Marked at the top of the negative with what is probably a filing date, “8/10/21,” this photograph of a ship probably dates from the spring or summer after the ship entered service in November 1920. Originating in the date and immediately moving offsite to reference sources, that’s the textual history of this image. Of the rest of the image’s history, the part that remains inside black borders, little remains. We can’t even really see the forms it depicts until we’ve tagged them with guesses originating in text: the word smoke, the word gun. We will have to look right through one of the image’s blank spaces before we can locate anything capable of being understood and uttered — a name, at last! — and then write that into a literary text leading to a satisfactory The End. Probably delivering an A’s worth of irony, for instance, might be something like,
Dreadnought Nagato: to become the only Japanese battleship that survived World War II.
But computer technology offers us a second try at seeing within the frame. Just (it is so easy now) post-process this image with (for instance) Photoshop, bring to bear an artificial intelligence mediated by programs named Topaz Clear AI, Topaz Sharpen AI, and Topaz DeNoise AI, and within the frame there will reappear, after the lapse of a century, a man: an officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, his eyes shadowed by the visor of his cap but his whole body communicating senses of words such as watchful and alive. The effect is almost as if the image’s photochemistry were recreating an affective intention. See, says the intention; see, in the first instance, the recovered trace of my silver halide crystals. In the second instance, they will have prepared you to love me.
And if the love within the image is a sign of a love that existed before the image . . .
Offered for eleven euros on April 28, 2019, this is a presumably French photograph dating, to judge from the clothing and the deckle edges, from the 1950s. Its commercial history online is no more than that. The image has numerous tag-names, but the forms within it have none. They are nameless now; only shapes given temporary form in a distant past. In the recent past, somebody decided that their significance was no longer worth deciphering and carried their picture out to the flea market.
But after the image took its temporary form it was supplemented with the persistent trace of a pre-existing desire.
Somebody with a tube of photo-tinting pigment decided to make the little girl’s dress look pretty, so down went a layer of pink. Then the desire extended to the decorations on the young woman’s dress. She had already brushed her hair and put on lipstick, and her cherry buttons were so cute and red . . .
The photo technician was an amateur, and photographs back then had to be waited for after they were taken. The retouch job probably hadn’t been anticipated, and this print was probably the only one made at the time. That was the usual course. Mistakes, such as the excess of red on the cherries, were vulnerable to the arrow of time. Once having been made, they entered history irrevocably, without possibility of correction. Faced down by history, the amateur capped his tube and walked away, and the young woman’s face entered its posterity shrouded in monochrome.
But once, for a moment unrecorded except in the seen fact of its having occurred off the record, somebody may have smiled as he picked up a newly uncapped tube of color and moved it toward contact with a not yet touched surface communicating at the molecular level that there now existed a woman and a baby, and (off the record) they were loved.
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014713016/.
The source for the Hebrew Publishing Company image, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewish_immigration_Russia_United_States_1901.jpg, dates it 1901, but to me the date looks more like 1909. For a short history of the Hamburg-America Line’s important role in the history of Jewish immigration to the United States, see Karen Manners Smith’s article at http://immigrationtounitedstates.org/538-hamburg-amerika-line.html.
Both images have been post-processed for color and sharpness. The main caption in the German poster translates, “Fast steamer Deutschland, the fastest ship in the world, entering service early 1900.” In the Jewish image, the American eagle who faces off against the Russian eagle unscrolls a text that reads not E pluribus unum but “Hide me under the shadow of thy wings” (Psalm 17.8).
The upper image is the US Navy zeppelin Shenandoah (commissioned 1923, crashed 1925) with its dock ship Patoka.
The Cunard liner Aquitania off New York; image undated but probably spring or summer 1914. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014719093/. Post-processed for contrast and detail.
When the German ocean liner Imperator entered service in 1913, its prow supported an enormous bronze figurehead.
There, with opening wings, an eagle wearing the golden crown of the Holy Roman Empire faced forward to welcome wave-borne destiny. Gripping the world’s orb, he surmounted it, stretching strong eager talons all the way to its equator and impaling his slogan, Mein Feld ist die Welt.
Humbly, crouched, Ozymandias’s servant waited on him with paint.
The poster: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American_homes_and_gardens_(1913)_(14761672816).jpg. Contrast and color balance restored with Photoshop.
The ship: George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014694028/. Cropped and post-processed with Photoshop.
On Thursday, December 23, 1920, The New York Times reported on page 9:
The article was headed “Olympic’s Notables See Gain in Europe,” and among the disembarking notables its reporter interviewed was New York’s Assistant District Attorney Owen W. Bohan, on his way home from having assisted in Italy in a prosecution for murder. A photographer from the Bain News Agency was also on hand.
On the other side of the Atlantic, earlier in 1920, the architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had caused himself to be made over as a theory apparatus named Le Corbusier. Throughout that year, that apparatus outputted a series of polemics in a journal named L’Esprit nouveau. In 1923, it collected the articles into a book and called the book Vers une architecture. The title implied that architecture was something that lay ahead, something yet to be achieved. Much of the material that supplied the book’s thesis and body of examples was marine architecture — specifically, the architecture of the great four-stacker ocean liners whose creators were now teaching — if architects would only listen! — that steel could be a system of the human body like muscle and bone. “So old, so old!” cried the apparatus as it contemplated the time when pre-metallic humans lived in caves of stone.
And so, on a December day in 1920, another apparatus sailed up the bay into icy New York: a cylindrical construction built of linen and starch. At its apex, the construction displayed a triumphal decoration shaped like a head. The head looked human, but because the apparatus was made of cloth, the construction was only an idol. The cloth could have been woven in a cave, and one of its purposes as an idol was to represent to its cave-bound worshiper that there is a reality beyond representation. It is waiting to be seen. It is in the light, outside.
And yes: outside on December 22, 1920, looming behind the notable, not wrapped like him in cloth but warm from its own source below decks, there stood a cylinder of steel.
Perhaps the steel thing was only another idol, a transitional object erecting itself to mark the evolutionary passage from soft cloth to hard metal to a pure idea standing at the end of change. If it was, we probably don’t have to worry about our own soft mortal selves. There will be more idols to come, interposing their comforting representations between us and the moment when our hearts stop beating and desire ends. Le Corbusier himself was famously annoyed when the tenants of his buildings insisted on filling them with comfortable furniture. But for the quarter-century that began in about 1920, many people took Corbusian steel itself to be the idea, and worshiped it with temples and blood sacrifice.
Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711873/. Photoshopped.