After we realize we have seen, we sometimes teach ourselves the experience by giving it a name. The publisher George Stacy taught experience to other people for a living, and one day in about 1860 he made it his business to jot down some helpful ideas about an item newly visible then. You might call it American scenery, he suggested, and after that specifically clipper ship with a catalog number and a name, and finally, off in the right margin for any leftovers, miscellaneous.*
When we think we have completed a naming like that, silence may follow. As of 1860, two technologies that seemed to prepare silence for us were the stereopticon and the lexicon of words specialized for the genre of caption, which shortcuts from perception to understanding on the quiet. Shortly after 1860, however, the Orphic moved melodiously back into the modes of knowing. During the Edison era Hart Crane composed in the presence of a Victrola, and something singable now to Stacy’s image might be one of Crane’s Victrola-words from The Bridge: curveship.
Or, within Stacy’s margins, the lyric Miscellaneous. Before that came to mind it existed as silent sensation, but then Stacy cordoned it within yellow and connected it into a directory of names. That’s what happened, for instance, when one sensation resolved itself into the name George W. Green, Sail Maker. Roman-font George W. Green, living man, is no more, but through the agency of perception his yellow-highlighted name has entered the breath-warmed history of your own remembered reading. Simultaneously, in front of a building named Wall Street, another name ripens to significance. If the blur that’s barely distinguishable there happens to be a wheel-shaped grindstone, we may be able to begin naming the person treadling the wheel. What emerges from the blur won’t be capitalizable like George W. Green, but historical probability and the sociology of gender will at least let you call it a man. In a poem named “Sparkles from the Wheel,” Walt Whitman poignantly observed that to know such an incidental detail is only an approximation in parenthesis. The man he describes is a reduction to “(an unminded point set in a vast surrounding).” But he is a point.
And beyond the parenthesis lies Great Republic’s great dark hull. Ever since 1860, George Stacy’s image has filled us who see it with the desire to become one of its cargoes of shadow. Barely noticed at the foot of Wall Street, however, is another darkness, this one an inky deposit of words. Pasted onto a wall half the length of the pier, it amounts to a collection of promissory notes promising meaning.
The promise can’t be kept, however. Rendered delible by loss of optical and historical signal, the posted words now communicate only miscellaneous, and the meaning of that word doesn’t extend from its aged yellow script to the forever new word-bearing wall. At term, all you can use it for is seeing without reading. The words within the double image of Great Republic mean now only to it, not to us. In an artwork intended to be readable with reference to changing time, they have sunk back into their image and gone timeless again. They are no longer in the stereo plane of readable surface. Having returned to the pre-perceived, they no longer bear the meaning of a readable word, even miscellaneous.
But just offshore of that worded silence lies Great Republic, moored to the still land of words but afloat on its river in tiny tidal motions. If we hope to know it we’ll have to get moving, because the knowing will have to be done on moving’s sole term. That term will be a hapax legomenon: a single generatrix of significance, a curveship not in the lexicon of caption. But if you’ve failed at learning the motion and you’re still on the pier with the unreadable words, do at least whisper to yourself in Great Republic’s shadow, Victrola.
* A small mystery about this stereo pair is that the images appear not to have been taken at the same time, even though stereo cameras generally have twin lenses with synchronized shutters. In the right-hand image, one of the ferry terminal’s three gates is open and the funnel of a boat is visible. In the left image there is no boat, all three gates are closed, and something round on a stand is in front of one of them, with the man I identify as possibly a knife-sharpener. (But what would a knife-sharpener be doing in this neighborhood?) Likewise, the ships in the far background seem to have moved, and in the left image but not the right a boat is visible behind the ship astern of Great Republic. Perhaps Stacy’s published stereo card is a composite of the left half of one pair with the right half of another.
Update, August 10, 2020:
Replying to a query, Michelle L. Smiley, Ph.D., assistant curator of photography at the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, writes:
“Thank you for contacting the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. I have looked at the Clipper Ship stereograph in question and your observations about the changes in scene between stereo images seem accurate. These are fascinating differences between images, but they are also not unusual.
“While you are correct that photographers did employ stereographic cameras containing two lenses, true synchronous shutters didn’t come into common use until the 1880s, so many stereo photographs prior to that time are asynchronous. Some photographers used what was called a flap shutter over their lenses to synchronize their exposures, but most were removing a lens cap or a stop individually from each lens. Additionally, it was also a practice for photographers to use a camera with a single lens to take two pictures in succession with a slight adjustment in the position of the camera between shots. After consulting with my colleague, we believe that, given the seeming match of the offset of these two views, Stacy was using a twin lens camera, but making a unique exposure with each lens. My colleague also pointed out that portrait photographers may have been more likely to use a flap, whereas city/landscape photographers like Stacy may have had less of a concern with people or things moving between exposures. It’s also possible that Stacy composited halves of two separate negatives as you speculate, but with only the visual evidence to go off of, it is difficult to say definitively which of these methods was used.”