Strapped into a prosthetic technology, the eye can stop going naked. Hardening layer by layer, it no longer has merely to see. Now it can look.
— to, if not 1943’s problem of evil, at least 1943’s problem of the pen repairman. One day the words your breath forced through a pandemic mask in 2021 may be another charming souvenir, Kitten.
From the summary at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014713555/: “Photograph shows Tsianina Redfeather Blackstone (1882-1985), a singer and performer of Creek and Cherokee ancestry in recording studio with accompanist Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946). (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2017).” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Post-processed to recover detail.
The images archived at
come from an album of Great War photographs compiled by Fritz Martin, a reserve officer serving in an observation balloon unit of the Nineteenth Uhlan Regiment. The album is at least partly a memoir in pictures, including several of tall, handsome Oberleutnant Martin in the field. It is not a war diary but a finished picture book, formatted with generous margins and captions neatly inscribed in a French script. The captions are separate from the pictures, but the pictures are affected by the script’s insistent readability. They are non-verbal, but we readers are pushed to see them verbally, as history and as history’s words.
Here, for instance, are two of them, paired on a single page. The photographs were probably taken in locations separate from each other, but authorial control has unified them under a single theme: the theme of imprisonment. All of the men here are caged within image frames, but within those frames some of the men are doubly confined. Their defining trait there is the one that’s spelled out below each picture in a caption: the difference between some soldiers in uniform and their prisoners, also in uniform.
In Europeana.eu’s rephotographed archive, a few of the images pasted onto pages like these cast shadows where they have curled up from their browned backing. Most of them don’t, however. They’re so well preserved that some of the words referring to them by means of the twentieth-century technology of blue-black ink still show fresh traces of the blue. Close to the album’s gutter, shut away for a century from light and air, those words are still capable of asking us to read them as Oberleutnant Martin’s family and friends were meant to: instructions directing us to see the photographs as windows through the page into a history on the other side. Even this late in the day, the prisoners on view through those windows need no visual aid beyond a little spiffing in Photoshop. Photoshopped, with the decay of their paper backing compensated for, they become once again immer schon a verisimilar illusion of an event with a name, a date, a place, and a history.
The lights have come back up again there, and we find ourselves staring through the paper into the imaged men’s playspace. There, perspective recedes not to a vanishing point but to a flat plane like a theatrical backdrop, and the actors downstage are elements in another, parallel plane. In that plane, the one closest to the audience, the director has taken extra trouble to individualize the actors through costuming and makeup. One prisoner in the center, for instance, is depicted wearing a conspicuously ragged tunic apparently backward. At stage right another prisoner backs away from the group with a John Wilkes Booth glower, and next to him, for contrast, stands a dead ringer for Ben Turpin, crosseyed star of American silent comedy. Directors of silents didn’t have to worry about language barriers, of course, so in this silent the prisoners and their guards have all been choreographed to count and lunge on the same beat. The planes continue all the way upstage. Then grow some tall, graceful art nouveau trees, and the picture reaches its end.
And we have been freed to turn the page. Through what we thought was a hole in the page we saw a performance featuring men and trees and light, but it was a performance never not under the control of a script written on the page itself. Having been written on the page, it became part of the page’s history, and the subject of that history is to write itself not through our lives but through the prisoners’. In translation, the script reads, “December 1915.” Translation transports it to us across the language barrier, but in the process it communicates the news that an impenetrable fourth wall has erected itself between the action in the playspace and us spectators in the space of reading. It is a wall made of history.
But history builds itself serially, week by week or epoch by epoch. Except in the kiddie matinee’s playspace, it is impossible to anticipate when or whether the “The End” will come.
Consider, for instance, this episode in the historical record for September 11, 1915. It comes to us under a title: “A Free-Balloon Flight.”
The balloon was a German warcraft and it bore a dignified German name, Chemnitz. In retrospect, the reverent thought that went into that christening has acquired a tinge of comical pomposity, for the balloon was directed on its course across the sky only by a few shouting men in a wicker basket. The city of Chemnitz, likewise, underwent what looked like an evolutionary step forward when it was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt, but after the contemptuous erasure from history of the pompously named German Democratic Republic it quietly reverted. But one pictured part of the story of the balloon has proved resistant to erasure.
There it is, yes: the name Lt. Kohn. The face attached to the name is up in the rigging, and it seems to be illustrative. It looks, as Germans began suggesting on more and more of the days that serially succeeded this voyage, Jewish.
We might think of that additional information as an erratum slip tipped into the album. The album is a creature of 1915, but because its compiler followed the procedure for registering himself in literary history as an author, his phrase “Lt. Kohn” has become a literary text. Henceforth (or, as they say in the stories, “forever after”) it will immer schon be subject to revised readings, issuing serially. Unlike the image, it will have broken through the fourth wall and floated free in the direction of a never to be reached final meaning.
“Uprear,” mused a lithographer in about 1898, and then he sat down before his stone and heaved a great black-and-yellow ship out of the water. You can still almost hear the image he pulled up from the rock as it glided through a ninety-degree arc and moved into juxtaposition with four exhibits from the older strata of the New World. As people liked to say at the time, the engineer was the new builder of cathedrals.
They meant the metaphor as unironic, unmetaphoric praise. To buyers of chromolithographs like this one, if perhaps not to readers of texts like The Education of Henry Adams or Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” it was only natural that a ship should be seen to stand upright like the man representing the outcome of history in a Darwinian tableau.
For yes: after eighty years of evolution in marine architecture, it was accepted as a matter of course that this ship – Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of the North German Lloyd, the first of the great four-funnel liners – would be the biggest, fastest, and safest vessel afloat when it entered service in 1897. So rapid had been the change that when a New York Times writer tried to explain it he found himself trying to speak a language for which there weren’t yet even words. A very short time earlier, he and his readers had been taught a technical vocabulary of jack-tar monosyllables like “sprit” and “main truck,” but for whatever it was that was up on the truck now the only term at hand was a sixteen-syllable improvisation found in the mud at the shoreline. “The Marconi system of wireless telegraphic signaling,” gasped the improvisation through its brand new lungs.
Obviously, though, that lungfish periphrasis was soon to make way for something more efficient. So on Good Friday, April 13, 1900, the genius of the ship’s home port, Bremen, was comfortable with the idea of settling with her coat of arms into the potted palms and Art Nouveau curves of an up-to-date salon and raising her torch in Germanic salute to the genius of the ship itself, its eponymic Kaiser. The demigoddess had paired herself with the emperor for adoration, and their coupled icon opened like a tabernacle to reveal a dinner menu featuring turtle soup, sautéed pigeon, apricots, and pistachio and lemon ice cream.
Of course it isn’t even worth the effort to skip ahead and read what happened next. On August 27, 1914, only days into the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, now an armed commerce raider, was sunk in battle off northwest Africa by the British cruiser Highflyer. You saw that coming. Irony was laid down with the keel of the story. But perhaps it was also made part of the story’s structure by your own post-Highflyer visual education – a visual education that has had the effect of making the two lithographs, the lithograph of the upended ship and the lithograph of its traveling pantheon, look oversimplified now. Hoch! cried Fräulein Bremen in 1900, and up rose Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse to overtower Wall Street’s own temple, Trinity Church. For 1900, the ceremony of abdication and succession was impressive. But at about the time Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was being repainted gray and fitted with guns, ceremony was being forced into an evolutionary change of its own. That change worked itself out not on the materials of ape bone or marine iron but on surface and couture, and it when it was ready it strolled into history fetchingly attired as a second girl who was arriving to spell Fräulein Bremen in the bar.
Pablo Picasso had gotten acquainted with her in 1912. Her nickname that year was “La bouteille de Suze,” but to Pablo and her other friends ever since she’s just Suze. It’s always fun to be with her, too, because she’s the girl that dresses all crinkly in newspaper. She’s one of the first collages ever created, and she’s so excited about what she’s wearing that she doesn’t need Thomas Henry Huxley or Norddeutscher Lloyd. She already has all the admirers anyone could need. With them, with us, she always begins the fun by giggling, “I’ve got glue all over myself!”
And then she asks, “How do I look?”
And she looks fine.
And then she asks, “Is that thing way out there, going away, a boat?”
Gray Lith. Co., untitled scale lithograph of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, between 1898 and 1900. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016649824/.
Thomas Henry Huxley, illustration from Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, 1863.
The Buttolph Collection of Menus, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-48a3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
“Pablo Picasso’s Bottle of Suze, 1912.” Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, https://mlkemperartmuseum.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/pablo-picassos-bottle-of-suze-1912/.
The images of the ship, the evolutionary diagram and the menu have been adjusted in Photoshop to restore detail and color.
Monet’s haystacks are a pastoral technology. Unchanged in form since the mummy god Osiris taught men to plant seeds in the earth, they remain still on the earth while the wheeling light passes over them. It is from such stillness under change that we have become aware of time.
This image is a Monet landscape, but its pastoral imagery is now shrunken almost to unnoticeability. High and large in the foreground and, as the image’s title says, ascending, a new technology is sending unchanging shadow back up to the sky from which changing light once descended unchecked, bringing with it life and death in seasonal alteration. Linear Marinetti history is superseding cyclical Monet history. A hundred years ago, says this historical record, death was on the rise.
Source: Aufstieg eines Jagdflugzeuges (“Ascent of a fighter plane”), Austria-Hungary, about 1917. National Library of Austria, http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Pages/ImageDetail.aspx?p_iBildID=4814016. Photoshopped.
Unattributed woodcut, about 1850, in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003672999/. Photoshopped. The lines of verse are by the botanist-poet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin.
It’s like a carpet bazaar in a cheerful souk: every day on my Android tablet, Google unfurls a selection of news stories before my eyes and asks how happy they make me. I happily reply.
For instance, I recently told Google, I’m not interested in reading any more of your contributions from the right-wing Washington Times. “Thank you, sir! No problem at all, sir!” replied Google. Then it began sending me stories from the much more right-wing WorldNet Daily and Daily Caller.
Not interested in those, either, I told Google. “Thank you, sir! No problem at all, sir!” Google replied. Then it began sending me stories from the neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi VDARE.
Try again, I told Google. Replied Google, “Thank you, sir! No problem at all, sir!” And then it began sending me aluminum-foil-hat stuff about TWA Flight 800 from a site called American Thinker.
Google, may I suggest that one alternative to right-wing stuff is more right-wing stuff but another alternative is less?
And about that driverless Google car you’ve been thinking of, have a song! Consider it my thank-you note.