That remains to be unseen

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.

nypl-digitalcollections-510d47d9-3d61-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-wThere, 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.

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.

A historiography of mainstream and margin

In its online record from the Library of Congress, the original stereo pair at isn’t very satisfactory as a record in three dimensions. Its two images are differently sized, and they seem to have been taken from too far apart. Worse: most of the history they’re meant to record is in a caption in the margin, and there it communicates little until it’s been augmented by more captioning.

Here’s a mediocre anaglyph of the uncaptioned pair.

Analyzed by your red-and-blue viewer, this image will resolve only into a clichéd nineteenth-century stereoscopic composition, with the illusion of depth communicated by contrast between a merely pictorial detail in the foreground and a subject communicating extra-pictorial significance at some distance behind it. Not much of the extra-pictorial significance will come through, however, because its photographer didn’t anticipate how much of its future history he’d have to document as a viewed object. The glyph’s foreground detail does its cliché chore well enough visually, but historically it’s too prominent to work well with the Library’s caption for the pair, “James River, Virginia. Ships on the [James River].” At that, the craft in the river aren’t technically ships. Less complete but more accurate, and hinting in its incompleteness at a potentially more complete history, is the label on the negative’s original envelope: “Boat on James River.”

Specifically, gunboat. After I supply that three-letter addition to the text, you’ll notice the gun on the boat in the background, and then you’ll notice a second gun (covered) on the boat in the foreground. Oh yes, explains my three-letter augmentation: you’re looking at an image created as part of the Civil War — in the spring of 1865, I’d guess, to judge from the military history I’ve consulted offline and the state of the tree’s foliage online. After that first addition, more become available, and now their source can open into the image itself. Oh yes, says one of the new, image-born corrections: the detail in the foreground shows a man who is black, and furthermore his blackness is no longer just pictorial, no longer merely a contingent detail of the composition. The blackness now takes the form of a living man. This man who is now seen to be black can now be seen to take part in a new, free way in returning spring, and his freedom is owed, as a matter of non-pictorial truth, to the black boats pictured in the stream behind him.

So let me make a compositional correction to this image of a river and its margin, cropping it and adjusting its contrast to make the black ships more prominent by blackness and the black man more prominent by lightness against the black. The moment I do that simple Photoshop thing, the composition too seems to become visible in a new way, as if it has now come to depict both an excerpt from an archival history of the dead and a suspended instant of dance. It shows us a vernal gesture signifying a coming of guns.

Gesture may require a different kind of historiography from the one that generated the static one-liner, “Boat on James River.” The still, moored boats, those “expensive delicate ships,” turn out to be freighted with only one significant detail each: a gun (now obsolete and merely historical) at the prow. But the man and his moving hand are now seen to be reaching outward forever. That which has freed the man is now behind him, and he and we are now companioned together, dancing along one of the margins of time.

The phrase “expensive delicate ship” comes from Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Rolling stock


This poster dates from 1915. In it, beside the artillery insigne on the boxcar belonging to Russia’s Northwest Railroad, a printed word says “Supplies,” and below that a chalk scrawl says “Due,” in the sense of a bill that has to be paid. In that picture and those words, the image illustrates the idea of a weapon being trundled through a snowy landscape toward the completion of its purpose. Like the picture on a banknote, it realizes one of the transactions which it is the business of a government to execute. Below the picture, a caption educationally adds: “War loan, 5½%. The more funds, the more munitions and supplies, the sooner the victory.”

Source: Photoshopped.

Not long after this edition rolled in its thousands out of a press, a different train delivered Lenin to the Finland Station, and then all those who had trusted that the Czar’s word was his 5½-percent bond lost their investment. Ironic interpretations followed. To the designers whose political labor brought this poster into existence, history was something toward which to roll. It was a future at the end of a line. A century later, we might read the poster differently — for instance, as an allegory of the term “wreck.” According to such an interpretation, wreckage may not be visible on the surface of the poster, but catastrophe always has been implicit in the design.


In Peconic, Long Island, New York, on March 3, 1942, a train collided with a car. At the site where I found this image of the aftermath, someone has taken care to note that the woman driving the car wasn’t injured.

However, matters of life and death aren’t the primary concerns of this page, because it is a picture history of the Long Island Rail Road. Asking us to read images as if we were not living men and women but creatures in a picture, this history deploys its picture archive only to direct our attention away from our lives and toward to a text. In turn, the text enters a strictly numeric register as it chronicles the beginning and end of the little station bearing the name “Peconic”: built, August 1876; torn down, April 1942, just a month after it was pictured with boarded-up windows across the tracks from the damaged automobile. For a moment during that interval, a train with a caboose passed down one of those tracks between the abandoned station and the wrecked car. For the duration of that time, someone in Peconic could have seen in the distance the smoke from the train’s steam engine. Both the caboose (an obsolete piece of rolling stock) and the steam engine (another obsolete piece of rolling stock) are gone now, of course. We’ll never see their like again. But the only thing in this image that can now matter to the text called history is the building’s unpicturable abstract hic jacet: 1876-1942.

Source: Photoshopped.


“Nothing beside remains,” as the traveler from an antique land reported to Shelley. But the antique land itself pleads:

Credit this photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,
(please include photographer’s name when noted).

The photographer’s name isn’t noted, so I can’t grant to his memory what is due. But as if my word were my bond, I can at least point at the anonymous text appended to a dateless image found in the archive and say:

“Look. The words printed above it say, ‘Woman and girl stand near the train wreck — Lloyd, Florida.’”

The words — either my words or the words I’m now writing about — mean almost nothing. Outside Lloyd, Florida, at some unspecified time during perhaps (to judge from the clothing) the 1940s, they are probably all but lost to the text of history. In the phrase “the train wreck,” the definite article the can’t be read now as anything but a symptom of delusion. The train wreck? What train wreck?

But in the interstices between what the text of history designates as events, it’s still possible for light to fall, and for sight and memory to account for that other, wordless event. So long as we remain near the wreck ourselves, we wordlessly know it.

Allegory of historiography

The historical document seems to have been recorded with a blunt pen.

If it more closely approximated its disciplinary ideal, it would be clearer. The intent that underwrote its creation would be right there on the surface of the image. The impressions recorded on that surface would be a story, with a beginning and an end. It would start at one margin of the image and stop at the other, and the frame around it would be a part of the image itself, harmonizing with it in color and proportion.


But because this image hasn’t passed its qualifying exam, I can’t easily read it with any of the tools in my institution’s library. All I can do, a poor substitute, is to try to bring it up to view with some trowel work around the edges. You see how unsatisfactory that is.

When the original was still embedded in its matrix, the section that had been scratched out of the historical record was a single black wound, isolated like an infection by the gray. The gray seemed, at least, still alive, still able to protect what was left of itself. But when I carried the black-stained object to my laboratory in the museum and set about treating it, I succeeded only in making it blacker.  After I cleaned up the gray and freed up the white, all that remained was black. From margin to margin, all there was now to see was that which had been deleted from visibility.


“Log cabin,” Stewart Photograph Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Call number PI/1992.0006, system ID 102294.

Many lips, photographed


From the window of Jay Gatsby’s car, Nick Carraway sees “A dead man . . . in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday” (73).


Early in 1924, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was at work on The Great Gatsby, The Saturday Evening Post, the most important outlet for his magazine fiction, was serializing a book by the anti-immigration propagandist Lothrop Stoddard called Racial Realities in Europe. Week by week the serial unscrolled a physical anthropology of short upper lips before the Post’s readers, and it asked them to look at what was before and around them as a tragedy of the dolicho-blond.

The Nordic is essentially a high-standard man. He requires healthful living conditions, and pines when deprived of good food, fresh air and exercise. . . . Under modern conditions . . . the crowded city and the cramped factory weed out the Nordic much faster than they do the Alpine or the Mediterranean, both of which stocks seem to be able to stand such an environment with less damage to themselves. It is needless to add that the late war and its aftermath have been terrible blows to the Nordic race.

Racial Realities in Europe substantially repeats Stoddard’s earlier book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, and it’s a commonplace of undergraduate annotation that Fitzgerald must have been thinking of Stoddard when he has the distasteful Tom Buchanan recommend “‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires,’ by this man Goddard” (17). If Tom views colored empires with Goddardian alarm, then perhaps (says The Great Gatsby’s communication at this point) that which will deliver Gatsby’s golden life to death may be Goddard’s Disease, malignant pallor. In the historical event, the propaganda campaign coordinated after the Great War by the racial thinkers Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn was to culminate in an act of congress, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which effectively reduced the sonnet mounted on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty (“I lift my lamp beside the golden door”) to an irony in a dead language.


But go back prewar and look at the photograph that illustrates Maria Todorova’s recent book review in the TLS. Most of the faces in this southeastern European street scene are broadly smiling, and their upper lips are so short that the faces have become comic masks. Mouths laughingly stretch themselves to lip their buddy noses, and the funniest, shortest-lipped face in the picture belongs to a boy whose whole body, clad in old, too-small clothes and old, too-big shoes, seems to be a happy retelling in clownface of a joke about innocence.

The book under review is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, and the photograph is captioned simply, “Belgrade, July 29, 1914.” Of course the effect of those words, 99 years later, is to instruct us to reread the comic image in a surprising new way. Their mobilization orders have just been posted, and these Serbs are happy. Little do they know. Somebody at the TLS predicted that a surprise like that would give readers a moment of tragic pleasure, and a request for reprint permission was accordingly placed with an agency called Bridgeman Art Library. For amplifying and clarifying a communication in the language of the heart, that request communicated an idea of money well spent.

It was a request with a history extending all the way back to that instant of photographic exposure in 1914. Even after the instant had reached the age of ninety-nine years, it was still covered by a copyright held by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung as successor to the photograph’s original publisher, Scherl-Verlag. The founder of Scherl-Verlag, August Scherl (1849-1921), was to German journalism what Pulitzer and Hearst were to American journalism, and in 1913 an American journalist, Frederic William Wile, wrote that the Scherl technique of teaching through journalism had permanently changed German ways of experiencing the emotional effects of history.

Of course, in retrospect, it appears that there’s a difference in meaning between the words about Scherl that Wile set down on his page in 1913 (“he had exploited almost every important field of human activity”) and the words we try to distinguish on the same page in 2013. The gulf between 1913 and 1914 aside, the admiring Wile was a Jew, and long after Scherl’s death Scherl-Verlag was taken over by the Nazi publisher Franz Eher. The retrospective difficulty that that causes for the reading of Wile’s words carries over to a difficulty in seeing Scherl’s images, and of course this difficulty is a general effect. Mutatis mutandis, it will interfere with any reading that ventures close to history. To marvel at the image below, for instance, would have been to experience one thing in 1914, something else in 1918, a third thing in, say, 1945, and a fourth in 2013, when a British publisher paid a British agency to arrange for the erasure of these German watermarks on behalf of the 21st-century book reviewer Maria Todorova.

So even now, after payment has been made and the cleaned image has been published in high resolution, we readers who follow in the trace laid down for us by Maria Todorova can’t see all of it. Long before the image passed under the control of copyright, it had been stamped with a primary watermark which was indelible because invisible. The mark imposed on the image by the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2013 can be paid off and sent into erasure, but below it there remains the unseeable mark which was laid down forever as from July 29, 1914. Once upon a time on a street in Belgrade, a photographer aimed a camera at some men and some boys during an instant when they entered into an existence which (as it happens) was to become the subject of tragic fantasy a century later. According to the caption outside the image frame, the time was July 29, 1914. But at the instant of light in 1914 no one brought into in the image frame could have realized the momentary blaze within the camera as a change in the ways of being. A fraction of a second after history opened before a boy with a short upper lip, a shutter closed down again on the uninterrupted continuity of some lives that always had been and thenceforth always would continue to be in dark.

Now, 99  years later, on a page surrounding a frame filled with a photographically generated pattern of shadow and light, some words outside the frame offer you, in exchange for a credit card payment to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a bigger, clearer view of whatever it is that’s in the frame. It may be history; it may be art. Within the frame there are also some words, distractingly reiterating Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo. Pay me, promises Süddeutsche Zeitung, and I will clear those. You’ll see much farther into the frame then. At the least, you’ll be three words closer to the image plane.

But there are other words within the image plane itself, and those will have to remain uncovered by the terms of the exchange. They will be the names of everything there that is dead: the words that weren’t recorded during the instant when the camera opened itself to the light of July 29, 1914. Unspoken, they’ll always have rendered their speakers invisible, no matter what has been done in the dark since the instant of unspeaking.

Keep a stiff upper lip, then. Put the credit card back in your wallet and remind yourself: little will I know.


Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew Bruccoli. 1925. New York: Scribner, 1992.

“Frederic W. Wile, News Columnist.” Obituary. New York Times 8 April 1941. Online.

Stoddard, Lothrop. “Racial Realities in Europe,” installment 1 of 12. Saturday Evening Post 22 March 1924: 14+. Rpt. in Racial Realities in Europe (New York: Scribner, 1925).

—. The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. New York: Scribner, 1920.

Todorova, Maria. “Outrages and Their Outcomes.” Review of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark. TLS 4 January 2013: 9-10. This review contains a high-resolution four-column print of the Belgrade street scene.

Wile, Frederic William. Men Around the Kaiser: The Makers of Modern Germany. London: Heinemann, 1913.