Heroic angle, captioned

One day in 1941 a locomotive in an image frame went moving to the upper right. However, Alfred T. Palmer’s photographic history of the event also records a countermovement toward a vanishing point at the upper left. In the image’s center, emerging from that clash between the left-to-right implication of narrative and the right-to-left illusion of perspective, there is then seen a hero. Because his existence within the frame is only a formal function of his properties as an image, this hero is no more an individual man than a Rocky Mountain is an individual stone in the oeuvre of Palmer’s mentor Ansel Adams. The image-hero has no name because he has not yet been reduced to the need for a name. Still damp with the lochia of his new form, he is legion for the moment.

And so, satisfyingly, he doesn’t have a name to interrupt the moment. Instead, he has a caption. At the luxuriantly padded full-length of 87 words, this enwraps the hero in historical immortality this way.

Shipbuilding. “Liberty” ships. Most large shipyards have their own rail systems, with several locomotives and flat cars used for hauling heavy ship parts about the yards. This man operates such a locomotive transporting completed sections from a former freight car plant six miles to the ways where they are assembled into completed ships. All parts are prefabricated in this huge Eastern plant which formerly turned out freight cars. The completed sections are then carried six miles to the ways on flat cars. Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards Inc., Baltimore, Maryland

And do you need any more than that? Isn’t “this man” actually the best name for this recurring character in the long serial of Everyman? Look.

No, a name wouldn’t add any extra significance. Now that he is on rails, the man named This Man is en route forever after along the progress toward allegory. He doesn’t need to pre-order an inscribed namestone for the end of the journey because he is never going to arrive at a death. During the era when Alfred T. Palmer was his contemporary, he was intended to be seen morally, and now in the aftermath he is seen only under the unintentional aspect of aesthetics. Either morally or aesthetically, he doesn’t have an individual biography with a final date at the end; he never has had. He is only what the politics of the Liberty ship era created him to be: This Man.

But re-look and you’ll see a second man. Nestled behind the hero is a squire: the fireman who has made himself useful with a coal shovel and proceeded to generate the image’s grandly steaming scenery. Perhaps this other this man actually would have appreciated a mention. After all, men with shovels aren’t often depicted under the aspect of captioned proper nouns. In this image, for instance, the line of perspective from lower right to upper left ascends straight over the fireman’s head, outsoaring the face occulted under a perhaps newly purchased to look nice in the picture, but who cares? hat.

But no. For the purpose of image and caption, all that matters about the fireman is his having been nestled. Here he is in his nestling, then: a decoration, present in the composition only to provide contrasting darkness and silence and self-effacing mortality among clouds of hissing steam and sprays of words. For a war against Japan, ikebana.

 

Source: Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/oem2002001175/PP/. Photoshopped.

On his weekends, the English professor reads the Daily News

And there, on February 19, 2016, he reads the headline, “Martin Shkreli really is a bad boy of pharma, government argues.” The text by Daniel McDonald explains that the hedge fund guy Martin Shkreli, a middle-aged white man who dresses like a teenager and talks like a gangsta rapper, is being accused of witness intimidation.

But because Mr. Shkreli is already under indictment, he has an advocate.

Reading the advocate’s email in defense of his client, the English professor uncaps his red pen and goes marginal.

 

Picturing postcard

Once, in the age of steam, perspective moved through space like an engine and generated a postcard. In there, along a diagonal, it erected a high-sided chute and spilled into it some Italians whose arms and legs were movable in promenade gait. Per design, one of them also functioned to create an additional sense of motion in haste: his blazer buttoned backward, his flyaway hat just recaptured, his feet at trot, his pants rippling. Swinging and pivoting along minor axes, he serves the postcard in the capacity of a small extra part, jiggling. To be so close to this detail that you see what the machinery is doing to it is to receive the postcard’s communication that a man once lived a moment in the wonder of the present tense.

In the present tense, emitting sounds of small talk and chugging steam, the machine that is the mailship König Albert comes toward you, then moves past on your left. Where it was for a moment, the horizontals of the composition’s right side slide left and refill the postcard with vacancy. A moment after a shutter closed at some time between 1899 and 1914, the sentence in the present tense was over and König Albert passed into what is not yet and never again will be picture.

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002720829/. Photoshopped. According to Wikipedia, König Albert was in service for North German Lloyd between 1899 and 1914, after 1902 primarily on routes between Italy and the United States.

Tangent

The long history of events will need only a few extra moments to add the story of the dirigible America.

On the afternoon of October 15, 1910, under the command of the journalist-explorer Walter Wellman, America set off from Atlantic City in an attempt to fly the Atlantic Ocean. About seventy hours later, defeated by headwinds and engine trouble, the airship’s six crewmen climbed into their lifeboat, lowered themselves and their cat into the sea near the steamer Trent, and were rescued. Lightened by the abandonment, America rose back into the sky, drifted away, and was never seen again. You probably have permission to think “The End” and then forget.

New-York Tribune

But the rescue took three hours of maneuvering in heavy seas, and during that miniature epoch somebody on board Trent was busy with a camera. As he worked, his camera filled with a growing record of a shape descending over water. Looking back at that record now, we will find ourselves wanting to penetrate its silence and find words to speak of it.

On its own, the shape within the record has already acquired at least one word. From the surrounding text which provides its historical syntax, we learn that even though America was the first aircraft to be equipped with radio, the innovation that Walter Wellman was proudest of was a device he called the equilibrator: a heavy cable suspended from the airship’s keel and towing a ton’s weight of gasoline underwater. In principle, this should have stabilized America’s altitude, compensating for the weight lost through fuel consumption by lifting its load drum by drum out of the load-supporting water. In practice, it only transferred wave motion to the airship — stressing its structure, making navigation difficult, and sickening the crew. Look through the railing around Trent’s deck and you’ll see it at its mischief, leaving a wake to port as America drifts sideways. The accumulated literal detail of this portrayal – the light suspension harness holding the umbilical cord, the foamy crease where the cord has touched the water – asks to be read as a history written in satisfyingly tragic Greek. Here, says the image, is a moral record of the moment at latitude 35.43, longitude 68.18 on October 18, 1910, when nature erased a mark made in water by overweening man. Nothing remains, now, but a now meaningless word: equilibrator.

But the record of erasure also holds a mark that hasn’t been deleted. Unwritten but inscribed, this mark endures as if it were something seen once and thereafter seen forever. It seems to have become indelible, and it seems to have achieved its indelibility by self-translation: from history to geometry.

Made accessible to reason by geometry, this form is America in two dimensions. Considered as a planar artifact, it appears to be tangent to the surface of the ocean as it descends. The representation could be a visual aid for Calculus 1: the limit instant when a vessel, descending along a curve, ceases to be of the air and becomes a creature in the first throe of metamorphosis. Light and air still embrace the surface of the falling balloon, but the waves and the equilibrator’s turbulent trace all say that the embrace will now break off and end.

It’s only an optical illusion, of course. Furthermore, any sense of human meaning in what may appear to be impending touch and consummation is a mere sentimental metaphor. In an unblemished three-dimensional image with a soundtrack, it would probably be easier for us to understand that all we’re seeing is a gaseous machine in relation to a liquid surface. Given more visual information, we would see more and have a more accurate perspective. But for some reason, only the blemished, partial, still image seems to promise us that after we see what it has recorded we will have been granted the grace to remember. At any rate, the record seems to show that from this flawed grayness America has not drifted away.

Sources:

“Wellman airship from ‘Trent.'” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008853/. Photoshopped.

Peter Allen, The 91 Before Lindbergh. Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1984.

On board Trent in New York after the rescue: America’s engineer Melvin Vaniman with his family and Kiddo the cat. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008771/. Photoshopped.