John Vachon, “Grandmother of tenant farm family, Guilford County, North Carolina,” April 1938. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017716972/. Post-processed electronically for contrast and detail.
You see her through a frame decorated with a pattern of sprocket holes. A flash occurred, the custodian of the frame moved an advance lever with his thumb, and the image was moved on toward its place in the historical record. Left behind in the wooden room was what was to remain of the face after the light had blasted it into the record. Left behind was the shadow cast by the hand warding off the light. Those had vanished in a flash.
Forty years ago, the prophetic photographs were silent and still. We thought they were archaeologies of civilizations relegated to the archive. Now they pass among us in color and motion, telling us in their dead language what we have become and retweeting the corpus in the language of the undead. We are joining them in the archive.
Illustration 1. The paddle wheels of the steamer Boadicea are turning in reverse, holding the boat steady alongside its wharf by countering the flow of the Thames past Lambeth Palace. In the vocabulary of navigation, this is called maintaining zero speed. The white water churning forward along the sides of the boat is a wake generated by imposing stillness on the river. This Photochrom postcard dates from the 1890s, but the natural history underlying its image of turbulent energy is timeless. It has nothing to do with the kind of history that gives itself names like “Boadicea” or “anno domini.”
Illustration 2. A recurring image in the films of Fellini is the procession of people moving in parallel at different speeds. In 1973 Fellini staged it for his memory treatise Amarcord as a ritual dance toward the sea. There, actors moving like meridians across a globe walked and drove across a stage toward imagined water to bring an imagined episode from 1933 back to the life of memory. Recorded then by a camera at Cinecittà, the movement through the space of Fellini’s Rimini became the dance of Nataraj against natural law: the dance that says to its dancer, “If you can become as beautiful in your motion as I am, if you can become nothing but a moving geometry, you won’t, during the second it takes you to step with me into the air, have to die. You will take on a name, and the name will endure as the shape of a wave endures.” To see the dance perform itself for 35 seconds and then end, click this link.
About fifty years after the episode of the current in the Thames and about eight years after the imagined transit of the Rex past Rimini, an image within Edwin Rosskam’s camera slipped and went crooked but recovered itself. The film advance mechanism’s sprockets took out a few inches of a street that once existed, and so those few inches are now gone. Everywhere else within the image, however, everything remains. Pictured in a surround of trash, a man’s sneakered foot and swinging arm have been translated into an idea in words that we could name something like “Stride.”
But Stride has other names. In 1941 he was given one of his other names by Arthur Rosskam himself, and then some time later that name was certificated in more words by the Library of Congress. “Untitled photo,” say the Library’s words-for-the-record, and then they make Rosskam’s name for Stride into a citation: “Possibly related to: Lunch wagon for Negroes, Chicago, Illinois.” After consultation with Rosskam’s contact sheet and notebook, the Library also wrote a birth certificate for Stride (“1941 Apr.”), and filed it in a bibliography named “Collection: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.”
But how the meanings of all that conservatorship have changed since 1941! “Lunch wagon” was wheelless in 1941, and it called its pieces of pie “Homade.” In a “home” in Chicago in 1941, says “Homade,” there worked a “Negro” with a “rolling pin.” Can you begin to visualize a lived meaning for that sentence? Or even for the single word “for,” as it exists in this record in relation to the word “Negroes”? The words have gone strange. Only the sprocket holes along the top and bottom of the conserved image still signify unambiguously, and all they ever have signified is the trace of a vanished action. Somewhere on the exterior of a camera, say the sprocket holes, Arthur Rosskam’s thumb and its musculature were once at work on a mechanism. The interior of the camera, which Rosskam once filled with the light of something he thought he had seen, is much darker now than it seemed in 1941.
But perhaps, if the promise once made to nature and its body of laws by the Lord of the Dance is to be kept, we may yet learn to read the wordlessness of the dance called Stride. For now, at any rate, it does survive: on a page, the trace of an arm and a leg moving through space and vanished time, in white and black.