The images archived at
come from an album of Great War photographs compiled by Fritz Martin, a reserve officer serving in an observation balloon unit of the Nineteenth Uhlan Regiment. The album is at least partly a memoir in pictures, including several of tall, handsome Oberleutnant Martin in the field. It is not a war diary but a finished picture book, formatted with generous margins and captions neatly inscribed in a French script. The captions are separate from the pictures, but the pictures are affected by the script’s insistent readability. They are non-verbal, but we readers are pushed to see them verbally, as history and as history’s words..
Here, for instance, are two of them, paired on a single page. The photographs were probably taken in locations separate from each other, but authorial control has unified them under a single theme: the theme of imprisonment. All of the men here are caged within image frames, but within those frames some of the men are doubly confined. Their defining trait there is the one that’s spelled out below each picture in a caption: the difference between some soldiers in uniform and their prisoners, also in uniform.
In Europeana.eu’s rephotographed archive, a few of the images pasted onto pages like these cast shadows where they have curled up from their browned backing. Most of them don’t, however. They’re so well preserved that some of the words referring to them by means of the twentieth-century technology of blue-black ink still show fresh traces of the blue. Close to the album’s gutter, shut away for a century from light and air, those words are still capable of asking us to read them as Oberleutnant Martin’s family and friends were meant to: instructions directing us to see the photographs as windows through the page into a history on the other side. Even this late in the day, the prisoners on view through those windows need no visual aid beyond a little spiffing in Photoshop. Photoshopped, with the decay of their paper backing compensated for, they become once again immer schon a verisimilar illusion of an event with a name, a date, a place, and a history.
The lights have come back up again there, and we find ourselves staring through the paper into the imaged men’s playspace. There, perspective recedes not to a vanishing point but to a flat plane like a theatrical backdrop, and the actors downstage are elements in another, parallel plane. In that plane, the one closest to the audience, the director has taken extra trouble to individualize the actors through costuming and makeup. One prisoner in the center, for instance, is depicted wearing a conspicuously ragged tunic apparently backward. At stage right another prisoner backs away from the group with a John Wilkes Booth glower, and next to him, for contrast, stands a dead ringer for Ben Turpin, crosseyed star of American silent comedy. Directors of silents didn’t have to worry about language barriers, of course, so in this silent the prisoners and their guards have all been choreographed to count and lunge on the same beat. The planes continue all the way upstage. Then grow some tall, graceful art nouveau trees, and the picture reaches its end.
And we have been freed to turn the page. Through what we thought was a hole in the page we saw a performance featuring men and trees and light, but it was a performance never not under the control of a script written on the page itself. Having been written on the page, it became part of the page’s history, and the subject of that history is to write itself not through our lives but through the prisoners’. In translation, the script reads, “December 1915.” Translation transports it to us across the language barrier, but in the process it communicates the news that an impenetrable fourth wall has erected itself between the action in the playspace and us spectators in the space of reading. It is a wall made of history.
But history builds itself serially, week by week or epoch by epoch. Except in the kiddie matinee’s playspace, it is impossible to anticipate when or whether the “The End” will come.
Consider, for instance, this episode in the historical record for September 11, 1915. It comes to us under a title: “A Free-Balloon Flight.”
The balloon was a German warcraft and it bore a dignified German name, Chemnitz. In retrospect, the reverent thought that went into that christening has acquired a tinge of comical pomposity, for the balloon was directed on its course across the sky only by a few shouting men in a wicker basket. The city of Chemnitz, likewise, underwent what looked like an evolutionary step forward when it was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt, but after the contemptuous erasure from history of the pompously named German Democratic Republic it quietly reverted. But one pictured part of the story of the balloon has proved resistant to erasure.
There it is, yes: the name Lt. Kohn. The face attached to the name is up in the rigging, and it seems to be illustrative. It looks, as Germans began suggesting on more and more of the days that serially succeeded this voyage, Jewish.
We might think of that additional information as an errata slip tipped into the album. The album is a creature of 1915, but because its compiler followed the procedure for registering himself in literary history as an author, his phrase “Lt. Kohn” has become a literary text. Henceforth (or, as they say in the stories, “forever after”) it will immer schon be subject to revised readings, issuing serially. Unlike the image, it will have broken through the fourth wall and floated free in the direction of a never to be reached final meaning.
* With all her brass agleam, Miss Howe passes Mr. Death on the right.
** Susan Howe is the author of a book called Pierce-Arrow. The Pierce-Arrow made of metal, photographed here, was an American luxury car of the early twentieth century. Susan Howe’s vehicle, the Pierce-Arrow made of words, is a rhapsody on themes of and by and about Charles Sanders Peirce, an American philosopher who wrote an essay called “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” and died in poverty.
*** Susan Howe is also the author of a book called My Emily Dickinson.
**** Mr. Casaubon’s punch line: In this image, Miss Dickinson may be the passenger in the ghostly vehicle on the right. Her driver slowly drove, according to the trip log, but even a heartbeat moves enough to make us and the record in images of our lives unclear.
Source of the image: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98508090/. Photoshopped.
At midday on August 21, 1945, under partly cloudy skies at an airport in Chongqing, China, a recently arrived Japanese transport airplane awaited permission to redepart. Out of camera view, the airplane’s primary passenger, Major General Takeo Imai, was being briefed by Allied officers about procedures for his army’s impending surrender. When he reboarded the craft and its Kuomintang guards cleared it for takeoff, a final change had begun. On September 9, the commander of Japan’s occupying force in China signed a document of surrender and Japan’s colonial empire in Asia came to an end. It had lasted fifty years, from the end of the First Sino-Japanese War to the end of World War II.
It left a photographic record filled abundantly with the kind of images that get called “historical”: the field full of Korean nationalists executed in one of the traditional Japanese ways, by crucifixion; the Chinese mother and her baby being beheaded with a single swing of a Japanese soldier’s sword. But on the tarmac at the moment just before all this was about to end, all that the record shows us in the way of what’s called history is clouds and mountains and an earth indifferently bearing its burden. The unoccupied little Mitsubishi Ki-57 Type 1 takes up only a portion of its history’s didactic illustration, and none of the Chinese and American spectators who surround it seem to be in a heightened state of awareness. Off-camera, the idea of history would insist that this image must be interesting enough to make a moral demand on our attention, but on-camera it isn’t.
Of course time has never taken a break from destroying whatever traces of emotion there may remain in this still-fading, still-blurring photograph. Entropy has claimed some of the image’s significance. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care as much as history tells me I should about the traces that remain.
But at least some of those entropic changes are, for now, reversible. Some of the obliterated traces can be made made to reappear. I have removed what remains of the image from decaying paper to an idea in computer memory, and now . . .
. . . and now, at least, the airplane’s camouflage stands out from the sky. That, however, couldn’t have been the camouflage’s original intent. Camouflage is an art form explicitly designed not to be seen. Dragged into visibility by photographic manipulation, the changed image creates an impression almost of confused, blinking self-consciousness. “Something has happened to me,” it seems almost to say. “I may no longer be what I was wanted to be. I have turned out differently.”
Also, the newly restored cloud-images above the imaged airplane are pushing forward in newly urgent detail, and unlike the camouflage pattern, their collective form has begun proliferating beyond the image frame. To judge from the continuity between this little image-cosmos and the larger cosmos I see through my window when I lift my eyes from the computer, it appears that the image’s cloud shapes remain permanently in persistent vision. They never will change, and so they never will cross mortality’s frontier and enter history. Subsisting forever in the present tense, the unworded object of thought cloud will always just be. It will never become translatable into chronology, because chronology is a text formed by its included intervals of dead time (say, the instants of silence that follow every period) into something always just becoming. Within the wordless image of aircraft and clouded air at which I’m now looking, the only part that is historical is the tableau depicted beneath the clouds, where unnamed and now unnameable soldiers stand with with their backs turned to us. What that turning away says wordlessly is: “From this moment, I am going to be unreadable ever after. Having once emerged for a fraction of a second from the not-yet and shown a photosensitive surface within a camera what I then was, I will never show myself again.”
One American war earlier, a patriotic milkman in Richmond, Indiana, took out a notice in the Richmond Palladium-Item to defend his virtue with respect to petroleum. We milkmen stand FALSELY ACCUSED, he cried. “We are,” he cried, “FEEDING THE BABIES OF AMERICA.”
The date was September 21, 1918, and as a wartime conservation measure the Federal government had decreed what it called “Gasless Sunday”: a ban on Sunday pleasure driving everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi. Just below the plea from the operator of a fleet of gasoline-powered trucks, the dealer for a battery-powered automobile was letting himself go smug accordingly. “The Seven Day Car,” gloated his self-promoting prose. And it rubbed in the gloat with a moralizing slogan: “The Conservation Car.”
The application-text beneath the front wheel expanded that phrase into a sermonette by drawing attention to the electric car’s now significantly absent gas tank. Then, working back in time to the now inconceivable era of peace, it generalized from automotive economics to the sexual economy that underlies every changing human action. “A few years ago the Milburn Electric was considered an exclusive car of ladies — ” said the analysis, lingering in suspense at the dash in order to let a not yet conceived thought gather itself unseen and then pounce and penetrate, “but today — business and professional men use the Milburn constantly — and in preference to their gasoline car.”
As of September 21, 1918, readers would have assented without argument to the first of those propositions: the undaring, unadulterous one. They would all have known that before the electric starter came into wide use in the middle to late nineteen-teens, electric cars were indeed marketed to women. Electric cars had to be little and they couldn’t go far or fast, but they were also clean and quiet and easy to drive. On the other hand, hand-cranking a gasoline motor was a dirty, sweaty job, and beyond the strength of many women. So, for a while, the electric car did participate in a gendered competition. The Milburn, one of the more successful marques, was in production for a respectable fourteen years, 1910 to 1923, and during the Wilson administration the Secret Service patrolled the White House grounds in a fleet of Milburns. But less than two months after this issue of the Palladium-Item landed on the front porches of Richmond, the Great War ended and Gasless Sunday vanished from the calendar. Soon enough, the electric car followed. When electrics were remembered in later years, they were indeed remembered as ladies’ cars — for instance, by the protagonist of Jean Stafford’s 1948 short story “The Bleeding Heart,” who gets a surprise when she learns that the driver of an antique electric car she has seen is not an old woman but an old man. Inside an electric’s softly upholstered internal space, a male body was anomalous.
So Milburn’s 1918 claim on the love of men was only a fantasy. It was specifically a fantasy in words, born out of resistance to reality and unsustained by any evidence available to sight or memory or male desire. In its favor it had only the fickle military time-term “For the duration.” But in 1917, when Milburn had thoughts only of women, she had at her call a different sort of fantasy: a fantasy self-created not from words but from images and expressing itself through shapes, colors, and the visible traces furrowed by desire along its transit through the body.
Shaded, then, by a delicate openwork typeface through which the breeze whispers her name, Milburn 1917 comes gliding on white wheels into a grove of tall trees planted by Fragonard. There, barefoot on pastoral herbage, dance a troupe of Isadora Duncan nymphs. At their distance from Milburn it will be impossible to hear a shepherd sing his lying song, “Come live with me and be my love,” and the space sheltered just behind Milburn is filled only with mother love: quiet as an electric car, with a little girl in little-girl primary colors restrained safely by her mother’s hand while she wiggles her own fingers in virginal greeting. Like the soldiers in the other image, she has turned her face inscrutably away from us. She must be about her Milburn’s business. As Keats might have caroled from his own darkling grove, she was not born for death.
I photoshop time’s blemishes from Milburn’s pearl-gray sides, then step back as she continues her transit across unchanging beauty.
Sources: Both the image of the airplane and the color image of Milburn are found in several locations on the Web, and I haven’t located bibliographical citations for either original. The Tumblr page where I found the Milburn image gives it a date of May 1917, but no source for that attribution is given. My information about the history of the Milburn comes from http://www.milburn.us/history.htm.