Content though blind, had I no better guide

In the Library of Congress’s William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, the carte de visite print is labeled on the reverse in what looks like twentieth-century penmanship:

At the time when this image was formed, “contraband” was the ordinary colloquial term for a slave who had escaped through the lines to the Union forces and at least a hope of freedom. Lexicographically considered, it’s a nonce-word. Everywhere else in the dictionary, “contraband” refers to a thing, not a person, so the penciled markings you’re reading now on a slip of light-sensitized paper amount to a one-word history of American slavery considered as a mercantile institution. Whatever image may be visible when you turn the slip over, it will have no recorded name. It will not be a human image; it will be an image of a thing.

What that thing-named-contraband is, what it has, is something that a photographer somewhere, some time between 1862 and 1865, considered worth his while to transport into a studio for posterity to look at. Perhaps it was the looped and windowed raggedness. At any rate, the looped and windowed raggedness is almost the only trace of content that survives in the faded and discolored albumen on the card’s obverse.

But after all there are new ways to see this superannuated image. A single pass through Photoshop restores some of the contrast between the man and his impassive architectural setting, for example. The splendor of his image’s gilded double margin shines again as well. On our side of the image, at least, some of the light that once transited through a lens on its way to the past seems to have been returned.

It still has no name, but now it seems to promise us the chance to look at it with decent duteous human love. To see it might be a step — perhaps a first step that can’t be followed by a second step, but at least a step — toward perceiving and taking into ourselves an idea of sorrow. Emboldened by that idea, emboldened too by our distance in time from the unquestionably dead-now and copyright-free contraband, we carry his image once again into a photostudio.

Then we close the door on it. Then we feed it into an apparatus running Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Detail, Topaz In Focus, Lucis, and a battery of superimposed Nik filters. Then we look.


Once the contraband was led out the door of a studio on a no longer recorded day in the 1860s, his name was lost to history. But a century and a half later, we can at least recover one historical datum that wasn’t recorded then: the contraband had to be led out because he was blind. Once upon a time people could see that. Once upon a time people dressed him in their rags and perhaps spoke his name to him. Now we know again.

Once too, perhaps, people could also read the look on the man’s face. But the lexicon on the back of his image doesn’t seem to be written in that dead language.

Source: Library of Congress, item https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010647919/. The quotation in the subject line is from Milton’s “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon His Blindness.”