Two grammars of seeing


At the top and bottom of this photograph, clumsy slashings have separated the image from its background in the reading matter.

The wavy lines are history’s way of showing us that the negative was scissored from a roll of film exposed in one of the cameras that were generically known then in the United States as kodaks. From the clothing fashions within the image frame, we can establish that “then,” the era when kodak was spelled with a small k, would have been approximately the turn of the twentieth century. The orthochromatic film that rendered the red in the image’s American flag as black was also responsible for whiting out most of the real from the sky, but if we desire sky we can partially reconstruct it by turning away from the image and reading its textual metadata.

The image before us, for instance, is archived in its primary form in the California Historical Society. There, the catalog will tell us that at this instant in its photographic history a flag was being paraded through San Francisco by volunteer infantrymen returning from service in the Philippines. Knowing that much, we have thereby been granted the full freedom of every library, with all its newspaper files and army records. Those have the power to restore some of the image’s missing metadata: a specific date, for instance, and possibly too a time of day and a weather report and a parade route showing the location of a school.  We might even learn the name of the soldier carrying the flag. All that is missing from this reading is power within the image. The woman in the tall hat can never turn and show her face. She is a display behind an image pane. The pane illustrates history in the act of passing her by.


The phrasal verb to pass by operates across two loci of meaning. Within the image of woman and flag it refers to a transition seen within space. Outside the image, where it is not seen but read, it refers to a transition from one state of time to another.


Now see this.

You find yourself seeing under two simultaneous but administratively distinct constraints. The constrained disappearance of content from the metadata (after the history of Romania in the twentieth century, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever relearn this twentieth-century Romanian baby’s name, let alone the name’s felt meaning) is an episode in the history of history. The constrained disappearance of form as the image squirms out of focus and breaks up is an episode in the passage across time to the vanishing into death.


“[Spanish-American War] Return of volunteers from Manila,” Photoshopped.

Costică Acsinte, “Bebeluṣ,” Not photoshopped.

Hat: comparative immortality

1. Art

Early one April, Vaslav Nijinsky descended in New York. For his atterrisage he was costumed in a fuzzy coat and a furry hat.

A few days later, a New York Times reviewer wasn’t entirely pleased by Nijinsky’s appearance. However, he was prepared to make allowances for the deleterious influence of choreography.

2. On the other hand, real stuff

This judgment on Nijinsky’s suspect grace appeared in the newspaper just below another Russian item. That one began:

The list continued for several more inches. As it rolled down the page, it seemed to grow a voice and a music. The music was a song made of names, and it pulsed with their rhythm like a dancer.

3. Punchline

The year when Nijinsky danced one way and Princess Troubetzkoy danced another was 1916. Within a year from then, the choreography of the ballets russes was changed, onstage and off.

But this color picture from a century afterward depicts an exhibition of Nikolai Roerich’s costumes for a dance that Nijinsky choreographed in 1913: The Rite of Spring.

A girl in a leotard is looking. She is still young, as Nijinsky in his deteriorating photograph is still young. Some hats, it turns out, come from a boutique where moth and rust do not corrupt. Immortal fur, let’s name you the Nijinsky.


The photograph of Nijinsky is in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

The New York Times articles are part of a single column published on April 16, 1916.

The photograph of the Roerich exhibit is at