That June morning in 1903, the rain that fell overnight had let up. The green of the leaves and their smell can still almost be sensed. The academic gowns, too, are a fashion that hasn’t changed between 1903 and now. In their photograph they drape the passage of time in black.
But at some time between 1903 and now there occurred a break in the photograph’s glass negative, and when we look through the break we see nothing. What remains unbroken in the image is what photographers two or three decades years earlier would have called an instantaneous. By 1903, however, advances in photographic technology had made that noun (“the name of a person, place, or thing”) redundant. By 1903, everything seen could be seen at will to be in passage, instant by instant. It no longer had to be anything nameable. Whatever it was as it passed, it passed into oblivion. The function of the instantaneous shutter could now be seen to be a breaking off.
But in the part where the glass was unbroken, the passage across the glass could also be imagined as a returning with the seasons, passing away but recurring like rain on sidewalks or sun warming black gowns. And yes, you see: the piper who played io paean is still playing. Motion-blurred in his image against sharply focused ashlar and bark, right foot down and left foot up, he dances away, at least for now, from the break.
In the port city of Hoboken, New Jersey, bodies are unloaded from a ship and transported through rain and words.
The words come from a two-column article on page 2 of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for November 13, 1919: “Bodies of 111 U.S. Soldier and Sailor Dead Brought Home. Gallant Michigan Boys Gave Lives in Northern Russia — Impressive Ceremonies at Pier.” It includes the term “curbstones.”
If that plural and the phrase “gallant Michigan boys” read now like antiques, that is not the words’ fault. As of 1919, curbs actually were made of stone and the Michigan war writer Ernest Hemingway hadn’t yet begun publishing his deconstructions of words like “gallant.” But language change makes no allowance for changes in sensibility, and whatever it is that the words may once have represented is harder to feel now. In a cemetery in Michigan there is a war monument in the form of a polar bear,
but the episode of war that it commemorates is now all but forgotten in Michigan: the failed campaign of the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, between 1918 and 1919. It is where the 111 men of rainy Hoboken met their deaths.
What you have been reading so far, then, in words and allegorical symbols, is a chapter in a history of the no longer wholly comprehensible. Somebody once wrote a marginal scholium on the chapter and called it “Dead Soldiers from Russia,” but it hasn’t integrated with the composition’s imagery. It is extrinsic. To its left, the composition has gone about the business of its rainy day by slow-dancing the hundred and eleven down a diagonal between the human matter of umbrellas (“Chopin’s and other funeral marches”) and the celestial matter of the rain, but the words in the black band don’t sing that music.
But in the rain the silent tree, leafless but living, curving itself down over the music and the dead in obedience to a lyric without words . . .
To rehearse a gesture with the body is to begin realizing it in the mind. What is doing in the body shapes itself motion after successive motion until it begins taking form in the mind as a conception, muscled and innerved.
And then to imagine the gesture as if it were a sequence in time, enacting itself moment by moment, would be to imagine it as a plot, with exposition at one end, dénouement at the other, and complication, climax and resolution in between. As the sequence proceeds from beginning to end, its component body changes.
So gesture is not perceived as a simultaneous whole. What Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment is typically visible in his oeuvre as a page in a book, and it represents itself there to be a stilling of a gesture’s passage through time. The book opens, the gesture is seen, and then the page turns away. Even before the printer and the binder intervened to shut in the image, the record of gesture was a property not of the gesturing body but of the body of a photographer acting through a timer. For Cartier-Bresson’s body, the timer was a brass-and-glass apparatus named Leica which admitted light to the photographer’s eye, then excluded it again.
But after the exclusion, alone in the light on Leica’s opposite side, the photographed body remained in action. Having gestured its way into time, it was not a composite of ink on paper and a stopped clock but a scene.
of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the commonsense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”