A historiography of mainstream and margin

In its online record from the Library of Congress, the original stereo pair at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003004989/PP/ isn’t very satisfactory as a record in three dimensions. Its two images are differently sized, and they seem to have been taken from too far apart. Worse: most of the history they’re meant to record is in a caption in the margin, and there it communicates little until it’s been augmented by more captioning.

Here’s a mediocre anaglyph of the uncaptioned pair.

Analyzed by your red-and-blue viewer, this image will resolve only into a clichéd nineteenth-century stereoscopic composition, with the illusion of depth communicated by contrast between a merely pictorial detail in the foreground and a subject communicating extra-pictorial significance at some distance behind it. Not much of the extra-pictorial significance will come through, however, because its photographer didn’t anticipate how much of its future history he’d have to document as a viewed object. The glyph’s foreground detail does its cliché chore well enough visually, but historically it’s too prominent to work well with the Library’s caption for the pair, “James River, Virginia. Ships on the [James River].” At that, the craft in the river aren’t technically ships. Less complete but more accurate, and hinting in its incompleteness at a potentially more complete history, is the label on the negative’s original envelope: “Boat on James River.”

Specifically, gunboat. After I supply that three-letter addition to the text, you’ll notice the gun on the boat in the background, and then you’ll notice a second gun (covered) on the boat in the foreground. Oh yes, explains my three-letter augmentation: you’re looking at an image created as part of the Civil War — in the spring of 1865, I’d guess, to judge from the military history I’ve consulted offline and the state of the tree’s foliage online. After that first addition, more become available, and now their source can open into the image itself. Oh yes, says one of the new, image-born corrections: the detail in the foreground shows a man who is black, and furthermore his blackness is no longer just pictorial, no longer merely a contingent detail of the composition. The blackness now takes the form of a living man. This man who is now seen to be black can now be seen to take part in a new, free way in returning spring, and his freedom is owed, as a matter of non-pictorial truth, to the black boats pictured in the stream behind him.

So let me make a compositional correction to this image of a river and its margin, cropping it and adjusting its contrast to make the black ships more prominent by blackness and the black man more prominent by lightness against the black. The moment I do that simple Photoshop thing, the composition too seems to become visible in a new way, as if it has now come to depict both an excerpt from an archival history of the dead and a suspended instant of dance. It shows us a vernal gesture signifying a coming of guns.

Gesture may require a different kind of historiography from the one that generated the static one-liner, “Boat on James River.” The still, moored boats, those “expensive delicate ships,” turn out to be freighted with only one significant detail each: a gun (now obsolete and merely historical) at the prow. But the man and his moving hand are now seen to be reaching outward forever. That which has freed the man is now behind him, and he and we are now companioned together, dancing along one of the margins of time.

The phrase “expensive delicate ship” comes from Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Proscenium, name, sepulcher

At White House Landing on the Pamunkey River in Virginia, at some time during the Overland Campaign of May-June 1864, a load of hay destined for the Union army was unloaded from a barge. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photograph of the event, photoshopped below, is in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649517/. A different print, with more information about the photographer and the subject, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/263051.

The faded original image looks like a well balanced picture, with only a few masses remaining to present to the eye. With its detail restored, however, the image becomes almost histrionically busy. Set off within a proscenium made of trees and unfinished lumber are four vessels, each one bearing a crisply delineated name as it rides the waters of the Pamunkey: steamers New Jersey and Wenonah, barges Corn Exchange and John L. Ristine. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s long exposure time smoothed the moving water at the base of the setting and fused the men unloading hay from the Corn Exchange into a single industrious blur, but the vessels were heavy enough to hold still and let us read their names forever after.

There, forever after, Wenonah’s name will be seen to be an elegant affair, all serifs and gingerbread work, accessorized with the hay and a gracefully shaped boat and a fluffy puff of steam.

By contrast, the name on the warped and flaking boards of the John L. Ristine has little to say to us. Down there at water level, John L. Ristine is only about hay and self-effacement. For a fraction of a second the name Ristine was visible to the history which also came to include General Grant and his Army of the Potomac, but even then the men who remain in its image were looking not at it but at pretty Wenonah and the army’s hay.

But in the historical continuum there also remains this.

It seems to offer readers of the story of John L. Ristine a chance at an ironic happy ending. Ubi sunt Wenonah and New Jersey and Corn Exchange? Yet here beneath the ground of Philadelphia lies an actuality: that which remains of a name. It remains because it once was attached not just to a boat but to a man. There lie the remains now, anchored by the mass of a stone.

Yet off to the side is a pink heart loaded with words that plead, with an urgent exclamation mark, “Sponsor This Memorial!” The cry seems to insist that the work of inscription is incomplete. The transaction of carrying hay was successfully executed once, and then successfully forgotten. It was recorded in a ledger which there’s no longer a need to read. History has given it its nunc dimittis. But the gravestone still lies unsponsored on the earth. How can we conclude the transaction of reading it when we haven’t been taught how to read?

Ledgerless, wordless, whatever image that might survive of ship carpenter John L. Ristine still waits for a way to speak to us through the picture word “See.” Between a proscenium and a tomb wanders an unremembered name. It was once slapped in paint onto the transom of a barge, but nobody except Timothy H. O’Sullivan learned in time how to read it.