View; toy

Between June and August 1923, President Warren G. Harding traveled by train, car, and ship through the western states, delivering speeches as he went and becoming the first president to visit Alaska. On the return leg of the journey, he died in San Francisco.

His surviving itinerary tells us that it must have been June when Mr. Harding struck this pose before a stereo camera owned by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, Pennsylvania. “President Harding in the ‘Cab’ of Great St. Paul Electric Locomotive, Falcon, Idaho” proclaims Keystone’s written supplement to  this event in its business history.

Postprocess the stereo pair with Photoshop and an anaglyph program (red-and-blue stereo glasses required) and you’ll have an approximation of what a customer of the Keystone View Company would have seen in her stereopticon in 1923. The image is vivid once again, and the 3D and the words printed below it assure you that vividness is reality. But something within the image frame seems out of scale. The cab of the Great Electric Locomotive could only have been designed to receive a human body into itself, but this body doesn’t fit. It and the locomotive’s greatness don’t seem to belong together. The man is less vivid than the machine.

Well, the man and the locomotive occupy different registers of body language. For the moment, the cab is playing host to a man in a suit, and the man is playing engineer. But for the man’s elbow-out-the-window engineer pose a suit is the wrong costume, and of course (and in the cab of the Great Electric Locomotive this is sad) this man is so grown up, ex officio, that he couldn’t dress any other way unless he could somehow change himself and start being an engineer. Posing in his suit in the midst of the Great Electric Locomotive’s magnificent apparatus of wheels and springs, the passenger can’t make himself at home in the cab. It is not his. Whatever power the passenger can bring into play outside the cab, the Great Electric Locomotive will continue exerting its own force over steel as a labor.

By contrast, the business of the Niagara Falls scenic trolley line is strictly play. In this image, some laborers are visible along the rails ahead of the car, but the image has properly allotted everything human within the car to a role subordinate to rushing water and soaring trestle and industrious cargo.

This is a picture about seeing. The railroad was laid to help its passengers see the river, and then the picture was taken to help us see the result. In their image, the passengers have gone invisible, as they should. They are now absorbed entirely into the business of seeing and being seen. They are not just at play now; they are play. Unlike the man with two months to live who showed himself in a window of the Great Electric Locomotive, those who submerged themselves in unseenness before the sight of the river have now become invisible players of the game whose winners win deathlessness. They are play forever because they are play everywhere. They are not visitors to a cab; they are that which moves with a river.

Here: spin the wheel and test for yourself. Which has more life now, which will have more life now and happily ever after: the man in the hesitantly named “cab” of the Great Electric Locomotive or this little tin energy, inviting us to board and then roll toward life forever?

The moment you saw it, you knew.


The Great Electric Locomotive: . Photoshopped.

The scenic railroad: “Niagara Gorge with Michigan Central Cantilever Bridge and Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, New York,” between 1880 and 1899. . Photoshopped.

Nothing beside remains

The image is faded and the communication it records is in a body language which has become slightly foreign. This is a picture of time past.Written at the bottom of the negative, a date faintly prints out in reverse: 11/30/15, I think. In the print, someone’s hand holds the horse still as he poses under the autumn light of 1915. Wearing boots with a labor-intensive shine, someone else stands at attention at the horse’s head, holding a message between gloved thumb and gloved fingers. A third someone has previously groomed the horse’s mane into Afro-braids, and within the chemical milieu of this historical composition the process of decay is now transforming the image of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cape into a snowy Alp. Its massiveness owes itself to the servility busily bustling about its still, steadily cooling flanks.

I open Photoshop and take the white mass in hand. A few mouse clicks later, the passage toward decay has been arrested and the fabric of the Kaiser’s cape has reverted from velvet snow to something rough and gray. Dragged back from the palette of the ethereal and made available to the imagined touch of real fingers, it seems as tangible again as it was on the fall day when it covered a king’s living body. Photoshop seems to have induced us to think we’ve been brought within hearing range of the snap that the Kaiser’s camera made when it generated a fraction of a second’s worth of his recorded history. But of course we don’t carry that thought through to a conclusion in belief, because we know it’s only an aesthetic delusion. It originates categorically with us, and we are categorically excluded from frame 11/30/15. The only thing my labor has accomplished is to have trivialized a work of art. When it was 98 years old, the gray-shaded image of the Kaiser communing with his horse was passing through history toward myth. In my scrubbed and tidied and demythologized version, the image has reverted to the silly thing it was when the shutter closed on it 98 years ago. In restored black and white, with its patina scoured away, it is now only a  current event with a date attached. “11/30/15,” says the date, and all that’s left on the page of its significance is the photocaption, “I record an episode of bad taste.” .

Of course there’s nothing original about a feeling of anticlimax in the presence of what remains from history’s transit past the human. Ninety-eight years before a camera went snap at this king, Percy Bysshe Shelley contemplated  a similar idol and wrote a moralizing political sonnet about it whose A rhymes are the words landsand, and command. Genre convention leads us to expect a fourth rhyme, and Shelley does supply it. It’s hidden under camouflage, however, near the beginning of line 8, and you can’t see it here.

But you can see it here, and in a poetry-free original.


Look. In its image, the idol’s power source is off center and out of focus. Yet as it extends itself in a fist toward its horse, it draws toward it all the concentrating strength of a frowning servitor’s love. We can see why he loves: the fist itself is nothing, but its smooth gloved tumidity is an organ that secretes power into history. Close the hand, then, and make the gesture. This king made the gesture before a camera, and it responded by harmonizing silver halide crystals into a matrix of volume and form, light and shadow. From the camera there then shone forth the death-bringing power of image: that which has been made a part of the desert sand forever, now that the idol’s heart has ceased to move.


The photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

The manuscript: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.


Exegi Polaroidum aere perennius

“Hi, this is Steve,” said the voice on the phone. “How are you?” The voice was a breathy basso and the intonation oozed with benevolence. A few seconds after that, Steve revealed that he was calling to offer me a reverse mortgage and I realized that Steve was an interactive audio file.

A cynosure of the international art world in the first decade of this century was the American artist Dash Snow (1981-2009). A member of the princely Menil family of art patrons, Dash devoted his life as an artist to wearing hats, vandalizing hotel rooms, and not much else. But he was also an almost unbelievably handsome young man, with waist-length blond hair and a really big trust fund, and he took tens of thousands of Polaroids of the life his Dionysiac force created around him. Most of these images are of people being drunk or drugged.

It was the drugs that got him. At

you can see an elegiac interview about that event with a gallerista who fondly remembers the fun she unfailingly experienced when Dash was in the room. Even as a little boy, the gallerista recalls, Dash was a nonstop source of creative energy: throwing things, smashing things, and setting fires until the very moment he was sent off to reform school. After a while, the interviewer cuts the conversation short and abruptly leaves the room. It’s time, he explains to the gallerista, for him to pick up his little boy.


you can see Dash in extreme closeup with cigarette, aetatis suae XXIV. If he had lived, he would have looked like Mitch McConnell by the time he was 40. But art, even Dash’s art, admits you to an interior zone from which the human reaches out toward immortality. Back from the immortal, in this case, come a couple of sentences’ worth of Dashtalk: “I don’t believe in the laws or the system by any means whatsoever. I try not to obey them at any time.”

The words are just phatic sound, of course, like Steve’s “How are you?” They might as well be the clay language of a Grecian urn, stilled into perdurable ceramic. Yet when the speaker fills his lungs with smoke and speaks the words to the video track, he looks as real as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Dash-in-the-Polaroid doesn’t believe in the laws. He thinks of what he does generally, in the abstract. (The drugs probably have something to do with that.) Steve-in-the-computer doesn’t believe only in the Do Not Call List. He thinks of what he does in a focused pragmatic way, with the help of lawyers who edit his script and computer programmers who help him speak it. Dash represents inhuman art. Steve represents the humanity of the hucksters who ascribe a value to art.

At the end of The Bacchae, Dionysus destroys first those who didn’t worship him and then those who did. Look at this image and discuss.