When the German ocean liner Imperator entered service in 1913, its prow supported an enormous bronze figurehead.
There, with opening wings, an eagle wearing the golden crown of the Holy Roman Empire faced forward to welcome wave-borne destiny. Gripping the world’s orb, he surmounted it, stretching strong eager talons all the way to its equator and impaling his slogan, Mein Feld ist die Welt.
Humbly, crouched, Ozymandias’s servant waited on him with paint.
This poster dates from 1915. In it, beside the artillery insigne on the boxcar belonging to Russia’s Northwest Railroad, a printed word says “Supplies,” and below that a chalk scrawl says “Due,” in the sense of a bill that has to be paid. In that picture and those words, the image illustrates the idea of a weapon being trundled through a snowy landscape toward the completion of its purpose. Like the picture on a banknote, it realizes one of the transactions which it is the business of a government to execute. Below the picture, a caption educationally adds: “War loan, 5½%. The more funds, the more munitions and supplies, the sooner the victory.”
Not long after this edition rolled in its thousands out of a press, a different train delivered Lenin to the Finland Station, and then all those who had trusted that the Czar’s word was his 5½-percent bond lost their investment. Ironic interpretations followed. To the designers whose political labor brought this poster into existence, history was something toward which to roll. It was a future at the end of a line. A century later, we might read the poster differently — for instance, as an allegory of the term “wreck.” According to such an interpretation, wreckage may not be visible on the surface of the poster, but catastrophe always has been implicit in the design.
In Peconic, Long Island, New York, on March 3, 1942, a train collided with a car. At the site where I found this image of the aftermath, someone has taken care to note that the woman driving the car wasn’t injured.
However, matters of life and death aren’t the primary concerns of this page, because it is a picture history of the Long Island Rail Road. Asking us to read images as if we were not living men and women but creatures in a picture, this history deploys its picture archive only to direct our attention away from our lives and toward to a text. In turn, the text enters a strictly numeric register as it chronicles the beginning and end of the little station bearing the name “Peconic”: built, August 1876; torn down, April 1942, just a month after it was pictured with boarded-up windows across the tracks from the damaged automobile. For a moment during that interval, a train with a caboose passed down one of those tracks between the abandoned station and the wrecked car. For the duration of that time, someone in Peconic could have seen in the distance the smoke from the train’s steam engine. Both the caboose (an obsolete piece of rolling stock) and the steam engine (another obsolete piece of rolling stock) are gone now, of course. We’ll never see their like again. But the only thing in this image that can now matter to the text called history is the building’s unpicturable abstract hic jacet: 1876-1942.
The photographer’s name isn’t noted, so I can’t grant to his memory what is due. But as if my word were my bond, I can at least point at the anonymous text appended to a dateless image found in the archive and say:
“Look. The words printed above it say, ‘Woman and girl stand near the train wreck — Lloyd, Florida.’”
The words — either my words or the words I’m now writing about — mean almost nothing. Outside Lloyd, Florida, at some unspecified time during perhaps (to judge from the clothing) the 1940s, they are probably all but lost to the text of history. In the phrase “the train wreck,” the definite article the can’t be read now as anything but a symptom of delusion. The train wreck? What train wreck?
But in the interstices between what the text of history designates as events, it’s still possible for light to fall, and for sight and memory to account for that other, wordless event. So long as we remain near the wreck ourselves, we wordlessly know it.
The image is faded and the communication it records is in a body language which has become slightly foreign. This is a picture of time past.Written at the bottom of the negative, a date faintly prints out in reverse: 11/30/15, I think. In the print, someone’s hand holds the horse still as he poses under the autumn light of 1915. Wearing boots with a labor-intensive shine, someone else stands at attention at the horse’s head, holding a message between gloved thumb and gloved fingers. A third someone has previously groomed the horse’s mane into Afro-braids, and within the chemical milieu of this historical composition the process of decay is now transforming the image of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cape into a snowy Alp. Its massiveness owes itself to the servility busily bustling about its still, steadily cooling flanks.
I open Photoshop and take the white mass in hand. A few mouse clicks later, the passage toward decay has been arrested and the fabric of the Kaiser’s cape has reverted from velvet snow to something rough and gray. Dragged back from the palette of the ethereal and made available to the imagined touch of real fingers, it seems as tangible again as it was on the fall day when it covered a king’s living body. Photoshop seems to have induced us to think we’ve been brought within hearing range of the snap that the Kaiser’s camera made when it generated a fraction of a second’s worth of his recorded history. But of course we don’t carry that thought through to a conclusion in belief, because we know it’s only an aesthetic delusion. It originates categorically with us, and we are categorically excluded from frame 11/30/15. The only thing my labor has accomplished is to have trivialized a work of art. When it was 98 years old, the gray-shaded image of the Kaiser communing with his horse was passing through history toward myth. In my scrubbed and tidied and demythologized version, the image has reverted to the silly thing it was when the shutter closed on it 98 years ago. In restored black and white, with its patina scoured away, it is now only a current event with a date attached. “11/30/15,” says the date, and all that’s left on the page of its significance is the photocaption, “I record an episode of bad taste.” .
Of course there’s nothing original about a feeling of anticlimax in the presence of what remains from history’s transit past the human. Ninety-eight years before a camera went snap at this king, Percy Bysshe Shelley contemplated a similar idol and wrote a moralizingpoliticalsonnet about it whose A rhymes are the words land, sand, and command. Genre convention leads us to expect a fourth rhyme, and Shelley does supply it. It’s hidden under camouflage, however, near the beginning of line 8, and you can’t see it here.
But you can see it here, and in a poetry-free original.
Look. In its image, the idol’s power source is off center and out of focus. Yet as it extends itself in a fist toward its horse, it draws toward it all the concentrating strength of a frowning servitor’s love. We can see why he loves: the fist itself is nothing, but its smooth gloved tumidity is an organ that secretes power into history. Close the hand, then, and make the gesture. This king made the gesture before a camera, and it responded by harmonizing silver halide crystals into a matrix of volume and form, light and shadow. From the camera there then shone forth the death-bringing power of image: that which has been made a part of the desert sand forever, now that the idol’s heart has ceased to move.
In July, the dark summer clouds rolling in from Lake Michigan would have been full of warm rain. But on the flat land beneath them, tiny people in white are moving about in ways that have little to do with the drama overhead. The people in white are forming themselves into a white group before a white arch.
Click to enlarge.
The clouds and the flat land and the dark sky are vast. They have miniaturized and trivialized everything else in the image. An aerial perspective (in 1904, how? from a balloon?) has scaled down the big buildings and broad streets to fit the tiny people. “Welcome home,” say tiny words on the arch, but up there in the sky is something which is not to be engaged on any terms but its own. The clouds communicate only with themselves, and what they communicate is only moving air and light and the water from which they came, to which they will return.
Within its frame, the picture of clouds and land is captioned, “Welcome home of the General Overseer, Rev. John Alex. Dowie. July, 1904. Zion City, Ill.” Outside the frame, a few clicks in Google will construct a context for those words and convert them to a text illustrated by the people and their arch.
Zion City, Google’s texts can tell us, is a small town north of Chicago, now called simply Zion. With its broad boulevards laid out at the beginning of the twentieth century in the form of the Union Jack, it was a fully planned community with an intended population of 200,000: the proposed Vatican of a cult called the Christian Catholic Church. What it actually became you can learn here from the Zion Historical Society.
And about its founder and first ruler, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), you can see and hear a great deal at this site, including three cylinder recordings of Dowie’s voice and a colorized photograph of Dowie, “First Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ,” in the priestly robes of Elijah the Restorer.
These words from outside Zion originate in yet another text: James Joyce’s Ulysses. When the historical John Alexander Dowie passed under his arch into Zion City, there to be overthrown by his followers and to die, he was returning from a tour of the world which took him — in Ulysses, though not in what’s called historical fact — to Dublin, where he passed through the mind of Mr. Leopold Bloom. Searching for Dowie’s words there, the Joycean Kevin McDermott has found them, embalmed them in historical context, and laid them to glorious rest in a cybermausoleum more lasting than any perishable city could ever be under its burden of passing, changing, indifferent cloud.
We clicked Google. It surrounded a photograph with words, but the photograph itself couldn’t be changed back to what it might have been in 1904. A century later, it has become nothing but an artifact. It has faded into its own sepia toning, visually and conceptually. But its visual aspect, at least, can be rejuvenated. All that takes is a few clicks in Photoshop.
The clicks transmute the image’s spectrum. They transfer its tonal range from the pale browns and oxidized-silver grays of a Frederick Henry Evans cathedral over to the glare and muddy green-blacks of a Robert Capa D-Day. Post-Photoshop, these clouds have a different kind of weather to dispense. It still won’t be the weather of 1904, of course. The rain that seems about to fall can no longer be thought of as what Zion City might have expected: a bestowal. Having been photoshopped, the sky over Zion City today is nothing but a formalism: not a manifestation of the presence of God, not even a natural map of regions of air, but only an either-or of black and white.
Those contrasty shades of black and white are on the coat of arms of photojournalism. They seem to tell us that Photoshop can bring history back to life and make it news again. Once more, as if no one need ever die, the sky of 1904 seems current. But under that reborn sky, the triumphal arch of 1904 seems even more ephemeral. The newly victorious sky has reduced it to an irony (“Little did the people of Zion City know . . .”). On them and on what we see now of the great flat land stretching to the horizon, Photoshop has brought down what we might call the Ozymandias Process: “Nothing beside remains.”
Before that moment descended on Zion City, we learn, Zion City’s policemen carried clubs and Bibles and wore badges emblazoned with a picture of a dove and the motto “Patience.” Patiently, let’s close that part of the history of this image and acknowledge that it has forever passed over into the region of sepia, where all will eventually fade to white. No, we’ll never again be able to understand this image. Yes, it is lost now, even as it survives on the page as an incomprehensible artifact. But if that thought comes to us through the agency of a written text, there’s a possibility that our loss may be irreversible but not irremediable. Inside Mr. Bloom’s head, James Joyce’s unillustrated words are still at work, translating the black and white of Zion City into bright color.
I thank Reinhard Friederich for showing me the DVD database Panoramic Cityscape Photo Collection (EURISKOData.com, 2001), where I found the image of Zion City.
Update, July 2, 2013: the image of Zion City was taken by George R. Lawrence (1869-1938), a pioneer aerial photographer who worked first with balloons and then with arrays of large kites, including one seventeen-kite array that lifted a 50-pound camera to an altitude of 2000 feet.