Unvanquished sepia

In July, the dark summer clouds rolling in from Lake Michigan would have been full of warm rain. But on the flat land beneath them, tiny people in white are moving about in ways that have little to do with the drama overhead. The people in white are forming themselves into a white group before a white arch.

 Click to enlarge.

The clouds and the flat land and the dark sky are vast. They have miniaturized and trivialized everything else in the image. An aerial perspective (in 1904, how? from a balloon?) has scaled down the big buildings and broad streets to fit the tiny people. “Welcome home,” say tiny words on the arch, but up there in the sky is something which is not to be engaged on any terms but its own. The clouds communicate only with themselves, and what they communicate is only moving air and light and the water from which they came, to which they will return.

Within its frame, the picture of clouds and land is captioned, “Welcome home of the General Overseer, Rev. John Alex. Dowie. July, 1904. Zion City, Ill.” Outside the frame, a few clicks in Google will construct a context for those words and convert them to a text illustrated by the people and their arch.

Zion City, Google’s texts can tell us, is a small town north of Chicago, now called simply Zion. With its broad boulevards laid out at the beginning of the twentieth century in the form of the Union Jack, it was a fully planned community with an intended population of 200,000: the proposed Vatican of a cult called the Christian Catholic Church. What it actually became you can learn here from the Zion Historical Society.


And about its founder and first ruler, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), you can see and hear a great deal at this site, including three cylinder recordings of Dowie’s voice and a colorized photograph of Dowie, “First Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ,” in the priestly robes of Elijah the Restorer.


These words from outside Zion originate in yet another text: James Joyce’s Ulysses. When the historical John Alexander Dowie passed under his arch into Zion City, there to be overthrown by his followers and to die, he was returning from a tour of the world which took him — in Ulysses, though not in what’s called historical fact — to Dublin, where he passed through the mind of Mr. Leopold Bloom. Searching for Dowie’s words there, the Joycean Kevin McDermott has found them, embalmed them in historical context, and laid them to glorious rest in a cybermausoleum more lasting than any perishable city could ever be under its burden of passing, changing, indifferent cloud.

We clicked Google. It surrounded a photograph with words, but the photograph itself couldn’t be changed back to what it might have been in 1904. A century later, it has become nothing but an artifact. It has faded into its own sepia toning, visually and conceptually. But its visual aspect, at least, can be rejuvenated. All that takes is a few clicks in Photoshop.

The clicks transmute the image’s spectrum. They transfer its tonal range from the pale browns and oxidized-silver grays of a Frederick Henry Evans cathedral over to the glare and muddy green-blacks of a Robert Capa D-Day. Post-Photoshop, these clouds have a different kind of weather to dispense. It still won’t be the weather of 1904, of course. The rain that seems about to fall can no longer be thought of as what Zion City might have expected: a bestowal. Having been photoshopped, the sky over Zion City today is nothing but a formalism: not a manifestation of the presence of God, not even a natural map of regions of air, but only an either-or of black and white.

Those contrasty shades of black and white are on the coat of arms of photojournalism. They seem to tell us that Photoshop can bring history back to life and make it news again. Once more, as if no one need ever die, the sky of 1904 seems current. But under that reborn sky, the triumphal arch of 1904 seems even more ephemeral. The newly victorious sky has reduced it to an irony (“Little did the people of Zion City know . . .”). On them and on what we see now of the great flat land stretching to the horizon, Photoshop has brought down what we might call the Ozymandias Process: “Nothing beside remains.”

Before that moment descended on Zion City, we learn, Zion City’s policemen carried clubs and Bibles and wore badges emblazoned with a picture of a dove and the motto “Patience.” Patiently, let’s close that part of the history of this image and acknowledge that it has forever passed over into the region of sepia, where all will eventually fade to white. No, we’ll never again be able to understand this image. Yes, it is lost now, even as it survives on the page as an incomprehensible artifact. But if that thought comes to us through the agency of a written text, there’s a possibility that our loss may be irreversible but not irremediable. Inside Mr. Bloom’s head, James Joyce’s unillustrated words are still at work, translating the black and white of Zion City into bright color.

I thank Reinhard Friederich for showing me the DVD database Panoramic Cityscape Photo Collection (EURISKOData.com, 2001), where I found the image of Zion City.

Update, July 2, 2013: the image of Zion City was taken by George R. Lawrence (1869-1938), a pioneer aerial photographer who worked first with balloons and then with arrays of large kites, including one seventeen-kite array that lifted a 50-pound camera to an altitude of 2000 feet.


In the Library of Congress collection of Lawrence’s work, the aerial photograph of Zion City is image number 91 of 247.


Subordinate clause: a sentence for the party of states’ rights and family values

At 5 PM on October 1, 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. Heard that there were writs out for two Williamses, fugitives. . . . Accordingly fled to Concord last night on foot. 

In mid-nineteenth-century American English, “into the cars” meant “on the train.” However, the terms “agent” and “writ” haven’t changed since Thoreau’s time. They still have the social meanings now that they possessed in 1860, when

the South’s 4 million enslaved human beings were worth between $3 billion and $4 billion: the largest single asset in the entire United States, representing more than the value of all the nation’s railroads and factories combined. Slaves, even more than land, were Southern planters’ safest and most lucrative investment. Prices had been skyrocketing — doubling in the 1850s alone. Natural human reproduction ensured a further return. Slaves could easily be rented, mortgaged, or liquidated. A planter’s slaves were often, in modern terms, not just his work force, but also his stock portfolio.

(Adam Goodheart, “The Color of Money,” New York Times Online 21 June 2011)

With that transactional economics in mind, look at the little phrase I’ve printed in red above: “who is his father.” Grammar calls such an array of words a subordinate clause, meaning that it’s a statement of doing, being, or occurring which depends for its meaning on another statement of doing, being, or occurring. The word “because” in “Because I could not stop for death” changes a complete sentence into a subordinate clause. It’s an agent, like the man in 1851 who presumably charged a fee for trying to change Henry Williams’s relationship with his father from servile to independent.

The transaction wasn’t completed in Thoreau’s lifetime, but for a while in the twentieth century it seemed that the period at the end of the sentence could be in view and it might one day be possible to think of people as priceless. However, the grammar of politics is stubborn and conservative. Perhaps the family history of slavery and freedom is only a cyclical narrative after all, like Walden or the twin narratives of Isaac and Ishmael. If it is, the party of Ayn Rand may understand the idea of subordination better than the party of Henry David Thoreau. For the father and son in Thoreau’s little tale, at any rate, subordination is the basis to which words always return when they need to represent people in relation to other people. That power transaction is language at its ground state: the fathering grammar of what the New England conservative Emily Dickinson called (in “There’s a certain slant of light”)

internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –



Click to enlarge.

First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same;
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of art.


From where we stand on our hillside, the train at a station in Michigan can’t be seen. It’s there, however, or perhaps it was there a moment ago. We know, because a cloud of smoke is drifting away from the station. In a zone just outside the visible portion of this image, a steam engine is, or is about to be, somewhere else in space and time.

“Michigan Central railroad station”
Click to enlarge.

The image comes to us now trailing a Shorpy comment stream, and from there we can learn that this building in Michigan is located at 401 Depot Street, Ann Arbor. Still standing and in good repair, it looks much as it did when this image of horses and derby hats was captured. Two more images in the stream, captured at approximately the present time, demonstrate. One of the two is a download from Google Street, and with its help we can take a virtual walk around the building, just as if we were alive on the spot.

Simultaneously, from a dig where the stream cuts through the past, a researcher reports that The Awakening of Helena Richie, one of the plays advertised on the billboards to the left of the street, ran on Broadway from September 1909 to January 1910, then went on tour in the spring. That locates a terminus in time for the mixed group of buggies and cars in front of the station. The year when somebody put his head under a photographer’s dark hood to see the group this way was 1910, two years after Henry Ford’s Model T, forty miles down the rail line in Detroit, had begun changing the mix. The camera could record the mix but not the change. Photography is the art of stillness in the momentary.

But then, blurred a little by his passage into and then out through the stillness, a man carrying a winter overcoat but wearing a summer suit began climbing the hill from the station. Because he wasn’t in the stillness then, he will never stop now. Trudging toward us along a borderline between the seasons of his year, he is headed past the camera toward a destination somewhere over the camera’s shoulder. His course is set toward a space created by the educational conventions of perspective between ourselves and the composition’s foreground. If the lesson is successful and we bring ourselves to think of him coming to rest there, he will have left the picture’s depicted fraction of a second and arrived in a future.

However, that future isn’t depicted in the picture itself, and it can’t be depicted anywhere else because both the man and the fraction of a second when he was have vanished from time. It’s true that while the camera’s shutter was open, the man’s left foot in its buttoned shoe seemed still, as if it could claim a place, no matter how tiny, in a finally fixed and stable history. But of course it couldn’t. Freeze-framed on the pavement by the camera’s virtual way of seeing, visible there only as an illusion of motion stopped and about to start again, that not really unmoving shoe is something like a visual equivalent of grammar’s future perfect tense: the representation of an action completed (Latin perfectus) with respect to a moment in the future.

In that grammatical sense, perhaps every instant when a shutter opens and closes and time seems to stop is a perfect instant. It may be that an image is only an a perfect instant confined within a frame. Of this moment in 1910, at any rate, nothing remains except what is interior to its frame. As unconfined creating light passed westward through the exterior and away along its track, the end came for everything: the horses on their dirt road, the railroad station which is now a restaurant with a railroad theme, the men in their derby hats. But when we put the frame around our tiny image of the man walking up a little hill toward us, we locked in the illusion it had created of a moment held still for us to see, forever. It was a moment in the interior, with the end locked out.

Then, at the end, we let the man escape into the end. Hold his image up to the light, let the light penetrate, and look. From its foreground in the past, this picture seems to extend toward the invisible place over our shoulder where the man with his suitcase will finally have gone.