Pulled up from the archive of the Bain News Service, the couple look around at the borders of their image: he to his left, she to her right. Their negative is labeled “Brookes,” but Bain’s caption card is labeled with a misspelling: “Norman Brooks and wife.”
Click to enlarge.
The Library of Congress, which now holds this trace of Mr. and Mrs Brookes, notes that the caption card is also undated. Between us and the past, there isn’t always a traversable way in the archive. However, a number in what looks like American date form can be seen within this archived image, upside down and in mirror image on Mrs. Brookes’s left arm, and Photoshop can help us at least break the code of its numeric value.
If this number phrase does mean “December 28, 1920,” and if it refers to the date the photograph was taken — if — then it may possess the power to recombine with other information in the archive and rebuild a small factual content. Norman Brookes, says Wikipedia, was a rich Australian businessman (1877-1968). His wife was named Mabel. Since Norman and Mabel are posed here in summer clothes and sunshine, it may be that this December photograph was taken in Australia, during the Australian summer.
More: since Norman and Mabel seem to be on board ship, the newspaper archives of an Australian port city might hold the date of their voyage. Perhaps, too, a fashion historian could take a look at the Brookeses’ clothes and say whether they were what an upper-class Australian couple would have worn in December 1920. Combined, the date and the facts about the ship and the facts about the clothes might at least place the Brookeses in a moment in their time, as in a picture.
Nevertheless, I can’t ask the only question worth asking about the picture I actually have. Yes, of course: what is that look on Mabel Brookes’s face? I’ve been killing time here in the library as people do, delaying the issue like Mr. Casaubon in order to avoid looking straight on at a woman’s face as it manifests an event — an event that may equally be something terrible or something trivial. (A sudden fear of having forgotten to pack something? A sudden horror of the heavy-jawed man looking away from her as he presses from behind against her body?) But you can understand my excuse for holding back this way to play with my solved Photoshop puzzle. At every other encoding in this history picture, there are too many indecipherables. Looking for the last time at the image with its one surviving word scrawled at the top, I can learn from it only a truth that I don’t know how to see.
But what if a photograph comes to me begging to be seen, begging for the chance to teach me what it is? What if it has composed itself with multiple redundancies, fail-safe equipment specifically meant to repeat a lesson, over and over, in how to see?
“Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed
photograph of her father as a cavalryman with sword and
Hardee hat. Digital file from original item, tonality adjusted.”
Taken during or shortly after the American Civil War, this image is a tintype: a photograph made by a popular nineteenth-century process whose prints were typically small and low-contrast but durable and inexpensive. When this particular tintype was created, however, expense probably wasn’t an issue. Before the image went on display, somebody bought an elaborate frame for it and paid to have one particular color painted in: the gold of the little girl’s locket and the cross-shaped pins that hold her two mourning ribbons to her sleeves. The idea must have been durability: the durability of a memory that can never die.
The locket, in accordance with the century’s etiquette of mourning, would quite likely have held a lock of the dead man’s hair. Its necklace appears to be of some rough fiber, but I can’t tell what: perhaps yarn braided by the little girl? or her hair, as in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”? And then, of course, within this photograph there’s another photograph: the image of the dead father himself, centering the visual composition and giving it a human meaning. We know Mabel Brookes’s name and we could learn something about her life if we tried, but we can’t know the meaning of the look on her face. “Unidentified girl in mourning dress” is exactly Mabel Brookes’s antonym. We don’t know a thing about what’s called her life, but in her picture frame she’s surrounded by a library of cultural reference stocked with all the cues we’ll need to warrant us in saying, “The little girl is sad.”
So we go ahead and say, “The little girl is sad.” It feels right, and as we say it we feel sad ourselves. It would seem mean not to. Once more, art has done its moral number on us.
“Digital photo with mat removed by Mike O’Donnell”
This is blue stain, an obstacle faced by photographers in the pre-digital era. In this case, it was caused by a reaction between the developing agent and the tintype’s sheet-iron backing. Art has nothing to do with it; its manifestations of itself to us are governed only by the unalterable laws of chemistry. Our art reaction, “The little girl is sad,” turns out to have been mediated by a process that the Library of Congress calls “tonality adjusted”: a protection of art and its delicacies from certain inhuman truths that the chemical reaction could have made us see.
The particular truth of this image, for instance, is that it is blue; will be, in time, nothing but blue. Like Stevens’s jar, the blue takes dominion everywhere. The little girl is being submerged in it and made as inscrutable, there below its surface, as Mabel Brookes. If we thought we understood the anecdote that the tintype was telling us about itself and its cultural matrix, we were betrayed by the faux amis of translation.
But look at the blue and sink astonished into its reservoir of wordless surprise. As Gertrude Stein said about Picasso and his discovery that a picture is not a picture of but simply an arrangement of form and color, “One sees what one sees.” Here the punchline is that one waits to see the picture go to its completion, break free of even the memory of image, and become the blue.