Silver iodide inventory

One day the pioneer modern dancer Ruth St. Denis changed her clothes and underwent metamorphosis into an event. During the time leading up to that success, her body and her closet full of cloth had had separate histories, but now they were adorning each other in a single aspect of forever after: history itself, history large and one. Within history, Ruth had become a read chapter. Thereafter, in penciled words and photographic images, she set about compiling the chronology of her body’s triumph, and the New York Public Library’s Denishawn Collection is now custodian of the corpus. It is 949 chapters long, and this is one of the chapters cataloged in 1904 as Radha.

“Ruth St. Denis in first costume for Radha. Bust portrait.” Denishawn Collection, New York Public Library, Contrast and detail restored.

Because what remains of Ruth is a history of a dancing body, its meanings are a flow which changes from chapter to chapter, and reading a chapter-to-chapter translation is a matter of understanding how clothes and the body keep changing each other. See, for instance, how much this Radha clothesword has changed since the day in 1906 when it was written.

“Wriggler” wouldn’t be what we say these days — not now that ways of talking about Ruth St. Denis have been codified and made canonical. But of course no translation, no matter how contemporaneous, can ever represent complete synonymy. Even in long-skirted 1906, barefooted didn’t stand merely for the shock of flesh suddenly realized to be naked.* A rendering capable of justice to the whole of partially garbed Ruth’s swish and sway might have been better written as something like outfit. In the language of outfit, articulating itself fabric by fabric, a body expressing itself by means of cloth might be understood as saying, I change and I will change forever, always fashioning new bodies for the next clothes-hangers over. Among the technical vocabularies capable of describing such a flow of meaning in 1906, one actually was a Linnaean binomial: Awfully artistic. Utilizing that, The World’s curator of dance pinned wriggle to his page about Ruth and characterized it as a looping around the wriggler’s name.

Then somebody else turned the page, and on a different page there was revealed a scrapbook inventory, this one not pinnable down by doodle but already pasted into place. On a sheet of dark paper, some of Ruth’s body’s parts (“jeweled hands and feet”) were now exposed separately to the light which had once fused them into a single grace. On the glass of a photographic negative, Ruth had been seeable as a whole. Wholly self-explanatory to anyone with memories of his own body, she was fully comprehensible in any of body’s languages. But on paper, pasted to a substrate in the mode of a dismembered and de-completed set of positives, Ruth’s isolated hands and feet could only be read — and read only as an analytical treatise representing dissociated thought and the disintegrated self.

“Ruth St. Denis’s jeweled hands and feet,”

During the instant before change, Ruth’s body in its first costume must have filled the entirety of Ruth-space with wriggling, gem-shimmering light. But then it stilled itself within the narrow space allotted to it for a pose, passed through the camera’s lens, and became the silver halide trace of an outfit permanently smoothed down upon dark paper. Unlike body’s nonce-wriggling, however, outfit’s stillness remains on record. There in its still remainder we will be able to look up the nature of outfit, representing forever after what can no longer be seen.

On a different page, a different body remains: a body of words set down about a teenaged girl named Rose who once raised to her lips a death-bringing vial of iodine. The world’s first photographs were creations of iodine and silver bonded by light, but no light had been allotted to Rose. The rags she wore were once described but never pictured. Between the covers of Ruth’s history, the Rose chapter is read-only and in the dark. Any light that may fall upon it will have to originate from within the text, as a reflection from silvered Ruth. Like the silvery photographs in the Denishawn Collection, Rose’s image in the mind has been separated from flowing time and stilled in a single aspect. But a photograph’s stillness can be exchanged in memory for a memory image of unphotographed life moving in its flow, and Rose’s unseen stillness can’t. The instant that the Rose of unpictured text exited her courtroom, entered her mental hospital, and became an orphan of the living but also unpictured, the plot of her no longer readable story stopped moving. We’ll never know how it turned out. And Radha is only to be known dancingly.


* “What matter if the baser minds put their programmes before their eyes and announced that the brown feet of the whirling dancer blended into the tints above the anklets too realistically for the legs to be clad in tights? What matter if the movements of the torso below the short jacket divulged every undulation of the flesh?”

History. But literature. But life.

The Times, June 30, 1907, page 14



Rachel Harris-Gardiner, December 11, 2020: “Dorothy Levitt: A Pioneer for Female Motorists.” East End Women’s Museum,
From The Woman and the Car. Contrast and detail adjusted.

With thanks to “On the Road: The Woman and the Car (1909),” Public Domain Review


Afterward, the snows of yesteryear have ceased to be sharp-bordered flakes and ceased to be little. At some time in their past they seem to have gathered themselves into a single body. We remember that as a shape and also as a feeling within. We seem to believe, now, that it wasn’t cold to the touch.

The Couzinet 70, about 1933. Contrast and detail modified.

Prince, have a care for the down-drifting white crystals modifying the dark. You are the warm body among them, and they serve for your life.

Happy chap, 1922: Peter Lorre’s white stunt double

In large letters, his muse inspires him to despair. Wishing is futile, sing her lyrics, because even under high tension his brain will accomplish little. His city is New York, the year is the year of The Waste Land, and the choir giving voice to its libretto of events is named The Lonesome Million.

But the fine print will deliver doubled Peter to hearty laughter and constant protection against all the troubles of the world. All he’ll need in advance of that is whiteness, 75¢ a month, and facility with the etiquette of the word thus.


For the Realists

During the nineteenth century, coal and its no longer latent powers began mattering to art and literature. Having been perceived and depicted, they now demanded equal but different rank with the divine. To realize Anna Karenina’s feelings during her night passage on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express was the same problem for Tolstoy that it would have been for Homer, but it was only Homer’s routes that traversed a universe conceivable as a surface hiding no secrets and revealing all there was to reveal. Against that, the moment at the end of Anna’s emptied book when a disconnected fuel tender came rolling by itself down its track (VIII.5) was a revelation of movement without a discoverable origin in intent or terminus in meaning. It may have been that that extorted the last tears from Vronsky. His voyage of discovery had ended without conclusion, in smoky midair.

See how you yourself now perceive this silhouette of eleven womanless men and a danger sign. Inside their collective image, smoke from a waiting parovoz ascends to darken the cloudscape, and that seems to be all the meaning there is. Certainly no one within the artwork’s dark margins is reading the sign’s words.

“Track elevating at road crossing, Joliet, Ill.,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed for contrast and detail. Replaces a 2014 restoration, which has now been deleted from the blog.

Signed at under such circumstances, lesser realists such as William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis reacted by filling their non-fictions and their fictions alike with brand names and street addresses, recorded with due accuracy. The intent seemed to have been to force signifiers like the railroadmen’s unread X to give up a meaning. In time, James Joyce came to understand that a record’s significance lies in its words, only. The data of its ostensible content are a pre-text, and that is enough. But the image you have just seen in parallel with Tolstoy’s words is a wordlessness. Its primary signifier is not a history like Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s but a chemistry and a meteorology, and its record is only one of the smudges that coal in the nineteenth century left in the air.

Coordinates with missing locator

According to the Library of Congress’s annotation, these photographs are probably two parts of a three-part panorama: the left and the center, or perhaps the center and the right. The third panel isn’t in the Library, however, and Photoshop’s automated merge function can’t bring the remaining two any closer to each other. They appear to have been taken from positions different enough to create a continuity error. From one image to the next, the curb’s line breaks to form an angle and the Baldwin Locomotive Works undergoes a change of perspective. Just when time almost stopped for an instant at the beginning of the twentieth century, the instant’s vanishing point was seen to move and blur as if it were alive after all.

“Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, Pa.” Library of Congress, Post-processed.

So the visual forms that survive in the blur survive only as isolated colonies of the perceptible: the contextless cloud of steam, its whites and shadows sharply delineated but its purpose in its moment no longer knowable; the man with his tilted derby and rakish posture and shadow, never again to be nameable; the women in hats propelled along a route to the margin, blurred to unreadability above the moving words Wilbur’s American Milk Chocolate.

But at the right, unmoving, PHILA. It is only part of a word, but we seem to remember what the remainder once said of itself in the presence of a now vanished camera. From memory, memory recites DELPHIA. The sound is reassuring, because it seems stable. Tomorrow it will still be callable to mind and singable to completion once more.

But half of its harmony will sing in silent dark, because DELPHIA is a word in the dead language of the vanished panel 3. Looking down now at the two remaining panels, we experience panel 3 as if within its own aftermath: understanding it like a schoolbook remembered but no longer readable with a child’s eye. At their image’s vanishing point, the shadows of the man on the sidewalk and the women in the brand new motorbus and the mule just ahead of them on the road are to become equally unseeable because light will have moved forward past the brink of the image and disappeared into time.

Note added April 2, 2021: in his February 13, 2012 blogpost at, Shorpy succeeds in merging the two images seamlessly and also provides a comment stream from which we learn, among other things, that the electric bus seen on North Broad Street dates the panorama to 1907 or 1908. Thanks, Kim Bridges, for calling the Shorpy link to my attention.


Gesticulations from the age of steam

Three weeks into the Armistice, the dazzle painting still at its work of making illusion;

the hats waved as they had been in the days of plume;

perhaps a shouted word in a now dead language, such as “Hurrah!”;

on the evidence of this illusive little history, a belief that war can be over.

Returning American soldiers on the liner Mauretania, New York, December 2, 1918. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Contrast, detail and perspective corrected.


Technical note: vision and the passage of history

To repair a historical damage

Library of Congress,

can be to reset the function of seeing to an earlier state. On the evidence of this artifact, for example, it may be possible that the advent of photographic vision in the nineteenth century didn’t just coincide with the advent of a metal-framed, curtain-walled architecture teaching its era a newly ample definition of the idea soar

Requires red-and-blue stereo viewer.

but made it conceivable. Suddenly, cameras on their tripods were equipping the vanishing point with an azimuth and an elevation. Seen in restored state, this image reenacts one of those nineteenth-century instants when sight realized it could sail forever toward an ever receding horizon.