Estampe III

August 9, 1914: at the beginning of World War I, the American Line ship New York arrives in New York from Southampton, having departed from an England not yet at war.

In Southampton, the New York had become an interesting footnote to the history of tragedy two years earlier, on April 10, 1912, when suction generated by the propellers of the departing Titanic tore the smaller ship from its mooring and drew it toward the Titanic’s stern. Only skillful ship-handling by the Titanic’s Captain Edward J. Smith averted a collision and allowed the Titanic to resume its journey toward the iceberg. That enriches the New York’s log for April 10, 1912, with irony. By comparison, the log for any other day in the ship’s long history (1888-1923) might as well be blank.

So this second image of the New York on August 9, 1914, is all but meaningless to the kind of history that consists in a log of things seen. The second image was taken closer to the ship in space and time, but proximity has left little ironic context within the image frame for a log’s words to work on. If anything, the camera’s privileged proximity has erased the rest of the contextual universe from consideration. Unlike the first image, this one fills the visual field solely with itself. There, it is nothing but a view of morally neutral steel, and of some human flesh seen in incidental connection with the steel.


But look anyway at these smiling faces steel-engraved into the image. They are among the first refugee photographs of the Great War, and that is their claim on us and on memory. The claim isn’t visible within the image, however. Under that limiting spectral circumstance, the bodies pressed against a port-side railing on board the New York can be seen now only as representations of what is not present to the eye. As of August 9, 1914, in New York, the war zone is still elsewhere. We see the faces that have arrived from there, but as of August 9 we’ll never yet be ready to understand what there will look like and how history will remember it.


Instead, we (don’t we? don’t you?) scroll back up to look again at the pretty ship New York and its busily helping tugs, two of whom have names we can make out: Claremont and Excelsior. Excelsior is the motto of New York State and also the title of an easy-to-read inspirational poem by Longfellow, composed during an era when great ships were being strenuously conceived. But August 9, 1914, was one of the dates when reading poetry began getting harder. If you come close enough now to this picture of a ship approaching land, you may feel the little zephyr of a closing book.

Sources: “NEW YORK arrives, 8/9/14″ and “On NEW YORK.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and The two larger images have been photoshopped.

For Sherwood Anderson and Charles Burchfield

Source: “Track elevating at grade crossing, Joliet, Ill,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.


To the New York World on June 19, 1913, the arrival of a brand new ocean liner at Hoboken’s pier 1 was a front-page event, but only one of many. After all, if a newspaper calls itself The World, it ought to be responsible for the history of everything.

By way of teaching us to think about what everything might mean, The World showed readers of its masthead on June 19, 1913 an emblem of an idea illuminating a port that gives on the entirety of the world. There is the idea, right between the paper’s first and last names, The and World: an image of Liberty lifting her lamp to bring the world’s hemispheres together in light. However, the masthead has also been posted with a cautionary notice about the limits of enlightenment. Of course, says the notice, the world still has its dark side. Representing the interest of the dark side, I ask you to read what I say I am: Evening Edition. Those other words, The and World, can’t speak for my department. It and I are here to shade and modulate light. Our job is to turn it down far enough to let you remind yourself, in rueful relief, “This won’t last. There will be another edition in the morning. Furthermore, fourteen months from now, a foreign secretary of England will remark that the lights are going out all over Europe.”

For the moment, however . . .

As of this evening, the largest, most luxurious ship in the world has now docked. A newspaper named The World has dispatched a photographer to the pier, and he has come back to his darkroom with an image of the ship’s most distinctive feature: its figurehead, a giant bronze sculpture of the imperial German eagle whose talons grasp a globe emblazoned with the motto of the Hamburg-America Line: Mein Feld ist die Welt, “My range is the world.” History, in retrospect, may decide to read the image in a diagnostic way. “Wilhelmine vulgarity,” it may say, or “Wilhelmine brutality,” or (thinking ahead to July 29, 1914) “hubris.” But on June 19, 1913, the Imperator also submitted to history’s redaction a view of a deck covered with a miscellaneous extra cargo, captioned with humble vagueness, “Immigrants & luggage.”

The phrase seems to equate the immigrants with the trunks they carried. Some people have sailed into the historical record along with boxes covered with the skins of dead horses or dead cattle. That, literally, is what “Immigrants & luggage” means. Of course the caption-writer’s intent probably wasn’t scornful; presumably he was only trying to keep his caption as short as possible. Adding one more word and possibly replacing the ampersand with another — “Immigrants and their luggage” — might have altered the caption to a text both syntactically unambiguous and emotionally rich, but it would also have competed with the emotion that a news photograph is generally supposed to communicate on its own, without words. In any case, this image dates from 1913. The time for learning to read it richly, with the resources that irony can provide, won’t arrive until some time later.

In fact, a whole series of times will soon be on the way, and each new time — say, 1914; and then 1924, when the golden door at Ellis Island was slammed shut; and then, of course, 1945 — will offer us one more tip for making a read text or a seen image seem fascinatingly complex. But for now in 1913, you have been granted the innocent luxury of reading an image almost free of its associated words. The words are there to be read, but as of 1913 they’re still pale and faint. They haven’t yet been hardened or darkened. They aren’t yet mature enough to withstand and repay an ironic reading.

Come closer, then. These words and this image can be remembered without distress. If you are an American of central or eastern European descent, the probability is high that your ancestors crossed over on one of the ships of the Hamburg-American Line. Of the faces you see now, as you remember, one may be yours. The ship that gave your face its meaning for The World in 1913 has vanished into the unrecorded, but in its vanishing it has bequeathed you an image of the life that will be yours.

Now think of what was about to happen in 1914 in the world you left behind. In the new world your news has been better. Think of The World slipping out of its press, evening after evening ever after, to redeliver that better news: the news you are rereading once again, the news that you were a passenger on the Ark.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and Photoshopped.

Vertical section: as the United States makes its transition to an oligarchy, the idea of class distinction takes on its old importance

Source: “S.S. Majestic, Outward Bound Farewells.” Detroit Publishing Company, 1903. Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Spectators before the concept

Introducing Memento Mori, an online selection of his portraits of dogs, the Taiwanese photographer Yun-Fei Tou writes,

“These portraits are taken on the very day in which the dogs depicted is about to be put down or mercifully killed in public pounds run by governmental agencies in Taiwan. Utilizing the classic portrait style that originated in the early 19th century with the birth of photography as an art form, these photographs offer the viewer a chance to look attentively into a bleak future.

“The purpose of this project is to arouse people’s awareness of animals rights. People should view animal rights as a moral issue rather than appealing to emotional affection. As Peter Singer wrote in his Animal Liberation, ‘The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional “animal-lovers” has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion.’”

Tou’s gallery as a whole is a work of Conceptual art which operates in the normative Conceptual way — that is, by asking us to read the artwork as if it were a text commenting on its own caption. Most of the space  occupied by this image, for instance,

is occupied by, yes, a photograph of a dog — a dog bathed and brushed and healthy-looking, well lighted in a pose before a seamless background. Below the photograph, however, is a literary space occupied by the photograph’s caption. This reads, in Chinese and English, “2011/08/01, 11:38am, Taiwanese Public Shelter, Time until Euthanized: 29 Minutes.”

Oh wow. (Those are reported to have been the last words of Steve Jobs.) Or, as internet commentator Jesus Diaz puts it, “What really fucks me up is to look into their eyes knowing they didn’t know what was coming up next.”

Jesus, the idea you’re trying to express is called dramatic irony. It’s sort of an old idea, as in Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

But yes, it’s powerful still. It works for you and me with the dogs, and it even works just as well with people — for instance, with the Cambodian and Vietnamese people in the Khmer Rouge’s Prison S-21 who were briefly passed before the camera of photographer Nhem Ein before they were led out of his studio to be killed.

On the other hand, YouTube is full of proudly posted videos of animals being tortured and the website of the Daily News is equally full of excited indignation about the fun awfulness of it all, so I wonder what goes into whatever fucking up may ensue as a result of contemplating Yun-Fei Tou’s oeuvre. Consider, as a thought experiment utilizing the materials and methods of fucking, an employer somewhere in the United Arab Emirates weeping before her soap opera, then rising from the couch to hit her Filipina slave.

Or consider how the voices rise and quaver and crack in university humanities departments like mine, all over the United States, when some member of the faculty stands up in all compassion and demands that the Jews of Israel just . . .

you know . . .

go away.

How righteous they can be, the tears of spectators in the presence of a concept.