Estampe XXXVIII: the return through mist

December 2, 1918: days after the end of the Great War, the Cunard liner Mauretania, flying the Royal Navy’s White Ensign and still camouflaged with anti-submarine dazzle painting, brings American soldiers back to New York. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Apparatus and love

In the catalog of the Library of Congress, this group portrait is dated only with a range, 1895-1910, and captioned only with a category approximation: “Football team.”

At that, the approximation seems inaccurate. One of the athletes is holding a football, but another one is wearing a boxing glove and on the floor are more boxing gloves and a pair of Indian clubs. Only one of the athletes, too, is dressed in a football player’s heavy corduroy pants.

On his corduroy-swaddled thigh rests the hand of another athlete, the tattooed one embracing a fighting dog. The time of Freud is approaching, but it is still in the future. Later, the men’s names will have vanished from the record and their winged Hermes helmets will have lost the power they once had to communicate meaning. But though it is mute now, their bodied desire still continues to put off its paraphernalia and thrust itself up from the image toward us.



The shoes are a mismatched assortment: one pair partly unlaced, a worn and broken pair of clodhoppers; the other square-toed and neatly concealed under clean spats. Above the spats the pants are softly draped, and creased, and lavishly cuffed. The counterpart garment on the other side of the image is meagerly hemmed and stiff with dirt.

But that visual politics of class division is only clothes-deep. Within separate foldings of cloth, the men have arrayed themselves in the same posture, as if each had a shared heritage of body. Above that pair of half-anatomies, too, is another pair, this one in a closer approximation. The characteristics of that pair are the hats. Twinned traits, they hang congruently from the picture’s vertical axis, each hat braving gravity at the same daring angle.

A pair of arms reaches downward and outward from the young man in the upper left to the fine-featured adolescent in the lower left. The hands make contact, establishing control. It is a delicately gauged control. Touching with fingertips only, it signifies not force but a sympathetically understanding consent to a desire to be mastered. The gesture is set off by the fashion accent of a political brassard.

Like every other item in this wardrobe of the male — the unblocked fedora, the regional costume hat, the buttondown shirt with its big bling buttons — the brassard is part of a harmony. Forced into its position in the whole by the light that goes pouring over and past you on its way to the image, each cloth or leather apparatus for attracting sight becomes a part of a body loved because made visible to love by the light reflected from another body.



Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Costică Acsinte Archive,, image ca_20161019_009. Photoshopped.

Eighty-two words and an untranslated song

From a portrait painted by her father in 1872, Jeanne-Rachel Pissarro (1865-1874) looks out at us sidelong, lips pursed and mouth off center. The mouth is in the light, but the big staring eyes have been cast into shadow. Only they have been painted with a fine brush to show detail. They are the center of the image’s illuminating force. They show us a glimpse of a life on the verge. In this image, everything else — the layered clothes, the shadow-casting hat, the bouquet of colored shadows — is subordinate to the eyes. The layers of thick cloth in which the child is wrapped serve as an integument. It will ward off, but (its muted, fading colors warn and promise) only for now. Only for the time being, while the body is still warm-clad and the flowers are still alive.


The two figures in my subject line sum up the entire corpus of an extinct language, Crimean Gothic. It has been on record ever since it was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592), a Flemish diplomat stationed in Constantinople. His Turkish Letters remain a valuable historical resource, and from the Levant he introduced the lilac and the tulip to Europe. They bloom now outside the library, but of the history of Crimean Gothic the words are no longer spoken and the song is no longer sung.


When the invention of the glass negative in 1854 made it easy to create photographs in multiple copies, a new kind of history book entered the corpus: the photo album, rapidly filling with mass-produced carte de visite images like this one.

It can be read as a document in the history of nineteenth-century sentimentality — a silent little counterpart of, say, a Schubert lied or a Dickens novella. The little girl’s poignant expression mimes the poignancy of her plea, which is poignant in its turn because it is in words that can’t be heard. On her behalf, because she is mute, it asks you to give her an image to keep her company in the dark when her book closes.