Dress for vitesse

St. Julien’s face is all animated agony. As an image, it could have been conceived by Cowper or Blake, passionately tender men of the late eighteenth century whose ways of thinking about animals were contemporary with Beethoven’s first analyses of the bonds between chord structure and emotion. As St. Julien runs the track of this 1880 Currier & Ives lithograph, his tail spills like an arpeggio into the lap of Orrin A. Hikok, and if Orrin A. Hikok hadn’t been signing his name in 1880 with a late-nineteenth-century middle initial he might have noticed the many fingerings of the blowing hair.

But by the time Currier & Ives got around to portraying St. Julien, the late nineteenth century had arrived and chord progressions had been scaled up into industrial sentimentality. For P. I. Tchaikovsky, 1880 was the year for both the sobbing strings of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy and the cannons-and-all practicalities of the 1812 overture, and Currier & Ives’s 1880 lithograph is another example of that rationalized division of labor. On the right of the image is the horse: naked yet bound by his harness, with open agonized mouth and desperate eyes. On the left is Orrin A. Hikok: not merely dressed but bound by his dress in way that seems focused on keeping passion under rein. Mr. Hickok’s legs are open as if to embrace St. Julien, but they remain covered, with every ankle-button buttoned. His jacket is buttoned too, and behind its buttons are enclosed a vest and then a hard-starched shirt and then a knotted necktie. Lip is shut tight within lip within lip. At Mr. Hikok’s breast there will be no opening.

And Mr. Hikok’s cap is on, and in his mustache not a hair is out of place, and the grandeur of his grand horse has been rigorously quantified by his century’s progress in chronometry. “Record,” Currier & Ives told themselves as they sat down in 1880 before a lithographer’s stone, and the record that they set down in response to that imperative translated an artist’s word into a technologist’s number. After translation, it had become both precise and (in physics’ strict sense of the term) undimensioned. With words no longer attached, it had ceased to be even a number. It was now number as such, pure and absolute and as completely unified into a general idea as the multiple lines on a lithographer’s stone which coalesced into a single picture of St. Julien.

As of 1880, Currier & Ives hadn’t yet understood this process all the way to its completion, and that innocence on the brink of knowing is a part of what now gives their work its antique charm. What they didn’t understand in 1880 was that at the moment of St. Julien’s transit across their visual field, their chronometric word “2:11¼” was becoming idiomatic in a language changing under the technological influence of Eadweard Muybridge. As Muybridge’s multiple-camera array began showing the world for the first time the fine details of what the word “run” can mean, the world began learning, in flashes of revelation experienced one by one but only fractions of a second apart, that both verbs like “run” and nouns like “St. Julien” are meanings running along a continuum. Currier & Ives’s artist John Cameron may have intuited this, but only a Muybridgian understanding of the term “2:11¼” can articulate it. Articulated for now in a post-1880 vocabulary, it says: because the grand horses of words running at the rate of 2:11¼ never stop changing in every pulse-charged muscle, they never come to rest in the known.

Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001702108/. Photoshopped.

In 1910, she dreams

of 1910, which is less a time than a world which fully contains her life, giving it a body and clothes to shape and color it.

Source: E. S. Yates, lithograph “Twentieth Century Transportation,” 1910. Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97514565/. Photoshopped.

During the nineteenth century, a period of great progress in the arts and the sciences, an ancient art form slips the surly bonds of earth

Unattributed woodcut, about 1850, in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003672999/. Photoshopped. The lines of verse are by the botanist-poet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Positive, veiled

“It had to be done,” wrote Roman Vishniac about creating his photographic memory book of Jewish life in eastern Europe during the 1930s. “I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight.” Most of his photographs were confiscated, but his father saved a remnant at the risk of his own life, and when it was published after the outcome the son called it A Vanished World.

A similar impulse drove Edward S. Curtis to amass his twenty-volume photographic ethnography The North American Indian (1907-1930). At the outset, in the introduction to volume 1, he proclaimed: “The information that is to be gathered . . . respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” So there’s an undeserved irony in the circumstance that most of the negatives that came into being under Curtis’s hand are now lost themselves. Some were thrown away during the years of oblivion before Curtis’s art was rediscovered in the 1970s; others he had destroyed himself to keep his ex-wife from getting them. Even in the Library of Congress, the Curtis archive (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ecur/) survives only at second hand, as a collection of positives.

You can see the consequence in this one, an image titled “An Ostoho Cow Boy — Apache.”

The photographic process that was available to Curtis records a single passage of light between subject and object, repeated once in reverse. Light is reflected from a subject onto a transparent photosensitive surface (the negative), then transmitted back through the negative to an opaque photosensitive surface (the positive). But the Library’s online image of Cow Boy, a rephotograph of the original positive, is a record of light force-marched along a second passage, and en route the record has been altered. Some qualities of the negative — some of its resolution and spectral range — must have been lost to entropy, and in addition the second positive has been contaminated by traces of the first. From the grid of laid lines in the original print’s paper, the reprint has caught a superimposing pattern. The shaded areas of Cow Boy’s face are henceforth to be seen there through a veil, just like the whole of Human Girl’s face in this other image.

But the two veils work differently. One day a pretty girl named Corinne daringly cried, “Just slip it on!” to herself, and as she cast that spell she entered into its elusive charm. The charm worked, too; Corinne’s name has lived happily ever after, at least as a dated sobriquet in Wikipedia: “The Orchid Lady of the Screen,” 1894-1979. But Cow Boy has no sobriquet. “Remember this!” cried the photographer Edward S. Curtis, slipping the veil onto Cow Boy. But the name that ensued didn’t refer to the image that Curtis’s spell had created. It was a name only for the invisible spectral range of Cow Boy’s life: the range where his cows grazed, which wasn’t included in the image and hasn’t made it into any history of the North American Indian.

But as long as we remain within the image’s visible spectrum we must obey its creator’s command. Under the charm of its spell we do remember, and as long as we are under the spell we may think we know Cow Boy. But Cow Boy may not be capable of being known. What his image seems to show us is a trying to see up and out, from the image toward the source of its light. But all that survives of Cow Boy himself remains within the image: seeable only through the mesh slipped over it by the secondary positive, permanently veiled.


“An Ostoho Cow Boy — Apache.” Edward S. Curtis Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96525683/. Photoshopped.

Preface and “Commentary on the Photographs.” Roman Vishniac, A Vanished World (Farrar, Straus, 1983), n.p.

“Edward S. Curtis.” Wikipedia, accessed 6 August 2016.

I have photoshopped the undated advertisement for the Bonnie-B veil from http://blog.vintascope.com/post/87793090508/bonnie-b-veil



On board the Titanic, a lookout scans the horizon for metaphors

Meanwhile, far below, the musicians tune up for the last dance, which (for the convenience of the men of first class who will shortly be boarding the lifeboats) is to be held en travesti. Letter to the editor, New York Times 4 August 2016:

It is time for responsible Republicans to abandon the sinking ship into which Donald Trump is poking holes and set about fine-tuning their primary system to prevent this travesty from happening again.


Open flame: from the last years of a mode of seeing

Jack Delano, “Worker inspecting a locomotive on a pit in the roundhouse at the C & NW RR’s Proviso yard, Chicago, Ill.” December 1942. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Color Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992000700/PP/. Photoshopped.