The musician is dressed in a coat with frayed, patched sleeves. Under the sleeves, at his wrists, there is nothing to be seen but bare flesh and bone: no jacket, perhaps no shirt. His scalp is scarred. His hat doesn’t cover the scars because he has to hold it out in his right hand. His left hand is raised in a dance figure. It has nothing to do with the musician; it is only a part of the music he transmits to his city. He and the music box hanging on him by a strap are equal parts of an art apparatus. Imagine a Piranesi prison seen from outside. The stone would still be there, but it would no longer enclose its universe. Now it would be shutting out.
Through that hard plein air dances Orpheus in his aspect of beggar. Let me dance you into my dance, he begs us. At a subordinate distance from his image you can see the shadow of an ancillary apparatus: the camera that stopped it for a fraction of a second along its route to Hades. Ever after, that fraction of a second has been recorded by the camera’s art in the historical present tense.
And into the image frame there did, once, come dancing another man with his finger up like the musician’s. It too has been stopped in motion. Shadow tarantella following the floral-decorated machine, it will outlive the economy of stone and iron through which it passes.
At Honolulu’s Kawaikui Beach Park on July 27, 2016, I parked by a corroded old Dodge Neon, a car manufactured from the mid-1990s through 2005. Its windows were open, and a hand could be seen dropping cigarette ashes out the passenger side. Something protected against the weather with a black plastic bag was lashed to that side, and on the ground in back of the car stood something else, half-covered with a blue plastic tarpaulin.
When I got out of my car, I could see that the thing under the black bag was a wheelchair. The thing draped in blue was a gasoline-powered generator, purring loudly. Inside the car, close to each other in the back seat, two very old people reclined on a tangle of towels, smoking. In the state with America’s highest rate of homelessness (487 people per 100,000 in 2015), they were home.
I walked from the parking lot to the lawn.
After I took my picture I left. The Neon hadn’t moved, and I didn’t notice the girl, Miss Memento Mori, until I got back to my own home and inserted my memory card in its computer. In the two specialized vocabularies of computers and travel, a term for your own completed view of the girl on her brink near the Neon is destination.
3. I begin abstracting from the content, cropping some parts of the image that represent symbols too obvious to be interesting (iron bars, fallen leaves) and adjusting the color.
4. I crop and zoom.
And applied to an image about a hundred years old, computer technology has recovered an antique irony arising from the juxtaposition of the words “glory” and “old.” The computer has processed the image in historiographic mode. Free for the first time in a century to read the image as a text, we have placed ourselves once again under the interpretive control of Looking Backward or Maggie: A Girl of the Streets or Les Misérables.But in the interim between that moralized reading from the past and the recovered moralized reading of the present, there was a brief interim in step 3 when the picture wasn’t an allegory but only a picture.
And about that interim the immoral question has to be asked: wasn’t it beautiful?