That June morning in 1903, the rain that fell overnight had let up. The green of the leaves and their smell can still almost be sensed. The academic gowns, too, are a fashion that hasn’t changed between 1903 and now. In their photograph they drape the passage of time in black.
But at some time between 1903 and now there occurred a break in the photograph’s glass negative, and when we look through the break we see nothing. What remains unbroken in the image is what photographers two or three decades years earlier would have called an instantaneous. By 1903, however, advances in photographic technology had made that noun (“the name of a person, place, or thing”) redundant. By 1903, everything seen could be seen at will to be in passage, instant by instant. It no longer had to be anything nameable. Whatever it was as it passed, it passed into oblivion. The function of the instantaneous shutter could now be seen to be a breaking off.
But in the part where the glass was unbroken, the passage across the glass could also be imagined as a returning with the seasons, passing away but recurring like rain on sidewalks or sun warming black gowns. And yes, you see: the piper who played io paean is still playing. Motion-blurred in his image against sharply focused ashlar and bark, right foot down and left foot up, he dances away (at least for now) from the break.
About my post “Embrace your inner Red,” which consists only of a photograph, a comment spammer’s script generates this.
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The image that comes to your mind will be better than any mere physical JPEG. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.
Literary theorists call the depiction of depiction mise en abyme, taking the term from heraldry’s coats of arms nested within coats of arms.
Graphic designers call it the Droste Effect, after a brand of chocolate.
Droste iterations don’t just lock themselves into their series; they lock in our vision too. They impose on us a task that can’t be completed: the task of seeing them. The little girl spilling the canister of Morton Salt on the canister of Morton Salt changes her clothes over the years, but (despite the coyly evasive caption of this advertisement from 1968) she will never be able to carry the change to completion and become a woman.
As we begin to think we understand the paradox, we ourselves do change — but we change only into Keatses at the wedding feast of the still unravished bride. There at the feast, looking up from the table to catch the eye of Droste’s nursing sister, we may go roguish and ask her, “What is in your tin” — but the moment we get that far, we become conscious of having learned something scary about the limits of our ability to express. Actually, strictly speaking (the nun’s ruler comes down with a whack), what we have just thought isn’t yet ready, never will be ready, to be punctuated with a question mark. It hasn’t become a question because a question entails a terminally punctuated answer, and the series “What is in your tin is in your tin is in your tin . . .” is not that, whatever else it may be.
Now look at this other picture of a picture. It’s a nineteenth-century photograph of the kind called a tintype: a direct-positive image that registers on the eye by reflection from the photoreduced silver in an emulsion laid down on a sheet of black-painted metal. Tintypes were generally of low contrast and low quality, but they were popular as keepsakes because they were inexpensive. At the cost only of a small investment, they got busy on their return by helping memory work.
Backed up against her own layer of tin, Sister Droste does the same thing, and furthermore she advances toward memory unprotected by any frontal armor. By contrast, the low-contrast man in the tintype evades direct perception because he is enclosed in a case with a glass front. Between him and us is his pane.
At the Library of Congress, this compendium of things to sense (tin and cardboard and velvet and glass and pigment enclosing an image enclosing tin and cardboard and velvet and glass and pigment) has been compiled under a single archival title, but the title’s first word is “Unidentified.” More title words follow, identifying clues like the flag in the background and the oddly buttoned jacket, and eventually a full-length caption develops: “Unidentified soldier in Union Zouave uniform with cased photograph in front of American flag backdrop.” You can learn the meaning of the term “Zouave” from a military dictionary, and it may also be useful to understand that the Library acquired the image (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013650144/; I’ve photoshopped it) as part of the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Such information is limited, yes, but limits are educational too. They let us frame what we know and separate it from the unidentified.
But within this particular frame the word “unidentified” prevents a Droste series from beginning because it precludes us from conceptualizing the enclosed images as a formal unity. Having been named with a word (“Unidentified”), the images now enter our minds as words: words approaching us not the way images do, in simultaneity, but as texts do, one by one, in a sequence whose constituents may or may not be related to one another. The soldier in the photograph may or may not be holding a photograph of himself, but we’ll never know. The cup of Droste will pass from us.
But whatever the soldier is holding now, at the moment of our perception, he holds it up to the pane that separates him from us. On our side of the pane, at this very instant, in bathrooms all over the world, people are busily acting out a belief that holding a cellphone up to a mirror will teach the cosmos what the word “self” means. But on the far side of the soldier’s unreflecting little slip of antique glass, Narcissus himself has gone invisible. One tantalizing moment after a hand behind the pane has beckoned to us, the pane goes unbreakable and the unidentified All behind the pane goes permanent.
Or, as Keats put it in a little shard of a poem that he didn’t get to protect from touch behind glass before he died:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.
On September 27, 1901, the New-York Tribune’s front page headlines opened themselves to readers chastely, in a font that seemed to connote a paired purity of sight and thought. If this above-the-fold item, for instance, had been mediated for reading by a didactic font like Comic Sans, it might feel unfinished in the absence of a terminating exclamation mark. The readers on whom Comic Sans has its designs are the kind of readers who need to be guided toward what they ought to feel.But as of 1901 the Tribune’s headlines were in a neoclassicizing font designed in 1798 by Giambattista Bodoni, and when the muse of journalism displayed herself garbed in Bodoni’s upright verticals and delicate serifs, she became a Canova nymph, all whiteness and purity around armatures of the cleanest black.
On this particular page, another pure Bodoni headline is accompanied by an equally pure photograph of the two yachts then racing for the America’s Cup. The photograph, however, derives its form from a different geometry. There, set off by Bodoni’s contrasting orthogonals, the British Shamrock and the American Columbia curve along diagonals laid out for them not by the logics of grammar or the copybooks of typography but by a wordless wind.
In the event which Bodoni proceeded to enter in the historical record on September 27, the wind died and the race ended without a winner. But after the wind revived, one more photograph signifying velocity by means of curvature was published in a different, Bodoni-free medium. It looked like this.
On behalf of the record book, the caption in the photograph’s lower margin carries out language’s task of exposition and explanation. It is printed a little crooked, but here that doesn’t matter. Even if it were straight, sight and understanding wouldn’t want to remain within its bounds for an instant longer than the necessary minimum. Along the margin, sight and understanding and all the rest of our powers come together, wanting in unison to stop reading, look back upward, and resume their flight toward seeing. There, waiting in the upward to be seen, is what we think we are beginning to love: this curved body in intimate contact with the water and the sky of our world, our own answering body.
The body’s image is black and white, but it evokes a content we understand to be in color. Forty-six years before the photograph was taken, Walt Whitman explained to us why that is. Look how motion travels through time and then comes to rest as color, said Whitman.
The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in.
In a new, permanent, Bodoni black and white, the maroon bar in its spread of purity has returned. It stands as an exception to the rule of body’s death. In the archive of words printed in black on white, its tint lives ever after.
Columbia was the property of J. P. Morgan, a pragmatically imaginative man who is alleged to have said about the cost of owning a yacht, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Walt Whitman, who was poor all his life, couldn’t afford it. But in 1855 he did give this form from 1901 one of the names through which we can come to understand it: the name purity. There in the photograph are Whitman’s cloud and pure light. There too, in the bronze hull conceived and formed by the naval architect Nathanael Herreshoff, one curve at the bow poses the idea of forward in the infinitesimal just before motion begins, while at the stern another curve mimes a girl throwing her legs backward behind her as she runs.
Of course this large-crewed sailing craft and its governing geometries of wave and sky and running are obsolete now, and of course time has updated them. In 2015, for example, another New York headline gave warning of changing weather over the yacht harbor. “Volatility Is Prompting Hedge Funds To Close,” said the bulletin. The body of the story then went into barometric detail about a special and beautiful sense of the verb close. Within the curved hull of the hedgy episteme, as it turns out, close no longer has to mean end or die. Closed, the hedge funds will merely ascend in their function from serving investors to serving the money that the now vanished investors have left behind. What gives the closed funds their newly perennial life is a preparation of the if-you-have-to-ask that has been reacted all the way to fully theoretical completion. J. P. Morgan, in his youth an excellent mathematician who could extract cube roots in his head, would entirely have approved the change from the impurity of life in the world of men to the purity of death in the idea of money.
In sunset-colored Bodoni, then, let us pay homage to those in the yacht harbor who have been changed. Speaking through the mouth of one of its hedgy oracles, change now teaches us this about its purpose in the universe.
Purity, say transformation’s pink words to themselves. Whitman’s cloud and Nathanael Herreshoff’s hull geometry weren’t pure enough. They were accessible only by means of the senses, of the changing, dying body. By contrast, the hedge fund’s one-man contemplative order subserves nothing that is not unchanging. In that sense of the term classical, it is as classical as Bodoni’s font, or as the Grecian urn which once explained to Keats, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” If we’re to admit the imperfect to our own contemplation, we’ll have to notice at first that the pink hedgewords floating above these black words of my own do seem to look ugly. But looks are precisely what purity is not about. The purity of speculative contemplation is a purity which has transcended the bodily function of seeing. It is a pink idea that has gone fully and perfectly invisible. It will never again have to tint the vapor of a mere physical cloud at sunset.
The newspaper article from 2015 is Alexandra Stevenson, “Volatility Is Prompting Hedge Funds to Close,” New York Times 18 May 2015: B1-2 (print). The name of the hedge-fund contemplative is Gideon King.
What am I reading here? Some history. I can place the document in that genre because it explains and is explained by its date of composition: April 1942. Off the page, history has already taught me that April 1942 has something to do with the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, and I accordingly think I understand what the words on the page mean when they say: “Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of the Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American children waiting for a train to take them and their parents to Owens Valley.”
That timestamped and circumstantial text isn’t only a history, of course. It’s also a literature. Shaped by narrative convention, it belongs to the literary genre of the caption — specifically, the caption to this photograph by Russell Lee in the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information archive at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998003537/PP/.
Because a caption has an explanatory power over its attached image, its words make the image in some sort verbal. They make it tell a story. From this historical era, for example, there exist similar photographs taken in other theaters of World War II, and our reaction to any of them will be, so to speak, captional. If the caption tells us of a Japanese baby being evacuated from Los Angeles, we’ll react one way; if the caption tells us of a Chinese baby being evacuated from Nanking, we’ll react another. Likewise, as of August 2014 I think most of my academic colleagues would react with sympathy if a caption told them that the image were of a Palestinian baby, but with exasperation if an editor then corrected the caption’s adjective “Palestinian” to read “Israeli.”
It’s been a long time since a news photo could be thought of as intelligible on its own terms, of course. A century ago, not long after Freud taught us how hard it is in principle to know what we’re seeing, Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that in practice we can’t even see the difference between a dead baby and a bowl of soup. In Kuleshov’s experiment, a movie clip — one clip, only — showed an actor going through the physical correlates of emotion. A montage of that clip with some ostensible stimuli of emotion then made clear that any imputed sense of emotion, of emotion about an ostensible stimulus, was demonstrably nothing but an artifact of the montage effect. Juxtaposed with the image of the baby, the actor’s mobile features and heaving chest seemed to mean one thing; juxtaposed with the image of the soup, they seemed to mean something else. We might have thought they expressed feeling, but In themselves they were nothing but mobility and heaving. Whatever emotion we derived from them was an illusion. We were misled by our expectation of a caption to read. But from the belated realization that Kuleshov’s tiny silent movie is captionless there follows a happy ending. To learn that one is free from captions is to learn to be free from other things as well.
Therefore, face to face with an image that has been captioned, I find myself wondering whether I can do something in the captional space above the border where the caption’s words begin. Wondering, I open Photoshop and set about trying to change the non-verbal part of this historical record. Timidly, at the start, I may tell myself and you that I’m only restoring the captioned image, only using modern narrative technique to put an illustrated story — a children’s book, a picture book! — back together. But of course what Photoshop and I are doing to this ensemble of words and non-verbal forms isn’t merely a historiographic revision. Photoshop and I aren’t doing history now; we have subordinated ourselves to a corpus of aesthetic principles that have nothing to do with Los Angeles or trains or 1942. Our project has been taken over by art. So:
And you see: I have not merely restored the record or corrected it. I have (as editors used to say in the days of Thomas Bowdler, he of the verb bowdlerize) improved it. See how much more tragic than Russell Lee’s original my little girl is, hear how much more clearly we can say “Little does she know” about her! How satisfyingly pretty I have made this children’s story!
Because it’s open to the possibility of an aesthetic judgment like that one, my version of Russell Lee’s photograph is no longer quite a historical document. It can now be read without its caption, as if it were in the process of growing distant from the history of events. It’s no longer merely captional. If it isn’t yet art, it may at least be art history. Because the space around the little girl has now been filled with art, her mother has now been barred forever from entering the image frame to reroll her daughter’s cuff. Because art always has a completion function, the caption below this image has now been translated into a dead language and made emotionally unreadable on any terms but art’s. The little girl’s picture can now say only the one thing art ever can say about itself: The End. Waiting for a train which can now never arrive to transport her out of the image, holding the doll which she now will never outgrow, the little girl has become an unravished bride of quietness.
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.
“Hi, this is Steve,” said the voice on the phone. “How are you?” The voice was a breathy basso and the intonation oozed with benevolence. A few seconds after that, Steve revealed that he was calling to offer me a reverse mortgage and I realized that Steve was an interactive audio file.
A cynosure of the international art world in the first decade of this century was the American artist Dash Snow (1981-2009). A member of the princely Menil family of art patrons, Dash devoted his life as an artist to wearing hats, vandalizing hotel rooms, and not much else. But he was also an almost unbelievably handsome young man, with waist-length blond hair and a really big trust fund, and he took tens of thousands of Polaroids of the life his Dionysiac force created around him. Most of these images are of people being drunk or drugged.
you can see an elegiac interview about that event with a gallerista who fondly remembers the fun she unfailingly experienced when Dash was in the room. Even as a little boy, the gallerista recalls, Dash was a nonstop source of creative energy: throwing things, smashing things, and setting fires until the very moment he was sent off to reform school. After a while, the interviewer cuts the conversation short and abruptly leaves the room. It’s time, he explains to the gallerista, for him to pick up his little boy.
you can see Dash in extreme closeup with cigarette, aetatis suae XXIV. If he had lived, he would have looked like Mitch McConnell by the time he was 40. But art, even Dash’s art, admits you to an interior zone from which the human reaches out toward immortality. Back from the immortal, in this case, come a couple of sentences’ worth of Dashtalk: “I don’t believe in the laws or the system by any means whatsoever. I try not to obey them at any time.”
The words are just phatic sound, of course, like Steve’s “How are you?” They might as well be the clay language of a Grecian urn, stilled into perdurable ceramic. Yet when the speaker fills his lungs with smoke and speaks the words to the video track, he looks as real as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Dash-in-the-Polaroid doesn’t believe in the laws. He thinks of what he does generally, in the abstract. (The drugs probably have something to do with that.) Steve-in-the-computer doesn’t believe only in the Do Not Call List. He thinks of what he does in a focused pragmatic way, with the help of lawyers who edit his script and computer programmers who help him speak it. Dash represents inhuman art. Steve represents the humanity of the hucksters who ascribe a value to art.
At the end of The Bacchae, Dionysus destroys first those who didn’t worship him and then those who did. Look at this image and discuss.
show the current Republican candidates for President and Vice President campaigning and fund-raising in New England and Long Island. One hundred percent of the people in every photograph are white.
But in one of the photographs (by Lauren Fleishman) the personnel have become invisible. Their traces exist only outside the image frame. A moment prior to the image’s time, something human, perhaps even something unwhite, created its composition and then removed itself. Alone before the composition now, we see a still life of an airplane’s tray table in repose. Resting upon it are a plastic plate in green and yellow imitation wicker, a white napkin on which rests a single chocolate chip cookie, and a transparent plastic cup of milk. As the beloved hymn of the party of the War on Christmas says,
All is calm, all is bright.
Like a tag on a toe in a morgue, a caption informs us that the cookie is still warm. When old age shall this generation waste, it will remain.
Malevich, just think how much greater an artist you might have been if you had only owned a dacha in East Hampton!
Sources: Emily Dickinson, “Publication is the auction” (Fr788) and Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White. Click to enlarge.