Cameo

A daguerreotype dating from about 1855, this is object no. 84.XT.1582.3 in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum,

http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/49685/unknown-maker-american-fireman-in-uniform-holding-a-brass-musical-instrument-american-1855-1856/?artview=dor240842

Daguerreotypes can be erased from their metal backings as easily as the marks on a chalkboard, so the ones that have survived the era of their making are framed behind glass, like this one. Not shown here is the other half of the frame: a hinged cover, velvet-lined. It swings into place over the glass, doubling the protection of the image. .

[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument]
Post-processed for contrast and detail.
By 1855, American daguerreotypes were marketed in standard sizes — the bigger, the more expensive — and this one is the size called ninth-plate: the second-cheapest, at 2 by 2½ inches (https://cwfp.biz/platesizes.php). With its mercury surface enriched by tinting and set off in velvet with gold, the glittery little thing has been made into a gem. Whatever it was in 1855, it now asks to be understood as precious.

The museum has given the gem a provisional title, in brackets: “[Fireman in Uniform Holding a Brass Musical Instrument].” In the absence of more specific information, the museum adds that the fireman’s name is lost, and so is the history of the act of heroism commemorated here by his medal and, presumably, his photograph. All that now remains of his value is a transmutation of his person. It is now purchasable as a work of lapidary art, as in his lifetime it was purchasable as flesh.

On October 1, 1851, at 5 PM, Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. [. . .] Intended to dispatch him at noon through to Burlington, but when I went to buy his ticket, saw one at the depot who looked and behaved so much like a Boston policeman that I did not venture that time. An intelligent and very well-behaved man, a mulatto.

We have to put the name “[Henry Williams]” in brackets too; the text makes that clear with its relative clause beginning “who has taken the name of.” Likewise subordinated to the status of a relative clause are the words “His master, who is his father.” Everywhere else, Thoreau’s paragraph is overflowing with Thoreau’s beloved details: the name of a county in Virginia, the name of the place where [Henry] slept, the insurmountable $100 difference for [Henry] between being free of his father and being his father’s possession. We owe this information exclusively to Henry Thoreau’s record. Aside from that, all we will ever be able to know of intelligent, well behaved [Henry] is what was once assessed in the market by his body’s raw material value as an alloy of white and black.

The fireman in his uniform is a civil servant like the Boston policeman. His service entails that he is to be known of by his externally visible attributes, not his name. If we’re accustomed to thinking of firemen as white, seeing this black fireman may make us stop seeing, for a moment, and start looking. But only for a moment. In his jewelbox, the fireman plays a cameo role.

Battery

In New York on April 30, 1921, as the liner Aquitania sailed up the bay from quarantine, the tenor John McCormack, one of the most celebrated singers of the time, showed himself before the recording instruments of the media. The role he was performing approximated what his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats was to call (in “Among School Children”) “a smiling public man.” A space of foggy air and wooden decking separated him from the battery of cameras.

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Then, though, the cameras moved in closer and the singer began to speak.

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The reporters took down his words. They turned out to be Irish words.

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New York Tribune, 1 May 1921, page 12

Along with the celebrated singer, a celebrated newspaper publisher was on board the ship, and so was a celebrated Hollywood producer. We’re willing to believe they were because the story tells us so in indirect discourse. We don’t need the publisher’s or the producer’s actual words to bear witness. And as to the singer, in 1921 all the cameras had to be silent.

But perhaps we can see words forming on his face.

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Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014712442/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014712445/. Post-processed to restore detail and contrast.

New York, 1911: sentimental value added

Before Photoshop:

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After:

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Perhaps not far from the Upper East Side, the fetish works its magic. On display in the HQ of your hedge fund, wouldn’t this picture contribute to the purposeful ambiance? Because the horse and the man were solid they melted into air, but I’ve opened this dealership to represent them and I’m open to offers.

Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004678611/. The link information is dated only “ca. 1910,” but neighboring items in the catalog refer to a 1911 heat wave.

Light falling on face

Undated in its archive at the Library of Congress but obviously taken in old age, this is a portrait of one of the most controversial men in nineteenth-century America, Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914). On the historical record, Sickles is, among many other things, not just the first American to escape conviction for murder on the grounds of temporary insanity (his victim was his wife’s lover, the son of the lyricist of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but also the only Union general at Gettysburg lacking a statue on the battlefield — whose preservation as a national historic site, however, is largely due to him. Another work of preservation remains the leg he had amputated during the battle, which is still in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After the war he used to visit it. Thomas Keneally’s 2002 biography is titled American Scoundrel.

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With a head full of Rembrandt, I subject the scoundrel’s portrait to Photoshop.

The little dog doesn’t belong in such an image — not with his upturned snoot and rolling eyes. He (she, Mrs. Woolf?) looks all too knowing, all too civilian. The kid glove, visible in at least one other portrait, may hint at one more military anecdote, but on its own terms in the image it is only an opacity. Under other circumstances the fringey little hem of bangs on the age-spotted scalp might look comically desperate, but in juxtaposition with glassy glint, hooded eyes and mouth pursed in what looks like thought, it communicates pathos in the face of mortality. In the shadows that I have brought up from the Plutonic with a Photoshop slider there is now visible a shade, advancing across the image field. In the original depiction of that shade some surface blemishes were visible as a kind of light-spun fabric in the vicinity of the right eye, so I blotted them out as I blotted out the silky little dog. There is almost nothing left to see now except dark.

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But see what remains visible there: an artifact formed from what nineteenth-century studio photographers called Rembrandt lighting. The lighting has not only created what looks like a flesh; it has made it into a carnal lyric. Scored on the dark, the lyric sings lightly when it sings to us:

“I was dead flesh; I became living chiaroscuro. Now and forever, I will be for you who see me a lexicon of shades of meaning. As you read me, let’s be friends. You may call me HMV.”

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Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014684979/