Once upon a time a U.S. Navy radioman named C. W. Allen served on seaplanes based at the Panama Canal Zone and flew with a camera. His photo album is now in the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and viewable online at
It includes this image of the Navy zeppelin Shenandoah traversing the canal in 1924 or 1925 with its mooring ship Patoka. I’ve previously posted some attempts at reconstructing it, but because editing software keeps improving, the merely historical interest of the original,
grows only more attenuated by the year. It’s small, its resolution is low, some of it has been whited out by the corner stickers that Radioman Allen used to glue it into his album, and every time it’s reseen its aesthetic sense becomes harder to experience in the emotional form of memory. Think of the surface noise of its epoch. It was bad then, even before vinyl and then digital. Now . . .
Now, in the workroom of a mortuary, you wouldn’t be able to hear this waltz if it were played over the speakers — not as you would have heard it in its own epoch. Now, instead, you’ll be under obligation to look down at the table where a silent waxwork has been made to appear.
And if something then starts sounding through you, you won’t be able to silence it. The sound coming from your mouth will be an affront to the silence of the past, but it won’t be motivated by any intent, bad or good. It will be a sound that can’t help itself. Think back. Beside the waters of the Zone, a mechanism was wound up with a crank, a needle descended on a spinning shellac surface — right? — and a song welled up automatically.
This business day in the mortuary, you think, “I sound like I’m alive!”
Not just the delicate temporary touching down from the air, unknowingly populated skyline, and fingerprint just inside the barrier that margins you off from the dead,
but even the defacing scratches and spots on the record itself. For a brief intermission between oblivions, the ordinary is perceived. A moment too late after that, it is understood to have been extraordinary.
Post-processed to restore contrast and recover unregistered pixels, this image becomes readable. It is seen now to be separated from its background among the words of this post as if it were delimited by a beginning and an end. If the photograph were a text like the post, it would betray signs of irony. Within its border and there only, it shows you sharp shadows of a northern solstitial dawn, a cloud of exhaust smoke darkening lacustrine air, motion-blurred propellers, silhouetted men bending to their work, and in the background a Biedermeier landscape about to be reduced to history by the great balloon whose shadow is about to fall on it. As the complex of cloth and shadow ascends, a literary thought-balloon ascends with it and choruses in the buzz of propellers: “I’m gone; I passed out of the picture. Little do you know.”
But you do know the image, for sight doesn’t enter memory in a textual way. To begin perceiving an image is to begin following a trace through light and shadow of a memory that will live on in you even though it it died before you were born. The image you see is a memory error resulting in the optical illusion of belief: the illusion that (for instance) you must have been (for how could you not have been? unconquerable memory has surged out of the image frame and taken dominion over you) a part of what was once, for an instant over an Alpine lake one July morning, seen and thereafter remembered for (as it must have seemed) ever.
The photograph in the New York Public Library no longer gives up much to the eye. It has faded year by year for almost a century now, and most of its remaining significance has been transferred for preservation to a catalog text housed in a database.
There, offsite, words written about this gray blur say that it represents the maiden flight of the British dirigible R38 on June 23, 1921. Exactly two months after that date (the words go on to say), R38 broke in half in the air while making a turn and exploded, killing 44 of the 49 men on board. This was the first of the twentieth century’s great zeppelin disasters. It occurred over the city of Hull, and it must have been witnessed by thousands. But this photograph can’t intimate that, because it represents a moment before a history began. It is a picture of something not yet written into the record and decreed to be a significance accorded priority over other significances. To see it as a picture, in pictorial terms of light and volume, is to experience it pre-historically: as a perception antedating knowledge.
On June 23, 1921, the knowledge of R38 hadn’t yet been brought under the rule of retrospect. On that date, someone in the epistemological space allotted to perception saw only a floating body in the pictorial act of being huge and beautiful and took a camera to it. After that, someone with words took a grease pencil to the photograph of the huge and beautiful and made a decision about what portion of it should remain on the page and be designated “historical record.” The historical record, it turned out, was reserved solely for the portion of the image devoted to the light and air that clothed the moment of huge and beautiful. Its portion of the negative appears to have been retouched accordingly to sharpen its outline and make it clear on behalf of the historical record. Nobody bothered to retouch the zone marked by the grease pencil for exclusion from that record.
There, there were to be seen only two women wearing the not yet short skirts of the early 1920s. With them all along in that part of the image, however, has been a dark smudge on the grass which conceivably could be a historical trace of R38’s shadow. Considering how few shadows destiny allotted to R38, that might now be worth at least a sentimental thought from history. However, the prehistoric grease pencil didn’t select for of the dark. Exterior to R38’s demarcating rectangle, the dark remains only in the erasure zone. There, excluded from the part of the image that will be written up in the language called history, it evokes only questions that the words of the historical record aren’t usually marshaled to answer. (How did the air of June 23, 1921, feel in the moment when a moving, cooling shadow passed through it?) By demarcating R38 from the rest of its image field, the grease pencil defined a distinction between significance and insignificance. It was a fiat: the enforceable distinction between what should remain to be seen and what should remain to be unseen.
But this particular photograph, marked for cutting but not cut, hasn’t yet been brought under rule. Still present in their margin despite the fiat against them, two women in hats and skirts have kept looking toward a part of the sky from which the history of huge and beautiful hasn’t yet barred their gaze. Bound for the record book, the fading image cut off within its rectangle proceeds toward unfading immortality under the power of words. Meanwhile, outside the rectangle, a possible shadow has been cut free from history to play on the grass. I subject it and the women and R38, up there in its air, to the optical control of Photoshop and Topaz AI Clear.
Those technologies won’t make the women’s faces visible, of course. Ever after, the women will be turned away from you even as they look up at the purring silver history passing by up there. Of course, too, they aren’t looking down at the possible shadow before them. They too are prehistoric. But something dark is close to them, and now, for the first time in at least your own history, you are seeing.
R38 was built for the U.S. Navy, where it was to have been designated ZR2, and its crash occurred during what was to have been the last of its test flights before commissioning. You can see the American tricolor on its tail and the American roundel on its hull.
Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.
So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.
Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.
Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.