Magic casement: fabric and fur on breathing flesh, with portal into the dark

John Vachon, April 1938, “Untitled photo, possibly related to: Sharecropper and sharecropper’s dog. North Carolina.” U.S. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, Contrast and detail post-processed. Don’t forget to click “Browse neighboring items by call number.” About the hole in the negative which marked an image for exclusion from the FSA collection, see Alex Q. Arbuckle, “1930s ‘Killed’ Photographs,”

Pray for men: dark armistice with voids

John Vachon, “[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Armistice Day parade, Omaha, Nebraska],” November 1938. U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, Contrast and detail post-processed. The small holes at the top and bottom of the image are the sprocket holes in Vachon’s 35-millimeter negative. The single large hole was punched by the Farm Security Administration’s Roy Stryker to deface images that he had rejected from the collection (Alex Q. Arbuckle, “1930s ‘Killed’ Photographs,”

Coordinates with missing locator

According to the Library of Congress’s annotation, these photographs are probably two parts of a three-part panorama: the left and the center, or perhaps the center and the right. The third panel isn’t in the Library, however, and Photoshop’s automated merge function can’t bring the remaining two any closer to each other. They appear to have been taken from positions different enough to create a continuity error. From one image to the next, the curb’s line breaks to form an angle and the Baldwin Locomotive Works undergoes a change of perspective. Just when time almost stopped for an instant at the beginning of the twentieth century, the instant’s vanishing point was seen to move and blur as if it were alive after all.

“Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, Pa.” Library of Congress, Post-processed.

So the visual forms that survive in the blur survive only as isolated colonies of the perceptible: the contextless cloud of steam, its whites and shadows sharply delineated but its purpose in its moment no longer knowable; the man with his tilted derby and rakish posture and shadow, never again to be nameable; the women in hats propelled along a route to the margin, blurred to unreadability above the moving words Wilbur’s American Milk Chocolate.

But at the right, unmoving, PHILA. It is only part of a word, but we seem to remember what the remainder once said of itself in the presence of a now vanished camera. From memory, memory recites DELPHIA. The sound is reassuring, because it seems stable. Tomorrow it will still be callable to mind and singable to completion once more.

But half of its harmony will sing in silent dark, because DELPHIA is a word in the dead language of the vanished panel 3. Looking down now at the two remaining panels, we experience panel 3 as if within its own aftermath: understanding it like a schoolbook remembered but no longer readable with a child’s eye. At their image’s vanishing point, the shadows of the man on the sidewalk and the women in the brand new motorbus and the mule just ahead of them on the road are to become equally unseeable because light will have moved forward past the brink of the image and disappeared into time.

Note added April 2, 2021: in his February 13, 2012 blogpost at, Shorpy succeeds in merging the two images seamlessly and also provides a comment stream from which we learn, among other things, that the electric bus seen on North Broad Street dates the panorama to 1907 or 1908. Thanks, Kim Bridges, for calling the Shorpy link to my attention.


Gesticulations from the age of steam

Three weeks into the Armistice, the dazzle painting still at its work of making illusion;

the hats waved as they had been in the days of plume;

perhaps a shouted word in a now dead language, such as “Hurrah!”;

on the evidence of this illusive little history, a belief that war can be over.

Returning American soldiers on the liner Mauretania, New York, December 2, 1918. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Contrast, detail and perspective corrected.


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.