Gleam

The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.

Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.

Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !

Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)

One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.

Joseph Antoine Callet, “Nungesser et un de ses mécaniciens.” Bibliothèque nationale de France, https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2020601/https___1914_1918_europeana_eu_contributions_11295_attachments_115062. Contrast and detail restored. The insigne was red (https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/%E2%80%9Cknight-death%E2%80%9D-airplane-insignia).

But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.

Pray for men: dark armistice with voids

John Vachon, “[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Armistice Day parade, Omaha, Nebraska],” November 1938. U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017717708/. Contrast and detail post-processed. The small holes at the top and bottom of the image are the sprocket holes in Vachon’s 35-millimeter negative. The single large hole was punched by the Farm Security Administration’s Roy Stryker to deface images that he had rejected from the collection (Alex Q. Arbuckle, “1930s ‘Killed’ Photographs,” https://mashable.com/2016/03/26/great-depression-killed-photos/).

Gesticulations from the age of steam

Three weeks into the Armistice, the dazzle painting still at its work of making illusion;

the hats waved as they had been in the days of plume;

perhaps a shouted word in a now dead language, such as “Hurrah!”;

on the evidence of this illusive little history, a belief that war can be over.

Returning American soldiers on the liner Mauretania, New York, December 2, 1918. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014708122/. Contrast, detail and perspective corrected.

 

Photohistory, illuminated: resisting fingerprints and fungus, a part of her memory continues standing guard

“Berlin night watch.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014700104/. Contrast and detail restored. The Library dates this photograph to 1914 or 1915 — that is, the Great War — but the date written on the negative in the upper left corner, probably Bain’s filing date, is prewar: “10/19/12.”

 

The dark contrast control

It’s one of Nik’s filters for Photoshop, and I’ve recently been using it to redo the images in some of my old blogposts. When the posts deal with history and its ironies, that little technical change turns out to deepen the illusion of meaning in the image. So here’s a magic kit from six years ago, now used a little better after some adult help.

https://jonathanmorse.blog/2014/12/27/heraldic/