Instantaneous in Hoboken

For now, the image is still there, floating in hazy light.

Big, luxurious, and the fastest ship in the world when it entered Atlantic service in 1900, the German liner Deutschland proved unpopular with passengers because its high-speed propellers made its decks shake. After ten years it was rebuilt as a slower, more comfortable cruise ship, rechristened with a less ambitious name, and sent on to oblivion. But here and for now, with its course away from memory not yet plotted, it lies in the river flowing past Hoboken, only momentarily still beneath moving clouds.

At the time, photographs like this one were called snapshots, and before then they were called instantaneouses. This instantaneous is breaking down now in craquelure, but it hasn’t yet ceased to put on display a large floating jewel, glittering with instant icons. This icon, see! represents the doctrine of three men painting a mainmast. This one represents the ship’s name in the squared-off, fraktur-inflected Bodoni of a German font. The iconic Deutschland is a free-standing word, generating connotation after connotation in a historical dialect that (its quiet blaze in the shade still signals) will never go extinct. And yes: by way of confirmation, aft of the word a little scow tidies up for a visit from history itself, preparing the palimpsest for a manual of what you will soon be required to see.


See, therefore. The icons (click to enlarge) will now perform their miracle. Someone inside Deutschland is at work with a shovel in a room full of ashes.


Elsewhere in Hoboken, light has different properties. The evidence at the river’s edge showed a clarity diffused outward under full control, originating in the dark within a hull and then moving outward to take dominion over all the light in the air. But along this sidewalk, seeing has been swaddled in blur from the beginning. For the moment, a little library is moored like a ship on the concrete, but its language can’t be read the way the word Deutschland is read because it doesn’t seem to belong in its composition. Deutschland is its ship. The sleek dark hull and its elegantly complementary wordform are equally at home in their sustaining water. But the sidewalk of Hoboken supports only a piece of indoor furniture and a jacket missing a button, and those are icons of a religion that isn’t alluded to in words like “Big Christmas number.” The jacket with its missing button is doctrine from the spoken language of the human and the social, as opposed to the written subdialect of words as such. And the words “Big Christmas number” tacked to a desk outside in the cold can’t be spoken in the same social accent as the name of a ship harmonized in gold on steel.

This instantaneous happens to be mounted on a card bearing more words, and that addition does spell out the instantaneous’s prehistory. But it isn’t continuous with the history in the photograph because its language isn’t photographic. It hasn’t originated in the image; it is only an afterword composed in the language of the photographer. Outside the image frame, separated from it by the confines that define and circumscribe the language of caption, the words of this third language try to mimic a voice — the voice of the photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine — in the act of saying:

Little girl, apparently 6 yrs. old – but didn’t know her name or age – tending stand at Washington and 3rd St. for older sister (#3234). Saloon on corner. 3 P.M. Location: Hoboken, New Jersey.

But in this translation the words telling of a saloon can only be heard and read, not seen in the way a river is seen. Because the saloon lies outside the image, it and the truths of its connotations can only be spoken of through the mediation of language, not known immediately as an icon’s truth is known. Outside the image frame, the words of the translation can only tell us a story of a Christmas when nothing descended from heaven to take form as a name.

And within the frame are no words to flood the image’s mouth and say, “This is my name. After six years I will be able to remember it.” Without the possibility of words, the image is not an icon; it is an instantaneous. The instantaneous is an image that has assumed its form without development through time. It had no mother tongue.


Library of Congress,
(1905; Detroit Publishing Company Collection) and
(1912; National Child Labor Committee Collection).
Both images photoshopped.

“A certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough of the very best”

The two wistful images below depict an uneasy dream staged during the long naptime between the death of Victoria and the beginning of the Great War. That was the era of G. K. Chesterton, when language sweated grease under starched linen as it sleepily tried to say what it had to say; then tried again; then tried again.

All that the Philharmonic Society of Buffalo wanted to say during three spring evenings in 1912, for example, was one simple, poignant thing: “Beauty deserves to be noticed, even if we are in Buffalo.” But what prolonged the poignancy through seven agonizing paragraphs wasn’t its multiplying words; it was their echoless surround. In the merchant city of Buffalo, a city that was all transaction with others, the Society’s prose was admitting to itself that it could speak only to itself. Knowing (the Society’s own Buffalo ledgers confirmed the truth) that its words were being ignored, it comforted itself with a little song whose words went, “I am beautiful, nevertheless.” It repeated the song, tema e variazioni, but still heard no reply. Then, by way of at least salvaging a memory from  the hurt, it wrote out the song’s verses in a pretty typeface and gave them a poem’s pretty title: “Proem.” At exactly the same historical moment, Lewis Wickes Hine was capturing his images of child laborers, some of them the scions of parents who had loved them and given them wishful aristocratic names. The images forecast no future except misery and premature death, and the Buffalo printer had trouble with the name “Philharmonic.”

But a century after that sad last paragraph, the Buffalo Philharmonic is alive and prospering. In 1912 the authors of “Proem” did not labor in vain. The memorial to their achievement is now an archival online tombeau that also holds the program of (for instance) a piano recital performed on April 17, 1928, by the undying Maurice Ravel, assisted by the soprano Greta Torpadie. During that era, too, Greta Torpadie not only sang beauty into a passing Buffalo night per “Proem” (“Music . .  in the very act of being is gone”). No; in herself, as herself, probably while located somewhere other than Buffalo, she enacted a silent beauty within the universal memory of not-Buffalo. There in the not-Buffalo, at the instant she took a ceramic cat into her hand and instructed a photographer to commence recording, she established the shape called Cat in a form capable of communicating in human terms. Touching the cat under the camera’s transforming gaze, the soprano made it desirable. Desire then diffused throughout the camera’s work product, making its image of the piano and the pictures on the walls and the woman’s flowered tunic and smooth dark hair and profound eyes into the working, intercommunicating organs of a single living thing. Like “Proem,” that living thing came into being under the aspect of a generic name. The name of the unified life in the photograph was Collectible (noun).

In Buffalo after Buffalo, Collectible originates by acquisition and inheritance of a single genetic trait: “a certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough.” But uttering the spacious pronoun “enough” frees us to reutter “Collectible” in a simpler, grander way. “Enough” connotes the unlimited, connotes inexhaustible happy surprise, connotes treasure. The nouns “collectible” and “treasure” then combine into something like the emotion we feel when we experience certain faces. We call that emotion Beauty. Its origin is the idea of treasure: something desired without yet being namable, then acquired, and only then experienced as a growing, changing life in memory and as memory.

Reconsidered that way as a memory treasure, beauty becomes a Pharaonic inheritance of Cayman Island safe deposit boxes stuffed with mummified cats and remembered in wills. Soprano memento, beauty expresses itself as a culture’s collective will. Finally, says the document to us readers of its words, I, beauty, am so all-comprehending that I’m simple. All I’m for, all I am, is committed desire and the promise of return. The term of my bequest is this: the instant you vest me in the documented form of dark eyes and a score on the Steinway, I’ll burst into song, forever.


“Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pre-History: 1840-1935.”

The image of Greta Torpadie is from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped for contrast.

The Simplex advertisement is in Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters CD-ROM and Book, ed. Carol Belanger Grafton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 080.