The photograph in the New York Public Library no longer gives up much to the eye. It has faded year by year for almost a century now, and most of its remaining significance has been transferred for preservation to a catalog text housed in a database.
There, offsite, words written about this gray blur say that it represents the maiden flight of the British dirigible R38 on June 23, 1921. Exactly two months after that date (the words go on to say), R38 broke in half in the air while making a turn and exploded, killing 44 of the 49 men on board. This was the first of the twentieth century’s great zeppelin disasters. It occurred over the city of Hull, and it must have been witnessed by thousands. But this photograph can’t intimate that, because it represents a moment before a history began. It is a picture of something not yet written into the record and decreed to be a significance accorded priority over other significances. To see it as a picture, in pictorial terms of light and volume, is to experience it pre-historically: as a perception antedating knowledge.
On June 23, 1921, the knowledge of R38 hadn’t yet been brought under the rule of retrospect. On that date, someone in the epistemological space allotted to perception saw only a floating body in the pictorial act of being huge and beautiful and took a camera to it. After that, someone with words took a grease pencil to the photograph of the huge and beautiful and made a decision about what portion of it should remain on the page and be designated “historical record.” The historical record, it turned out, was reserved solely for the portion of the image devoted to the light and air that clothed the moment of huge and beautiful. Its portion of the negative appears to have been retouched accordingly to sharpen its outline and make it clear on behalf of the historical record. Nobody bothered to retouch the zone marked by the grease pencil for exclusion from that record.
There, there were to be seen only two women wearing the not yet short skirts of the early 1920s. With them all along in that part of the image, however, has been a dark smudge on the grass which conceivably could be a historical trace of R38’s shadow. Considering how few shadows destiny allotted to R38, that might now be worth at least a sentimental thought from history. However, the prehistoric grease pencil didn’t select for of the dark. Exterior to R38’s demarcating rectangle, the dark remains only in the erasure zone. There, excluded from the part of the image that will be written up in the language called history, it evokes only questions that the words of the historical record aren’t usually marshaled to answer. (How did the air of June 23, 1921, feel in the moment when a moving, cooling shadow passed through it?) By demarcating R38 from the rest of its image field, the grease pencil defined a distinction between significance and insignificance. It was a fiat: the enforceable distinction between what should remain to be seen and what should remain to be unseen.
But this particular photograph, marked for cutting but not cut, hasn’t yet been brought under rule. Still present in their margin despite the fiat against them, two women in hats and skirts have kept looking toward a part of the sky from which the history of huge and beautiful hasn’t yet barred their gaze. Bound for the record book, the fading image cut off within its rectangle proceeds toward unfading immortality under the power of words. Meanwhile, outside the rectangle, a possible shadow has been cut free from history to play on the grass. I subject it and the women and R38, up there in its air, to the optical control of Photoshop and Topaz AI Clear.
Those technologies won’t make the women’s faces visible, of course. Ever after, the women will be turned away from you even as they look up at the purring silver history passing by up there. Of course, too, they aren’t looking down at the possible shadow before them. They too are prehistoric. But something dark is close to them, and now, for the first time in at least your own history, you are seeing.
Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The first trail [sic] of the dirigible ZR2 at Cardington England.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-3d61-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
R38 was built for the U.S. Navy, where it was to have been designated ZR2, and its crash occurred during what was to have been the last of its test flights before commissioning. You can see the American tricolor on its tail and the American roundel on its hull.
Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.
So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.
Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.
Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.
Source: Hoover Institution Poster Collection (http://www.lunacommons.org/luna/servlet/HOOVER~1~1), item no. RU/SU 365. Photoshopped.
of 1910, which is less a time than a world which fully contains her life, giving it a body and clothes to shape and color it.
Source: E. S. Yates, lithograph “Twentieth Century Transportation,” 1910. Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97514565/. Photoshopped.
The long history of events will need only a few extra moments to add the story of the dirigible America.
On the afternoon of October 15, 1910, under the command of the journalist-explorer Walter Wellman, America set off from Atlantic City in an attempt to fly the Atlantic Ocean. About seventy hours later, defeated by headwinds and engine trouble, the airship’s six crewmen climbed into their lifeboat, lowered themselves and their cat into the sea near the steamer Trent, and were rescued. Lightened by the abandonment, America rose back into the sky, drifted away, and was never seen again. You probably have permission to think “The End” and then forget.
But the rescue took three hours of maneuvering in heavy seas, and during that miniature epoch somebody on board Trent was busy with a camera. As he worked, his camera filled with a growing record of a shape descending over water. Looking back at that record now, we will find ourselves wanting to penetrate its silence and find words to speak of it.
On its own, the shape within the record has already acquired at least one word. From the surrounding text which provides its historical syntax, we learn that even though America was the first aircraft to be equipped with radio, the innovation that Walter Wellman was proudest of was a device he called the equilibrator: a heavy cable suspended from the airship’s keel and towing a ton’s weight of gasoline underwater. In principle, this should have stabilized America’s altitude, compensating for the weight lost through fuel consumption by lifting its load drum by drum out of the load-supporting water. In practice, it only transferred wave motion to the airship — stressing its structure, making navigation difficult, and sickening the crew. Look through the railing around Trent’s deck and you’ll see it at its mischief, leaving a wake to port as America drifts sideways. The accumulated literal detail of this portrayal – the light suspension harness holding the umbilical cord, the foamy crease where the cord has touched the water – asks to be read as a history written in satisfyingly tragic Greek. Here, says the image, is a moral record of the moment at latitude 35.43, longitude 68.18 on October 18, 1910, when nature erased a mark made in water by overweening man. Nothing remains, now, but a now meaningless word: equilibrator.
But the record of erasure also holds a mark that hasn’t been deleted. Unwritten but inscribed, this mark endures as if it were something seen once and thereafter seen forever. It seems to have become indelible, and it seems to have achieved its indelibility by self-translation: from history to geometry.
Made accessible to reason by geometry, this form is America in two dimensions. Considered as a planar artifact, it appears to be tangent to the surface of the ocean as it descends. The representation could be a visual aid for Calculus 1: the limit instant when a vessel, descending along a curve, ceases to be of the air and becomes a creature in the first throe of metamorphosis. Light and air still embrace the surface of the falling balloon, but the waves and the equilibrator’s turbulent trace all say that the embrace will now break off and end.
It’s only an optical illusion, of course. Furthermore, any sense of human meaning in what may appear to be impending touch and consummation is a mere sentimental metaphor. In an unblemished three-dimensional image with a soundtrack, it would probably be easier for us to understand that all we’re seeing is a gaseous machine in relation to a liquid surface. Given more visual information, we would see more and have a more accurate perspective. But for some reason, only the blemished, partial, still image seems to promise us that after we see what it has recorded we will have been granted the grace to remember. At any rate, the record seems to show that from this flawed grayness America has not drifted away.
“Wellman airship from ‘Trent.'” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008853/. Photoshopped.
Peter Allen, The 91 Before Lindbergh. Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1984.
On board Trent in New York after the rescue: America’s engineer Melvin Vaniman with his family and Kiddo the cat. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008771/. Photoshopped.
In the far distance, seen from the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, the squabble seems almost comical. Little, of course, did the New York Times know what was about to start happening in the neighborhood of the zeppelin hangars, and so the Times’s editors saw no need to drive home their point any further by illustrating it.
But the image of what was to come was already in place and already signifying as hard as it could. See, in the image, the forms hovering impatiently on the ceiling of their barn, already fledged in streamline and about to slip free and feral.
In the image, all but a few of the men who do see have their backs to the camera. They are looking up toward those ridged cylinders as if they’re waiting for them to emerge, cast off, and mount. They understand the cylinders’ purport. They may even have been taught that they’ll love what is about to happen to them.
But the man they have sent away from the bed of ascension is understanding in a different way: actively. His traveling cap is ready to don, he is holding a writing tool in each hand, and his eyes are in the act of piercing.
Without the beard that grows beneath, they would be only eyes in a face — say, a face fronting one of the derbied Germans who have so deeply failed to interest the camera in themselves. With the beard, M. Clément’s face becomes an emblem of the time before the dirigible and the Freudian reinterpretation of will. During that long but abruptly vanished prehistory, men didn’t just face the camera when they posed; they faced the camera down. With their sensitive mouths covered deep under layers of masculine muff, some men of the last moments before the Great War seem actually to have believed that the momentarily living self they showed to the finder could be a visage, hard and glittering as a face self-sculpted in stone.
Source: Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/universite_caen/15232404609 and https://www.flickr.com/photos/universite_caen/15232404839. Photoshopped.
The picture depicts a sheet of paper, matte-textured and a little wrinkled with age. Floated onto its surface has come this Baldwin airship, circa 1910, bearing the pioneer aviator Lincoln Beachey into the air on a girder.
Toward the front of the girder you can see the airship’s little motor, with its gravity-feed fuel tank and its propeller shaft extending forward. The propeller isn’t visible, though. Instant by instant, its blurry trace was taken up into the bright light as it prolonged itself up through the air. Then even the light and the air were taken up by the paper. Of the moment of seen flight no record remains except, on paper, the Baldwin.
On that surface, though, there have been made to remain the Baldwin’s support wires, cloth-covered empennage, sewn seams around a contained body of that which is lighter than air, and just below the gas valve the body of a man (1887-1915) unmoving now but flying then, and having left a trace of flight still on the wrinkled paper.