The camera that took this photograph was probably fitted with a collapsible cloth bellows between the lens and the housing that held a glass-plate negative. As the photographer flexed the bellows in and out for focus, its opaque coating would eventually begin to flake off and shafts of ambient light would penetrate the camera’s dark interior and streak across the image. This adventitious light had evaded the photographer’s intent, and it competed for the viewer’s attention with the subject he had composed according to human rules and labeled with human words.
The words, too, were changing. Within this frame, for example, they were demarcated into separate languages written in separate alphabets, English and Yiddish. But as of the date imprinted by the photographer at the top of his document, the European language Yiddish was undergoing American erasure.
“Help the furrier strikers,” reads the English of 1915 on the pair of cylinders that demarcate the details of the man between them, and his tie and tie pin and the symbols in his buttonhole communicate something 1915-American that complements those words. But the man’s eyes, mouth and hands belong to the naked aspect of his body, and in its nakedness that isn’t regulated by social system. Like the light leak, it is a sign of loss of organization. The text that tries to express it begins in Yiddish, Helft die, “Help the,” but then it collapses into a mere transliteration of English words written in Yiddish’s Hebrew alphabet. It can only stammer, “Helft die furrier strikers.”
The Hebrew letters, unintelligible in Hebrew, are visual evidence for a transition as undeniable as the laws of optics. On balance for the better, a language and its way of thinking are losing the meaning they possessed just one narrow ocean ago.
Wild light that evades control by the lens can be thought of as a sign of something different to come. But as the camera continues in use and the light comes in time to spread over its every image, whatever it was that was intended for shaping by the lens will go as whitely featureless as a blank page.
An earlier post, https://jonathanmorse.blog/2012/08/26/cylindric-equilibrium/, also uses the image of the striker.
The Sun (New York), March 8, 1902, page 2:
In 1902, the bare glimpse manifested itself to the prince amid what the text calls painful glare. What you see of it in this remnant artifact is, eye by eye,
and then, after integration,
In 1902 you might not have been able to see the prince’s face in the glare, or hear his name as it sank into muffling snow. Off camera, however, there does remain a record in words of the phenomena. It has its own black and white, it names itself Sun, and in the nature of records it seems to promise records’ immortality.
But on March 8, 1902, also in the nature of records, everything under Sun was mortal.
There was no cure for the passing away of 1902, either. In 1902 a remedy proposed by page 2 of the record was to double over, look down and in, and attend to intestinal digestion, as if there you could hear Henry David Thoreau crying as he was cleft by the scimitar of a fact, “This is, and no mistake.” But that cry didn’t reach the princes on page 1.
But what you seem to have learned through your viewer, you good liver, is that even when words have been worn away by heat, moisture or time, something else, something external to words, may still remain knowable. Its images of snow and mountain and river will remain in the eye for a time only, but for that time what they are will be black and white.
Rail traffic between Detroit and points east travels through a tunnel under the Detroit River between Detroit, Michigan, USA, and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Before that was built, however, transport occurred on the water’s surface in water-strider mode, this way.
What you see there, a boat named Detroit, is long gone, but its history continues from moment to moment of what looks confusingly like a life. Your demo: six years afterward, I rephotoshop with Nik’s Dark Contrasts filter, and
To enlarge, right-click and follow the View image popup.
You may be able to see that the state of this image in the Library of Congress is a photographic print mounted on a paper backing, with the library’s acquisition stamp overlapping both sheets.
But you also do see that the composite photograph has lost definition and contrast. On the record, it has been going lost. With the aid of a computer, sight can begin bringing it home again to history and making the record’s words as readable again as they were when they flowed from the pen of A. P. Yates in 1893. Over the image, however, a gray new computerized disfigurement has settled in and begun blemishing what you see of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad’s engine no. 999, claimed to be the first vehicle in history to have reached a speed of 100 miles an hour.
In the library, a history of photography can help you understand what happened. In the 1890s, when negatives were large, photographers often retouched them with carmine paste. Painted over dark areas of the negative, this lightened the corresponding area of the print. Perhaps because May 10, 1893 was a cloudy day in Syracuse, or perhaps because the smoke from no. 999 was billowing too abundantly into the air, A. P. Yates encarmined a zone in front of and above no. 999’s boiler. On the print, that would have whitened the sky. But Mr. Yates didn’t want to risk whiting out any of no. 999’s beautiful metal, and so some of the original crud of 1893 remains in his artwork as a dark, angular halo.
With a computer under my hands, however, I can become Mr. Yates’s 21st-century continuator. Using a process that Photoshop calls cloning, I paint more carmine over the dark original of May 10, 1893.
And see: I have replaced the last trace of history in the image with the truth of art.
Think of me as a Venetian barber in a time of cholera, doing a little cosmetic work on Gustav von Aschenbach to make him attractive to the teenage punk who happens to be the god of history.