism — to almost nothing. After that, with history controlled for and minimized, there will be little for the eye to do except see.

So see.







Once they’ve been brought together at a single moment, the two images from different times will simplify to a single timeless idea. It will be what the two otherwise different battleship images have in common: a battleship idea, the idea of that which is death-dealing. Having been subsumed into a general idea of the death-dealing, each separate death-dealing image can shed its distracting photographic artifacts of (on the one hand) black and (on the other) white. The polychrome stains of life and death will then become imaginable again, and after that we’ll need to do just one more eye exercise.

It will be this. To see the colors as they were before they became a part of history’s blacks and whites, we will only have to unlearn the way of seeing that we once learned from a block of black steel.


Online, I’ve been able to find the image of Musashi only in an otherwise unidentified list of World War II photographs. The image of Wisconsin is at the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, I’ve photoshopped it for contrast. The anaglyphs require a red-and-blue stereo viewer.

Seen from on high

When a camera on the Brooklyn Bridge opened its shutter to admit light reflected from the American battleship New Jersey one day in about 1916, it recorded an image that not many Americans at the time would have called Futurist. In the retrospect of a century, however, the attribution has become obvious. Historical decay has dissolved most of the understood significance of the craft full of men traveling down a river, and little else of the image remains except the formal arrangement of its shapes and volumes. As of now, the image has become as simple as black and white. Seen that simply, it almost demands to be interpreted allegorically, as a picture story whose two narrative elements are billowing smoke (say, in Futurist terms, a metonym for energy) and violently distorted perspective (say, in Futurist terms, a metonym for motion). The battleship in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Life on a Battleship” is named The Masculine.

But a moment earlier, the camera’s perspective on the battleship of 1916 was different. For the duration of that instant of exposure, it could have seemed possible to articulate a sense of the ship in language. It might even have seemed possible to speak of the perspective in the language of literature, via something poetic  like “seen from on high.” From on high, see:

If you were able to see from that angle and make the translation into a human emotion, one of the reasons may have originated in the cultural optics of experience. The experience and culture of parenthood, for instance, teach us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that to be seen from on high is to be seen as a whole. Seen as a whole from on high, like a child, the battleship comes to seem childlike itself: big-headed, short-limbed, topheavy. Paddling down the river on a course that isn’t quite parallel to the Manhattan shore, it seems to toddle and waddle. It hasn’t succeeded in being lithe. Grace isn’t yet in its repertoire of motions. It hasn’t yet crossed under the bridge into the future prophesied by the Futurists.  It is a battleship whose possible ways of moving are still in their babyhood.

Perhaps the greatest insight bequeathed to the future by the Futurists was an idea about peace, or at least about that sort of baby peace: the idea that peace is unstable under conditions of change. About seven years after a camera recorded this pair of stills for the static record, for instance, another view from above, this one itself in motion, reordered the stills’ static shapes into a more mature geometry of ideal arcs and platonic trajectories. On September 5, 1923, a sergeant whose name actually was Ulysses Nero released a bomb from a bomber in transit above the moving primal matrix. The bomb exploded, the Futurist wish for a violent death  was granted, and thereby the battleship New Jersey was enabled to sink from view into the third dimension beneath the image plane.

Up to then, its range of movement was confined to two-dimensional passages across the surface, and the only remaining memory of those movements is an archive of stills. But what the Futurists may not have taken into account is that those stills may constitute in themselves a geometry of recombinant form. Seen in the archive and then remembered outside the archive, moving at last as they rise back into memory along a vertical axis, they redraw themselves and plot an optical illusion of life.

Sources for the images of USS New Jersey: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and Photoshopped for contrast and detail.