Jacques Henri Lartigue, “Renée, Route Paris–Aix-les-Bains, juillet 1931”
Aslant on a tilted surface, a ship’s steel curves align themselves into a complex array of near-verticals and are changed from a simple prow into a Richard Serra multiform. Emitting excited puffs of steam as they prepare to nuzzle the new shape, the ship’s companion tugs bustle into line as merrily as if they were executing poses for the jovial approval of Raoul Dufy. As in the sunny vacationland France of a Chelsea gallery, all here in New York harbor is innocence, luxe, and the thoughtfully capitalized beauty of gaits trained by dance. The big ship and her brood of little boats seem to have prepped for their appearance before the camera in a boutique full of Lartigues.
There, after the primpers undercoated the sky with pink and the water with blue, they finished off the big ship’s funnels with a dramatic application of buff.
A hundred years ago, that tint at the source of cloud was a form that hope had chosen for an emblem. Buff cylinders multiplied over water were the insigne of the Hamburg-America Line, the most important transport link between Europe and the United States for the desperate Jews of Russia during the last years of the czars. Imagine you can hope now in the way they hoped then. In the mind’s eye, see a yellow glow travel from right to left across the ocean. See it take on readable form as water and sky unscroll before it.
When the ship with bright funnels comes into its haven, its passengers will disembark into the boutique’s chosen range of the spectrum and commence a different way of being seen.
The photograph is in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/related/?&pk=ggb2005013361&st=gallery&sb=call_number#focus
The immigration image is at Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewish_immigration_Russia_United_States_1901.jpg. The information there transcribes the copyright date in the lower right corner as 1901, but I read it as 1909 or possibly 1902. A fashion historian might be able to date the clothing. The Hebrew text carried by the American eagle is found in several Jewish prayers. Adapted from Psalm 17.8, it reads, “And hide us in the shadow of thy wings.”
All three images have been Photoshopped for contrast and tone.