You may be able to see that the state of this image in the Library of Congress is a photographic print mounted on a paper backing, with the library’s acquisition stamp overlapping both sheets.
But you also do see that the composite photograph has lost definition and contrast. On the record, it has been going lost. With the aid of a computer, sight can begin bringing it home again to history and making the record’s words as readable again as they were when they flowed from the pen of A. P. Yates in 1893. Over the image, however, a gray new computerized disfigurement has settled in and begun blemishing what you see of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad’s engine no. 999, claimed to be the first vehicle in history to have reached a speed of 100 miles an hour.
In the library, a history of photography can help you understand what happened. In the 1890s, when negatives were large, photographers often retouched them with carmine paste. Painted over dark areas of the negative, this lightened the corresponding area of the print. Perhaps because May 10, 1893 was a cloudy day in Syracuse, or perhaps because the smoke from no. 999 was billowing too abundantly into the air, A. P. Yates encarmined a zone in front of and above no. 999’s boiler. On the print, that would have whitened the sky. But Mr. Yates didn’t want to risk whiting out any of no. 999’s beautiful metal, and so some of the original crud of 1893 remains in his artwork as a dark, angular halo.
With a computer under my hands, however, I can become Mr. Yates’s 21st-century continuator. Using a process that Photoshop calls cloning, I paint more carmine over the dark original of May 10, 1893.
And see: I have replaced the last trace of history in the image with the truth of art.
Think of me as a Venetian barber in a time of cholera, doing a little cosmetic work on Gustav von Aschenbach to make him attractive to the teenage punk who happens to be the god of history.
It’s one of Nik’s filters for Photoshop, and I’ve recently been using it to redo the images in some of my old blogposts. When the posts deal with history and its ironies, that little technical change turns out to deepen the illusion of meaning in the image. So here’s a magic kit from six years ago, now used a little better after some adult help.
Once upon a time, perhaps in 1922 — the publication date of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and of Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt, with its phonographic transcripts of the way Americans talked in 1922, and of vol. 1, no. 1 of Babbitt’s real-time control corpus Reader’s Digest —
once upon a time, perhaps in that year when modes of perceiving words changed, someone looked at a photograph captioned with a Connecticut title and asked it the beginning of a question.
Adjusting the clarity and contrast of this dog bounded between words restores visibility to what he is doing: wagging his tail. But the bounding question, as worded, hasn’t been brought to completion. What we perceive of the dog doesn’t have a context. The question may signify, “At what address in Westbrook, Conn., was Major?” But alternatively it may signify, “What became of Major, forever after?” Whatever the answer may be to either of those sub-questions, it can’t be now what it would have been in 1922, the year C. K. Ogden translated into English the sentences, “The world is everything that is the case” and then “The picture is a model of reality” and “The picture is a fact” (Tractatus 1, 2.12, 2.141). In perhaps 1922 someone writing a graceful nineteenth-century hand molded the words
“Westbrook Conn.” around a void and shaped it into a model of the fact of permanent self-evidence. The case of the top margin is Westbrook Conn.; what else can it ever be? But evidence of any kind is missing from the laborious blockprint at the bottom. Down there, there is no connection between the question on the left and the date on the right. More, and terribly: the writing at the bottom may be an old writer’s correction of the erratum she herself created at the top while she was young. The R’s are similarly formed. Now that the writer understands that her mood should have been interrogative rather than indicative, she writes correspondents from the time zone after 1922 an interrogative letter of request. Skipping past the image between its two lines of words, we are to write back with any story we can tell about a dog who slipped the words.
We hold the letter from perhaps 1922 in our hands: a little slip of paper marked with ink in its margins and silver halides at its center. Any answer we make will have to be marginal, skipping from top to bottom past the halides and their caption reading “Connecticut.” Centered in the halides, the wordless part of the story is the dog’s life.
The gray blur’s nominal subject is far in the background, but it doesn’t need to be close. It is so big, and in its time it had always been so famous.
The largest commercial vessel in the world when it was launched in 1913, the Hamburg-America Line’s Vaterland was at its American pier across the river from New York when the Great War broke out, and it remained there until it was seized by the United States in 1917 and renamed Leviathan. The double name and historic magnitude were what came to E. E. Cummings’s mind that year when he saw the ship on his way back to the United States from his French prison: “Was it yesterday or day before saw the Vaterland,I mean the what deuce is it–that biggest in the world afloat boat.” A century later, Vaterland-memory still exists, institutionalized as a Leviathan collection in the Smithsonian Institution containing a model, a menu, the key to the kennel for passengers’ dogs. . . The ship’s orchestra also made records labeled with the Victor dog, and four of those have now been set to permanent work streaming the Roaring Twenties sound of banjos and saxophones from the Library of Congress.
But downstage from Vaterland on December 11, 1914 was this other craft. Like Vaterland, it bore a human name, but the scale of memorial desire undergirding this name was different. It was evidently conceived to immortalize not a large national metaphor but a single individual named, in flesh and blood, Herbert E. Keller.
And so long as it is italicized, Herbert E. Keller’s name does survive. According to the United States Department of Commerce’s Fifty-First Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States [. . .] for the Year Ended June 30, 1919 (Government Printing Office, 1920), italic Herbert E. Keller was an iron towboat of 57 gross tons and 39 net tons, with a length of 63.5 feet, width of 18.8 feet, and depth of 8.0 feet. Her indicated horsepower was 200, she carried a crew of four, she was built in Tottenville, NY, in 1911 and homeported in New York, and she was not equipped with wireless apparatus. For “Herbert E. Keller” in roman, Findagrave.com finds nothing approximating a contextually plausible floruit, but I suppose the words may remain readable yet in, say, the records of the Hudson Towboat Company or a history of the port of New York. Three of italic Herbert E. Keller’s crewmen are visible as they ride their boat, too, and two of them show their faces so clearly that modern facial-recognition software might be able to name them from their position in an archive.
But in the photographic record the face of the third crewman is all but indecipherable.
Heat from a cloud of steam has imposed Schlieren distortion on what you see of his part of the boat, and then just below and ahead of him a fingerprint has been pressed into the negative itself, physically altering it. At some time after a photographer for the Bain News Service opened his shutter on December 11, 1914, he or a co-conspirator broke down representation’s fourth wall and branded an image he had captured for the record of history with a mark of his anonymous own.
In the eras before photography, published illustrations often bore two small supplementary captions: at lower left, the artist’s name followed by the Latin identifier pinxit; at lower right, the engraver’s name followed by the Latin identifier sculpsit. In this image, the sculpsit is the oeuvre of somebody in a darkroom, fingerpainting. The artisan laid his hand upon the face of his creation, replacing with a nameless biological datum a face which might have testified to a name and a chronicled life. One of the modes through which Vaterland, the fingerprint’s background image, survives in its forcibly adopted fatherland’s national site of memory happens to be a menu item wittily named Epigrammes, but in the foreground the sculpsit of its creator is witless. Its only communicative function is to blot out whatever possible words might once have named a man.
The menu’s epigram is “Adieu.”
E. E. Cummings, The Enormous Room, A Typescript Edition, ed. George James Firmage (1922; W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 241.
Keats to his brother and sister-in-law, September 17-27, 1819: “Severn has got a little Baby–all his own let us hope–He told Brown he had given up painting and had turn’d modeller. I hope sincerely tis not a party concern; that no Mʳ ——— or **** is the real Pinxit and Severn the poor Sculpsit to this work of art.” (Selected Letters, ed. John Bernard [Penguin, 2014], p. 432.)