Nataraj with his corps

Having been produced for a news agency, this photograph had a verbal meaning in advance. Even before it was a latent image on a glass plate, it always and only signified what the words written on the plate afterward were intended all along to say. “Checking loads of snow,” the words said to themselves, and then to posterity they added, “N.Y. Jan. ’08.” From the beginning, from the moment the horses were seen with the intent of being experienced editorially, their image meant and meant only checking. Checking, said the verbal construction to itself and to posterity; checking, not treading; checking, not dancing. As we look at checking we are to experience by evocation a crunch of wheels through snow and a jingle of harness, not the pattering of Shiva’s finger drum.

See. All is shovel and plod, all is gray.

00031uA1As of the beginning of 1908, the gray horses in their gray snow were ordinary. They were to be taken in immediately, without registering on the senses, like the “understood” words “Every driver must” that aren’t written on a stop sign. Nobody within this image can be heard saying, “Dance” or “Breathe” or “Be” or “Cold” or “White.” As of January 1908, the horses and the man were not significant. They were only real.

And now they are only a history, and (depending on whether you count “N.Y.” as one term or two) that history is restricted to a vocabulary of only seven or eight words. Horses and man and snow seem to have passed from an uncomprehended past to a merely textual present. Along the way their historical existence vanished without ever having been vouchsafed a meaning as such. If that had existed, it would have been a meaning not delimited by words, contained solely within itself, forever. But on the evidence, it seems not to have existed.

But if the transit of twilight across the snow could be reversed, and then if the text of the history of checking could be covered over by a silent whiteness?

The image is in our hands, and we possess a technology for opening it to a not yet read chapter. Look in, then, and see: the dancer comes, as he always comes. His step toward us is that which communicates again and never not and forever.

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Eyes cast down in love toward his earth, he dances. Behind him come dancing the hooves of his corps de ballet. They are seen now as such, and as it turns out they always were. They are now to be seen forever in their snow. That is what they always have meant. Step by step, forever, they are going to teach us dance.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014680030/.

 

Zero speed, illustrated

Illustration 1. The paddle wheels of the steamer Boadicea are turning in reverse, holding the boat steady alongside its wharf by countering the flow of the Thames past Lambeth Palace. In the vocabulary of navigation, this is called maintaining zero speed. The white water churning forward along the sides of the boat is a wake generated by imposing stillness on the river. This Photochrom postcard dates from the 1890s, but the natural history underlying its image of turbulent energy is timeless. It has nothing to do with the kind of history that gives itself names like “Boadicea” or “anno domini.”

Illustration 2. A recurring image in the films of Fellini is the procession of people moving in parallel at different speeds. In 1973 Fellini staged it for his memory treatise Amarcord as a ritual dance toward the sea. There, actors moving like meridians across a globe walked and drove across a stage toward imagined water to bring an imagined episode from 1933 back to the life of memory. Recorded then by a camera at Cinecittà, the movement through the space of Fellini’s Rimini became the dance of Nataraj against natural law: the dance that says to its dancer, “If you can become as beautiful in your motion as I am, if you can become nothing but a moving geometry, you won’t, during the second it takes you to step with me into the air, have to die. You will take on a name, and the name will endure as the shape of a wave endures.” To see the dance perform itself for 35 seconds and then end, click this link.

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Illustration 3.

About fifty years after the episode of the current in the Thames and about eight years after the imagined transit of the Rex past Rimini, an image within Edwin Rosskam’s camera slipped and went crooked but recovered itself. The film advance mechanism’s sprockets took out a few inches of a street that once existed, and so those few inches are now gone. Everywhere else within the image, however, everything remains. Pictured in a surround of trash, a man’s sneakered foot and swinging arm have been translated into an idea in words that we could name something like “Stride.”

But Stride has other names. In 1941 he was given one of his other names by Arthur Rosskam himself, and then some time later that name was certificated in more words by the Library of Congress. “Untitled photo,” say the Library’s words-for-the-record, and then they make Rosskam’s name for Stride into a citation: “Possibly related to: Lunch wagon for Negroes, Chicago, Illinois.” After consultation with Rosskam’s contact sheet and notebook, the Library also wrote a birth certificate for Stride (“1941 Apr.”), and filed it in a bibliography named “Collection: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.”

But how the meanings of all that conservatorship have changed since 1941! “Lunch wagon” was wheelless in 1941, and it called its pieces of pie “Homade.” In a “home” in Chicago in 1941, says “Homade,” there worked a “Negro” with a “rolling pin.” Can you begin to visualize a lived meaning for that sentence? Or even for the single word “for,” as it exists in this record in relation to the word “Negroes”? The words have gone strange. Only the sprocket holes along the top and bottom of the conserved image still signify unambiguously, and all they ever have signified is the trace of a vanished action. Somewhere on the exterior of a camera, say the sprocket holes, Arthur Rosskam’s thumb and its musculature were once at work on a mechanism. The interior of the camera, which Rosskam once filled with the light of something he thought he had seen, is much darker now than it seemed in 1941.

But perhaps, if the promise once made to nature and its body of laws by the Lord of the Dance is to be kept, we may yet learn to read the wordlessness of the dance called Stride. For now, at any rate, it does survive: on a page, the trace of an arm and a leg moving through space and vanished time, in white and black.

Sources:

The image of Lambeth Palace is in the Photochrom Print Collection at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002696926/

The image related to “Lunch wagon for Negroes” is at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997015799/PP/

A Photoshopped print is available at http://www.shorpy.com/node/15270