Shirtless young man, in profile. Shaved head, with earring. Obese hairless body, with perhaps a dozen tattoos plus several ornamental keloids. If the creature is looking at anything in particular, it’s been cropped out of the image. If he has any particular expression on his face, it’s inscrutable. Caption: “James on the bank of the James river, Richmond, Virginia, 2012.”
The monochrome image, from Vanessa Winship’s book She Dances on Jackson, comes to us online from a blogpost by the Australian photographer Gary Sauer-Thompson at
It’s followed by this comment (by Winship? by Sauer-Thompson?): “The loneliness and melancholy in American life is created by the pursuit of the American dream.”
Perhaps the comment might be more fastidiously convincing if its verb form were corrected from is to are. But what it fundamentally lacks is an audio. The pronoun “You Americans” is required by cliché tradition in a caption like this one, and it should preferably be spoken in a Viennese accent through a cloud of cigarette smoke. In my ideal fantasy the speaker is the late Anton Walbrook, speaking as he immortally spoke in The Red Shoes: “Vun does nut keh to prrhectice vunce rrrrhelichn in an atmosphère such ez ZIS.”
Accompanied by language such as that, both the caption and its image could get interesting.
In the meantime, however, look. Look, see, and revere the emblem of the term obiter dictum, with Moira Shearer immortally reflected in its shades.
The two wistful images below depict an uneasy dream staged during the long naptime between the death of Victoria and the beginning of the Great War. That was the era of G. K. Chesterton, when language sweated grease under starched linen as it sleepily tried to say what it had to say; then tried again; then tried again.
All that the Philharmonic Society of Buffalo wanted to say during three spring evenings in 1912, for example, was one simple, poignant thing: “Beauty deserves to be noticed, even if we are in Buffalo.” But what prolonged the poignancy through seven agonizing paragraphs wasn’t its multiplying words; it was their echoless surround. In the merchant city of Buffalo, a city that was all transaction with others, the Society’s prose was admitting to itself that it could speak only to itself. Knowing (the Society’s own Buffalo ledgers confirmed the truth) that its words were being ignored, it comforted itself with a little song whose words went, “I am beautiful, nevertheless.” It repeated the song, tema e variazioni, but still heard no reply. Then, by way of at least salvaging a memory from the hurt, it wrote out the song’s verses in a pretty typeface and gave them a poem’s pretty title: “Proem.” At exactly the same historical moment, Lewis Wickes Hine was capturing his images of child laborers, some of them the scions of parents who had loved them and given them wishful aristocratic names. The images forecast no future except misery and premature death, and the Buffalo printer had trouble with the name “Philharmonic.”
But a century after that sad last paragraph, the Buffalo Philharmonic is alive and prospering. In 1912 the authors of “Proem” did not labor in vain. The memorial to their achievement is now an archival online tombeau that also holds the program of (for instance) a piano recital performed on April 17, 1928, by the undying Maurice Ravel, assisted by the soprano Greta Torpadie. During that era, too, Greta Torpadie not only sang beauty into a passing Buffalo night per “Proem” (“Music . . in the very act of being is gone”). No; in herself, as herself, probably while located somewhere other than Buffalo, she enacted a silent beauty within the universal memory of not-Buffalo. There in the not-Buffalo, at the instant she took a ceramic cat into her hand and instructed a photographer to commence recording, she established the shape called Cat in a form capable of communicating in human terms. Touching the cat under the camera’s transforming gaze, the soprano made it desirable. Desire then diffused throughout the camera’s work product, making its image of the piano and the pictures on the walls and the woman’s flowered tunic and smooth dark hair and profound eyes into the working, intercommunicating organs of a single living thing. Like “Proem,” that living thing came into being under the aspect of a generic name. The name of the unified life in the photograph was Collectible (noun).
In Buffalo after Buffalo, Collectible originates by acquisition and inheritance of a single genetic trait: “a certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough.” But uttering the spacious pronoun “enough” frees us to reutter “Collectible” in a simpler, grander way. “Enough” connotes the unlimited, connotes inexhaustible happy surprise, connotes treasure. The nouns “collectible” and “treasure” then combine into something like the emotion we feel when we experience certain faces. We call that emotion Beauty. Its origin is the idea of treasure: something desired without yet being namable, then acquired, and only then experienced as a growing, changing life in memory and as memory.
Reconsidered that way as a memory treasure, beauty becomes a Pharaonic inheritance of Cayman Island safe deposit boxes stuffed with mummified cats and remembered in wills. Soprano memento, beauty expresses itself as a culture’s collective will. Finally, says the document to us readers of its words, I, beauty, am so all-comprehending that I’m simple. All I’m for, all I am, is committed desire and the promise of return. The term of my bequest is this: the instant you vest me in the documented form of dark eyes and a score on the Steinway, I’ll burst into song, forever.
“Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pre-History: 1840-1935.” http://www.music.buffalo.edu/bpo/bx-pre.htm
The image of Greta Torpadie is from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006004550/. Photoshopped for contrast.
The Simplex advertisement is in Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters CD-ROM and Book, ed. Carol Belanger Grafton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 080.
Honolulu’s Kawaikui Beach Park was displaying its luxe vista of Koko Crater on the left and Koko Head on the right. People had gone to the beach and were duly seeing. I looked toward a cloud that was filling with the early morning sun and did something with a camera.
You could put a picture like this on a postcard. Many people have. The genre has a history bound up with the popular desire for warm sun.
But as to the man asleep on the picnic table just out of the image frame, the camera and I left him untaken. In undocumented words, I can report that the man was wrapped in a sleeping bag and his possessions lay all around him, separately and in shopping bags. Under the table lay the little motorscooter that had carried him to this bed in this park in the middle of an expensive residential neighborhood. He looked perhaps fifty years old, but the faces of the homeless age ahead of schedule. Because the economy of the United States operates under Ayn Rand norms and the sun above the state of Hawaii happens to be warm, there are thousands of such faces to be seen on the streets of Honolulu.
The Ayn Rand norms govern America’s economy of sensation, too. “Look at the picture an artist with a camera took of this homeless man,” say the 4-by-5 foot prints on Larry Gagosian’s walls. “See how sensitive was its technique, and notice how sensitive you have become as you look. The print is priced accordingly. It’s the least you deserve.”
And on the morning when I didn’t press my own shutter button, I helped establish a new price point for that sensitivity. In an Ayn Rand photo-economy, a photograph deliberately untaken acquires conceptual value as it transits from mere nonexistence into the precious idea of scarcity. Think of it as a negative, enabling the production of many more miserable positives.
Illustration 1. The paddle wheels of the steamer Boadicea are turning in reverse, holding the boat steady alongside its wharf by countering the flow of the Thames past Lambeth Palace. In the vocabulary of navigation, this is called maintaining zero speed. The white water churning forward along the sides of the boat is a wake generated by imposing stillness on the river. This Photochrom postcard dates from the 1890s, but the natural history underlying its image of turbulent energy is timeless. It has nothing to do with the kind of history that gives itself names like “Boadicea” or “anno domini.”
Illustration 2. A recurring image in the films of Fellini is the procession of people moving in parallel at different speeds. In 1973 Fellini staged it for his memory treatise Amarcord as a ritual dance toward the sea. There, actors moving like meridians across a globe walked and drove across a stage toward imagined water to bring an imagined episode from 1933 back to the life of memory. Recorded then by a camera at Cinecittà, the movement through the space of Fellini’s Rimini became the dance of Nataraj against natural law: the dance that says to its dancer, “If you can become as beautiful in your motion as I am, if you can become nothing but a moving geometry, you won’t, during the second it takes you to step with me into the air, have to die. You will take on a name, and the name will endure as the shape of a wave endures.” To see the dance perform itself for 35 seconds and then end, click this link.
About fifty years after the episode of the current in the Thames and about eight years after the imagined transit of the Rex past Rimini, an image within Edwin Rosskam’s camera slipped and went crooked but recovered itself. The film advance mechanism’s sprockets took out a few inches of a street that once existed, and so those few inches are now gone. Everywhere else within the image, however, everything remains. Pictured in a surround of trash, a man’s sneakered foot and swinging arm have been translated into an idea in words that we could name something like “Stride.”
But Stride has other names. In 1941 he was given one of his other names by Arthur Rosskam himself, and then some time later that name was certificated in more words by the Library of Congress. “Untitled photo,” say the Library’s words-for-the-record, and then they make Rosskam’s name for Stride into a citation: “Possibly related to: Lunch wagon for Negroes, Chicago, Illinois.” After consultation with Rosskam’s contact sheet and notebook, the Library also wrote a birth certificate for Stride (“1941 Apr.”), and filed it in a bibliography named “Collection: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.”
But how the meanings of all that conservatorship have changed since 1941! “Lunch wagon” was wheelless in 1941, and it called its pieces of pie “Homade.” In a “home” in Chicago in 1941, says “Homade,” there worked a “Negro” with a “rolling pin.” Can you begin to visualize a lived meaning for that sentence? Or even for the single word “for,” as it exists in this record in relation to the word “Negroes”? The words have gone strange. Only the sprocket holes along the top and bottom of the conserved image still signify unambiguously, and all they ever have signified is the trace of a vanished action. Somewhere on the exterior of a camera, say the sprocket holes, Arthur Rosskam’s thumb and its musculature were once at work on a mechanism. The interior of the camera, which Rosskam once filled with the light of something he thought he had seen, is much darker now than it seemed in 1941.
But perhaps, if the promise once made to nature and its body of laws by the Lord of the Dance is to be kept, we may yet learn to read the wordlessness of the dance called Stride. For now, at any rate, it does survive: on a page, the trace of an arm and a leg moving through space and vanished time, in white and black.
The image of Lambeth Palace is in the Photochrom Print Collection at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002696926/
The image related to “Lunch wagon for Negroes” is at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997015799/PP/
A Photoshopped print is available at http://www.shorpy.com/node/15270
In the drugstore, somebody’s bar code set off an alarm. “We have activated our inventory control,” a recorded voice announced. “Please return to your cashier.”
“Inventory control? Sounds like mind control,” said a voice behind me. The man speaking was middle-aged, white, dressed in Hawaii casual (T-shirt, shorts) but wearing a perhaps age-inappropriate trucker cap and backpack. The neighborhood was Honolulu’s Hawaii Kai: a little bit of southern California transplanted to Polynesia in the 1950s by the visionary businessman Henry J. Kaiser, and as of 2013 the district of the only Republican in the Hawaii state senate. The man had asked his question and mused about its association accordingly: at the volume at which ordinary indoor conversation is conducted in a middle-class neighborhood.
But suddenly his voice went sforzando e tremolando, and in the vocal equivalent of a Tim Burton font he cried,
Near him no one could be seen.
But the spirit of Fox News must have been in the air, hovering over Hawaii Kai with an invisible smile.