Photohistory, illuminated: resisting fingerprints and fungus, a part of her memory continues standing guard

“Berlin night watch.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014700104/. Contrast and detail restored. The Library dates this photograph to 1914 or 1915 — that is, the Great War — but the date written on the negative in the upper left corner, probably Bain’s filing date, is prewar: “10/19/12.”

 

The abstract term “infrastructure” vs. the days of 1917

“Subway porter,” 1917. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014704920/. Edited in Photoshop with Nik Dark Contrast adjustment.

By the exit from a crossroads one day in 1917 there stood no. 3594, underground in her clean blouse and her necklace. In 1917 she was accessorized with a name as well, but by now that has probably been erased from the record you’re seeing.

You may desire to say something self-assuring like “Nevertheless, I won’t forget no. 3594’s act of cleanness in the dark.” But since you know what has probably happened to no. 3594’s name, you probably shouldn’t. Just try to see without memory. Whatever memory is, it no longer has power over what remains to be seen of no. 3594.

Smiling ascent: allegory of the unconsciousness of progress

On October 19, 1915, Woodrow Wilson traveled to his political base in Princeton to cast his vote on the historical record for the Woman Suffrage Amendment, and a photographer for the Bain News Service was present as the president boarded his train for the return trip to Washington. The leather carrying case that held the photographer’s glass negatives remains visible to history, hanging by its strap from a spike on a telegraph pole. For aesthetic reasons, however, I’ve edited it and the pole out of the version of the photographer’s record that you see here. What I desired was this ascending diagonal with a possibly triumphant smile toward the apex. That allegorical moment, I decided, would be more fun to see than any ill-comprehended antique.

The uncropped, unphotoshopped original is in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014700108/.

Wilson had begun his political career there in Princeton: first as a professor of history at the university, then as its president, then as governor of New Jersey. But (as history in the twenty-first century is now re-reminding us) as president of the United States he was a Southerner presiding over a cabinet full of Southerners, and on February 18, 1915, he was in the audience when, for the first time in history, a movie was shown in the White House: David Wark Griffith’s history-hymn to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation. Earlier, at Princeton, he had presided over an erasure from the historical record of evidence that the university had once had black students.

On the visual record, a century later, you see the faces of two black men in servants’ white jackets. One of them, the one on your right, may or may not be about to start or finish smiling. Princeton University was to admit and acknowledge black men before it admitted or acknowledged women.

 

Source: April C. Armstrong, “Erased Pasts and Altered Legacies: Princeton’s First African American Students.” Princeton & Slavery Project, Princeton University, 2020. https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/erased-pasts-and-altered-legacies-princetons-first-african-american-students

Glassy

Mirror and bowl. Window communicating light to an interior and lens collecting light across an exterior. Contemplative light and active light; sphere and separate sphere. Hand, reaching across; hands at the opposite edge, in pockets; hands, holding braced against the body in the middle an apparatus for seeing out that does not see in.

 

(Parmigianino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” about 1524, and “Two men in high silk hats, one with Kodak camera, on the White House grounds, Washington, D.C.,” April 22, 1889. The photographer’s name was Painter. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures /item/2002723173/.)

A social medium

On its online Library of Congress page, this photograph is dated July 1939, titled “Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” and indexed under “segregation.”

https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017740552/

If you’re less than 30 years old, the time may have come for you to learn formally that the frieze at the top and bottom of this print is the pattern of sprocket holes along the edges of a roll of 35-millimeter film. The negatives produced by that phototechnology were tiny, just 24 millimeters in one dimension and ordinarily 36 mm in the other, and in the absence of any electronics their resolution couldn’t be high. So the sense communicated most immediately by this photograph is something not visual (say, its composition of forms) but historiographic — that is, the word “Colored.” That word evokes emotion, but the emotion is word-based and its word-based non-visual origins are multiple and incompatible. Depending on who you are and how your politics are oriented, what you see in this picture of a word may evoke either anger or nostalgia. In 1939 Russell Lee took the picture on assignment for a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, but if he were a Fox News cameraman in 2020 his product would be seen under a different regime of intention.

But in 2020, electronics can be brought to bear. In Photoshop I open the Nik filter called Dark Contrasts, and it darkens the word’s context and fades its ambiguities to black.

Now I can see the clean shirt and the rest of the clothing layer. As of 1939 the baggy pin-striped pants with high waist and narrow white belt were flashy-fashionable, as was the hat with its low crown, big ribbon, and dramatic curves. “I display,” they say. “Consider loving me.” But all around the clothing layer, now, is a grime. In 1939, when the word “Colored” was simply an aspect of the environment, the grime was latent and unseen. In 2020, the phrase “dark contrasts” helps us see it. The control reveals the grime to be not just a layer of visual effects like the clothes but a corpus of blackened qualities pervading both the image and its historical contexts, from the negative’s photosensitive surface to the darkness inside the camera and from the grime on the walls to the statute that erected them. From the dark image that then results we can learn that it isn’t the clothing that is to be loved; it is the colored man.

About him we can ask the dark: what was it to have been that thirsting body within its layer of clean clothes? And if the visual regime of Fox News prevails, what will it be again?