can be to reset the function of seeing to an earlier state. On the evidence of this artifact, for example, it may be possible that the advent of photographic vision in the nineteenth century didn’t just coincide with the advent of a metal-framed, curtain-walled architecture teaching its era a newly ample definition of the idea soar
but made it conceivable. Suddenly, cameras on their tripods were equipping the vanishing point with an azimuth and an elevation. Seen in restored state, this image reenacts one of those nineteenth-century instants when sight realized it could sail forever toward an ever receding horizon.
This cover opens to reveal the dinner menu for Friday, March 1, 1901, on board the world’s first purpose-built cruise ship, the German yacht Prinzessin Victoria Luise. The generic lithograph on the cover doesn’t depict the princess, but she was a pretty boat indeed. Here is the way Michael Zeno Diemer, the Oberammergau portraitist of ships and zeppelins, imagined her as those who bought their passages in her must have felt she deserved to be imagined. When we are on board, of course, imagination is the only way we have of seeing the vessel that bears us.
But in the physical, outside the realm of imagination, we at least can see what is physical of ourselves, and try to make those images approximate themselves to the beautifully comprehended images that we imagine. Our dinner on March 1, 1901, would have included turtle ragout and strawberry ice cream, followed by music of Wagner, Bizet, and John Philip Sousa. So perhaps, after that experiment on the senses, we might have gone sightseeing on deck, in the dark.
You see how we have posed ourselves there. One of us is languidly reclined in spotless spats. Another has painted himself into an icon of energetic masculinity with cap and cape and mustache wax. A third has contracted to something feminine, hugging herself deep inside a shawl. Our bodies and their impelling forces differ, but when they’re on deck together they communicate in a mutually understood body language. Behind us, a huge machinery emitting smoke and green light propels its boatload of bodies, signaling to all destinations that we haven’t yet arrived. We won’t shut down at sunrise, because the sense of sunrise has been postponed. We’ll still be talking when the day dawns on March 2. Silently, without any need for words, our clothes and their bodies will have promised us, that night on deck, that we’ll never die.
Launched in 1900, Prinzessin Victoria Luise was wrecked in the Caribbean just six years afterward, a casualty of navigation error. Her captain saw all his passengers safely off, then killed himself.
But for these voyagers transported by the princess through 1901, 1901 is visibly forever. You see that in the remaining record before you. In their lithographer’s presence, the voyagers within the princess became a smiling history of confidence in the everlastingness of dark.
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 TheEnd. 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.
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 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.