The photograph in the New York Public Library no longer gives up much to the eye. It has faded year by year for more than ninety years now, and most of its remaining significance has been transferred for preservation to a catalog text housed in a database.
There, offsite, words written about this gray blur say that it represents the maiden flight of the British dirigible R38 on June 23, 1921. Exactly two months after that beginning (the words go on to say) R38 broke in half in the air and exploded, killing 44 of the 49 men on board. That was the first of the twentieth century’s great zeppelin disasters. But the photograph can’t teach you the story of the disaster, because a picture represents a moment before the story began. To see it as a picture, in pictorial terms of light and volume, is to experience it as if perception were still waiting for a knowledge yet to come.
On June 23, 1921, for example, someone without words saw a floating body in the pictorial act of being huge and beautiful and took a camera to it. After that, someone with words took a grease pencil to the photograph of the huge and beautiful and made a decision about what portion of it should remain on the page and be designated “historical record.” The historical record, it turned out, was reserved solely for the portion of the image devoted to the light and air that clothed the moment of huge and beautiful. On the ground far below, in a zone designated by the grease pencil for erasure from the page, there happened to be two women wearing the not yet short skirts of the early 1920s. With them all along in that part of the image has been a dark smudge on the grass which conceivably could be a historical trace of R38’s shadow. Considering how few shadows destiny allotted to R38, that might be worth at least a sentimental thought from history. However, the grease pencil hasn’t marked any dark on this corpus. In here, exterior to R38’s demarcating rectangle, the only dark lies in the erasure zone. There, excluded from the part of the image that will be written up in the language called history, the dark evokes only questions that language can’t answer. (How did the air of June 23, 1921, feel in the moment when a moving shadow passed through it?) By demarcating R38 from the rest of its image field, the grease pencil made a distinction between significance and insignificance definable by fiat. It’s the distinction between what remains to be seen and what remains to be unseen.
But this particular photograph, marked for cutting but not cut, hasn’t yet excluded the part that remains to be unseen. Still present in their margin despite the fiat against them, two women in hats and skirts have kept looking toward a part of the sky from which the written story of huge and beautiful hasn’t yet barred their gaze. Bound for the history books, the fading image cut off within its rectangle proceeds toward unfading immortality under the power of words. Meanwhile, outside the rectangle, a possible shadow has been cut free from history to play on the grass.
You will never see the women’s faces. Ever after, the women will be turned away from you, rapt by the history passing them by up there. They won’t look down at the possible shadow before them, either. But something dark is close to them, and you are looking.
Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The first trail [sic] of the dirigible ZR2 at Cardington England.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-3d61-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped.
R38 was built for the U.S. Navy, where it was to be designated ZR2, and its crash occurred during what was to have been the last of its test flights before commissioning. You can see the American markings on its hull and tail.