Like the dyer’s hand

Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.

So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.

Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.

Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.

Source: Hoover Institution Poster Collection (http://www.lunacommons.org/luna/servlet/HOOVER~1~1), item no. RU/SU 365. Photoshopped.

In 1910, she dreams

of 1910, which is less a time than a world which fully contains her life, giving it a body and clothes to shape and color it.

Source: E. S. Yates, lithograph “Twentieth Century Transportation,” 1910. Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97514565/. Photoshopped.

Tangent

The long history of events will need only a few extra moments to add the story of the dirigible America.

On the afternoon of October 15, 1910, under the command of the journalist-explorer Walter Wellman, America set off from Atlantic City in an attempt to fly the Atlantic Ocean. About seventy hours later, defeated by headwinds and engine trouble, the airship’s six crewmen climbed into their lifeboat, lowered themselves and their cat into the sea near the steamer Trent, and were rescued. Lightened by the abandonment, America rose back into the sky, drifted away, and was never seen again. You probably have permission to think “The End” and then forget.

New-York Tribune

But the rescue took three hours of maneuvering in heavy seas, and during that miniature epoch somebody on board Trent was busy with a camera. As he worked, his camera filled with a growing record of a shape descending over water. Looking back at that record now, we will find ourselves wanting to penetrate its silence and find words to speak of it.

On its own, the shape within the record has already acquired at least one word. From the surrounding text which provides its historical syntax, we learn that even though America was the first aircraft to be equipped with radio, the innovation that Walter Wellman was proudest of was a device he called the equilibrator: a heavy cable suspended from the airship’s keel and towing a ton’s weight of gasoline underwater. In principle, this should have stabilized America’s altitude, compensating for the weight lost through fuel consumption by lifting its load drum by drum out of the load-supporting water. In practice, it only transferred wave motion to the airship — stressing its structure, making navigation difficult, and sickening the crew. Look through the railing around Trent’s deck and you’ll see it at its mischief, leaving a wake to port as America drifts sideways. The accumulated literal detail of this portrayal – the light suspension harness holding the umbilical cord, the foamy crease where the cord has touched the water – asks to be read as a history written in satisfyingly tragic Greek. Here, says the image, is a moral record of the moment at latitude 35.43, longitude 68.18 on October 18, 1910, when nature erased a mark made in water by overweening man. Nothing remains, now, but a now meaningless word: equilibrator.

But the record of erasure also holds a mark that hasn’t been deleted. Unwritten but inscribed, this mark endures as if it were something seen once and thereafter seen forever. It seems to have become indelible, and it seems to have achieved its indelibility by self-translation: from history to geometry.

Made accessible to reason by geometry, this form is America in two dimensions. Considered as a planar artifact, it appears to be tangent to the surface of the ocean as it descends. The representation could be a visual aid for Calculus 1: the limit instant when a vessel, descending along a curve, ceases to be of the air and becomes a creature in the first throe of metamorphosis. Light and air still embrace the surface of the falling balloon, but the waves and the equilibrator’s turbulent trace all say that the embrace will now break off and end.

It’s only an optical illusion, of course. Furthermore, any sense of human meaning in what may appear to be impending touch and consummation is a mere sentimental metaphor. In an unblemished three-dimensional image with a soundtrack, it would probably be easier for us to understand that all we’re seeing is a gaseous machine in relation to a liquid surface. Given more visual information, we would see more and have a more accurate perspective. But for some reason, only the blemished, partial, still image seems to promise us that after we see what it has recorded we will have been granted the grace to remember. At any rate, the record seems to show that from this flawed grayness America has not drifted away.

Sources:

“Wellman airship from ‘Trent.'” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008853/. Photoshopped.

Peter Allen, The 91 Before Lindbergh. Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1984.

On board Trent in New York after the rescue: America’s engineer Melvin Vaniman with his family and Kiddo the cat. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008771/. Photoshopped.

Prewar incident: from the last moments of visage

In the far distance, seen from the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, the squabble seems almost comical. Little, of course, did the New York Times know what was about to start happening in the neighborhood of the zeppelin hangars, and so the Times’s editors saw no need to drive home their point any further by illustrating it.

But the image of what was to come was already in place and already signifying as hard as it could. See, in the image, the forms hovering impatiently on the ceiling of their barn, already fledged in streamline and about to slip free and feral.

Translation: "The arrest of M. Clément in Germany. The hangar before which M. Clément was found at the time of his arrest."
Translation: “The arrest of M. Clément in Germany. The hangar before which M. Clément was standing at the time of his arrest.”

In the image, all but a few of the men who do see have their backs to the camera. They are looking up toward those ridged cylinders as if they’re waiting for them to emerge, cast off, and mount. They understand the cylinders’ purport. They may even have been taught that they’ll love what is about to happen to them.

But the man they have sent away from the bed of ascension is understanding in a different way: actively. His traveling cap is ready to don, he is holding a writing tool in each hand, and his eyes are in the act of piercing.

Translation: "A scandalous arrest. M. Clément, the great industrialist, who has just been arrested in Germany for having stopped in front of a dirigible hangar."
Translation: “A scandalous arrest. M. Clément, the great industrialist, who has just been arrested in Germany for having stopped in front of a dirigible hangar.”

Without the beard that grows beneath, they would be only eyes in a face — say, a face fronting one of the derbied Germans who have so deeply failed to interest the camera in themselves. With the beard, M. Clément’s face becomes an emblem of the time before the dirigible and the Freudian reinterpretation of will. During that long but abruptly vanished prehistory, men didn’t just face the camera when they posed; they faced the camera down. With their sensitive mouths covered deep under layers of masculine muff, some men of the last moments before the Great War seem actually to have believed that the momentarily living self they showed to the finder could be a visage, hard and glittering as a face self-sculpted in stone.

Source: Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, https://www.flickr.com/photos/universite_caen/15232404609 and https://www.flickr.com/photos/universite_caen/15232404839. Photoshopped.

Cloudbirth

The U.S. Navy zeppelin Shenandoah, between 1923 and 1925. Postprocessed from the original in the Warren Eaton album, San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, item number AL17_Warren Eaton Photo_00054. Online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/10874093593/in/photostream/ :