“Huron St. and ferry landing, Port Huron, Mich.,” between about 1905 and 1910. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Contrast and detail restored. The ferry between Port Huron, Michigan, USA and Sarnia, Ontario, Canada was replaced by a bridge in 1938.

The horses on the monochrome thoroughfare have been stilled.

On the boat, the passengers’ chairs are scattered where they were left when the passengers left the image.

Inside the piano store, the unimaged and silence.

Upper Lake Michigan, summer 1906

Illustrations in a literary section, comprehensible only after a passage through written words.

Unwritten words uttered during their passage out of a frame. In the last of the light, they said We are not dark yet.

“Going to the night boat, Petoskey, Mich.,” 1906. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Contrast and detail restored.

They are still uttering.

Family, picture

When he laid his body into an array of images, the black cat became contiguous with it. Before he arrived, the images on this bureau had preexisted as a historic order predefined outside the frame, acquiring its meaning in a private community of reading through the community’s wordy memory. (“This,” people explain about a photograph, “is my dog.” When they say “is,” they refer not to the dog’s or the photograph’s visual form but to a name recorded in a list of words called a history.) But a community like this one on its bureau is also under the control of image’s physical meanings. On a bureau where differently dated images have been brought together, each of them fades to white on its own schedule. Within the frame of this integrated image of images, however, a clock has imposed an apparent uniformity of time. It registers the integral on the eye as a single perception. Time has entered the image, and the image has clocked and stopped it. For an instant, the metaphor of time as motion seems to have been suspended, and the living black cat seems as still as the dead images into whose space he has moved. The clock records the infinitesimal of suspended time as December 17, 2022, 8:17 AM.

Outside the image frame, of course, the actually never still cat continued moving. The shadows cast by a venetian blind moved too, and then a woman became visible to handle the comb and lay it back down, warmed now by touch as well as sun. To have realized such a truism of perception is a poignancy. For a perceived instant we could think we were stilled, like the cat. That was an illusion, of course. It is called persistence of vision. Seen at what used to be called the moving picture show, it is the sense that there can be an instant unchangeable: an infinitesimal of time and life never coming to an end.


Wonderland, not yet nearly done

From the diary of Lewis Carroll, July 4, 1862:

Atkinson brought over to my rooms some friends of his, a Mrs. and Miss Peters, of whom I took photographs, & who afterwards looked over my albums & staid to lunch. They then went off to the Museum, & Duckworth & I made an expedition up the river to Godstow with the 3 Liddells: we had tea on the bank there, & did not reach Ch. Ch. again till ¼ past 8, when we took them on to my rooms to see my collection of micro-photographs, & restored them to the Deanery just before 9.

[Addition on facing page] On which occasion I told them the fairy-tale of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground,” which I undertook to write out for Alice, & which is now finished (as to the text) though the pictures are not yet nearly done — Feb. 10. 1863

The Morgan Library and Museum,

Another record from the same date:

Coleman Sellers, “July 4, 1862 – at Mr. James Hunter’s Hestonville Pa.” Charles F. Himes Collection of Stereographs by Amateur Photographers, Library of Congress, Post-processed for contrast and detail.

This shows Independence Day. On the reverse of the stereo pair’s cardboard backing a note reads, “Negative damaged by varnish sticking,” but Coleman Sellers’s composition of sun and shade, hats and skirts and a punchbowl, men and women and a baby and a now extinct North American chestnut tree is still filled from margin to margin with splendor.

Made three-dimensional again as an anaglyph, it fills from front to back as well, in an almost luridly analytic perspective.

Requires red-and-blue stereo viewer.

But even this picture is not yet nearly done. Before anyone was granted enough time to see it to completion, it had followed its perspective and vanished. To see what you are seeing now is only what the guests on the lawn could see on a summer afternoon in 1862, and that isn’t enough. What’s missing from the smoothed grass is the rabbit hole.


1. “Mr. Greenwood in the office of the Knox Woolen Company, August 1900”

Mr. Greenwood is at his work in a little museum of calendars — by my approximate count, six of them. On the wall behind him is the public one, the calendar that’s to be read by us. It tells us its story in its official capacity: day by numbered day, only. But what Mr. Greenwood will see when he raises his head from his work is his private gallery, and what that gallery holds for him is images. The images exist in museum mode, the mode of capital that is enumerable in the phrase “a wealth of”: calendar after calendar made splendid by illustration, plus flags, plus pictures in independent textless splendor. Tied off beside Mr. Greenwood’s head is a light bulb, but the sun of a long New England summer day seems to be what illuminates his pleasure chamber. See how the sun throws his shadow onto the wall below the glassily reflecting lithograph of an Inman Line steamer.* See how the light carves his left shoe with its heel counter and its lace into bas-relief.

But in the weak sun of New England the photograph required a long exposure. Mr. Greenwood was alive and breathing during that summer interval, and as his breath warmed the air in his room and made it thermally turbulent, it blurred the image of his face. His life had been ongoing through the turbulence during the instant of time when a shutter was opened to it, but for us museumgoers it is no longer on display.


2. “Margaret & Augusta Talbot, March 1899 in back of the Congregational Church”

Photographs of Camden area taken by Theresa Parker Babb between 1898-1900. Theresa was the wife of Knox Mill superintendent C.W. Babb (1863-1956), and she was the grandmother of the donor, Janan Babb Vaughn. Theresa Babb was born in 1868 and died in 194

The named coordinates (“in back of the Congregational Church”) alter what we see of Margaret & Augusta. Without those data, we could see only their image and their names. They existed as a picture of Margaret & Augusta: two bodies loosely linked by a rope in white space. But add the church’s name to the names of Margaret & Augusta and their picture becomes a picture about Margaret & Augusta. Their zone of space has become populated. Margaret & Augusta and their snow now constitute a society.

In that society, Margaret & Augusta are the foreground. Photographed there, captioned in black on white with names that can be recalled from an archive in a library, they have acquired the traits of characters acting a tale through time. In that tale, the unseen congregation is still singing because it will always sing. In Margaret & Augusta’s white space there is no death.**


Photographs by Theresa Parker Babb in the Camden (Maine) Public Library, and Contrast and detail restored.


Royal Museums, Greenwich,

** Outside the image, in text, Margaret & Augusta’s society had a name, and it happened to be not Camden, Maine, but Milton, Massachusetts. Anonymously supplied to us by the social force of archive, that is the place name that appears on an envelope in the Theresa Parker Babb collection at and in the Boston Globe article “Talbot-McElwain” (October 1, 1916, page 19) about the wedding where Augusta was a bridesmaid and the groom was her brother.

And then the genius of the archive adds that the church in Margaret & Augusta’s image doesn’t resemble the Congregational church in Camden,

but does resemble the one in Milton:

Snowplowing through the archive this way, its genius can abundantly create a comparative history of the words Milton and Camden. That can be enclosed in the dark between covers, where it will be — has been, hereby — printed in black and white. You have just finished reading it under those black-and-white conditions. But the traces in the snow that remain of Margaret & Augusta are not black and white but white on white. They are not a history written in text but a map of Margaret & Augusta’s passage across a tract of time. In the main body of this text, above this footnote, that daylighted tract is where you were when you saw them.

Indian summer

This memorandum about Bostonian style is copyrighted 1904, but in its right half it advertises some plays that opened in Boston in the fall of 1903: Lady Rose’s Daughter in November, The Earl of Pawtucket and A Hot Old Time in October. Elsewhere in the image are more equivocations. In the elevated train rolling through the Dudley Street station the motorman’s window is open but the passenger windows are shut, and at every point within the composition’s frame the sunny air is full of winter smoke. See how it is hazing over the sign atop Ferdinand’s Blue Store. You conclude these observations by making a weather report to yourself: Indian summer.

But every human image is reported in Indian Summer Time. If we could hear the words in the mouths of the pictured dead, the communication would consist only of gossip about that light-filled pause in the oncoming darkness. Its words would efface themselves as they reiterated their gossipy promise: “I must be going.”

But the words in the mouths of the dead – say, the dead half-lighted in this image: the group of women with a little girl in a big sailor hat, the man standing by himself down below – are not to be heard, even by the dead themselves. On Dudley Street in 1903, the dead were surrounded by walls covered with words addressed to them, but the instant those words became part of a photograph they became part of a foreign language: a language comprehensible only outside the image frame. On a low wall in a corner of the domain of the dead, its imaged advertisement for photographic supplies and processing is still decipherable, but it is no longer readable because to read is to enact a coming to life of meaning in a living mind. Because its text is addressed only to the dead, the photographic advertisement can no longer be anything but a photograph. We can’t read it; we can only see it. We are not yet in the picture. While Indian summer lasts, we are too alive.

You pick up the photograph and warm it in your hand. It depicts a noisy flock of electric railcars ringing and grinding their ways along steel. It is a historical proof of deducible noise, but it communicates that idea (“Noise! If you can’t hear it, feel it through your fingertips!”) only to the insensate dead. The Indian summer that it records has sunken fully into its no longer photosensitive surface. Its silvered paper integument has become the weatherproofed chronicle of a now silent season.


“Dudley Street Station, Boston ‘L’ Ry., Boston, Mass.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

“The Boston Stage. Full Review of the Theatrical Season. An Alphabetical Record of Dramatic Works Performed in Boston During the Season of 1903-1904.” Boston Evening Transcript 16 July 1904: 24 and 23 July 1904: 45.

Fanfare for bagpipe

What is the woman thinking as she grasps a glass in her huge hand? Her clothes are firmly secured and no communication can be opened with her eyes or her mouth.

What is the man in the cap thinking? His body is relaxed only to the extent necessary for taking a seat at the table. His mouth is smiling but his eyes aren’t.

Both hands extended along the legs in the military posture called Attention, the little boy in front of the man is rigid. But his body deviates by several degrees from the perpendicular, and one of the two fastenings that close his tattered coat against the cold is a safety pin.

The expression on his face . . .

But it doesn’t matter, because at the center of the scene, eyes alert behind pads of fat, sits the big man with the big glass. He is his image’s low center of gravity. His legs take up all of the space under the table. It is his table, his. He stabilizes all the lives that have been brought close to its cold wood, freezing them into a dark tableau. Upstage, positioned apart from the snow, a greatcoated soldier looks watchfully sidelong toward the wings, while at the big man’s furrily warmed ear a bagpiper in a folk hat worn comically low over the brow makes a crosseyed face while he plays a song.

It can’t be heard on our side of time, but we who can’t hear have been admitted by the photographer Costică Acsinte to a place where the moment of its having become music is remembered. Seen there in snow, frozen note by note into a composition, the song appears to be part of a pageant of praise for the big man. But the auditorium for Acsinte’s pageant is so ample that it can accommodate men even bigger than this one. In fact, you are among some of them now, and they have begun striding forward from your vantage point to approach the image.

Not at all long after March 3, 1940, they will break through the fourth wall, enter a snowy little town in Romania, and make themselves welcome: Brueghel’s hunters, bringing to the big man’s newspaper-covered table their glad news of fresh kill.


Source: Costică Acsinte Archive, Slobozia, Romania,, image 19957175330. Photoshopped.

Don’t read. Look in the mirror.

The historic photograph seems to display no published provenance, and its online caption is obviously a late addition. “German fraternity mirror selfie, 1912,” say the caption’s words. There are only five of them, and they offer no more reward for reading than that. No other names inhabit the caption: names of the boys, names of their corps or their university, locations of their future battlefield graves. At that, three words of the caption’s five aren’t even interesting. Online — for instance, at ,

where I encountered the image on July 3, 2015 — the comment stream spawns dutiful ironies about the proximity of the phrase “German fraternity” to the date “1912,” and those you don’t have to read because you already know. Oh yes: just two years after 1912 will come 1914, and little do they know, these tragic boys in their lead-soldier uniforms. The commenters in their stream find this thought exciting, but perhaps it has previously occurred.

And whether you were among the excited or the unexcited, the idea’s bedazzling undergraduate words might almost convince you not to bother looking at the image they refer to. Nevertheless, the image still does cling to the caption’s border. Pathetically, it even tries to reach a little mirror up from the page and tempt us to look in, as if it had something to show us about ourselves. Look, it pleads; look with my help at the caption’s word no. 3 of 5, the one you’re skimmed past. In the mirror, look for an idea of mirror.

If you humor the request and do look, you’ll discover that during the instant when it made itself seen between two surfaces of a mirrored space, the camera in the picture began showing you an image and then didn’t stop. What the mirrored camera began bringing to light in 1912 is an image not only of the dead fraternity boys but of you who look at them now, you who are said to be alive.

I’ve photoshopped the faded original of this image for contrast, but I haven’t reversed its mirror property. Having been made a part of the image’s settings by the boy with the camera, that wasn’t in my prerogative to change. So the boys with their historical apparatus dated 1912 — the rifle, the bugle, the drinking horn, the scar-inflicting sword — continue looking now the way Alice looked at the moment she exited from our world. The world she entered then has grown more familiar by the day since its discovery by Lewis Carroll, but the world of this photograph is now unfamiliar henceforth. Somewhere in Germany, one day in 1912, a boy with a camera sealed himself and four of his friends behind glass and pumped out the time.

Out of time behind his glass, the boy is now holding the camera’s cable release clear of the imaging apparatus. It’s a long one; he has passed its plunger button all the way behind his back from his left hand to his right, which one day in 1912 held it up to the mirror while a last instant of pre-image history was changed with a click to something else. Something else has been among us ever since. It is the other half of our mirror image: the half that does not change and will not die.

And within its glass, bounded at the front by our world and at the back by the surface that reflects us back to ourselves, is the reaction zone where the two halves of the image, the mortal and the immortal, face each other. Looking at images every day, we cross the zone hour by hour in both directions. We’re as blasé about the daily trip as commuters, and maybe that’s why we turn away from the windows and look around our transport for something to read. If we’re beyond being moved to a sense of the real by a silent image, we may still be movable to excitement by a caption shouting at us like a CNN talker with time to kill. But perhaps there is a route across the zone that lets the traveler disembark for a moment, look around, and become alive to the zone’s interesting dangers. After all, Alice once took the route, and told us how. The secret of her itinerary seems to be a simple one, at least in principle. It may be this: just stop when the signs change to transparent.


A moment ago, the words readable in this New England vista of elms and steeples were saying only “McDaniels Drug Store.” Then, however, in a tumult of galloping hooves, the words “Keene N.H. Aug 12 1911” stamped themselves into place with a demand for understanding. From that instant, so long as it shall remain in the image, the word Keene is to be understood as the term here in the picture. As it takes dominion over that meaning, here imposes an unambiguity on the vista, forcibly unifying the multiple connotations of its two steeples with the single denotation of the sign that declares itself to be McDaniels’. Burned into the negative like a permanent scar, the white word Keene will continue being read even after the fire engine has completed its passage through the image frame and it is no longer August 12.

Passing through at a gallop, the men of the fire engine whip their steaming apparatus on toward an only slightly different here. Atop the apparatus, they race for the laureate idea that fires can be put out and (therefore) change can be forestalled. Also, because for them that idea is a smoking, sweating, horsedrawn thing, they can’t travel any significant way beyond the frame. On August 13, when the fire is out, the term Keene may still (therefore) mean here. But even as the fire engine rushes away on August 12 toward the new here, it is carrying away with it, beyond recovery, a Keene’s worth of fragmented images specifically timestamped August 12. On August 12, during the instant just before they became a part of the record, those things meant — those things were — life lived in Keene, life lived as Keene. Now, read as aftermaths of August 12, they are only components of a record. In that record, the outlines of the dead letters K, E, E, N, E remain what they always were: whitely unambiguous. All the other items that make up the image, however, have been changed. What they are now is only what we can see, and what we can see is only aberration and focus error.

Source: “Horse-drawn fire engine, Central Square.” Photograph by Bion Whitehouse. Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County, resource identifier hsykwh590 (15-37), Photoshopped.