The image of the “flesh” crayon and its antique-store label comes from Bob Doto’s “The Elusive Flesh Crayon: Ig’nant Toys,” https://notnewyork.net/2011/06/03/the-elusive-flesh-crayon-ignorant-toys/. At https://onmilwaukee.com/family/articles/crayolablog.html, Molly Snyder writes: “Crayola changed the name of this crayon in 1903, from ‘flesh tint’ to ‘flesh’ to ‘pink beige’ and then back to ‘flesh.’ It finally switched for good to ‘peach’ in ’62.”
The fashion print dates from 1897 Chicago and is at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018695709/. I post-processed it to restore contrast and color, and (because I lack a chemical analysis of the pigments in the original and a knowledge of clothing design in the 1890s) that involved guesswork about what Photoshop’s hue and saturation controls were meant to show me. The fourth man from the right in the front row, especially: in Chicago in 1897, would his suit really have been that shade?
Well, under their clothes all of the men in this image really had to be uncolored. Twenty-two years after 1897, Chicago’s Henry Blake Fuller had to self-publish his novel Bertram Cope’s Year because it hinted at gaiety. Even so, I suppose it may be that once upon a time in 1897 Chicago a fabric artist could at least have dreamed of a purple suit.
In the photoblog “Everyday Life in the Past,” Aunt Ida’s degraded photograph is dated 1956.
You can still make out a large Formica-and-aluminum shape, identify its function, and bring back to memory its 1956 word: dinette. But because another of the picture’s compositional elements was transparent in 1956, the photochemistry of time has now reduced it almost to invisibility. To bring the word ashtray back into active memory from within the image will require an active search originating in something learned outside the context of the image itself. Before you can even pick up your magnifying glass and begin looking at the picture, you’ll have had to learn from an archive that dinettes were accessorized with glass or ceramic things called ashtrays.
But for the immediate present, a trace of the collective 1956 idea of dinette and ashtray survives within the image, and there it is still accessible for resuscitation. The process will involve a translation of its spectrum of life from the chemical to the logical, mediated by (among other things) a computer program named AI Clear, where the letters AI indicate that use is to be made of a computer concept called artificial intelligence. If you let me help you think of Aunt Ida’s parrot artificially, says the computer, it will become a bird out of Yeats’s Byzantium:
Miracle, bird or handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork
And see then:
The ashtray is replenished, Aunt Ida’s shining white cup is seen again to be charged with powdered coffee and condensed milk, the bird’s hard ceramic surface is again the green of soft feather, and Aunt Ida’s headcovering has been restored to its proper color for 1956, when pink was popular. Now time itself will be 1956 forever, and never again no longer pink.
The pinkness, we now see, mattered all along. It matters even more now than it did in 1956, because in 1956 it at least had an existence exterior to the image. Now the image is 1956 pink’s sole source. In the aftermath of 1956, to experience 1956 pink again is as if the color were one of the tints of God’s first rainbow, now being re-unfurled in revised final form.
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.
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, http://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/wisconsin-bb-9/NH-100334-A.html. I’ve photoshopped it for contrast. The anaglyphs require a red-and-blue stereo viewer.