The abstract term “infrastructure” vs. the days of 1917

“Subway porter,” 1917. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Edited in Photoshop with Nik Dark Contrast adjustment.

By the exit from a crossroads one day in 1917 there stood no. 3594, underground in her clean blouse and her necklace. In 1917 she was accessorized with a name as well, but by now that has probably been erased from the record you’re seeing.

You may desire to say something self-assuring like “Nevertheless, I won’t forget no. 3594’s act of cleanness in the dark.” But since you know what has probably happened to no. 3594’s name, you probably shouldn’t. Just try to see without memory. Whatever memory is, it no longer has power over what remains to be seen of no. 3594.

A dance to time

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.

“Garbage wagon stoned — driver is inside.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed for contrast and detail.

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.,h_3997,c_limit/111%20West%2057th%20Street,%20Rockefeller%20Hero,%20FINAL.jpg,h_3997,c_limit/111%20West%2057th%20Street,%20Rockefeller%20Hero,%20FINAL.jpg

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.

Signal in transit

The camera that took this photograph was probably fitted with a collapsible cloth bellows between the lens and the housing that held a glass-plate negative. As the photographer flexed the bellows in and out for focus, its opaque coating would eventually begin to flake off and shafts of ambient light would penetrate the camera’s dark interior and streak across the image. This adventitious light had evaded the photographer’s intent, and it competed for the viewer’s attention with the subject he had composed according to human rules and labeled with human words.

George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Edited in Photoshop for contrast and detail.

The words, too, were changing. Within this frame, for example, they were demarcated into separate languages written in separate alphabets, English and Yiddish. But as of the date imprinted by the photographer at the top of his document, the European language Yiddish was undergoing American erasure.

“Help the furrier strikers,” reads the English of 1915 on the pair of cylinders that demarcate the details of the man between them, and his tie and tie pin and the symbols in his buttonhole communicate something 1915-American that complements those words. But the man’s eyes, mouth and hands belong to the naked aspect of his body, and in its nakedness that isn’t regulated by social system. Like the light leak, it is a sign of loss of organization. The text that tries to express it begins in Yiddish, Helft die, “Help the,” but then it collapses into a mere transliteration of English words written in Yiddish’s Hebrew alphabet. It can only stammer, “Helft die furrier strikers.”

The Hebrew letters, unintelligible in Hebrew, are visual evidence for a transition as undeniable as the laws of optics. On balance for the better, a language and its way of thinking are losing the meaning they possessed just one narrow ocean ago.


Jewish immigration photoshopped aiA Edited in Photoshop for contrast and detail. The ship with yellow funnels would have been a vessel of the Hamburg-America Line, which carried immigrants from central and eastern Europe to the United States.

Wild light that evades control by the lens can be thought of as a sign of something different to come. But as the camera continues in use and the light comes in time to spread over its every image, whatever it was that was intended for shaping by the lens will go as whitely featureless as a blank page.


An earlier post,, also uses the image of the striker.


The English verb on the sign you carried on May 1, 1909, “Abolish child slavery,” was twinned in Yiddish with an adverbial construction: anider mit, “down with.” Strictly speaking, the verb was optional.


So if we readers of that twinned imperative stop reading there, just at abolish, and then further generalize the verb from transitive to intransitive, it can be detached from its sentence. One May Day 1909 the sentence had specifically to do with American labor history, but in isolation its verb becomes half of a new, ahistorical unit of meaning. It no longer means topically, in regard to other words utterable in 1909, but forever, in regard to you in your now seen image. “Abolish,” said the word in the lower half of your image, and by not repeating itself in the upper half where you lived in 1909, it silenced that upper. There, in your half, you will never open your mouth to cry “Abolish!” In relation to each other, you and the possibility of abolition will forever be still unravished brides.

But from now on, the word abolish in this image will no longer have a meaning separable from you as you were in 1909. Having once read your image and your word as one, your fans forever after are going to know abolish as a composite of its letters and your smiling, closed mouth. Because the word will never again have a meaning separate from you, it will postpone your own abolition, forever. Because a word’s letters enfold your body in undying language, you with your mother-bird pin are never going to die.


Image previously posted at


Labor history, considered axially

Under electric wires and parallel to them in the vertical plane, a trolleycar comes rolling into the image. Above and just ahead of it hangs an arc lamp, suspended from its horizontal boom. Everything in this part of the record is diagrammable, and the diagram is a map of obedience realizing natural law. Alongside the trolleycar’s rails, even the picture’s human elements have become points in a specialized geometry of motion. There they are, the capped and dark-clad men and boys, displayed by the picture’s organizing force as if at the vertices of a baseball diamond. Their diamond-shaped matrix didn’t exist until they took their places, but they are playing within it now, and following the rules applicable to diamond.

Out of sight above this part of the image, a breathlessly unpunctuated rush of words and numbers explains: “Stoning a car Philadelphia 2/21/10.” Two days later, a different language convention will expand the caption’s sports-page telegraphese into a page of prose with a prologue:

“CARS BLOWN UP,” shouts the excitable sans-serif. But that zippy string of introductory monosyllables is only a noise made to call to order a citizenry whose true language is thoughtful, slow-moving black letter. Black letter is the visual dialect not of the boys playing on their diamond but of the men keeping score in the stands. Black letter’s blackness comprehends as well the colorful coat of arms of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with its plowhorses laboriously supporting a motto whose first word is “Virtue.” On the brickwork of their Philadelphia street, the stone-throwing men and boys can make themselves seen in only one way. On his newsprint in Honesdale, the Citizen can make himself seen in many ways, all of them virtuous.

But intersecting with the axis along which virtue is to be read as an attribute of black letter’s typographic geometry . . .

But intersecting with the axis along which virtue is to be read as an attribute of black letter’s typographic geometry stretches the image’s other axis: the one demarcated from its virtuous civic axis by a building labeled “Kaufmann House.” If the name “Kaufmann House” is read as a string of words, its significance has been lost to the history depicted within this picture. Here within the picture, the three syllables of “Kaufmann House” don’t become part of our comprehension in the way that the two syllables of “stoning” do. But what is comprehensible is the Kaufmann House triangle, generated within the image by the image’s own self-referring and self-enforcing laws of intersection and juncture. Before that triangle had a name (“Kaufmann House”), at the instant it drew itself into being on February 21, 1910, the geometry of the human along one of its extended sides was supplanted all the way back to the vanishing point by winter light, shadows lengthening and darkening in accordance with natural law, and a history of men and their labor recordable thenceforward only by Euclid.

Sources: “Rioters stoning a trolley car, Philadelphia.” Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection, Photoshopped.

The Citizen (Honesdale, PA), 23 February 1910: 1. Library of Congress,

Click images to enlarge.

Cylindric equilibrium


Past the French Art Shop they come, coats swinging, with a jaunty ID provided by the Bain News Service: anarchists on the march, in March. If anarchists could have a captain, their captain might be the man on roller skates. Dressed like a boy in cap and Norfolk jacket and knickers, he swings his arms and pouts. All with him is precarity, stopping just short of hilarity. Click his image to enlarge it.


In 1926, a work of French art, Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma, rolled up to offer first aid and counsel. Between spinning spirals, M. Duchamp’s words advise the marching anarchists to take, as necessary, “Bains de gros thé pour grains de beauté sans trop de Bengué.”

All with the spirals is lucid geometry. All with the words is lucid balance. Dragées Bengué were sold at the time as a cough drop. Their active ingredients were menthol and cocaine.


One way to see Labor Day 1915 was as an affair of cylinders. Upright in the exact center of his image, the shaved and neatly suited man raising funds is holding a metal pail which is dented but still round, round. His mustache is a perfect horizontal, and above it the placard on his hat makes it into another cylinder. Mustached and cylindered, the man looks now like the always endangered, always genially victorious capitalist who rides his train from rectangle to rectangle along the route of the Monopoly board. On the man’s right, a narrow, perfectly horizontal beam of light sets up a reflection within the camera’s lens. On his left, in perfect balance, the beam of light bounces back from a window in specular reflection. On each of the man’s two cylinders, a sentence in English reads, “Help the furrier strikers.” Just below that, a sentence in macaronic American Yiddish reads, “Helft die furrier strikers.”

The English reads from left to right. The Yiddish reads from right to left. On their cylinders the words counter-rotate in equilibrium. Wallace Stevens, who once walked into a restaurant, walked out again, and explained to his chauffeur, “Too many Jews come in here,” might have made an exception for this one.


The two photographs are in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, at

The Stevens anecdote is in Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 248-49.

A friend wonders whether the caption “Labor parade” may refer to Labor Day or, on the other hand, May Day. I don’t know, but the photograph is identified as from Labor Day at . Speaking of ambiguous attribution, I wonder now whether the man dressed as a roller-skating boy in the first photograph may in fact be a boy — a boy who looks as tall as the marching men behind him because he is closer to the camera than the image makes him appear.