Marked at the top of the negative with what is probably a filing date, “8/10/21,” this photograph of a ship probably dates from the spring or summer after the ship entered service in November 1920. Originating in the date and immediately moving offsite to reference sources, that’s the textual history of this image. Of the rest of the image’s history, the part that remains inside black borders, little remains. We can’t even really see the forms it depicts until we’ve tagged them with guesses originating in text: the word smoke, the word gun. We will have to look right through one of the image’s blank spaces before we can locate anything capable of being understood and uttered — a name, at last! — and then write that into a literary text leading to a satisfactory The End. Probably delivering an A’s worth of irony, for instance, might be something like,
Dreadnought Nagato: to become the only Japanese battleship that survived World War II.
But computer technology offers us a second try at seeing within the frame. Just (it is so easy now) post-process this image with (for instance) Photoshop, bring to bear an artificial intelligence mediated by programs named Topaz Clear AI, Topaz Sharpen AI, and Topaz DeNoise AI, and within the frame there will reappear, after the lapse of a century, a man: an officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, his eyes shadowed by the visor of his cap but his whole body communicating senses of words such as watchful and alive. The effect is almost as if the image’s photochemistry were recreating an affective intention. See, says the intention; see, in the first instance, the recovered trace of my silver halide crystals. In the second instance, they will have prepared you to love me.
And if the love within the image is a sign of a love that existed before the image . . .
Offered for eleven euros on April 28, 2019, this is a presumably French photograph dating, to judge from the clothing and the deckle edges, from the 1950s. Its commercial history online is no more than that. The image has numerous tag-names, but the forms within it have none. They are nameless now; only shapes given temporary form in a distant past. In the recent past, somebody decided that their significance was no longer worth deciphering and carried their picture out to the flea market.
But after the image took its temporary form it was supplemented with the persistent trace of a pre-existing desire.
Somebody with a tube of photo-tinting pigment decided to make the little girl’s dress look pretty, so down went a layer of pink. Then the desire extended to the decorations on the young woman’s dress. She had already brushed her hair and put on lipstick, and her cherry buttons were so cute and red . . .
The photo technician was an amateur, and photographs back then had to be waited for after they were taken. The retouch job probably hadn’t been anticipated, and this print was probably the only one made at the time. That was the usual course. Mistakes, such as the excess of red on the cherries, were vulnerable to the arrow of time. Once having been made, they entered history irrevocably, without possibility of correction. Faced down by history, the amateur capped his tube and walked away, and the young woman’s face entered its posterity shrouded in monochrome.
But once, for a moment unrecorded except in the seen fact of its having occurred off the record, somebody may have smiled as he picked up a newly uncapped tube of color and moved it toward contact with a not yet touched surface communicating at the molecular level that there now existed a woman and a baby, and (off the record) they were loved.
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014713016/.
Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.
With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.
The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.
But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:
“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014684979/
This image comes from a blog titled “Everyday life in the past: a collection of primarily found photos featuring everyday people and life from eras bygone.”
To judge from the kitchen appliances and the man’s clothing (notably his cowboy boots), the image appears to be American. The medium-wide hat brim probably tells us that these American features were on display in the mid-1950s, and the picture’s square format, low camera angle, and low resolution probably mean it was taken with one of the inexpensive twin-lens reflexes that were popular at the time.
And now the image is faded and discolored. When the image went online, that chemical change had a literary effect: it encouraged the blog’s editor to go elegiac and write the word era. Era is a region of time experienced exclusively in retrospect. The moment when everyday life enters into a category and becomes knowable in whole as an era, it ceases to change. “Everyday life,” the era, is no longer life as such. It has gone historical.
To see how the loss of change has affected the image, we need only to consider it in waxwork mode, as a model of what was once living. In collaboration, you and I can easily create one of those simulacra. If you, reader, contribute a cry of Eheu fugaces and I contribute some labor in Photoshop, this is one of the things that can happen.
Examined through a magnifying glass, this finished product will open itself a little and reveal latencies: image fragments that resemble traces of life. Seen again after who knows how long, for instance, is a hearing aid built into the man’s glasses. In the photographer’s teakettle, too, I may even be seeing the photographer herself, silhouetted in reflection. At some time in about 1955, a shutter in a camera in her hands actually did click, a flashbulb made a popping sound and emitted a smell of melting plastic, and certain aspects of a Boston terrier, an old man in a hat, and a cardboard box entered in combination into an image. The sequence of mechanical actions eventuated in a small multicolored square that seemed, at the time, to be a tranche of life.
But then, as Emily Dickinson said of the carte de visite photographs that were exchanged among friends in her time, the quick wore off. Most photographs are not looked at, for their actual image content, but looked through as if they were windows opening onto a view of memory — and after history lost its record of the man’s name it lost his memory too. Nothing was left of him then but an image. Perhaps that was archived for a while among other images of the home with its dog and its reflected photographer, but after a certain number of funerals (the evidence of its presence in an online flea market proves it) it was disposed of. The blog’s name for its content, “eras bygone,” with its antiquarian inversion of the order of noun and adjective, isn’t the language of history; it’s the language of death. The blogger and I can’t walk through the flea market of images and expect to hear words there, explaining. The market is not an archive but a catacomb. The faces in their niches may be tagged with names, but no one ever again will be able to speak their dead language.
But the physical aspect of image still does communicate. We can still see, as eras bygone saw, that the man in this image is lighting a cigar. The flame in his hand is as ever what it was in 1955. It always will retain the invariant property of giving light. And (says the image, without saying it in words) once upon a time, for a fraction of a second, a flashgun mounted on the side of an upward-aimed camera burst into a light of its own and threw the flame into shadow. That momentary change from light to darkness achieved something historical: an alteration in the usual behavior of the world; an event.
And that we don’t see through but see. Whatever wordy record once belonged to the man is gone from the tranche, but something in the tranche itself still evokes odors of flashbulb and cooking and dog and cigar. It is the sense record of the event, inscribed by a chemical process on whatever it is along the pathways of our nerves that goes by the names of memory, and the remembered or imagined past, and love.
For “Everyday Life in the Past,” http://fifties-sixties-everyday-life.tumblr.com/
For the Kodak advertisement, http://www.brownie-camera.com/posters/pages/091_1960.shtml
For the Emily Dickinson phrase: The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Harvard University Press, 1958), letter 268, to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, July 1862. Declining Higginson’s request for a photograph of herself, Dickinson explains: “It often alarms Father — He says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest — but has no Mold of me, but I noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor — You will think no caprice of me — ”
Reflected from horsehide, light glows in a specific horsehide way. Wanting to believe that having seen the glow has conveyed it to me, I may try to prove my possession by making a bequest. I may try to write a poem about the light, for instance, as Rilke did in his horse poem dedicated to Tolstoy, Sonette an Orpheus I.20.
As if I could declare my desire to live on in the language of horselight. Of course I can’t. In this document the mortal words and their desperate good-luck symbol constitute one vocabulary and the horses in undying light constitute another. For the language of testament no translation is available.
Source: The Official State Atlas of Kansas Compiled from Government Surveys, County Records and Personal Investigations. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1887. http://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~23597~830077:A-group-of-stallions-and-mares,-Lin. Photoshopped.
1. “Mr. Greenwood in the office of the Knox Woolen Company, August 1900.”
Mr. Greenwood is at his work in a little museum of calendars — at least six of them, by my count. The one behind him is the public one, the one that’s open to us visitors as well as Mr. Greenwood. But his private stock is probably not a reserve of days but a reserve of pictures to be delighted in. Tied off beside his head is a light bulb, but the sun of a long New England summer day seems to be what is illuminating the pleasure chamber now and filling it with still more pictures to keep visitors happy. See how the sun throws Mr. Greenwood’s shadow onto the wall below the glassily reflecting lithograph of an Inman Line steamer.* See how the light carves his left shoe with its heel counter and its lace into bas-relief.
But in the weak sun of New England the photograph required a long exposure, and there Mr. Greenwood’s body-moving breaths had to be recorded as a blur affecting his face. Mr. Greenwood’s life was proceeding on its course during the instant in 1900 when a shutter was opened to it, but in his museum of time it isn’t available for exhibit.
2. “Margaret & Augusta Talbot, March 1899 in back of the Congregational Church.”
It appears that the church, with its name and its grammar of location (“in back of”), functions as a point of reference for the place occupied in an otherwise empty whiteness by two little persons with names of their own. Superimposing themselves in black on the white ground, the three names (Margaret, Augusta, Congregational Church) assign Margaret & Augusta to coordinates in a permanent world. Captioned with names that can be located on a map (that Margaret, that Augusta, that in-back-of-the-church), they have become heroines (so long as the snow shall endure) of the historical fiction that there is no death.
Sources: Photographs by Theresa Parker Babb in the Camden (Maine) Public Library, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cplmaine/24633201459/in/photostream/ and https://www.flickr.com/photos/cplmaine/25415271492/in/photostream/. Photoshopped.