On its online Library of Congress page, this photograph is dated July 1939, titled “Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” and indexed under “segregation.”
If you’re less than 30 years old, the time may have come for you to learn formally that the frieze at the top and bottom of this print is the pattern of sprocket holes along the edges of a roll of 35-millimeter film. The negatives produced by that phototechnology were tiny, just 24 millimeters in one dimension and ordinarily 36 mm in the other, and in the absence of any electronics their resolution couldn’t be high. So the sense communicated most immediately by this photograph is something not visual (say, its composition of forms) but historiographic — that is, the word “Colored.” That word evokes emotion, but the emotion is word-based and its word-based non-visual origins are multiple and incompatible. Depending on who you are and how your politics are oriented, what you see in this picture of a word may evoke either anger or nostalgia. In 1939 Russell Lee took the picture on assignment for a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, but if he were a Fox News cameraman in 2020 his product would be seen under a different regime of intention.
But in 2020, electronics can be brought to bear. In Photoshop I open the Nik filter called Dark Contrasts, and it darkens the word’s context and fades its ambiguities to black.
Now I can see the clean shirt and the rest of the clothing layer. As of 1939 the baggy pin-striped pants with high waist and narrow white belt were flashy-fashionable, as was the hat with its low crown, big ribbon, and dramatic curves. “I display,” they say. “Consider loving me.” But all around the clothing layer, now, is a grime. In 1939, when the word “Colored” was simply an aspect of the environment, the grime was latent and unseen. In 2020, the phrase “dark contrasts” helps us see it. The control reveals the grime to be not just a layer of visual effects like the clothes but a corpus of blackened qualities pervading both the image and its historical contexts, from the negative’s photosensitive surface to the darkness inside the camera and from the grime on the walls to the statute that erected them. From the dark image that then results we can learn that it isn’t the clothing that is to be loved; it is the colored man.
About him we can ask the dark: what was it to have been that thirsting body within its layer of clean clothes? And if the visual regime of Fox News prevails, what will it be again?
From left to right the words dance past. As words, they claim to mime a song of pain. “Badly handled,” they say they are crying. But the words “badly handled” are visible, only: particles of gray prime-coat, mutely darkening a surface.
But an image isn’t a surface. If it is seen to be dancing from left to right, it is dancing all the way to the depths of itself. On their page the New-York Tribune’s gray paragraphs are separate from one another and static, but this horse en pointe and the three men with clubs work with one another in a single moving mass. In fact, they seem to belong to one another, as if they had been conceived in unity by someone raising his legs toward a barre as his body thought through an idea about space.
Close to the image but still outside, one more paragraph frames the unity as an expression of a concept such as “pain.” Pain is kinetic in the transformation of the word stone from noun to verb, but it also distressingly latent in the fear-adverb inside. The image itself has attempted to make a break with uncertainty by perforating one of its own imaged windows, but of course that can’t let us in. Read from outside image, the term inside can only signify terra incognita. We will never see far enough inside. Never again will this horse descend from pointe.
But the custodian of the horse-image has noticed some other words within, and keyed those to a history preserved in words outside. With that key the Library of Congress’s online link teaches us the image’s coordinates in time: “Photo shows the garbage strike in New York City, Nov. 8-11, 1911.” It adds a coordinate in space, “The lamp post sign is for East 57th Street,” and with that we may seem to have escaped from ahistorical image and reentered the chronicle of time through which we pass. Year by year we have been stepping away from the image’s cobblestones and leaving behind the people inside, and now that they are interred where lies the year 1911, we seem to have broken free into a margin-free, illimitable field of vision. Far from sight or memory of the horse on his cobblestones, we may think that the East 57th Street we see now is a state of being that we actually know: the state we see on today’s TV, decisively erased from print’s black and white: a finally permanent history of a stage across which will now go dancing — forever, and forevermore unregulated! a corps de ballet of hedge funders and international criminals.
But the horse with the sore on his hip and the men with clubs haven’t finished dancing themselves into realized being. They have only begun their translation from life to image, but having begun, they have begun putting on immortality. For them who started dancing and for us who have seen the dance, East 57th Street will remain a 1911 coming again and again to mind. There, in the mind, 1911’s stony thoroughfare will remain under the control of men with imaged clubs who have been authorized to force us, when the time comes, back to the barre for the next position.
She was Phoebe Snow, the white-gowned heroine of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American business history: Earnest Elmo Calkins’s series of streetcar advertising cards (1903-1917) for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. This was the onset of Phoebe’s dream.
Its poems and its history can be read at http://cs.trains.com/ctr/f/3/p/264453/2986868.aspx. For the dream itself, however, no language was required beyond a few alphabetic cells of the meaning into which Phoebe was to awaken .
And because the alphabet was a dream, the awakening from dream to meaning was happy.
I also discuss Phoebe at https://jonathanmorse.blog/2012/05/26/as-things-fade-to-white/. The photograph above comes from the story of Earnest Elmo Calkins. I’ve post-processed it for color and detail.
From the diary of Lewis Carroll, July 4, 1862:
Atkinson brought over to my rooms some friends of his, a Mrs. and Miss Peters, of whom I took photographs, & who afterwards looked over my albums & staid to lunch. They then went off to the Museum, & Duckworth & I made an expedition up the river to Godstow with the 3 Liddells: we had tea on the bank there, & did not reach Ch. Ch. again till ¼ past 8, when we took them on to my rooms to see my collection of micro-photographs, & restored them to the Deanery just before 9.
[Addition on facing page] On which occasion I told them the fairy-tale of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” which I undertook to write out for Alice, & which is now finished (as to the text) though the pictures are not yet nearly done — Feb. 10. 1863
The Morgan Library and Museum, https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/online/alice/7
Another record from the same date:
This shows Independence Day. On the reverse of the stereo pair’s cardboard backing a note reads, “Negative damaged by varnish sticking,” but Coleman Sellers’s composition of sun and shade, hats and skirts and a punchbowl, men and women and a baby and a now extinct North American chestnut tree is still filled from margin to margin with splendor.
Made three-dimensional again as an anaglyph, it fills from front to back as well, in an almost luridly analytic perspective.
But even this picture is not yet nearly done. Before anyone was granted enough time to see it to completion, it had followed its perspective and vanished. To see what you are seeing now is only what the guests on the lawn could see on a summer afternoon in 1862, and that isn’t enough. What’s missing from the smoothed grass is the rabbit hole.
Once, at a moment in history when ships’ bridges were so new to language that they literally and non-metaphorically were bridges, light broke through clouds above a bridge and people were saved. For that we have the testimony of a picture with words.
From left to right, the fine-print captions under the image read Lockwoods, Pensylvania [sic], Life Boat, St. Andrew, Victoria, and Day & Haghe, Lithrs. to the Queen. Then, larger, comes this confident explication.
The barely legible words at the end appear to be “The Publishers,” perhaps originally in a different color.
But it’s the caption’s other words that are the hard ones to read. The reason is that their key verb, “rescuing,” belongs to a genre that is now extinct: the genre of religious adoration of the present time. In the moment of that genre, the Transcendentalist painter and poet Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) could write a text called “The Spirit of the Age” which ended:
The mute machine is moved by a law
That knows no accident or flaw,
And the iron thrills to a different chime
Than that which rang in the dead old time.
For Heaven is taking the matter in hand,
And baffling the tricks of the tyrant band.
[. . .]
And some who from their windows mark
The unwonted lights that flood the dark,
Little by little, in slow surprise,
Lift into space their sleepy eyes;
Little by little are made aware
That a spirit of power is passing there,–
That a spirit is passing, strong and free,–
The soul of the nineteenth century.
But because one of your first emotional reactions to the lithograph probably included a distancing term like “museum piece,” you have a historiographic problem with seeing. A century and a half before your time, the soul of the nineteenth century passed into the scene of rescue, but then it continued on through and out, taking with it much of the word rescue’s emotional context. Now this image of rescue is just an item in a museum, but in its own time it was readable in the home as an allegory of salvation. Some happiness then followed. But the picture isn’t making you happy now. Its caption no longer teaches you to adore.
Because (for one reason among many) in the twentieth century, Cranch’s grandnephew T. S. Eliot was to turn the soul away from his ancestor’s poem’s olfactory regime of coal smoke in favor of French cigarettes and then of Anglo-Catholic incense. Before Eliot’s disdainful gaze the unwonted coal-gas light ebbed as well. Under redarkened heavens there no longer remained enough energy to read hope by.
This mariner, equipped for his voyage with ivory cigarette holder, weathered lifeboat, and rose, is Otto Kahn, the banker whose patronage helped Hart Crane write The Bridge.
The Sun (New York), March 8, 1902, page 2:
In 1902, the bare glimpse manifested itself to the prince amid what the text calls painful glare. What you see of it in this remnant artifact is, eye by eye,
and then, after integration,
In 1902 you might not have been able to see the prince’s face in the glare, or hear his name as it sank into muffling snow. Off camera, however, there does remain a record in words of the phenomena. It has its own black and white, it names itself Sun, and in the nature of records it seems to promise records’ immortality.
But on March 8, 1902, also in the nature of records, everything under Sun was mortal.
There was no cure for the passing away of 1902, either. In 1902 a remedy proposed by page 2 of the record was to double over, look down and in, and attend to intestinal digestion, as if there you could hear Henry David Thoreau crying as he was cleft by the scimitar of a fact, “This is, and no mistake.” But that cry didn’t reach the princes on page 1.
But what you seem to have learned through your viewer, you good liver, is that even when words have been worn away by heat, moisture or time, something else, something external to words, may still remain knowable. Its images of snow and mountain and river will remain in the eye for a time only, but for that time what they are will be black and white.