Motion leaving a trace across time: flight considered as a prosody

 

 

First image: the pioneer aviator Lincoln Beachey in about 1911. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004009783/. Photoshopped. Second image: cattle egret, sunset, Honolulu.

Camera; hard object

I’m not going to publicize it by providing access details, but the image on a popular photo-sharing site as of July 21, 2014, displays a dark-skinned woman alone among passers-by on a street. She is holding four soft toy animals: a small baby-blue monkey (?), a medium-sized tiger, a medium-sized teddy bear, and a big teddy bear with long, slender arms and legs for the designed purpose of hugging. However, this bear is neither hugging nor being hugged. His arms and legs are flopping loose, his face is looking away over the woman’s shoulder, and her bent arm isn’t embracing him but clutching. As we watch the animals in their photographed distance, we become aware that a filter in the image-processing software has sharpened and individualized every strand of the woman’s graying, uncombed hair and every muscle at its clenching work just beneath her knitted brows, downturned mouth, and rolling eyes.

Everything else in the picture has been left unfiltered. Blurred by motion and tilted by edge-of-field distortion, the delineated people at its margins appear merely normally imperfect as they flow past the immobilized creature at the image’s center. Unlike hers, their faces are unlined and unweatherbeaten. Nothing like emotion wells from their smooth surfaces toward the camera. You don’t even need to imagine what it would be to touch that clean skin, because whatever it is that lives within doesn’t have any need, during the instant when its surface is exposed, for touch. Just above the image, too, is a title that applies only to the woman alone with her toys at the center. It’s one word long: a psychiatric term.

At the same time we read the word, other readers in a comment stream just below the image are complimenting the photographer on his technique. The compliments are so insistent that they almost seem about to rise, flooding, into the picture itself. If such a flood were of tears, it might hint that the photographer has effected a reassuringly wordless solution to a problem that we can’t bear to articulate in words. Stopping short at the brink of words, a man with a camera has successfully achieved one more wordy iteration of an anecdotal genre, the Arbus-Winogrand street photograph. In all but language, that success says to its anxious spectators:

“Regardless, for me and you, everything is all right. You and I aren’t like this woman. Unlike her, we don’t need to fear, because we have been granted cameras. With camera power we not only see, we diagnose. The diagnosis will be something written down on a label, and when we have read it back to ourselves we will begin believing that we have safely outgrown the wordless fear that the camera once locked into itself. Yes, I experienced fear at the instant my finger touched the shutter release. But fearful as I was, I took the camera up in my hands. I grasped it, I stroked it. And then I spoke of it and it saved me.”

It has probably helped, too, that our readerly feelings of release and relief were occasioned by the visualized textures of a woman. In his classic paper “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena — A Study of the First Not-Me Possession” (International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 34 [1953] 89-97), D. W. Winnicott offers this diagnosis of the special being that a soft thing becomes when it is a woman’s to touch.

“Patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood, so that the original soft object continues to be absolutely necessary at bed-time or at time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens. In health, however, there is a gradual extension of range of interest, and eventually the extended range is maintained, even when depressive anxiety is near. A need for a specific object or a behaviour pattern that started at a very early date may reappear at a later age when deprivation threatens.

“This first possession is used in conjunction with special techniques derived from very early infancy, which can include or exist apart from the more direct autoerotic activities. Gradually in the life of an infant Teddies and dolls and hard toys are acquired. Boys to some extent tend to go over to use hard objects, whereas girls tend to proceed right ahead to the acquisition of a family.” (91)

But Winnicott is speaking at this point of the soft thing as it is held, not as it is seen through a viewfinder. At the very beginning of touch, Winnicott notes, “there is no noticeable difference between boy and girl in their use of the original not-me possession, which I am calling the transitional object.” Likewise, whether it was once held by a baby girl or a baby boy, the soft thing ordinarily comes to its end in only one way. “Its fate,” says Winnicott, “is to be gradually allowed to be decathected, so that in the course of years it becomes not so much forgotten as relegated to limbo. By this I mean that in health the transitional object does not ‘go inside’ nor does the feeling about it necessarily undergo repression. It is not forgotten and it is not mourned. It loses meaning.”

But the soft things in this picture have undergone a different fate. Their poignancy is that they still mean. Their babytalk has been forbidden to become a dead language. Winnicott’s linguistics of babytalk presupposes a translator of communication with the transitional object — a mother, ultimately a social system — but the toys in this picture are alone. They have no one now to communicate through, not even the woman to whose face they cannot bring a smile.

That failure, that prefiguration of silent death, is terrifying. Terrified accordingly, a man with a camera once reached a finger toward its button; touched; held; released. His own communication with the hard machine was successful. On a memory card no bigger than a postage stamp, the memory of a soft organism’s fear has now been spread, pinned, labeled, and been made forgettable.

Old Glory

Sequence:

1. In the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004009750/, this.

2. I photoshop it for contrast and tonal balance.

3. I begin abstracting from the content, cropping some parts of the image that represent symbols too obvious to be interesting (iron bars, fallen leaves) and adjusting the color.

4. I crop and zoom.

And applied to an image about a hundred years old, computer technology has recovered an antique irony arising from the juxtaposition of the words “glory” and “old.” The computer has processed the image in historiographic mode. Free for the first time in a century to read the image as a text, we have placed ourselves once again under the interpretive control of Looking Backward or Maggie: A Girl of the Streets or Les Misérables. But in the interim between that moralized reading from the past and the recovered moralized reading of the present, there was a brief interim in step 3 when the picture wasn’t an allegory but only a picture.

And about that interim the immoral question has to be asked: wasn’t it beautiful?

At http://theartpart.jonathanmorse.net/portrait-ca-1910-2014/ I write about another image of this man and this dog.

“Hordes”: an attempt at visualizing the metaphor


Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005022285/. Photoshopped.

In The Great Gatsby, the title of the book that disturbs Tom during the summer of 1922, The Rise of the Colored Empires, by “Goddard,” is an accurate topical reference to Lothrop Stoddard and the propaganda campaign that resulted in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.