Notes toward a theory of this portrait


It must be seen that you aren’t a being that smiles.

Gaze is a contemplative gesture. Downward gaze might represent a self remembering what it has felt; upward gaze might represent a self imagining what it is going to feel. In these instances and all others, the represented self is a self looking inward. Nothing outside the self can be thought to matter. That is, in a portrait nothing except the self can be seen to matter.

Technical note about that: in a portrait, selective focus has the effect of subordinating and excluding from consideration all that is not face, contemplating.

Test: as portrayed, does your face entail the term “distinguished”?


Before history: plein-air composition with women and ship

Parasol, veil, widow’s weeds. The man in the derby may be speaking to the women, but the social group doesn’t include the second man, the one in the sombrero. Hat and all, that man is only a visual element which is adventitious to the composition. The legs are right but the face is in the wrong. At best, the juxtaposition of this figure with the other three or four is feebly ironic, with irony’s requisite little does he know minimally fulfilled by the man’s mere unawareness of the women behind him.

After all, the composition has failed to provide a reason why he should be aware. There’s no drama in this grouping. It’s mere real life.

But an artist once happened to bring the grouping into relation with a massive orthogonal structure forced into the image frame on the diagonal, and immediately a trigonometry took form along lines of sight and began instructing vision in trigonometry’s useful truths. Following one of those truths, a ship’s humble mooring line, white against black, powered itself up and began calling itself to notice. It had become entitled to visibility because it had composed itself and become part of a composition.


Forever after, then, the composition will reach out from the frame toward us, forcing vision on a triangulated course upward and away from the inconspicuous caption printed along the bottom of the picture. Even if we happen to notice the words down there, they will keep evading reading by directing the reading function back toward the image for a translation of what they don’t say. “Sept. 13, ’07,” read the caption’s abridged words, and if we look back upward from their pinched little apostrophe to the richness of the image we’ll be rewarded with an exuberance of millinery history. Here they’ll come, the parasol and the weeds and the hemlines: bursting from their closet after their term in the dark and confiding to us with happy giggles, “We are so [19]07.”

It would take a pedant to keep reading after that. For that matter, the original image in the Library of Congress at is now so faded that the words can barely be seen, let alone read.

But yes: even in the unphotoshopped original, the first word remains visible to pedantry. It reads Lusitania.

And the moment we surrender and read, the widow’s weeds will have acquired a pragmatic force in the future tense. Precisely eight years from now, on schedule, they will become the most heavy-handed of ironies.

Fred Spear, 1915. From 60 Great Patriotic Posters DVD and Book, ed. Mary Carolyn Waldrep
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010)

Translated into a word in the imperative mood, the weeds will become moral. In 1907, until their picture was taken, they were a conventional index of membership in a social grouping. After they had been photographed, they became visible to viewers outside the social grouping and so took on formal meaning in the abstract calculus of visual composition. Within a few more years, Marcel Duchamp would be pushing his geometry of the female body toward Platonic invisibility with a glass model of a bride stripped bare. But in 1915 another significance pushed its way into the picture, capturing it in the name of morality with no more warrant than mere association with the not yet fully meaningful first word of its caption. To live on in the mode of that significance, as a historical memory with an associated morality, is to have become a fact: something known and believed to be real. But it’s a fact that lives only by having replaced with an idea what was once the image of a body.

Planes; a blackbird


Jack Delano, January 1941,
“Commuters, who have just come off the train,
waiting for the bus to go home, Lowell, Mass.”
Library of Congress
Click to enlarge.

As if their picture with its rounded corners were an aquarium, the commuters are pressed against the image’s front plane. Their heights are almost uniform, and so are their colors and shapes: dark and boxy, in the somber fashion of their era. Behind them is a black wall, and behind that wall their train has gone away. On the roof and on the ground around them, the snow will never melt. Off to the right of the frame, their bus will never arrive. The winter light is dying along the shaft that bears an unlighted lamp. It is the only part of this composition that is not exactly like every other part. The image has allocated its space with absolute uniformity. Nothing in it will ever change again. A dark afternoon has become forever.



Detroit Publishing Company, about 1910,
“River packet Charles H. Organ landing at Mound City.”
Library of Congress, via

Here in parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, the right side of what you see is human bustle. The man sitting on his boiler is paired off with a woman dressed like a clipper ship under studding sails, and the horse who is looking on is ready to leap into motion.

Just behind them, their picture world is busy with another motion: up and down.

But off to the left, two trees have quietly slipped away to take a dip in the river.

Motion in more than one plane as fulfillment of a divided composition. At a snowy curb in New England, the sad losing struggle of color against darkness, but here along a sunny southern river, the great simplification of black and white. The point where the boat has come to its stop is the place of happy ending.



The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a New England poem by a man who lived in Connecticut but loved the South. Another of his poems begins, “I placed a jar in Tennessee,” and a second is about a woman walking along the shore in Key West and singing the warm Florida night into starry order. Language’s way of making the flying blackbird one with the moving river is a third ordering: a simplification of the sad confusions of the colored world into an arrangement purely external to man, like the silver halide crystals on a glass plate just removed from one of the Detroit Publishing Company’s big wooden cameras. At water’s edge and on into the water with the trees, here along a sunny southern river, you have been given black to look at, and its negation, white. What more did you think there could be to desire?