Walt life and plant life

Some of the photographs in Binh Danh and Robert Schultz’s War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Memorials (Roanoke, Virginia: Taubman Museum of Art, 2019) are what Mr. Schultz calls chlorophyll prints: portraits of Whitman and of Civil War soldiers and their families, merged into images of leaves from trees growing in spaces where Whitman walked: his home, his battlefields. In the blog Lensculture, Schultz explains:

Lately I have traveled there with some regularity to browse the grounds, to look from the high situation of the house across the Rappahannock to the spires of old Fredericksburg, to photograph the catalpas, and, with permission, to pluck a leaf from the trees that have grown from ground soaked by what Whitman called the “butcher’s shambles” of war. I carry the leaf to my car, where I lay it on a felt-covered board, then cover it with a plastic transparency and a sheet of glass. The transparency is printed with a soldier’s portrait…and when I clip these layers together I place the board in the back window of my car where the sun pours down. As I drive home to Roanoke, some three and a half hours away, the leaf will begin to change. Where the transparency is clear the leaf will bleach, and the soldier’s image will appear, embodied in the leaf’s sheltered pigments.

The results look like this,

and in their book each one is provided with a double history: not just a bibliographical citation of the photograph but a genealogy of the tree that bore the leaf: what its species was, where in Whitman’s cosmos it grew. Writing out the details of that genealogy and creating a simulacrum of the leaf’s life, Schultz seems to be channeling Whitman into his own language. He plucks, he carries — those Whitman verbs — and above all he says I. The process of printing occurs in his car as it homes toward his studio while the sun pours down. He feels its heat, and in the studio he will deal in the dark with its light. The words echo Whitman’s poem of death and life When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, while the chlorophyll print process echoes the life-in-death of Song of Myself:

By my life-lumps! becoming already a creator,
Putting myself here and now to the ambush’d womb of the shadows.

Or, to generalize: Danh’s and Schultz’s and Whitman’s biographical plants are arrayed in a human context — Danh’s and Schultz’s and Whitman’s. But if there should exist a natural form coming into being as if it were escaping human context, how would we know it humanly, and how could we speak of it in human language? How, for instance, might we come to terms with this?

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It was almost hidden, on a cloudy day, low toward the ground under concealing strata of leaves. If I were to write “I” about the experience of seeing it for the first time, I think I would be trespassing upon a darkness proper to the plant alone: one where I shouldn’t wish to be because I can’t be. This plant is a garden plant not native to the Hawaiian island where I photographed and Photoshopped it, so I am no more a nature photographer than Banh or Schultz is. Still, when I entered the blossom’s light zone I didn’t find myself thinking of my camera or myself. Instead, I found myself thinking of the light before me as if it came from a body different in kind from mine: stranger and, in ways that disturb me when I try to understand them in retrospect, full of different experience.

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Whitman doesn’t seem to help; he doesn’t seem able to come naked into the presence of life until he has first taken off the clothes he was born in. But in these different lines from Lycidas you can see Milton revising a standard sunrise term, the glimmering eyelids of the morn, into something less “poetic” but more specifically applicable to his line’s evocation: the opening eyelids of the morn. The line no longer evokes cold cream; it asks us only to remember what it has been to see an eye opening to morning light and a body coming back from dark into the seen. This body has been wardrobeless from the start. What Milton did was to simplify his language until it contained only the essential non-language that came to it not from a lexicon but from a body and a sky.

And simplification (at least this time, for the length of that line) may be enough. A sunrise or a flower, what we come to understand doesn’t need a war or a history or a sense of the human to make it mean. Its language needs only the third person. It doesn’t sing a song, let alone a song of itself. Before my camera came along, this orange and blue and white shape was doing just fine by itself in the dark: a citizen only of silent undergrowth, outgrowing through it from a center filled with something that needn’t after all be spoken of in words, or at least in socially conscious Walt-words. Whatever that was, it seemed, at the moment, to be a private light helping me read the unique language proper to the idea of one.

 

Sources:

War Memoranda: the book. Photography, Walt Whitman, and Memorials. https://robertschultz.com/art/war-memoranda-the-book/

W. Scott Olsen, “Joining Wonder” (review of War Memoranda). https://www.lensculture.com/articles/binh-dahn-and-robert-schultz-joining-wonder

The lines quoted from Song of Myself are the last two lines of section 41.

The Trinity College manuscript of Lycidas is online at http://trin-sites-pub.trin.cam.ac.uk/james/viewpage.php?index=1394

Two views into the image plane

The name of the brutal victor in the Ruhr Uprising of 1920 is inscribed at the top of this image. Someone with a military education will be able to read additional name-functions on the victorious body itself: the epaulets, the collar badges.

Then, in more specific characterizing detail, the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite: the fundamental, defining militaria, the ones that remain after all the inessential others have been taken off the tunic.

Then finally, with enough connotative association to intimate a biography readable as if it were a novel, two traits of the general’s Bildung: the monocle and the dueling scar. Consult your read experience now and you’ll probably discover that the things like these within the photograph and not the words at the top are what communicated to you the term German general. Now that you and I have learned German general, however, we are free to try realizing the general’s pale eyes with more words. The term that forms in our heads might be, for instance, a Nietzscheanism along the lines of blond beast.

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He is unidentified, this man in the photo album dated 1923 and titled Soviet Russia in its early years : A collection of photographs presented to the New York Public Library. A reverse Google image search reveals no name for the man except “Unidentified” and no historical reason for the image’s having been created. Unlike the image of General von Watter, this almost contextless image has only the most general connection with the making and the seeing of it. It can’t be understood in words. “I am something having to do with the Soviet Union circa 1920,” it says, and that is all it says.

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But of course if we remove the captioned matte from the image, the word-free remainder will be seen to communicate somatically, through body connotations.

Nathanael West

Since you’ll appreciate a demo, this other image of nose and mustache shows Nathanael West, whose short life in words was a single extended riff on the trope, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Once upon a time somebody did something Westian to the image of Unidentified: he identified Unidentified with a number, “18,” and wrote it down on Unidentified’s collar. The Westian punchline, of course, was that bleak “Unidentified” and optimistic “18” turned out to mean equally only nothing.

What you thought when you saw a number branded on what looks like a Jew also meant nothing. You are guilty of anachronism, and of course the archives may eventually reveal Unidentified not even to have been a Jew. But you did think your thought anyway. After all, what has happened is terrible, no matter who the butt of the joke was. Something essential has vanished from the continuum of color value between a gray-flecked mustache and a black number on its starchy white ground. A living man’s name was once spoken to a photographer but then forgotten, and then a backup number was written on a photograph but likewise forgotten. All that’s left of all that history is something called Unidentified, and you want that to have an identity and a name, like you.

The face of Unidentified is the face of that want. It is a state as irremediable as death. Unidentified’s eyes can never see beyond the lenses through which they seem to look toward us. Unidentified is locked into his silver halides. Every promontory of the face that he turns to our living gaze has been flattened into a single plane, crystalline and changeless.

But if we are never to see that face in the round, we can at least read it, the way we read General von Watter’s face amid its novelistic accessories. Behind the sensitive halide surface from which both men seem to look is nothing but opacity, but we can see all the way up to the brink of the opacity because the two men between it and us, men highlighted for our reading with embroidery and numbers, can never now strip back to pre-narrative nakedness in the light that wraps their portrayals in layers of verisimilar cloth. Because we don’t see their eyes in the round but read them on the page, they cannot see us back. We are free to read without dread.

Image sources:

“Gen. von Watter”: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014710515/. Image adjusted in Photoshop for sharpness and contrast.

“Unidentified”: Soviet Russia in its early years: a collection presented to the New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-a827-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Image adjusted in Photoshop for sharpness and contrast.

Nathanael West: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/west/nathanael/

No Orpheus

The face looking out at you from a page of the New York Public Library’s online catalog is striking enough to capture your attention. The image is small and faded and the caption on its mount, “Commissar of the Petrograd Commune,” is just barely informative. For what they are worth, however, print, mount, and caption have been made available online from Soviet Russia in its early years: A collection of photographs presented to the New York Public Library, which the library describes as

An album of 150 photographs by various unknown photographers, documenting the early years of the Communist regime. Includes list with titles of the pictures. Pl. 149 is a portrait of S. Freud. Good condition but brittle mounts.

The Freud attribution is the cataloger’s own contribution from New York. In the Russian revolutionary album itself, the revolutionary of the mind is identified only as “Unidentified.”

Freud

But the cataloger was assisted in writing her history of the image by a history from outside the image. Freud was so well photographed in his time that he has come to exist for readers ever after as a pre-established image in the mind, to be recognized by brow, beard and cigar. Western culture has issued him an aesthetic passport and stamped it with port-of-call visas from library upon library. But that didn’t happen to the commissar of Petrograd. After all, only a few historians, veterans of years of retrospection, now possess a visual sense of the drama of local government during the early Bolshevik years. I’m not one of those historians; I don’t even know my way around their section of the library. When I came across this item in the catalog the other day, it was for the first time. So how was I to see it?

Commissar screenshot

To ask that question in that way risks sounding like sophomore Existentialism, but in fact the question has a satisfyingly dry, technical answer, one that relies on the paradoxical paucity of information about the image. Generally, it wouldn’t be practical to run a reverse Google search on a photograph of Freud; the media environment of potential finds would be too target-rich. But Google has also conserved on a small, readily catalogable shelf in its crypt this single face of one of the unremembered. See: I copy the album photo that isn’t Freud’s into the search bar and hit Send, and back comes a confirmatory echo — this one with a name attached.

Pozern in Kulturologia

“Boris Pavlovich Pozern,” reads the name. “Soviet party and government personality,” reads the caption.

And yes, personality. On this page from the Russian online magazine Kultorologia, Commissar Pozern’s image manifests itself to history in a piece of photojournalism titled (in translation) “A special period: portraits of the Russian revolutionaries of 1917,” whose editors conclude by pleading, “Do you like this article? Then support us by clicking Like.” A century after it was taken down for the chronicle of Russia, the commissar’s history is being merged into an aesthetics. Just to Comrade Prozen’s left, his article’s page was displaying, at the moment in 2019 when I clicked “Print Screen,” a clickable advertisement for English-language instruction and a clickable advertisement for an ice cream vending machine.

But yes, too, I can stop looking at the picture now and start reading the name. It’s in Wikipedia, for instance, with birth and death and cause of death. From the Brezhnev era, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia proffers birth and death in more generous detail, but not cause of death:

Pozern in Great Soviet Encyclopedia

Twenty-first century pop history, however, fills in the discreet lacuna opened by twentieth-century scholarship. In the blog Sovereign Ukraine, a 2015 article by Chad Nagle titled “Stalinist Mass Murder and the Warping of Russian History” explains, with an illustration:

Sovereign Ukraine screenshot

But with that, history is rejoined by aesthetics. The two faces identified with the name Pozern obviously represent different points along a timeline, but in each face the right eye displays a distinctive droop at the outer canthus. Somehow that confirmation makes me happy, as if by looking hard at a picture of somebody dead I have done something with my own life. Happily, I go on to deploy Photoshop and a small battery of artificial-intelligence image-enhancers from Topaz Labs. Happily, I begin seeing still more in Boris Pavlovich. I think I am getting to know him.

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But Boris Pavolovich’s left eye . . .

After comparing the two images, I can be sure that the damage I see is in the picture, not the man. All the reproductions I have seen of this photograph are blemished with identical spots and scratches, so I assume they are all copies made from a single print, not a negative. In the course of decades of revolution and war, the negative has probably vanished. Photoshop and I have erased most of the spots and scratches, but short of deleting the plenum of Boris Pavolovich’s eye and starting over with a paintbrush, there is nothing more we can do for him. And the starting over seems somehow arrogant. Here in his rehabilitated image, Boris Pavlovich has come back almost to life, but Photoshop and I are no Orpheuses. Whether or not we turn away from our monitor to look for Boris Pavlovich, he will remain blind and dead.

Links:

The New York Public Library page: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-a829-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Kulturologia page: https://kulturologia.ru/blogs/230617/34991/

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia page: https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Pozern%2C+Boris+Pavlovich

The Sovereign Ukraine page: https://sovereignukraine.net/2015/04/22/stalinist-mass-murder-and-the-warping-of-russian-history/

Vormittag 6.21

Post-processed to restore contrast and recover unregistered pixels, this image becomes readable. It is seen now to be separated from its background among the words of this post as if it were delimited by a beginning and an end. If the photograph were a text like the post, it would betray signs of irony. Within its border and there only, it shows you sharp shadows of a northern solstitial dawn, a cloud of exhaust smoke darkening lacustrine air, motion-blurred propellers, silhouetted men bending to their work, and in the background a Biedermeier landscape about to be reduced to history by the great balloon whose shadow is about to fall on it. As the complex of cloth and shadow ascends, a literary thought-balloon ascends with it and choruses in the buzz of propellers: “I’m gone; I passed out of the picture. Little do you know.”

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But you do know the image, for sight doesn’t enter memory in a textual way. To begin perceiving an image is to begin following a trace through light and shadow of a memory that will live on in you even though it it died before you were born. The image you see is a memory error resulting in the optical illusion of belief: the illusion that (for instance) you must have been (for how could you not have been? unconquerable memory has surged out of the image frame and taken dominion over you) a part of what was once, for an instant over an Alpine lake one July morning, seen and thereafter remembered for (as it must have seemed) ever.

Source: Georrge Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014682126/.