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.

The shadow of a flame

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.

Date of this advertisement: 1960

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.

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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,”

For the Kodak advertisement,

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 — ”

Fixed focus

I want myself to remember my rose, but I haven’t been able to get it out of that neighborhood. It ought to be isolated in darkness, where image lights its way through dream to memory. This surround is nothing but a reactive surface where purposely grown rose and weedy incidental all fade to white together. When the reaction has gone to completion and the rose has gone fully blank, there will be no more way back to the memory of red dark. I will sleep open-eyed in death.

Source: The car, datable artifact, may be a 1969 Dodge.

At last

In Girodet’s Apothéose des héros français morts pour la patrie pendant la guerre de la Liberté, the heroes, some of Napoleon’s favorite generals, are shaved and bathed and unsullied by their wounds. They’re in uniform, too, as if they had never looked like anything but generals, and at their moment of apotheosis they are no younger than they were at the moment of their death.

Moment, singular. According to their group portrait, that moment occurred just once. At that moment, each hero became forever an element of a composition whose medium was rigor mortis. At the moment of death, each hero became perpetual. With his promotion to Statuary General, he lost the Other Ranks’ privilege of changing his clothes.

Likewise, Girodet’s statuary Ossian is old and blind as he welcomes the group representing sculptured military middle age, while the Rhinemaidens or whoever they are are moisturized and young even though they too are statuary. That’s how the picturesque does elegy. It’s a technique for making visual the idea of simultaneity that is communicated by the elements on either side of the conjunction and in the prayer, “Now and at the hour of our death.”


When the troubled genius Charles Sanders Peirce died in his eccentric edifice of a house, he was laid to rest there, disposed in an eccentric artwork that also included bookshelves and a separate artwork depicting a dog.

I learned this from a book: Joseph Brent’s Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). This picture of its pages amounts to another display: a trophy gallery of Brent’s expedition through Peirce’s thought and the archives of the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. Click it to enlarge.

If you brought a Peircian disposition to the click, you might be able to think of it as an index of me. Shining through a diffuser at the left of the image, for instance, is the brilliant tropical sunlight of Hawaii, where I happen to live. At the top can be seen the property stamp of the Hawaii State Public Library System, where I happen to get delivery service because my wife is a librarian there. And that metal thing at the bottom is a little plastic-and-wire book support whose appearance may signify something about a man in his seventies who still plays with school toys. Elsewhere in the image, too, thanks to sun and shadow and Photoshop, you can glimpse the texture of Indiana University Press’s twenty-two-year-old paper, still imploring the possibility of a staged dramatic reading: “(Pause. Then, with a catch in the throat:)”

But of course Peirce will remain dead. Under a steady drizzle of traces of life, that which once was Peirce has nevertheless undergone its final change. In its interior, the rain-swept stone remains dry. That incongruity between the images of life on the surface of things and the deathly actuality at their center is why elegy is always ironic, with irony’s trick of making us think one thing while knowing another.

But aren’t Napoleon’s death-rewarding Rhinemaidens cute as they frolic on their surface? Let us, as the cantors deludedly intone every Saturday morning, choose life.

Proscenium, name, sepulcher

At White House Landing on the Pamunkey River in Virginia, at some time during the Overland Campaign of May-June 1864, a load of hay destined for the Union army was unloaded from a barge. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photograph of the event, photoshopped below, is in the Library of Congress at A different print, with more information about the photographer and the subject, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at

The faded original image looks like a well balanced picture, with only a few masses remaining to present to the eye. With its detail restored, however, the image becomes almost histrionically busy. Set off within a proscenium made of trees and unfinished lumber are four vessels, each one bearing a crisply delineated name as it rides the waters of the Pamunkey: steamers New Jersey and Wenonah, barges Corn Exchange and John L. Ristine. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s long exposure time smoothed the moving water at the base of the setting and fused the men unloading hay from the Corn Exchange into a single industrious blur, but the vessels were heavy enough to hold still and let us read their names forever after.

There, forever after, Wenonah’s name will be seen to be an elegant affair, all serifs and gingerbread work, accessorized with the hay and a gracefully shaped boat and a fluffy puff of steam.

By contrast, the name on the warped and flaking boards of the John L. Ristine has little to say to us. Down there at water level, John L. Ristine is only about hay and self-effacement. For a fraction of a second the name Ristine was visible to the history which also came to include General Grant and his Army of the Potomac, but even then the men who remain in its image were looking not at it but at pretty Wenonah and the army’s hay.

But in the historical continuum there also remains this.

It seems to offer readers of the story of John L. Ristine a chance at an ironic happy ending. Ubi sunt Wenonah and New Jersey and Corn Exchange? Yet here beneath the ground of Philadelphia lies an actuality: that which remains of a name. It remains because it once was attached not just to a boat but to a man. There lie the remains now, anchored by the mass of a stone.

Yet off to the side is a pink heart loaded with words that plead, with an urgent exclamation mark, “Sponsor This Memorial!” The cry seems to insist that the work of inscription is incomplete. The transaction of carrying hay was successfully executed once, and then successfully forgotten. It was recorded in a ledger which there’s no longer a need to read. History has given it its nunc dimittis. But the gravestone still lies unsponsored on the earth. How can we conclude the transaction of reading it when we haven’t been taught how to read?

Ledgerless, wordless, whatever image that might survive of ship carpenter John L. Ristine still waits for a way to speak to us through the picture word “See.” Between a proscenium and a tomb wanders an unremembered name. It was once slapped in paint onto the transom of a barge, but nobody except Timothy H. O’Sullivan learned in time how to read it.

Identities unhidden

1. A record of a life, partially erased

2. Some news, some weather, and some poetry, brought together in time and preserved sans rature on a page in an archive. Click to enlarge.

3. “S.S. Lucania, July 28, 1894.” Photograph by John S. Johnston

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Source:  Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

When John S. Johnston squeezed a rubber bulb which actuated the shutter release on his 8-by-10-inch view camera, his closing hand juxtaposed into existence an array of detail in time and space. It isn’t a permanent array; it won’t last forever in the way the diagrams in Euclid will. It is merely historical. A part of its beauty is owed to the humorous operation of mere coincidence in space and time. On the hottest day in thirteen years, with the sky the color of copper, brush your teeth with the white hand of Beauty and fill your mouth with the taste of hay. For the moment, you might as well. Good hay, sweet hay, as Nick Bottom reminded us one night when the weather report was different, hath no fellow.

But before a backdrop of coppery sky with sun-ball suspended, John S. Johnston’s hand once did close around something that admitted to memory, for a while, a lacework of davits and railings, a haze of coal smoke, and a flag on thick damp cloth flopping in the steady breeze of a passage across time.

Smile, late winter 1916


New York, February 25, 1916: arriving from Chicago a month before he is to perform, the boxer Jess Willard poses at the door of his railroad car. A photographer is waiting for him there, his hod loaded with a charge of flash powder.

Six feet six and a half, Willard is known as “The Pottawotamie Giant.” Having defeated Jack Johnson for the heavyweight title and then declared that he would never again box with a black man, he is also known as “The Great White Hope.” Now, as the powder explodes and fills the underground terminal with whiteness, he smiles. All around him smile other men. Their clothes are less beautiful than his and their bodies are smaller. In this image, the small men are seen to live not for themselves but for the large man. In exchange for themselves, he will offer up his performance for them.

But who are these coming to the sacrifice? Among others, the trainman at the right of the image. When the photographer’s little heap of powdered magnesium was released by a natural force into white light,  it crushed the trainman’s form into two flat dimensions, delineated on or off, glare or darkness. The face has been reduced to an artifact of the flash process. In the glare, its grin is nothing but the trace in the darkness of a tremulous reflex: a retraction of the lips from the teeth, exposing them to reflect more light back to the champion man. As The New York Times will explain the next day, the champion’s life evokes that smiling terror because it is all smile itself: a biology of happy force, the fist striking through its surrounding light direct and unswerving.



About two days before Willard’s train rolled into its tunnel under New York and came to a stop, the Broadway star Yvonne Gouraud was walking through the avenues. A photographer saw the beautifully dressed woman there and took a picture. At that moment, a man behind the woman saw the photographer and smiled.

That smile too was a reflex. Alerting the man as it began at his eyes, the image caused him to respond with his mouth, his suddenly reaching arm, his whole eager body. On a late winter day in 1916, a man in the act of seeing was made happy by the click and glitter that answered a woman’s beauty with the countering beauty of a promised immortality.


The two images come from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Both have been postprocessed; the originals are linked at The negative of the Jess Willard image is marked “Regular 3/3/16”; the negative of the Yvonne Gouraud image is marked “2/23/16.”

The New York Times article, headed “Jess Willard Here; Weighs 260 Pounds,” is in the Times’s online archive for February 26, 1916.