She was Phoebe Snow, the white-gowned heroine of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American business history: Earnest Elmo Calkins’s series of streetcar advertising cards (1903-1917) for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. This was the onset of Phoebe’s dream.
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.
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.
“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.
Jack Delano, “Worker inspecting a locomotive on a pit in the roundhouse at the C & NW RR’s Proviso yard, Chicago, Ill.” December 1942. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Color Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992000700/PP/. Photoshopped.