Miniature railway, Coney Island, New York, 1905. Source: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/det1994015437/PP/. Photoshopped.
Between June and August 1923, President Warren G. Harding traveled by train, car, and ship through the western states, delivering speeches as he went and becoming the first president to visit Alaska. On the return leg of the journey, he died in San Francisco.
His surviving itinerary tells us that it must have been June when Mr. Harding struck this pose before a stereo camera owned by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, Pennsylvania. “President Harding in the ‘Cab’ of Great St. Paul Electric Locomotive, Falcon, Idaho” proclaims Keystone’s written supplement to this event in its business history.
Postprocess the stereo pair with Photoshop and an anaglyph program (red-and-blue stereo glasses required) and you’ll have an approximation of what a customer of the Keystone View Company would have seen in her stereopticon in 1923. The image is vivid once again, and the 3D and the words printed below it assure you that vividness is reality. But something within the image frame seems out of scale. The cab of the Great Electric Locomotive could only have been designed to receive a human body into itself, but this body doesn’t fit. It and the locomotive’s greatness don’t seem to belong together. The man is less vivid than the machine.
Well, the man and the locomotive occupy different registers of body language. For the moment, the cab is playing host to a man in a suit, and the man is playing engineer. But for the man’s elbow-out-the-window engineer pose a suit is the wrong costume, and of course (and in the cab of the Great Electric Locomotive this is sad) this man is so grown up, ex officio, that he couldn’t dress any other way unless he could somehow change himself and start being an engineer. Posing in his suit in the midst of the Great Electric Locomotive’s magnificent apparatus of wheels and springs, the passenger can’t make himself at home in the cab. It is not his. Whatever power the passenger can bring into play outside the cab, the Great Electric Locomotive will continue exerting its own force over steel as a labor.
By contrast, the business of the Niagara Falls scenic trolley line is strictly play. In this image, some laborers are visible along the rails ahead of the car, but the image has properly allotted everything human within the car to a role subordinate to rushing water and soaring trestle and industrious cargo.
This is a picture about seeing. The railroad was laid to help its passengers see the river, and then the picture was taken to help us see the result. In their image, the passengers have gone invisible, as they should. They are now absorbed entirely into the business of seeing and being seen. They are not just at play now; they are play. Unlike the man with two months to live who showed himself in a window of the Great Electric Locomotive, those who submerged themselves in unseenness before the sight of the river have now become invisible players of the game whose winners win deathlessness. They are play forever because they are play everywhere. They are not visitors to a cab; they are that which moves with a river.
Here: spin the wheel and test for yourself. Which has more life now, which will have more life now and happily ever after: the man in the hesitantly named “cab” of the Great Electric Locomotive or this little tin energy, inviting us to board and then roll toward life forever?
The moment you saw it, you knew.
The Great Electric Locomotive: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91729604/ . Photoshopped.
The scenic railroad: “Niagara Gorge with Michigan Central Cantilever Bridge and Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, New York,” between 1880 and 1899. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994002153/PP/ . Photoshopped.
In the middle of Loren Eiseley’s essay “How Flowers Changed the World,” the freshman comp class snapped awake for a moment when a girl hit a startling assertion and uttered a pretty little scream.
“Flowers are sex organs?” she cried.
“What did you think they are?” I Socratically responded.
And then the girl ventured: “For decoration?”
The woman’s denim pants from South Korea are purses for an invisible currency. Their decorated pockets hold nothing but an object of imaginative speculation. Playfully, they deploy optical illusion to shape an idea of the body they coyly hide.
Playfully, too, they are labeled with nonsense words and an anachronistic image from a symbol system which still retains prestige in its provincial borderlands.
H. M. Regiment of Royal Korean Cowgirls.
The beggar is holding a sign which we can’t read at that angle.
“Beggar’s dog – Hoboken,” ca. 1910-1915
Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection
But we can be sure what it must say. Advancing on our sympathy behind the shield of his sign, the beggar is notionally selling pencils and shoelaces: things everybody needs, things with a value in any economic system. But in the trade zone behind the sign, what is transacted is only an exchange of money from one pocket to another. Except for that transfer, everything in this image is decoration. The beggar’s pencils are no more for writing with than a hedge funder’s bling watch is for telling time.
Making it playful, the beggar has alienated his tin cup from the transaction by hanging it around his dog’s neck. Accustomed to seeing pictures by the rules of narrative convention, we think of the dog as smiling. The dog is also wrapped in something gauzy. It may be something like a woman’s shawl; it may be a completely threadbare blanket. Presumably it is worn against the cold, but we are going to read it too as part of the game. Coming closer and closer to the outline of the dog’s body, it playfully beckons the decorative twists of the iron bars behind it into what might look like the final shape of a life.
That gauze, those iron helices, that dozing bald man, have become part of a pattern they can no longer outlive.