Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.
With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.
The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.
But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:
“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”
Until a moment ago, nothing in this photograph was not wood or mud. But as soon as a man within a wooden box picked up an apparatus shaped like an iron flower, he and it carried each other out of the box and into the pictorial record. The record has changed itself accordingly. For example, it now takes into account a space between boxes where there is newly to be seen a man’s clumsily hemmed suit and a name, Edison, in gold amid the mud.
But the man isn’t going to remain in the light of that temporary setting. His music is waiting for him, and the only place for sound here is off the record, back in the dark of the box. After the man has vacated the photograph he has caused to be made, it will seem once again to signify nothing but wood and mud. But the form that once penetrated the record of that which was to be photographed will have changed it forever. From now on, whatever new light falls on the picture will be seen within the spectral limits of a prior illumination that once made visible the panoply of the man: his wrinkled cloth, leather to be sited on mud, and iron horn.
Leaving the interior of the box and carrying the apparatus into the light to be photographed was the dispositive event. By forcing us to see, it obviated our surmise. Now that we know we have seen a flower with a golden name, we know we can hear its music. The man who carried it toward the mud and the light caused it to change forever from the not yet seen to the soon to be heard.
But the effort has left a blankness in his face. Something previously there has been erased. He will never again stare at the Pacific.
Source: I haven’t found a provenance for this image. A chain of Tumblr and Pinterest reblogs eventually terminated without bibliographical data at a site called vinylespassion.tumblr.com.
I have photoshopped the image for contrast and clarity. Kim Bridges contributed extra post-processing in Nik.
At the Library of Congress’s wonderful National Jukebox site (new last May) I recently discovered this item, “Coming Home from Coney Isle,” by a duo, Ada Jones and Len Spencer, who recorded a whole stack of dialect novelty songs in 1905 and 1906.
When I heard the disdainful “Aw, gee” and the plaintive, “Will I open the window?” I thought, “This sounds just like the dialogue in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets.” Well, it turns out that that was no accident. Your proof: