Technical note: vision and the passage of history

To repair a historical damage

Library of Congress,

can be to reset the function of seeing to an earlier state. On the evidence of this artifact, for example, it may be possible that the advent of photographic vision in the nineteenth century didn’t just coincide with the advent of a metal-framed, curtain-walled architecture teaching its era a newly ample definition of the idea soar

Requires red-and-blue stereo viewer.

but made it conceivable. Suddenly, cameras on their tripods were equipping the vanishing point with an azimuth and an elevation. Seen in restored state, this image reenacts one of those nineteenth-century instants when sight realized it could sail forever toward an ever receding horizon.

Undated entry

Place, time, and event: Polo Grounds, Coronado Island, San Diego, California, USA; January 26 or 27, 1911; to mark the opening of the Curtiss School of Aviation across the bay, instructors Eugene Ely and Hugh Robinson flew a pair of Curtiss Model D’s across the sky, performing. I learned the story from an article in an archive: Gary F. Kurutz, “The Only Safe and Sane Method: The Curtiss School of Aviation,” Journal of San Diego History, volume 25, no. 1, Winter 1979,

Elsewhere in the archive I could have learned that a few days earlier (January 18, San Francisco Bay) Ely had landed a Model D on the deck of the cruiser Pennsylvania, using a tailhook invented by Robinson. That event expanded place and time into the spacious context of history that has been selected for admission to an archive. It’s now known there by a descriptive name and a corpus of supplementary exposition: the world’s first shipboard landing of a winged aircraft. Alerted in advance, photographers had positioned their cameras to record it, and the archive is full of their pictures and the books that teach what they signify.

But as of January 26 or 27 that was history, and elsewhere. In San Diego there was only this. Unnamed, it was not yet to be understood but only to be experienced. The written record of its passage through time includes speeds, altitudes and a landmark, but not a date.

San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Contrast and detail restored.

Elsewhere, Gary Kurutz’s history supplements those details with the phrase “despite threatening weather,” but the image makes that interpretive explanation unnecessary because it itself manifests unspoken threat. Another unnecessary phrase turns out be whatever other words might adhere parenthetically to the word I. Whoever transformed this image into a single-page diary knew himself at the instant of lived experience to be a part of the plenum of flying man 1 and flying man 2 and salt smell and propellers buzzing. “I saw this race,” the word I wrote to itself. Having been written, the meaning of the assertion could no longer be in question. Stable now, it remains dark against the glowing clouds. Because the dark pronoun once spoke itself to itself comprehensively and forever, whatever noun synonym it might also retain can add nothing to its meaning.

But of course and punchline: we now experience the presence of I only because at some time in the past somebody saw fit to deposit its textual aspect in an archive of the past. There it’s now datable by the likes of you and me and Gary Kurutz, but it remains only a one-letter word: readable because it’s a word, but incomprehensible because it’s only a word. On its diary page it can mean no more than the unwritten date would have meant. We are never to know why it blackly landed. Its inky body is only a silhouette that was once in transit across light, like Ely’s or Robinson’s Model D. Its page-wide margin of cloud sets off its dark.

Aberrant perspective

One jacket too big, and the associated head too small.

One jacket too small, and the associated legs too big.

A bodiless hand associated with someone else’s shoulder.

Aquarium: a mouth-breather behind glass.

In the bowl a white backdrop hung crooked in front of another layer, this one black.

Liljenquist Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, Post-processed to restore contrast and color.

To make Freaks, Tod Browning didn’t need freaks. All he needed was the human: that which is aberrantly normal.

An optometry of ice cream

O.D.: Let the lamp affix its beam.

As the pioneer photographer Lewis Carroll understood, when a lens approaches a reflective surface

the surface can fold vision back on itself and make the act of seeing a complement to the state of being seen. Under that condition

(O.S.), there may seem to be seen (for instance) an orbit filled with a globe. In that globe, let there be partially visible below its half-reflective surface an image of a camera held by a man seeing through its lens.

You can visualize that. “Let be be finale of seem,” says the lamplighted poem to you, calling your attention to its flashy display. But of all the elements in that display, the lens, of all things, can’t be used for seeing. As soon as it started sinking into the globe, it stopped being an apparatus to serve you and became part of globe’s image, in globe’s orbit. And there you cannot enter. You are out in the black, where the light of O.D. shines past but not into. Empirical confirmation: you couldn’t see the man in the act of his being until you had read these words instructing you what his reflection was supposed to seem to be.