New York, February 25, 1916: arriving from Chicago a month before he is to perform, the boxer Jess Willard poses at the door of his railroad car. A photographer is waiting for him there, his hod loaded with a charge of flash powder.
Six feet six and a half, Willard is known as “The Pottawotamie Giant.” Having defeated Jack Johnson for the heavyweight title and then declared that he would never again box with a black man, he is also known as “The Great White Hope.” Now, as the powder explodes and fills the underground terminal with whiteness, he smiles. All around him smile other men. Their clothes are less beautiful than his and their bodies are smaller. In this image, the small men are seen to live not for themselves but for the large man. In exchange for themselves, he will offer up his performance for them.
But who are these coming to the sacrifice? Among others, the trainman at the right of the image. When the photographer’s little heap of powdered magnesium was released by a natural force into white light, it crushed the trainman’s form into two flat dimensions, delineated on or off, glare or darkness. The face has been reduced to an artifact of the flash process. In the glare, its grin is nothing but the trace in the darkness of a tremulous reflex: a retraction of the lips from the teeth, exposing them to reflect more light back to the champion man. As The New York Times will explain the next day, the champion’s life evokes that smiling terror because it is all smile itself: a biology of happy force, the fist striking through its surrounding light direct and unswerving.
About two days before Willard’s train rolled into its tunnel under New York and came to a stop, the Broadway star Yvonne Gouraud was walking through the avenues. A photographer saw the beautifully dressed woman there and took a picture. At that moment, a man behind the woman saw the photographer and smiled.
That smile too was a reflex. Alerting the man as it began at his eyes, the image caused him to respond with his mouth, his suddenly reaching arm, his whole eager body. On a late winter day in 1916, a man in the act of seeing was made happy by the click and glitter that answered a woman’s beauty with the countering beauty of a promised immortality.
The two images come from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Both have been postprocessed; the originals are linked at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/related/?&co=ggbain&pk=ggb2005021110&st=gallery&sb=call_number#focus. The negative of the Jess Willard image is marked “Regular 3/3/16”; the negative of the Yvonne Gouraud image is marked “2/23/16.”
The New York Times article, headed “Jess Willard Here; Weighs 260 Pounds,” is in the Times’s online archive for February 26, 1916.