Portrait behind pane

Literary theorists call the depiction of depiction mise en abyme, taking the term from heraldry’s coats of arms nested within coats of arms.

Graphic designers call it the Droste Effect, after a brand of chocolate.

Droste_cacao_100gr_blikje,_foto_02ADroste iterations don’t just lock themselves into their series; they lock in our vision too. They impose on us a task that can’t be completed: the task of seeing them. The little girl spilling the canister of Morton Salt on the canister of Morton Salt changes her clothes over the years, but (despite the coyly evasive caption of this advertisement from 1968) she will never be able to carry the change to completion and become a woman.

http://www.mortonsalt.com/our-history/morton-ads#ad16

As we begin to think we understand the paradox, we ourselves do change — but we change only into Keatses at the wedding feast of the still unravished bride. There at the feast, looking up from the table to catch the eye of Droste’s nursing sister, we may go roguish and ask her, “What is in your tin” — but the moment we get that far, we become conscious of having learned something scary about the limits of our ability to express. Actually, strictly speaking (the nun’s ruler comes down with a whack), what we have just thought isn’t yet ready, never will be ready, to be punctuated with a question mark. It hasn’t become a question because a question entails a terminally punctuated answer, and the series “What is in your tin is in your tin is in your tin . . .” is not that, whatever else it may be.

Now look at this other picture of a picture. It’s a nineteenth-century photograph of the kind called a tintype: a direct-positive image that registers on the eye by reflection from the photoreduced silver in an emulsion laid down on a sheet of black-painted metal. Tintypes were generally of low contrast and low quality, but they were popular as keepsakes because they were inexpensive. At the cost only of a small investment, they got busy on their return by helping memory work.

Backed up against her own layer of tin, Sister Droste does the same thing, and furthermore she advances toward memory unprotected by any frontal armor. By contrast, the low-contrast man in the tintype evades direct perception because he is enclosed in a case with a glass front. Between him and us is his pane.

37278vAAt the Library of Congress, this compendium of things to sense (tin and cardboard and velvet and glass and pigment enclosing an image enclosing tin and cardboard and velvet and glass and pigment) has been compiled under a single archival title, but the title’s first word is “Unidentified.” More title words follow, identifying clues like the flag in the background and the oddly buttoned jacket, and eventually a full-length caption develops: “Unidentified soldier in Union Zouave uniform with cased photograph in front of American flag backdrop.” You can learn the meaning of the term “Zouave” from a military dictionary, and it may also be useful to understand that the Library acquired the image (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013650144/; I’ve photoshopped it) as part of the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Such information is limited, yes, but limits are educational too. They let us frame what we know and separate it from the unidentified.

But within this particular frame the word “unidentified” prevents a Droste series from beginning because it precludes us from conceptualizing the enclosed images as a formal unity. Having been named with a word (“Unidentified”), the images now enter our minds as words: words approaching us not the way images do, in simultaneity, but as texts do, one by one, in a sequence whose constituents may or may not be related to one another. The soldier in the photograph may or may not be holding a photograph of himself, but we’ll never know. The cup of Droste will pass from us.

But whatever the soldier is holding now, at the moment of our perception, he holds it up to the pane that separates him from us. On our side of the pane, at this very instant, in bathrooms all over the world, people are busily acting out a belief that holding a cellphone up to a mirror will teach the cosmos what the word “self” means. But on the far side of the soldier’s unreflecting little slip of antique glass, Narcissus himself has gone invisible. One tantalizing moment after a hand behind the pane has beckoned to us, the pane goes unbreakable and the unidentified All behind the pane goes permanent.

Or, as Keats put it in a little shard of a poem that he didn’t get to protect from touch behind glass before he died:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.

Estampe XVI: blemish

In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.

On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.

Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.

Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.

However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.

You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.

The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.

You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.

Sources

“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994004837/PP/. Photoshopped.

“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4. http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1901/08/15/

Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.

Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Estampe XV: “After that I lived like a young rajah . . .”

After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe — Paris, Venice, Rome — collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.


Source: “Model Yacht,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005018958/. Photoshopped.

At last

In Girodet’s Apothéose des héros français morts pour la patrie pendant la guerre de la Liberté, the heroes, some of Napoleon’s favorite generals, are shaved and bathed and unsullied by their wounds. They’re in uniform, too, as if they had never looked like anything but generals, and at their moment of apotheosis they are no younger than they were at the moment of their death.

Moment, singular. According to their group portrait, that moment occurred just once. At that moment, each hero became forever an element of a composition whose medium was rigor mortis. At the moment of death, each hero became perpetual. With his promotion to Statuary General, he lost the Other Ranks’ privilege of changing his clothes.


Likewise, Girodet’s statuary Ossian is old and blind as he welcomes the group representing sculptured military middle age, while the Rhinemaidens or whoever they are are moisturized and young even though they too are statuary. That’s how the picturesque does elegy. It’s a technique for making visual the idea of simultaneity that is communicated by the elements on either side of the conjunction and in the prayer, “Now and at the hour of our death.”

 —

When the troubled genius Charles Sanders Peirce died in his eccentric edifice of a house, he was laid to rest there, disposed in an eccentric artwork that also included bookshelves and a separate artwork depicting a dog.

I learned this from a book: Joseph Brent’s Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). This picture of its pages amounts to another display: a trophy gallery of Brent’s expedition through Peirce’s thought and the archives of the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. Click it to enlarge.

If you brought a Peircian disposition to the click, you might be able to think of it as an index of me. Shining through a diffuser at the left of the image, for instance, is the brilliant tropical sunlight of Hawaii, where I happen to live. At the top can be seen the property stamp of the Hawaii State Public Library System, where I happen to get delivery service because my wife is a librarian there. And that metal thing at the bottom is a little plastic-and-wire book support whose appearance may signify something about a man in his seventies who still plays with school toys. Elsewhere in the image, too, thanks to sun and shadow and Photoshop, you can glimpse the texture of Indiana University Press’s twenty-two-year-old paper, still imploring the possibility of a staged dramatic reading: “(Pause. Then, with a catch in the throat:)”

But of course Peirce will remain dead. Under a steady drizzle of traces of life, that which once was Peirce has nevertheless undergone its final change. In its interior, the rain-swept stone remains dry. That incongruity between the images of life on the surface of things and the deathly actuality at their center is why elegy is always ironic, with irony’s trick of making us think one thing while knowing another.

But aren’t Napoleon’s death-rewarding Rhinemaidens cute as they frolic on their surface? Let us, as the cantors deludedly intone every Saturday morning, choose life.