Flash!

Toward a deck on wheels, light blasts horizontally. Its source would probably have been powdered magnesium heaped on a palette, ignited by an electric spark and leaving in its aftermath a cloud of yellow-gray smoke. The men illuminated on deck are being caught in a recorded act of what’s now called history, with coordinates in space and time: Pennsylvania Station, New York, USA, August 27, 1920.

In the station, the light has caught some men with notebooks in the act of recording the history. On their platform underground they are at the edge of terra firma, just at the brink of the gap that separates them from the man on the deck who is speaking the history to them. The same historiographic impulse that has directed a bolt of energy into the magnesium has given the speaker on deck a title that enrolls him in flash’s vocabulary: Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, Democratic candidate for the presidency.

Below deck is the level of dark. There, simple machines are at their work: wheels, steps up an inclined plane, an Archimedean screw. Because these execute physical law, not historical process, they don’t need the light that men require. Beneath the level that has been penetrated by flash, they are about to begin bearing the voluble men on the deck away from the illuminated fraction of a second where it has been 8/27/20. An instant from now, they and the men will be together in the dark tunnel where it is forever.

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Sources:

“J. M. Cox.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711189/. Post-processed to restore contrast and detail.

“Cox to Amplify His Charges Here.” New York Times, August 28, 1920, page 2.

Palace

“What the hell is this,” he snarled, “a Tom show?”

— Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, chapter 11

When the posters for this Tom show came out of their lithograph press in 1898 they were stacked face to face. The damage to this surviving example has been permanent. It is still marked with the ghost of another face, in reverse. So far, however, damage has made this piece of printed matter more readable, not less. The ghostly countertext makes us work more productively at seeing the survivor, and as the paper has turned brown it has contributed shading after shading of new complexity to the survivor’s spectral record. The parade is more intelligent now.

In 1898, on the street, it was some horses, some mules, some dogs, and a model house made portable on a wagon. In the mind, it was a communication from a text off-poster — a text whose full title was Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. There, off-poster, the on-poster word “sumptuous” seemed not to refer to anything. But in 2017, with all sense of what “sumptuous” might have meant in 1898 obliterated by what’s called progress, the palace cars can be seen as such, only as elements within a picture. And there, now, solely within the picture, at last! the palace cars have become one with the classical architecture of their mounting: in an ideal approximation of color, their shading completed by the passage of time, no longer on a mere overpass but on a plinth, no longer cramped smelly boring as they would have been in 1898 but, as the poster’s words promise, regal. In 1898 the pageant was a crudely literal play within a play and Al. W. Martin’s employees with their mule-propelled cabin were only rude mechanicals like Bottom and the boys in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 2017, surviving through time as a provisionally immortal snapshot, the pageant is seen at last as snapshot sees: mules and dogs and little black actress, stilled in transit toward us, passing just now and forever beneath a palace in the air.

Having become a fossil, the mammoth production invites us to enter its matrix and see it within lithograph stone.

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014636392/. Photoshopped.

 

 

Heroic angle, captioned

One day in 1941 a locomotive in an image frame went moving to the upper right. However, Alfred T. Palmer’s photographic history of the event also records a countermovement toward a vanishing point at the upper left. In the image’s center, emerging from that clash between the left-to-right implication of narrative and the right-to-left illusion of perspective, there is then seen a hero. Because his existence within the frame is only a formal function of his properties as an image, this hero is no more an individual man than a Rocky Mountain is an individual stone in the oeuvre of Palmer’s mentor Ansel Adams. The image-hero has no name because he has not yet been reduced to the need for a name. Still damp with the lochia of his new form, he is legion for the moment.

And so, satisfyingly, he doesn’t have a name to interrupt the moment. Instead, he has a caption. At the luxuriantly padded full-length of 87 words, this enwraps the hero in historical immortality this way.

Shipbuilding. “Liberty” ships. Most large shipyards have their own rail systems, with several locomotives and flat cars used for hauling heavy ship parts about the yards. This man operates such a locomotive transporting completed sections from a former freight car plant six miles to the ways where they are assembled into completed ships. All parts are prefabricated in this huge Eastern plant which formerly turned out freight cars. The completed sections are then carried six miles to the ways on flat cars. Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards Inc., Baltimore, Maryland

And do you need any more than that? Isn’t “this man” actually the best name for this recurring character in the long serial of Everyman? Look.

No, a name wouldn’t add any extra significance. Now that he is on rails, the man named This Man is en route forever after along the progress toward allegory. He doesn’t need to pre-order an inscribed namestone for the end of the journey because he is never going to arrive at a death. During the era when Alfred T. Palmer was his contemporary, he was intended to be seen morally, and now in the aftermath he is seen only under the unintentional aspect of aesthetics. Either morally or aesthetically, he doesn’t have an individual biography with a final date at the end; he never has had. He is only what the politics of the Liberty ship era created him to be: This Man.

But re-look and you’ll see a second man. Nestled behind the hero is a squire: the fireman who has made himself useful with a coal shovel and proceeded to generate the image’s grandly steaming scenery. Perhaps this other this man actually would have appreciated a mention. After all, men with shovels aren’t often depicted under the aspect of captioned proper nouns. In this image, for instance, the line of perspective from lower right to upper left ascends straight over the fireman’s head, outsoaring the face occulted under a perhaps newly purchased to look nice in the picture, but who cares? hat.

But no. For the purpose of image and caption, all that matters about the fireman is his having been nestled. Here he is in his nestling, then: a decoration, present in the composition only to provide contrasting darkness and silence and self-effacing mortality among clouds of hissing steam and sprays of words. For a war against Japan, ikebana.

 

Source: Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/oem2002001175/PP/. Photoshopped.

Bedstead

The old noun is enameled iron. The fabric bears the impression of another old noun, mangle. The glasses’ thin delicate lenses are actually made of glass. The wide eyes and smiling face are turned full on toward an about-to-be-blinding light.

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As things lose their immediacy of reference and become mere historical artifacts, the names they once had (“mangle”; “bedstead”) become hard, ironic, and unforgiving. The trusting smile that the picture shines toward us isn’t like the smile we return, because the man in the picture isn’t thinking, “Little do I know.” He is innocent. If he should say “bedstead,” the sound in his smiling mouth would lack the overtones demanded by our third-person knowingness. The reproduction would be low-fidelity, as if it had been played by a Victrola invisible within the image frame. Only we outside the image frame have been equipped by the passage of time post-flash to hear ourselves wanting to believe, “Little does he know.”

In the flash, “Little does he know” underwent a change of tense to “Little did he know” and the image acquired a caption. In the language of the past it can now say, for instance, “Bedstead.” Post-flash, we translate such words into bedtime stories that we force-read to ourselves, making believe that seeing what no longer exists (for an illuminated moment, a bedstead) can somehow come to mean understanding what no longer exists (forever, a bedstead). But the translation is a language we don’t understand ourselves. Now that the bedstead’s touchable knowable actual iron has passed out of reach in a flash, little can we know.

Source: Jack Delano, “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Engineer John Johnson.” January 1943. U. S. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001016175/PP/. Photoshopped.