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.

From the history of gray

Paris, March 1839: Samuel F. B. Morse, in France to obtain European patents for his telegraph, attends a demonstration of Jacques Daguerre’s new system for recording what has been seen. Taking note there of a gap in the record, he writes to a New York newspaper:

Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion. (Taft 12)

The headless, bodiless ghost that Morse saw in Daguerre’s studio was probably this one.


L. J. M. Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838 or 1839
Click to enlarge.

Just over a hundred years later, in America, another man fell under the influence of long exposure and went ghostly likewise.


Jack Delano, Street corner, Brockton, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress,

The grammar of Morse’s 1839 description is beautifully precise. The feet of the shoeshine man’s customer are described in the past tense because their moment of stasis is now only a historical fact, but the body and head remain in the historical present (as in “In 1865, Lincoln dies”) because their invisibility now belongs to the category of the forever after (as in Secretary of State Seward’s sentence after Lincoln’s last breath: “Now he belongs to the ages”). As history, too, Morse’s description approaches the fundamental. It reminds us that photography has erased every identifying mark of the shoeshine man and his customer and sunk them deep in a memory record which endures only as its elemental daguerreotype forms, copper and silver and mercury and gold.

Later in the process, Jack Delano was able to supplement Daguerre’s monochrome mnemotechnic with color. To him it was given to see an image through to its end in Kodachrome, the crystalline and slow to fade. But the ghost in the margin of Delano’s record is even less visible than the one in Daguerre’s. In each of these two photographs with men in their corners, the process has failed to hold life still at the instant of its final pose.

In ways that Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have discussed, Delano’s photograph of a street corner is history inscribed in the genre of elegy. Once, not long before the approach of a photographer named Jack, a New England storm swept through Brockton, Massachusetts. For the moment and yet also approximately forever, a memory of the storm remains in white on a utility pole. There, seen as an image in a photograph, the white is a metonym for “winter” or “New England” which any American will know how to read.  With the metonym’s help, too, an archivist might be able to write (say) a history of snowplow routes in Brockton as of January 1941. But of course metonymy can’t restore les neiges d’antan, or the way a winter day in Massachusetts would have made itself known to eye and flesh eleven months before Pearl Harbor, with so many of New England’s soon to be dead still alive in their snow. In this image, snow reads its white to us, but its cloaking gray surround seems not yet to be readable, even after 71 years.

That color-coded signal warns the eye that Massachusetts’s gray extends not just through its space but through its time as well.


Jack Delano, Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress,

Yes, there’s time in this picture. Those squat steel towers in their girdered cages were called gasometers, and few remain now in the United States. The smoke pollution may be due to return under a Republican administration, but for now it too is largely a thing of the past. And finally the image itself is depopulated of the people of 1941. As of 2012, what you see here of historic New Bedford is less a photograph in its own right than an architect’s rendering of a not yet written history. It is a visual metonym for the past, camera-ready to be positioned on a page between paragraphs full of words about the past. Call your metonym something like “the gasometer era,” and there’s your symbol,  right in the illustration. As an illustration, too, the symbol may be applied to any number of subjects.

But its grays don’t cling to anything like a subject. Jack Delano, a documentarian with the Farm Security Administration, certainly had subjects in mind when he arranged to depict them, but even if he had considered gray to be a political quality (as in a pictorial equivalent of a phrase like “the grim gray of industrial New England”), he couldn’t have taught it to make a political impression. In Jack Delano’s New Bedford, gray is the unruly all-color that takes dominion because it defies classification by hue. Sunk below form in the color layer, a surround that decolors the image it encloses, the gray will be seen always to have been ghosting itself away from subject and composition and social order. If we could speak of a form in transit into the unsymbolizable, we might be able to name that thing “Gray” and speak of it as such. But it can’t be spoken of as such. It is only the gray: a form that neither Samuel Morse nor we know how to say we didn’t see.

Source of the passage by Samuel Morse: Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene. 1938; New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

I am not related to Samuel Morse.