On September 23, 1943, Henry Moore revisited an air raid shelter in the London Underground and reenacted the death-defying role he had played there three years earlier, during the battle of Britain. This time, however, he stood without a pencil in his hand, and a movie crew was on the scene to establish its own ever-changing record. For that sculpture without stone, the sculptor and his models had changed into spectators of one another, living on in time after the timeless art was finished.
Somewhere aboveground, simultaneously, a white apron had draped itself over a woman’s round body. We don’t know who the woman was, or just where. The same history that confidently told Henry Moore “Alight here” places her only in a parenthesis named “(vicinity).” But next to her in (vicinity) there once did stand the flattened forms of another woman and a dog. Coursing and smiling but unbreathing, those are works of dead art.
We see the woman in white in a different way. She whom the drape conceals from our sight was capable of the adventitious. Only she could have violated art by dropping a burning cigarette into weedy space.
It has remained. Wherever (vicinity) is, a chair still awaits its white-aproned woman, rocking a little in the air pushed ahead of her arrival.
the last poet who might have gotten away with using the phrase “sin and error” about the Battle of Britain was probably Emily Dickinson (d. 1886), she who successfully wrote a poem (Fr479, “Because I could not stop for death”) containing the word “immortality.” By the time of T. S. Eliot (b. 1888), that era in the possibilities of language had passed. The Wright Brothers, sons of a bishop, had vouchsafed to Eliot’s time a descriptive lexicon that made obsolete some key words of the Book of Common Prayer, but Eliot didn’t journey to the airfield to pick up the mixed parcel of words and mathematics that held his new heritage. Instead, sheltering from bombs, the great modernist poet regressed to black letter. Throughout the Quartets he is articulate about what can’t be easily read through that ornamented face (EastCoker II: “A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion”), but he is a man of letters, articulate only in letters.
Yet the light and air through which another dove is descending as you look are text-free. In the text above, the word “dove” stands in ways not related logically or representationally for both an icon in stained glass and a night-gray Heinkel 111, but the feathered luminance in the image below is merely and wholly a body. It is not an allegory of body; it is body as such. Words wear out, says a T. S. Eliot poem written in words, but the whistling, flapping sounds of descent aren’t words. They subsist in the audible as they have never stopped subsisting: audible only; immortally un-paraphrasable in mortal language. To hear them under that aspect, holding in conscious abeyance the idea of a meaning beyond nature, is a joyous fear. A text in black letter tells us that fear before the supernatural is the beginning of wisdom, but joy is in the understanding that light comes to us by laws of nature as a continuation without an end. What it communicates is not a predication but a melody.
At midday on August 21, 1945, under partly cloudy skies at an airport in Chongqing, China, a recently arrived Japanese transport airplane awaited permission to redepart. Out of camera view, the airplane’s primary passenger, Major General Takeo Imai, was being briefed by Allied officers about procedures for his army’s impending surrender. When he reboarded the craft and its Kuomintang guards cleared it for takeoff, a final change had begun. On September 9, the commander of Japan’s occupying force in China signed a document of surrender and Japan’s colonial empire in Asia came to an end. It had lasted fifty years, from the end of the First Sino-Japanese War to the end of World War II.
It left a photographic record filled abundantly with the kind of images that get called “historical”: the field full of Korean nationalists executed in one of the traditional Japanese ways, by crucifixion; the Chinese mother and her baby being beheaded with a single swing of a Japanese soldier’s sword. But on the tarmac at the moment just before all this was about to end, all that the record shows us in the way of what’s called history is clouds and mountains and an earth indifferently bearing its burden. The unoccupied little Mitsubishi Ki-57 Type 1 takes up only a portion of its history’s didactic illustration, and none of the Chinese and American spectators who surround it seem to be in a heightened state of awareness. Off-camera, the idea of history would insist that this image must be interesting enough to make a moral demand on our attention, but on-camera it isn’t.
Of course time has never taken a break from destroying whatever traces of emotion there may remain in this still-fading, still-blurring photograph. Entropy has claimed some of the image’s significance. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care as much as history tells me I should about the traces that remain.
But at least some of those entropic changes are, for now, reversible. Some of the obliterated traces can be made made to reappear. I have removed what remains of the image from decaying paper to an idea in computer memory, and now . . .
. . . and now, at least, the airplane’s camouflage stands out from the sky. That, however, couldn’t have been the camouflage’s original intent. Camouflage is an art form explicitly designed not to be seen. Dragged into visibility by photographic manipulation, the changed image creates an impression almost of confused, blinking self-consciousness. “Something has happened to me,” it seems almost to say. “I may no longer be what I was wanted to be. I have turned out differently.”
Also, the newly restored cloud-images above the imaged airplane are pushing forward in newly urgent detail, and unlike the camouflage pattern, their collective form has begun proliferating beyond the image frame. To judge from the continuity between this little image-cosmos and the larger cosmos I see through my window when I lift my eyes from the computer, it appears that the image’s cloud shapes remain permanently in persistent vision. They never will change, and so they never will cross mortality’s frontier and enter history. Subsisting forever in the present tense, the unworded object of thought cloud will always just be. It will never become translatable into chronology, because chronology is a text formed by its included intervals of dead time (say, the instants of silence that follow every period) into something always just becoming. Within the wordless image of aircraft and clouded air at which I’m now looking, the only part that is historical is the tableau depicted beneath the clouds, where unnamed and now unnameable soldiers stand with with their backs turned to us. What that turning away says wordlessly is: “From this moment, I am going to be unreadable ever after. Having once emerged for a fraction of a second from the not-yet and shown a photosensitive surface within a camera what I then was, I will never show myself again.”
One American war earlier, a patriotic milkman in Richmond, Indiana, took out a notice in the RichmondPalladium-Item to defend his virtue with respect to petroleum. We milkmen stand FALSELY ACCUSED, he cried. “We are,” he cried, “FEEDING THE BABIES OF AMERICA.”
The date was September 21, 1918, and as a wartime conservation measure the Federal government had decreed what it called Gasless Sunday: a ban on Sunday pleasure driving everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi. Just below the plea from the operator of a fleet of gasoline-powered trucks, the dealer for a battery-powered automobile was letting himself go smug accordingly. “The Seven Day Car,” gloated his self-promoting prose. And it rubbed in the gloat with a moralizing slogan: “The Conservation Car.”
The application-text beneath the front wheel expanded that phrase into a sermonette by drawing attention to the electric car’s now significantly absent gas tank. Then, working back in time to the now inconceivable era of peace, it generalized from automotive economics to the sexual economy that underlies every changing human action. “A few years ago the Milburn Electric was considered an exclusive car of ladies — ” said the analysis, lingering in suspense at the dash in order to let a not yet conceived thought gather itself unseen and then pounce and penetrate, “but today — business and professional men use the Milburn constantly — and in preference to their gasoline car.”
As of September 21, 1918, readers would have assented without argument to the first of those propositions: the undaring, unadulterous one. They would all have known that before the electric starter came into wide use in the middle to late nineteen-teens, electric cars were indeed marketed to women. Electric cars had to be little and they couldn’t go far or fast, but they were also clean and quiet and easy to drive. On the other hand, hand-cranking a gasoline motor was a dirty, sweaty job, and beyond many women’s strength. So, for a while, the electric car did participate in a gendered competition. The Milburn, one of the more successful marques, was in production for a respectable fourteen years, 1910 to 1923, and during the Wilson administration the Secret Service patrolled the White House grounds in a fleet of Milburns. But less than two months after this issue of the Palladium-Item landed on the front porches of Richmond, the Great War ended and Gasless Sunday vanished from the calendar. Soon enough, the electric car followed. When electrics were remembered in later years, they were indeed remembered as ladies’ cars — for instance, by the protagonist of Jean Stafford’s 1948 short story “The Bleeding Heart,” who gets a surprise when she learns that the driver of an antique electric car she has seen is not an old woman but an old man. Inside an electric’s softly upholstered internal space, a male body was anomalous.
So Milburn’s 1918 claim on the love of men was only a fantasy. It was specifically a fantasy in words, born out of resistance to reality and unsustained by any evidence available to sight or memory or male desire. In its favor it had only the fickle military time-term “For the duration.” But in 1917, when Milburn had thoughts only of women, she had at her call a different sort of fantasy: a fantasy self-created not from words but from images and expressing itself through shapes, colors, and the visible traces furrowed by desire along its transit through the body.
Shaded, then, by a delicate openwork typeface through which the breeze whispers her name, Milburn 1917 comes gliding on white wheels into a grove of tall trees planted by Fragonard. There, barefoot on pastoral herbage, dance a troupe of Isadora Duncan nymphs. At their distance from Milburn it will be impossible to hear a shepherd sing his lying song, “Come live with me and be my love,” and the space sheltered just behind Milburn is filled only with mother love: quiet as an electric car, with a little girl in little-girl primary colors restrained safely by her mother’s hand while she wiggles her own fingers in virginal greeting. Like the soldiers in the other image, she has turned her face inscrutably away from us. She must be about her Milburn’s business. As Keats might have caroled from his own darkling grove, she was not born for death.
I photoshop time’s blemishes from Milburn’s pearl-gray sides, then step back as she continues her transit across unchanging beauty.
Sources: Both the image of the airplane and the color image of Milburn are found in several locations on the Web, and I haven’t located bibliographical citations for either original. The Tumblr page where I found the Milburn image gives it a date of May 1917, but no source for that attribution is given. My information about the history of the Milburn comes from http://www.milburn.us/history.htm.
During the early 1970s, Marlboro cigarettes, formerly a niche brand, rocketed to the top of the market and became the best selling cigarettes in the world. The reason is well covered in histories of advertising: Marlboro’s manufacturer switched niches. If the cigarettes haven’t killed you yet, you associate Marlboros with masculinity, thanks to the extraordinary success of an advertising campaign whose icons came coughing onto the page beginning in 1954 — first as men with tattoos, then as cowboys. Look to your left, however, and you’ll see that as of 1944 Marlboros were a woman’s cigarette, tipped with red to hide lipstick stains. At http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php you’ll find a richly illustrated history of the gender reassignment. This note is about a language change that seems to have occurred concomitantly, and perhaps a moral change too.
Yes, in this advertisement even the illustration has a moral. Between the woman and her ashtray stands Daniel Chester French’s image of the Minuteman of Concord, steadfastly posted eyes-front at breast height. Almost as an afterthought, the advertisement’s text is duty-bound likewise. “Two luxuries she can conscientiously enjoy,” it explains about the illustration, and it half-conceals its heroine’s lineaments of conscientiously gratified desire behind a turned back and a mirror image guarded by a raised arm.
Nineteen-forty-four, after all, was a year when openly acknowledged desire must have seemed shameful. In the sixth year of the Second World War, all of the unashamed rest of America was austere. In window after window hung a little flag bearing at least one star, each star the symbol of a son in the Armed Forces or (if the star were gold) of a son dead on the field. In magazine after magazine, too, the advertisers who articulated the language of America’s economy somberly explained the necessities of shortage and pleaded for willing submission to the unending sacrifice. Turning her back and refusing to look at anyone but herself, Miss Marlboro counterpleaded, with feminine emphasis and a feminine diminutive, for “mere pennies,” but the 1943 penny itself was a memento mori. Not made of copper that year because copper was desperately needed for shell casings, it was minted instead in galvanized steel: no longer the red of a Marlboro beauty tip but gray, gray. “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had cried with defiant joy as he stood before Harvard’s divinity school in 1838, but 106 years later the threat to joy was no longer a three-quarters-dead regional Puritanism but death itself, fully dressed against the summer in menacing black.
But no, pretty miss in heels and peach-colored panties: even under that dread circumstance, you need not feel ashamed of your bath. It makes you not just clean but clean-feeling, and that harmless benefit comes to you free of any charge, either in money or in currencies of the soul. The world outside has descended fully into 1944, but in this room with the ashtray on the vanity you are about to sink into a bath conscientiously. The original sense of that adverb happens to have been in good conscience.
Postwar, I get the impression that that sense has all but disappeared from American English. The word conscientiously now seems to connote little more than rational but uninspired acceptance of a duty. Yes, yes; I do, conscientiously, try to practice good dental hygiene. But except perhaps as a vestigial technicality in the legal term conscientious objector, any sense of conscience as a motivating joy seems almost to have vanished from English. In 1914, in the first poem of the sonnet sequence he called 1914, Rupert Brooke compared men about to volunteer for the war with “swimmers into cleanness leaping,” but as early as 1918 some of the Englishmen to whom that simile had once seemed to mean something were saying, “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came home with Siegfried Sassoon.”
So conscience understands that it will be different this time when you take off your panties and leap. But do leap. It seems possible that the calendar will never again advance from 1944, and the leap will at least make you feel clean until you resurface in the smoky air. As a poet who thought himself postwar once sang:
One day in 1941 a locomotive in an image frame went moving to the upper right. However, Alfred T. Palmer’s photographic history of the event also records a countermovement toward a vanishing point at the upper left. In the image’s center, emerging from that clash between the left-to-right implication of narrative and the right-to-left illusion of perspective, there is then seen a hero. Because his existence within the frame is only a formal function of his properties as an image, this hero is no more an individual man than a Rocky Mountain is an individual stone in the oeuvre of Palmer’s mentor Ansel Adams. The image-hero has no name because he has not yet been reduced to the need for a name. Still damp with the lochia of his new form, he is legion for the moment.
And so, satisfyingly, he doesn’t have a name to interrupt the moment. Instead, he has a caption. At the luxuriantly padded full-length of 87 words, this enwraps the hero in historical immortality this way.
Shipbuilding. “Liberty” ships. Most large shipyards have their own rail systems, with several locomotives and flat cars used for hauling heavy ship parts about the yards. This man operates such a locomotive transporting completed sections from a former freight car plant six miles to the ways where they are assembled into completed ships. All parts are prefabricated in this huge Eastern plant which formerly turned out freight cars. The completed sections are then carried six miles to the ways on flat cars. Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards Inc., Baltimore, Maryland
And do you need any more than that? Isn’t “this man” actually the best name for this recurring character in the long serial of Everyman? Look.
No, a name wouldn’t add any extra significance. Now that he is on rails, the man named This Man is en route forever after along the progress toward allegory. He doesn’t need to pre-order an inscribed namestone for the end of the journey because he is never going to arrive at a death. During the era when Alfred T. Palmer was his contemporary, he was intended to be seen morally, and now in the aftermath he is seen only under the unintentional aspect of aesthetics. Either morally or aesthetically, he doesn’t have an individual biography with a final date at the end; he never has had. He is only what the politics of the Liberty ship era created him to be: This Man.
But re-look and you’ll see a second man. Nestled behind the hero is a squire: the fireman who has made himself useful with a coal shovel and proceeded to generate the image’s grandly steaming scenery. Perhaps this other this man actually would have appreciated a mention. After all, men with shovels aren’t often depicted under the aspect of captioned proper nouns. In this image, for instance, the line of perspective from lower right to upper left ascends straight over the fireman’s head, outsoaring the face occulted under a perhaps newly purchased to look nice in the picture, but who cares? hat.
But no. For the purpose of image and caption, all that matters about the fireman is his having been nestled. Here he is in his nestling, then: a decoration, present in the composition only to provide contrasting darkness and silence and self-effacing mortality among clouds of hissing steam and sprays of words. For a war against Japan, ikebana.
The old noun is enameled iron. The fabric bears the impression of another old noun, mangle. The glasses’ thin delicate lenses are actually made of glass. The wide eyes and smiling face are turned full on toward an about-to-be-blinding light.
As things lose their immediacy of reference and become mere historical artifacts, the names they once had (“mangle”; “bedstead”) become hard, ironic, and unforgiving. The trusting smile that the picture shines toward us isn’t like the smile we return, because the man in the picture isn’t thinking, “Little do I know.” He is innocent. If he should say “bedstead,” the sound in his smiling mouth would lack the overtones demanded by our third-person knowingness. The reproduction would be low-fidelity, as if it had been played by a Victrola invisible within the image frame. Only we outside the image frame have been equipped by the passage of time post-flash to hear ourselves wanting to believe, “Little does he know.”
In the flash, “Little does he know” underwent a change of tense to “Little did he know” and the image acquired a caption. In the language of the past it can now say, for instance, “Bedstead.” Post-flash, we translate such words into bedtime stories that we force-read to ourselves, making believe that seeing what no longer exists (for an illuminated moment, a bedstead) can somehow come to mean understanding what no longer exists (forever, a bedstead). But the translation is a language we don’t understand ourselves. Now that the bedstead’s touchable knowable actual iron has passed out of reach in a flash, little can we know.
Source: Jack Delano, “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Engineer John Johnson.” January 1943. U. S. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001016175/PP/. Photoshopped.
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.
In January 2015, the cyclical history of Martin Heidegger’s post-World War II rehabs and relapses entered a new phase when the chairman of the Martin Heidegger Society resigned his position, stating, “As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this.” (http://dailynous.com/2015/01/19/germanys-heidegger-society-chair-resigns/)
The phrase Schwarze Hefte (“black notebooks”) refers to a group of previously unpublished manuscripts which are only now appearing in print, on a schedule dictated by Heidegger. The notebooks are bound in black oilcloth, and in the first instance that’s all the word schwarze means. But of course it also has moral connotations. The black notebooks seem to make clear, if anything in Heidegger’s ambit is clear, that racism was one of the fundamental, constitutive parts of his thought.
Well, the history of the Fascist years is filled with stories in the style of Henry James about eminent people shadowed by their past. The reputations of E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade, for instance, were at least a little tarnished by their association with the Iron Guard, Romania’s peculiarly nasty Fascist party. On the other hand, the Nazi section of Herbert von Karajan’s curriculum vitae did him no harm in after years. If anything, it only added more excitement to his bad-boy reputation. Until recently, at least, Heidegger’s reputation seemed to luxuriate in an ambiguity strong on both sides, as when he deplored the Holocaust as just another instance of the inauthenticity of plowing with tractors instead of horses like God intended. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem just now as if it will continue indulging Heidegger’s reluctance to resolve his dilemma. The dilemma itself seems to be little more than silliness on one horn and careerism on the other. But when the moral ambiguities of the Hitlerzeit were forced up against the moral ambiguities of the Cold War era, the human consequence was sometimes larger and more interesting.
In 1950, for instance, the German field marshal Erich von Manstein was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. This was soon reduced to twelve years, and in the event he served only three. Almost immediately after his release, he was recruited to build a new army for West Germany, to be deployed against the enemy in which he had always specialized, the Soviet Union. Thereafter and therefore, official history decreed the former Manstein and his Wehrmacht to have been strictly apolitical, wholeheartedly humane, and motivated only by the ancient military virtues of uprightness and chivalry.
Look, therefore, at this image of the former Manstein leading his Romanian armies against the Bolsheviks.
Postwar, you’re intended to see an apologetic in every element of the composition. Fluently dictating from a prescribed lexicon, it tells you: Marshal Manstein, like his moral compeer Martin Heidegger, was (the phrase enters the mind prefabricated, a brick of cliché) an old-fashioned nationalist. You experience the whole history of the word “old” in his upright posture and stern, unflinching attentiveness to the world, in all of its evil and all of its tragic good. Within this image frame, nothing except the old-fashioned has been allowed to survive. If you try to read through or past or around the image to anything in its background (anything called history, for instance) you’ll probably fail. Standing firm and still within his car, Marshal Manstein is on his way to taking dominion everywhere.
That’s easy to prove. See for yourself: having experienced the image of Marshal Manstein, didn’t you flinch when you began experiencing this other image?
It was captured by the photographer Costică Acsinte (1897-1984), who between 1930 and 1960 operated a studio in a Romanian farm town named Slobozia. After the studio closed, his glass negatives were stored for decades under neglectful conditions until they were rediscovered by another photographer, Cezar Popescu, who is now preserving and cataloging them. His online archive is at http://colectiacosticaacsinte.eu/.
The paragraph you’ve just read is one way of accounting for the image’s history. Another way might be to open a book and start reading about Romania during the 1930s and ’40s, when the photograph was probably taken. A guide to Romanian officers’ uniforms could provide further detail, and in Slobozia there may, even now, survive someone who can attach a name and a war diary to the image of the young man pointing his pistol at someone not visible in this image at this time — someone who happens to be standing to the right of the photographer.
What expression is on the face of the person facing the muzzle of the officer’s automatic? The officer is backed by a set from The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, with flowers bordering a window and a door, but we’ll never learn who is about to walk forward from the camera’s vantage, speak the password that will make the officer reholster his gun, and enter the scene. Such an entrance would be an event. If the word could be spoken, the young man could relax his vigilance and begin speaking in his own turn. Until then, however, he can be nothing but a Manstein: a shape on photosensitive paper, serving a purpose off-camera.
His time on camera is short, too. Even as he waits for his event to begin, time is peeling his form away from its transparent backing. A break in the image’s continuity has already opened itself right across his eyes. He won’t be able to keep watch within the image frame much longer, and behind the image’s transparent support there seems to be nothing but dark. Still, the dark has a grammatical force of its own. Radiating forward to the image, it keeps it from communicating off camera. On camera, the officer’s uniform, a symbol written in a specialized code, may say “nationalism,” but it doesn’t seem able to translate the sentimental off-camera adjective “old-fashioned.” That which is old-fashioned is either thought to be dead or thought to be dying, and the historical record between Heidegger’s time and ours seems to show that the man with the pistol will live forever, just as he is imaged on camera here and now. The old-fashioned nationalist will never live to become old-fashioned because he isn’t going to die.
Sooner or later, too, we who still live in history may be able to imagine the pistol swinging in our direction. If that act of the imagination becomes possible, we will know that in this image Costică Acsinte achieved a work of art worthy of art’s terrible task of outliving.
What am I reading here? Some history. I can place the document in that genre because it explains and is explained by its date of composition: April 1942. Off the page, history has already taught me that April 1942 has something to do with the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, and I accordingly think I understand what the words on the page mean when they say: “Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of the Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American children waiting for a train to take them and their parents to Owens Valley.”
That timestamped and circumstantial text isn’t only a history, of course. It’s also a literature. Shaped by narrative convention, it belongs to the literary genre of the caption — specifically, the caption to this photograph by Russell Lee in the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information archive at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998003537/PP/.
Because a caption has an explanatory power over its attached image, its words make the image in some sort verbal. They make it tell a story. From this historical era, for example, there exist similar photographs taken in other theaters of World War II, and our reaction to any of them will be, so to speak, captional. If the caption tells us of a Japanese baby being evacuated from Los Angeles, we’ll react one way; if the caption tells us of a Chinese baby being evacuated from Nanking, we’ll react another. Likewise, as of August 2014 I think most of my academic colleagues would react with sympathy if a caption told them that the image were of a Palestinian baby, but with exasperation if an editor then corrected the caption’s adjective “Palestinian” to read “Israeli.”
It’s been a long time since a news photo could be thought of as intelligible on its own terms, of course. A century ago, not long after Freud taught us how hard it is in principle to know what we’re seeing, Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that in practice we can’t even see the difference between a dead baby and a bowl of soup. In Kuleshov’s experiment, a movie clip — one clip, only — showed an actor going through the physical correlates of emotion. A montage of that clip with some ostensible stimuli of emotion then made clear that any imputed sense of emotion, of emotion about an ostensible stimulus, was demonstrably nothing but an artifact of the montage effect. Juxtaposed with the image of the baby, the actor’s mobile features and heaving chest seemed to mean one thing; juxtaposed with the image of the soup, they seemed to mean something else. We might have thought they expressed feeling, but In themselves they were nothing but mobility and heaving. Whatever emotion we derived from them was an illusion. We were misled by our expectation of a caption to read. But from the belated realization that Kuleshov’s tiny silent movie is captionless there follows a happy ending. To learn that one is free from captions is to learn to be free from other things as well.
Therefore, face to face with an image that has been captioned, I find myself wondering whether I can do something in the captional space above the border where the caption’s words begin. Wondering, I open Photoshop and set about trying to change the non-verbal part of this historical record. Timidly, at the start, I may tell myself and you that I’m only restoring the captioned image, only using modern narrative technique to put an illustrated story — a children’s book, a picture book! — back together. But of course what Photoshop and I are doing to this ensemble of words and non-verbal forms isn’t merely a historiographic revision. Photoshop and I aren’t doing history now; we have subordinated ourselves to a corpus of aesthetic principles that have nothing to do with Los Angeles or trains or 1942. Our project has been taken over by art. So:
And you see: I have not merely restored the record or corrected it. I have (as editors used to say in the days of Thomas Bowdler, he of the verb bowdlerize) improved it. See how much more tragic than Russell Lee’s original my little girl is, hear how much more clearly we can say “Little does she know” about her! How satisfyingly pretty I have made this children’s story!
Because it’s open to the possibility of an aesthetic judgment like that one, my version of Russell Lee’s photograph is no longer quite a historical document. It can now be read without its caption, as if it were in the process of growing distant from the history of events. It’s no longer merely captional. If it isn’t yet art, it may at least be art history. Because the space around the little girl has now been filled with art, her mother has now been barred forever from entering the image frame to reroll her daughter’s cuff. Because art always has a completion function, the caption below this image has now been translated into a dead language and made emotionally unreadable on any terms but art’s. The little girl’s picture can now say only the one thing art ever can say about itself: The End. Waiting for a train which can now never arrive to transport her out of the image, holding the doll which she now will never outgrow, the little girl has become an unravished bride of quietness.