Two views into the image plane

The name of the brutal victor in the Ruhr Uprising of 1920 is inscribed at the top of this image. Someone with a military education will be able to read additional name-functions on the victorious body itself: the epaulets, the collar badges.

Then, in more specific characterizing detail, the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite: the fundamental, defining militaria, the ones that remain after all the inessential others have been taken off the tunic.

Then finally, with enough connotative association to intimate a biography readable as if it were a novel, two traits of the general’s Bildung: the monocle and the dueling scar. Consult your read experience now and you’ll probably discover that the things like these within the photograph and not the words at the top are what communicated to you the term German general. Now that you and I have learned German general, however, we are free to try realizing the general’s pale eyes with more words. The term that forms in our heads might be, for instance, a Nietzscheanism along the lines of blond beast.

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He is unidentified, this man in the photo album dated 1923 and titled Soviet Russia in its early years : A collection of photographs presented to the New York Public Library. A reverse Google image search reveals no name for the man except “Unidentified” and no historical reason for the image’s having been created. Unlike the image of General von Watter, this almost contextless image has only the most general connection with the making and the seeing of it. It can’t be understood in words. “I am something having to do with the Soviet Union circa 1920,” it says, and that is all it says.

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But of course if we remove the captioned matte from the image, the word-free remainder will be seen to communicate somatically, through body connotations.

Nathanael West

Since you’ll appreciate a demo, this other image of nose and mustache shows Nathanael West, whose short life in words was a single extended riff on the trope, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Once upon a time somebody did something Westian to the image of Unidentified: he identified Unidentified with a number, “18,” and wrote it down on Unidentified’s collar. The Westian punchline, of course, was that bleak “Unidentified” and optimistic “18” turned out to mean equally only nothing.

What you thought when you saw a number branded on what looks like a Jew also meant nothing. You are guilty of anachronism, and of course the archives may eventually reveal Unidentified not even to have been a Jew. But you did think your thought anyway. After all, what has happened is terrible, no matter who the butt of the joke was. Something essential has vanished from the continuum of color value between a gray-flecked mustache and a black number on its starchy white ground. A living man’s name was once spoken to a photographer but then forgotten, and then a backup number was written on a photograph but likewise forgotten. All that’s left of all that history is something called Unidentified, and you want that to have an identity and a name, like you.

The face of Unidentified is the face of that want. It is a state as irremediable as death. Unidentified’s eyes can never see beyond the lenses through which they seem to look toward us. Unidentified is locked into his silver halides. Every promontory of the face that he turns to our living gaze has been flattened into a single plane, crystalline and changeless.

But if we are never to see that face in the round, we can at least read it, the way we read General von Watter’s face amid its novelistic accessories. Behind the sensitive halide surface from which both men seem to look is nothing but opacity, but we can see all the way up to the brink of the opacity because the two men between it and us, men highlighted for our reading with embroidery and numbers, can never now strip back to pre-narrative nakedness in the light that wraps their portrayals in layers of verisimilar cloth. Because we don’t see their eyes in the round but read them on the page, they cannot see us back. We are free to read without dread.

Image sources:

“Gen. von Watter”: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014710515/. Image adjusted in Photoshop for sharpness and contrast.

“Unidentified”: Soviet Russia in its early years: a collection presented to the New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-a827-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Image adjusted in Photoshop for sharpness and contrast.

Nathanael West: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/west/nathanael/

No Orpheus

The face looking out at you from a page of the New York Public Library’s online catalog is striking enough to capture your attention. The image is small and faded and the caption on its mount, “Commissar of the Petrograd Commune,” is just barely informative. For what they are worth, however, print, mount, and caption have been made available online from Soviet Russia in its early years: A collection of photographs presented to the New York Public Library, which the library describes as

An album of 150 photographs by various unknown photographers, documenting the early years of the Communist regime. Includes list with titles of the pictures. Pl. 149 is a portrait of S. Freud. Good condition but brittle mounts.

The Freud attribution is the cataloger’s own contribution from New York. In the Russian revolutionary album itself, the revolutionary of the mind is identified only as “Unidentified.”

Freud

But the cataloger was assisted in writing her history of the image by a history from outside the image. Freud was so well photographed in his time that he has come to exist for readers ever after as a pre-established image in the mind, to be recognized by brow, beard and cigar. Western culture has issued him an aesthetic passport and stamped it with port-of-call visas from library upon library. But that didn’t happen to the commissar of Petrograd. After all, only a few historians, veterans of years of retrospection, now possess a visual sense of the drama of local government during the early Bolshevik years. I’m not one of those historians; I don’t even know my way around their section of the library. When I came across this item in the catalog the other day, it was for the first time. So how was I to see it?

Commissar screenshot

To ask that question in that way risks sounding like sophomore Existentialism, but in fact the question has a satisfyingly dry, technical answer, one that relies on the paradoxical paucity of information about the image. Generally, it wouldn’t be practical to run a reverse Google search on a photograph of Freud; the media environment of potential finds would be too target-rich. But Google has also conserved on a small, readily catalogable shelf in its crypt this single face of one of the unremembered. See: I copy the album photo that isn’t Freud’s into the search bar and hit Send, and back comes a confirmatory echo — this one with a name attached.

Pozern in Kulturologia

“Boris Pavlovich Pozern,” reads the name. “Soviet party and government personality,” reads the caption.

And yes, personality. On this page from the Russian online magazine Kultorologia, Commissar Pozern’s image manifests itself to history in a piece of photojournalism titled (in translation) “A special period: portraits of the Russian revolutionaries of 1917,” whose editors conclude by pleading, “Do you like this article? Then support us by clicking Like.” A century after it was taken down for the chronicle of Russia, the commissar’s history is being merged into an aesthetics. Just to Comrade Prozen’s left, his article’s page was displaying, at the moment in 2019 when I clicked “Print Screen,” a clickable advertisement for English-language instruction and a clickable advertisement for an ice cream vending machine.

But yes, too, I can stop looking at the picture now and start reading the name. It’s in Wikipedia, for instance, with birth and death and cause of death. From the Brezhnev era, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia proffers birth and death in more generous detail, but not cause of death:

Pozern in Great Soviet Encyclopedia

Twenty-first century pop history, however, fills in the discreet lacuna opened by twentieth-century scholarship. In the blog Sovereign Ukraine, a 2015 article by Chad Nagle titled “Stalinist Mass Murder and the Warping of Russian History” explains, with an illustration:

Sovereign Ukraine screenshot

But with that, history is rejoined by aesthetics. The two faces identified with the name Pozern obviously represent different points along a timeline, but in each face the right eye displays a distinctive droop at the outer canthus. Somehow that confirmation makes me happy, as if by looking hard at a picture of somebody dead I have done something with my own life. Happily, I go on to deploy Photoshop and a small battery of artificial-intelligence image-enhancers from Topaz Labs. Happily, I begin seeing still more in Boris Pavlovich. I think I am getting to know him.

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But Boris Pavolovich’s left eye . . .

After comparing the two images, I can be sure that the damage I see is in the picture, not the man. All the reproductions I have seen of this photograph are blemished with identical spots and scratches, so I assume they are all copies made from a single print, not a negative. In the course of decades of revolution and war, the negative has probably vanished. Photoshop and I have erased most of the spots and scratches, but short of deleting the plenum of Boris Pavolovich’s eye and starting over with a paintbrush, there is nothing more we can do for him. And the starting over seems somehow arrogant. Here in his rehabilitated image, Boris Pavlovich has come back almost to life, but Photoshop and I are no Orpheuses. Whether or not we turn away from our monitor to look for Boris Pavlovich, he will remain blind and dead.

Links:

The New York Public Library page: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-a829-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Kulturologia page: https://kulturologia.ru/blogs/230617/34991/

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia page: https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Pozern%2C+Boris+Pavlovich

The Sovereign Ukraine page: https://sovereignukraine.net/2015/04/22/stalinist-mass-murder-and-the-warping-of-russian-history/

Destructive aviation: an obstetrics

For those soon to receive death from the air, a rubber body has lifted itself and begun to float in a medium formulated from air and the idea of air. It is free already from the earth that we its destined victims plod, and soon the doors of its cathedral-lighted matrix will swing open and deliver it to the sky over our poor heads.

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The celebrant of the opening has already started delivering his text. It promises to those who believe:

This airship of mine

His name is Mark Anthony, this is his picture with the rubber body behind him and a gas implement in his hand,

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and the face you see might serve as an icon of one of the Christian saints called Doctors of the Church: those whose teachings have become doctrine. By command and in experimental fact, the teaching that emanates from this shining body will have to be taken as true. In only a short time from now, the venous vessels connecting it to earth will be clamped off and released, the pains of its emergence through the doors into the light will begin, and the shadow it casts from heaven for the first time will be seen to be everlasting.

Sources: My post of August 7, 2018, “‘I have the means to make myself deadly,'” https://jonathanmorse.blog/2018/08/07/i-have-the-means-to-make-myself-deadly/, includes and cites the photograph of Mark Anthony and the January 4, 1909, clipping from the Cincinnati Enquirer. The image “Anthony’s wireless airship” is in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683106/. Post-processed.

Special occasions

Cavafy’s “Days of 1901” is missing some last words. On the page, this elegy sings the recession into time of something that can return only at longer and longer intervals. On its returns it still looks like love, but what there is to see of that love is now coarsening and blurring under time’s accreting memories. The memories are of youth and purity: qualities that are now less accessible to the touch of sensitivity than they were, hidden farther and farther beneath the darkening eaves of upper limits. Youth goes louche, and the days of 1901 go historical.

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Formally, too, the poem’s wit is about the past tense. “I am a reminder that there is nothing new about what you feel,” says Cavafy’s Greek sonnet, and it says that on the authority of being in Greek, and a sonnet. But the little hint of budding life within the past culminates in a line so unhistorical that it hasn’t yet taken recorded form. Classical norms would grant “Days of 1901” one more line to bring to a merciful reconciliation the contradiction between immediate beauty and the poignancy of having lived prior, but here at this poem’s end there is only erasure. There ought to be six lines extending all the way to the end, and the prosodic category-name for that imperative, sestet, implies that at the end there ought to be six because a sonnet has earned the right to say and mean that there always have been six. But this sestet begins (in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation), “The beauty of his nine-and-twenty years.” In Cavafy’s Alexandria, there can be no always. The days of 1901 are partially in ruins, like all the other days.

Look toward the margins and you’ll notice that off the American coast the days of 1901 arrived with an escort of battleships. Among the squadron, the days’ beauty wasn’t the poignant beauty of an individual, like the beauty of Cavafy’s slowing, thickening 29-year-old; they were as bright and delicate and grateful to the touch as new clean well-printed banknotes. Theirs was a Daisy Buchanan beauty: the beauty whose defining quality is the being prized. Competing for the beauty, rich men raced yachts through those days, and the love of the collective that defines love for us was there to protect them in steel boats with flags that snapped in the wind, and the apparatus of history was at hand to inscribe the rushing waves with records of love’s eager speed in a perennial Roman typeface.

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The caption reads, “U.S.R.C. Onondaga, America’s Cup Races, 1901.” U.S.R.C. stands for United States Revenue Cutter.

The octave of Cavafy’s sonnet read,

This was the thing about him that stood out

The key word was “Almost,” probably to be read as an ironic indirect aside. But in 1901 America a different flesh found its voice in the straightforward positivity of Whitman’s “As Adam Early in the Morning,”

Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass.

In its Walt warble it added: “Because I am passing through this watery element as fast as can be, and time is money.”

Sources:

C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. The facsimile of the manuscript is online at several sites.

“U.S.R.C. Onondaga“: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016804970/. Post-processed.

Ola: rows of colored men

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The image of the “flesh” crayon and its antique-store label comes from Bob Doto’s “The Elusive Flesh Crayon: Ig’nant Toys,” https://notnewyork.net/2011/06/03/the-elusive-flesh-crayon-ignorant-toys/. At https://onmilwaukee.com/family/articles/crayolablog.html, Molly Snyder writes: “Crayola changed the name of this crayon in 1903, from ‘flesh tint’ to ‘flesh’ to ‘pink beige’ and then back to ‘flesh.’ It finally switched for good to ‘peach’ in ’62.”

The fashion print dates from 1897 Chicago and is at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018695709/. I post-processed it to restore contrast and color, and (because I lack a chemical analysis of the pigments in the original and a knowledge of clothing design in the 1890s) that involved guesswork about what Photoshop’s hue and saturation controls were meant to show me. The fourth man from the right in the front row, especially: in Chicago in 1897, would his suit really have been that shade?

Well, under their clothes all of the men in this image really had to be uncolored. Twenty-two years after 1897, Chicago’s Henry Blake Fuller had to self-publish his novel Bertram Cope’s Year because it hinted at gaiety. Even so, I suppose it may be that once upon a time in 1897 Chicago a fabric artist could at least have dreamed of a purple suit.

 

Nataraj with his corps

Having been produced for a news agency, this photograph had a verbal meaning in advance. Even before it was a latent image on a glass plate, it always and only signified what the words written on the plate afterward were intended all along to say. “Checking loads of snow,” the words said to themselves, and then to posterity they added, “N.Y. Jan. ’08.” From the beginning, from the moment the horses were seen with the intent of being experienced editorially, their image meant and meant only checking. Checking, said the verbal construction to itself and to posterity; checking, not treading; checking, not dancing. As we look at checking we are to experience by evocation a crunch of wheels through snow and a jingle of harness, not the pattering of Shiva’s finger drum.

See. All is shovel and plod, all is gray.

00031uA1As of the beginning of 1908, the gray horses in their gray snow were ordinary. They were to be taken in immediately, without registering on the senses, like the “understood” words “Every driver must” that aren’t written on a stop sign. Nobody within this image can be heard saying, “Dance” or “Breathe” or “Be” or “Cold” or “White.” As of January 1908, the horses and the man were not significant. They were only real.

And now they are only a history, and (depending on whether you count “N.Y.” as one term or two) that history is restricted to a vocabulary of only seven or eight words. Horses and man and snow seem to have passed from an uncomprehended past to a merely textual present. Along the way their historical existence vanished without ever having been vouchsafed a meaning as such. If that had existed, it would have been a meaning not delimited by words, contained solely within itself, forever. But on the evidence, it seems not to have existed.

But if the transit of twilight across the snow could be reversed, and then if the text of the history of checking could be covered over by a silent whiteness?

The image is in our hands, and we possess a technology for opening it to a not yet read chapter. Look in, then, and see: the dancer comes, as he always comes. His step toward us is that which communicates again and never not and forever.

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Eyes cast down in love toward his earth, he dances. Behind him come dancing the hooves of his corps de ballet. They are seen now as such, and as it turns out they always were. They are now to be seen forever in their snow. That is what they always have meant. Step by step, forever, they are going to teach us dance.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014680030/.