Background: anonymous Vorticist drawing, 1916.
Background: anonymous Vorticist drawing, 1916.
The provenance of this stereophotograph of the World War II Japanese battleship Musashi isn’t indicated online, but a lot of its art history is preloaded. The shell-deflecting curves of the ship’s armor, for instance, are prominent in its image for reasons having to to with the history of Art Deco, and the camera’s heroic angle, gazing raptly upward, was probably designed in the studio of Alexander Rodchenko, artist of the totalitarian. Then too there is the matter of the photograph’s dramatically dark tones, which were probably generated in-camera by a red filter.
In the eye, then, per design, the twinned Musashi artworks, one image for the left eye and one for the right, are massed and ungraspable and black. Blocking out the light, they push together into your senses, take control, and merge into a single black ingot. After that, the ingot is no longer something capable of being seen, in the light, from without. It has become the material for a stamping mill broaching darkness within.
Forty years earlier, a different ship in a different world looked as innocent as a maiden as it struck a happy pose and waved its flags with both hands. The ship was wearing white, too, and the camera was looking down at it as if it were little. I can imagine Musashi having been photographed by a professionally adoring, professionally upward-gazing modernist woman like Margaret Bourke-White or Leni Riefenstahl, but the idea of a happy little boat seems to have brought out something protectively chivalric in Messrs. Underwood and Underwood’s cameragentleman.
But the happy little boat happened to be another battleship, with a battleship’s single purpose. Guns got bigger and armor got thicker in the course of the battleship’s half-century of naval dominance, but from the beginning of the era to the end, the corpses floating in each successive wake followed only one model of naked form. If the older corpses seem somehow simpler than the more recent ones, that’s only because more of their historical detail has been eaten by the fish.
This believing in an illusion of simplicity is an ordinary error committed by beginners at living in time. Because we were once younger and more ignorant than we are now, we think the world was younger and more ignorant too. But in these two particular artworks, the error can be corrected by a simple trip to the eye doctor. The corrective process isn’t just good for us, either; it’s also educational.
Go ahead with it, then. To begin the process of correction, assemble each stereo pair into an anaglyph. Then bring the two anaglyphs into juxtaposition. This formal art-maneuver will reduce the historical distances between the two images — distances across time, distances between democracy and fascism — to almost nothing. After that, with history controlled for and minimized, there will be little for the eye to do except see.
Once they’ve been brought together at a single moment, the two images from different times will simplify to a single timeless idea. It will be what the two otherwise different battleship images have in common: a battleship idea, the idea of that which is death-dealing. Having been subsumed into a general idea of the death-dealing, each separate death-dealing image can shed its distracting photographic artifacts of (on the one hand) black and (on the other) white. The polychrome stains of life and death will then become imaginable again, and after that we’ll need to do just one more eye exercise.
It will be this. To see the colors as they were before they became a part of history’s blacks and whites, we will only have to unlearn the way of seeing that we once learned from a block of black steel.
Online, I’ve been able to find the image of Musashi only in an otherwise unidentified list of World War II photographs. The image of Wisconsin is at the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, http://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/wisconsin-bb-9/NH-100334-A.html. I’ve photoshopped it for contrast. The anaglyphs require a red-and-blue stereo viewer.
Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/dc0362.photos.027542p/. Photoshopped.
Source: “Track elevating at grade crossing, Joliet, Ill,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001636/PP/. Photoshopped.
A century later, the image in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection has gone humorous, the way items remembered after oblivion sometimes do. This item stimulates us neither to nostalgia nor to tragedy nor, thanks to the costume’s baggy knees, to the thought of eheu fugaces labuntur anni. The name “Hydroaeromaid” is comical too, with its philological odor of a tavern by a school during the Georgian era (“Ho, maid! Bring me a tankard of nut-brown ale whilst I construe me lines!”). * And so, looking at the image brought back to light, we laugh.
And because the light has been merciful and faded out some of the details, we photoshop. We wield the controls in the spirit of the post-Georgian nymph Dorothy Parker, who wouldn’t have been caught dead with baggy knees.
But long after the era of Dorothy Parker has passed, the girl in the image is still standing on her chair. What would she be now? What was she then, out of the uniform that was once fitted onto her by comedy in one of its sergeant-major moods? If we looked at her in a different way through Photoshop, would we be able to think of her now not as a what but as a who?
And then the image comes to me of an airplane seen at morning in a novel written just after the Georgian era, when the sight of an airplane was still something new: Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of Mrs. Dalloway it is nighttime, and in 1923, the year Mrs. Dalloway was published, airplanes generally weren’t flown after dark. But Mrs. Dalloway has returned home and changed her clothes, and the book’s last sentence ascends from the light of its page like an image newly revealed after a long darkness:
“For there she was.”
* Or, since the flag in the picture is American, of Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale (serial publication 1911, publication as a novel 1912), whose hero fills his days quantum sufficit playing football, doing Latin, and adjourning to Morey’s for a toby of musty.
Update: from a pair of notes by Art Siegel at https://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/14440864879/ we learn that the model is named Pearl Palmer and she is posing for a trophy. Mr. Siegel also links to a not very clear contemporary photograph of the trophy, and the New York Tribune published this note about it on August 20, 1916, p. 13.
Source: New York Public Library, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?strucID=1018347&imageID=1541737. Photoshopped.
“I had occasion, repeatedly, to find the Pennsylvania Railroad a beguiling and predisposing influence — in relation to various objectives, and indeed I quite lost myself in the singularity of this effect, which existed for me, certainly, only in that connection, touching me with a strange and most agreeable sense that the great line in question, an institution with a style and allure of its own, is not, even the world over, as other railroads are. It absolutely, with a little frequentation, affected me as better or higher than its office or function, and almost as supplying one with a mode of life intrinsically superior; as if it ought really to be on its way to much grander and more charming places than any that happen to mark its course — as if, indeed, should one persistently keep one’s seat, not getting out anywhere, it would in the end carry one to some such ideal city.”
— Henry James, The American Scene, chapter 9
Photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Carl Van Vechten