A social medium

On its online Library of Congress page, this photograph is dated July 1939, titled “Negro drinking at ‘Colored’ water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” and indexed under “segregation.”

https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017740552/

If you’re less than 30 years old, the time may have come for you to learn formally that the frieze at the top and bottom of this print is the pattern of sprocket holes along the edges of a roll of 35-millimeter film. The negatives produced by that phototechnology were tiny, just 24 millimeters in one dimension and ordinarily 36 mm in the other, and in the absence of any electronics their resolution couldn’t be high. So the sense communicated most immediately by this photograph is something not visual (say, its composition of forms) but historiographic — that is, the word “Colored.” That word evokes emotion, but the emotion is word-based and its word-based non-visual origins are multiple and incompatible. Depending on who you are and how your politics are oriented, what you see in this picture of a word may evoke either anger or nostalgia. In 1939 Russell Lee took the picture on assignment for a New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration, but if he were a Fox News cameraman in 2020 his product would be seen under a different regime of intention.

But in 2020, electronics can be brought to bear. In Photoshop I open the Nik filter called Dark Contrasts, and it darkens the word’s context and fades its ambiguities to black.

Now I can see the clean shirt and the rest of the clothing layer. As of 1939 the baggy pin-striped pants with high waist and narrow white belt were flashy-fashionable, as was the hat with its low crown, big ribbon, and dramatic curves. “I display,” they say. “Consider loving me.” But all around the clothing layer, now, is a grime. In 1939, when the word “Colored” was simply an aspect of the environment, the grime was latent and unseen. In 2020, the phrase “dark contrasts” helps us see it. The control reveals the grime to be not just a layer of visual effects like the clothes but a corpus of blackened qualities pervading both the image and its historical contexts, from the negative’s photosensitive surface to the darkness inside the camera and from the grime on the walls to the statute that erected them. From the dark image that then results we can learn that it isn’t the clothing that is to be loved; it is the colored man.

About him we can ask the dark: what was it to have been that thirsting body within its layer of clean clothes? And if the visual regime of Fox News prevails, what will it be again?

Reading in the decor

Decor 1

In the dining room in the background, the curtain is lace and there’s a decorative candle on the sideboard. The basic architecture of the living room is decorated likewise with consoling little flourishes of beauty. The brickwork of the fireplace is set off by the walls’ rusticated plaster, the overstuffed chair displays three crocheted antimacassars, and on the mantel with the portrait and the two little china things there’s also a clock that reads 3:55.

Perhaps the photograph was taken on a weekend, or perhaps the man who is tuning the radio is retired. At any rate, he is home at that hour, and wearing bedroom slippers. At that hour, a time scheme of slippers and daytime radio communicates leisure, and the man’s smile communicates satisfaction with the scheme for the present and optimism for its future.

But the Library’s record somberly adds that this home was in Royal Oak, Michigan, during the 1930s. History knows now what that means: this is a picture of a family suffering. Royal Oak in the 1930s was the home parish of Charles E. Coughlin, a Jew-baiting priest whose nationally popular radio broadcasts grew steadily more Fascist in their sympathies until they were silenced by the Bishop of Detroit after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in this photomemoir of the Royal Oak moment the nice grandmother in her comfortable chair is holding a copy of Father Coughlin’s newspaper Social Justice. Its headline is to be read only as a scream of distress.

It cries, WORLD REVOLUTION ORDERED BY STALIN! Furthermore, its sans-serif font on folded newsprint assures the old woman, as she lets its fall into her lap from an unsteady hand, that it speaks the truth. Especially, too, when it’s read in a house full of things, it reminds the old woman that she has much to lose if what it says is true — and it adds that what it says is true because it’s on newsprint, in sans-serif. Because she has bound up her life with sans-serif in a roomful of things, she must now remain in the room forever after, with all her unhappy valuables of polished wooden radio and sans-serif on newsprint. She can’t afford to leave. Having turned on the room’s radio and subscribed to the room’s newspaper, she has been deprived of the power to imagine being happy. In this room, ever after, there will be no more fiction.

Decor 2

The man has been reduced. When he lay down on a cot to read, everything was taken from him except a suit of underwear, for decency’s grudging sake, and the glasses that someone once bought for him, taught him to read through, and then forgot to take back.

FSA/8a21000/8a215008a21586a.tif

But I’d guess that the fragment of title readable on the cover of the man’s magazine is “The Western,” and its Old West typeface tells a story different from the sans-serif of Royal Oak. This story says: in Sioux City, Iowa, in an institution called the homeless men’s bureau, imagination lives and brings not happiness, surely, but at least oblivion. Held close to the underwear like an amulet, words spelled out in an Old West font fill their reader with the power to forget.

Sources:

The Royal Oak photograph is one of thirteen that Arthur S. Siegel took in December 1939 for a Life magazine photoessay which wound up not being published. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/coll/item/2004677780/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001018668/PP/. Photoshopped.

The other photograph, by Russell Lee, is one of a group taken for the United States Resettlement Administration in December 1936. Its Library of Congress title is “Man lying on bed reading magazine, homeless men’s bureau, Sioux City, Iowa.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997021496/PP/. Photoshopped.