When photography was in its infancy, cameras didn’t have shutters. During the 1840s, when exposure times were measured in minutes, there was no need for a shutter because a second or two plus or minus wouldn’t have any visible effect on the image. Instead of pressing a spring-loaded release, a photographer would only uncap and then recap his lens, keeping an eye on his watch but also on his skylight. What timed the sitting was light dimming and brightening: light as the only live action that the image could record.

But by the 1860s, reaction kinetics were getting faster and photography was entering a new relationship with time. Since a photograph has something of the immediacy of communication of a lyric poem, its relation with time can also take on a relation with language. When the change came to photography, therefore, it did indeed come in the guise of language: by altering and amplifying an old word for a way of being in time. The word was instantaneous. It encouraged its speakers to think of time no longer just as a chronology but also as a clicking apparatus for dissecting, isolating, speaking of and then for the first time experiencing as beginnings and endings the separate realities that once were knowable only as a single current circulating heartbeat by heartbeat around and around a body.


On the high shelf in my closet is something that has happened to travel along with me: a Monopoly set dating from the 1950s. Though I haven’t opened its box in more than half a century, I know that if light ever falls on it again it will look not like a game to be played but a history to be studied. The houses and hotels, I do remember, are made of wood, and the tokens are made of pewter. A part of my sensorium still remembers all those as if by sight and feel and clinking sound. In the box, too, is an instruction sheet bearing rules, and on it are some penciled scores of games played in the 1950s between me and my late younger sister.

In the dark in its box, the childish penciling that I approximately remember retains meaning only for me. If I ever look at it again, it will tell me I am its last reader.

The House of the Seven Gables, chapter 12


Between 1920 and 1991, The Daily News bore on its masthead the words “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Diminished and dying in its second century, the former picture newspaper now publishes almost nothing but words. The images of crime scenes that once made its pages lurid in the dimness of the subway are now only LED cellphone afterthoughts. Online, however, the News’s icon is still a representation of a Speed Graphic, the huge apparatus that the crime-scene photographer Weegee the Famous used in the 1930s and 40s to record the instants when murder blood oozed thick across white pavement and was converted to monochrome black. We can no longer know life as it was before that spectral change; we can only see what happened at the instant Weegee’s magnesium-thread flashbulb stopped the reaction and transformed now to too late. The image that you read as a story is a mere trivial narrative history of what happened outside the camera after that. As it gave the story what looked like the previously latent form of a past, it entered it into the larger invisible history of crimes committed off camera. Read underground then, subjected in the dark to swayings and jostlings, it will nevertheless retain an intelligible connection to a language unchangeable in the light. Its significance won’t die and disappear. Only you will.


Think of your life as a crime. You know it won’t pay, but you want to see how the story will come out. That will happen when the time comes for its words to file off the page in chronological order and march to oblivion.

But the illustrations may stick around for an instant. The possibility remains to be seen. Of course, the seeing won’t be understood. Because understanding is a mortal thing, seeing can never show what you were. Yesterday’s lightfall on silver halide was always gone forever. But because the instant of the lightfall originated with the mechanical click of a shutter, its trace can remain when mortal memory is gone. It can’t show what you were, but it must show that you were. The instantaneous process cut away and discarded everything except that. It’s a cold lifeless remainder, but it’s an ever after. It was “obtained in a fractional part of a second of time,” too.

A spark of light inaccessible

Background in the dark: Anna Sewell’s 1877 horse story got its title from this poem by Edward Herbert which was first published in 1665. As you see, its subject is the philosophical beauty of the idea of blackness: the one reality (you could call it death) that remains after color (you could call that life) goes dark.

A historical technicality is that in the seventeenth century the word inaccessible was pronounced “in-AC-sess-EEBLE,” as if in French. In the last two lines, “alone our darkness” means “only our ignorance.”

And a Metaphysical witticism is that although this sonnet’s prosody follows the form’s conventional division into two verse paragraphs rhyming in an 8 + 6 pattern, the idea expressed by the paragraphs is inverted, black to white and white to black, into a negative whose dimensions are 6 + 8. Read that way, lines 1 through 6 say, “Black beauty,” and lines 7 through 14 complete the predicate by saying, “what you are is the one eternal thing.”

Setting forth in black and white

Pre-footnote in prose: in 1609, when Thomas Thorpe published the first collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the word “adventurer” could mean “investor” (as in the current term “venture capital”) and “setting forth” could mean “publishing.” In 1620, the year of the Mayflower,  the investors who financed the voyage referred to themselves in prosaic business English as Plymouth adventurers, and whatever you may find exciting about the title of this 1952 movie is an anachronism.

In business English, the only uncertainty about the meaning of the dedication where Thorpe applies the terms “adventurer” and “setting forth” to himself and his business is in a term for which the text and the library haven’t yet provided glosses. Who is Mr. W. H.? One of these centuries, an archive may open up those initials into full words, and then one of scholarship’s useful prosy tasks will be finished.

But trying to write “The End” at the ends of the open-ended terms “immortality” and “ever-living” will be a different task for meaning. And about the Thorpe text’s syntax and typography there will remain other meanings to think of and say — but what can they be, and how can they be articulated in words?


Look below, for instance. The only words that apply to this being are “eat” and “sleep,” and those words are purely external to him. Because he awakens into a world without meanings that can be expressed in words, he doesn’t think of his awakenings as (for instance) adventures. Because such words originate only with us readers, they can never be intrinsic to him and they can never fully communicate what he is.



Yet as a form seen from without, he evokes a formal meaning. It isn’t expressible in words, but it has a metaphoric typography. To us who can read, it is capable of attaching a literal extension to the figurative term “setting forth.” And at dawn, what is seen without words becomes a black-and-white typography. With the coming of light, a being seen and then played around with and given a name, such as “chiaroscuro,” becomes an only begetter. Realized into words in black and white, it sets forth a text that you begin to know as you begin to see.

He looks out the archive window. On the other side of the glass are warmth and noise and life.

In the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection,

this picture of embarkation on a pilgrimage from New York is dated May 1909. That’s the date of filing in the collection, not the date when the photograph was taken.


But if we assume that the pilgrims are Roman Catholic, a plausible motivation for their excited setting forth in 1909 might be the impending beatification of Joan of Arc in Rome on April 18. A month after that, Blessed Joan’s elevation was to be remembered to American history through a page in the New York Times’s Sunday rotogravure section, but here, even before the beginning, the ecclesiology of the event manifests itself to New York as a procession up a plank to a swirl of happy bodies congregating itself beautifully in the sun.

May 23, 1909. Page number in this section, 11. Cumulative page number, 51.

But the pilgrims’ happy expressions and stripped-down garb don’t originate just in ecclesiology; they also express a physiology and a meteorology. According to the databases available online from the National Centers for Environmental Information,

during the first half of April 1909, New York experienced one warm, sunny surprise of a day: April 7, when no precipitation fell and the temperature ascended to 73. After New York’s long winter, the men and women treading Cunard Lines’ gangway in spring’s new measure must have felt themselves to be in a state perennial but always fearfully despaired of until the happy beginning:

perced to the roote.

Now take that date from one part of the archive, carry it over to another carrel, and yes! see:

The Sun, 7 April 1909, page 10

It isn’t a definite confirmation, but in this image of Lucania you can see, alongside the bulwark just forward of the mainmast, a tall skinny white ventilation funnel very much like the one that stands stockstill amid the image of pilgrims in confined motion.

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As soon we’ve noticed that, the archive will finish writing the historical text for us. The process will be automatic; we won’t even have to leave the building for a breath of air. Lucania’s voyage of April 7, 1909, Wikipedia informs us, would have been one of her last. Built in 1893 and obsolete by 1909, she was laid up in July of that year, then was damaged by fire in August and scrapped.

Which is to say that we and the archive seem to have achieved a tiny historiography. Starting only with an image bearing a cryptic inscription, we have established what may be a date and a physical context. We could proceed from there to (for one possible instance among many) a history of Cunard Lines’ shipboard class structure, which (it will turn out) has something to do in the image with those beautifully shined shoes on the men and those beautifully ironed dresses on the women. If you could take weeks off for God’s sake in 1909, you had servants.

But the invisible servants’ visible masters and mistresses, as depicted? They remain wholly apart from us on their own side of the archive’s windowpane: smiling on their deck, speaking to one another in a language whose words are now not just indecipherable within their necessarily incomplete historical context (because the servants who help them live are invisible) but incomprehensible on their far side of mortality. A woman like a pillar with a dust ruffle, a man with a pencil mustache like a scar: we lack a language to ask of those traces of being how they can ever have been what they now forever are.


And off in a corner a young woman leaning close to see and hear and perhaps sympathize with an old woman whose veil hides her face and whose glittering glasses deflect our own light back to us:


But the old woman’s mouth is closed. The tale she is seen not to be telling is a poem in a book closed to us. We’re in an archive full of other books, openable ones, but they aren’t helping. We seem not to have learned to read after all.


“Departure of pilgrims to Rome, crowd at boat docks, New York,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress,

“S.S. Lucania, July 28, 1894,” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress,

All images post-processed in Photoshop.