Corrective lens

The provenance of this stereophotograph of the World War II Japanese battleship Musashi isn’t indicated online, but a lot of its art history is preloaded. The shell-deflecting curves of the ship’s armor, for instance, are prominent in its image for reasons having to to with the history of Art Deco, and the camera’s heroic angle, gazing raptly upward, was probably designed in the studio of Alexander Rodchenko, artist of the totalitarian. Then too there is the matter of the photograph’s dramatically dark tones, which were probably generated in-camera by a red filter.

In the eye, then, per design, the twinned Musashi artworks, one image for the left eye and one for the right, are massed and ungraspable and black. Blocking out the light, they push together into your senses, take control, and merge into a single black ingot. After that, the ingot is no longer something capable of being seen, in the light, from without. It has become the material for a stamping mill broaching darkness within.

Forty years earlier, a different ship in a different world looked as innocent as a maiden as it struck a happy pose and waved its flags with both hands. The ship was wearing white, too, and the camera was looking down at it as if it were little. I can imagine Musashi having been photographed by a professionally adoring, professionally upward-gazing modernist woman like Margaret Bourke-White or Leni Riefenstahl, but the idea of a happy little boat seems to have brought out something protectively chivalric in Messrs. Underwood and Underwood’s cameragentleman.

But the happy little boat happened to be another battleship, with a battleship’s single purpose. Guns got bigger and armor got thicker in the course of the battleship’s half-century of naval dominance, but from the beginning of the era to the end, the corpses floating in each successive wake followed only one model of naked form. If the older corpses seem somehow simpler than the more recent ones, that’s only because more of their historical detail has been eaten by the fish.

This believing in an illusion of simplicity is an ordinary error committed by beginners at living in time. Because we were once younger and more ignorant than we are now, we think the world was younger and more ignorant too. But in these two particular artworks, the error can be corrected by a simple trip to the eye doctor. The corrective process isn’t just good for us, either; it’s also educational.

Go ahead with it, then. To begin the process of correction, assemble each stereo pair into an anaglyph. Then bring the two anaglyphs into juxtaposition. This formal art-maneuver will reduce the historical distances between the two images — distances across time, distances between democracy and fascism — to almost nothing. After that, with history controlled for and minimized, there will be little for the eye to do except see.

So see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once they’ve been brought together at a single moment, the two images from different times will simplify to a single timeless idea. It will be what the two otherwise different battleship images have in common: a battleship idea, the idea of that which is death-dealing. Having been subsumed into a general idea of the death-dealing, each separate death-dealing image can shed its distracting photographic artifacts of (on the one hand) black and (on the other) white. The polychrome stains of life and death will then become imaginable again, and after that we’ll need to do just one more eye exercise.

It will be this. To see the colors as they were before they became a part of history’s blacks and whites, we will only have to unlearn the way of seeing that we once learned from a block of black steel.

Sources:

Online, I’ve been able to find the image of Musashi only in an otherwise unidentified list of World War II photographs. The image of Wisconsin is at the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, http://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/wisconsin-bb-9/NH-100334-A.html. I’ve photoshopped it for contrast. The anaglyphs require a red-and-blue stereo viewer.

From the history of gray

Paris, March 1839: Samuel F. B. Morse, in France to obtain European patents for his telegraph, attends a demonstration of Jacques Daguerre’s new system for recording what has been seen. Taking note there of a gap in the record, he writes to a New York newspaper:

Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion. (Taft 12)

The headless, bodiless ghost that Morse saw in Daguerre’s studio was probably this one.

Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre

L. J. M. Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838 or 1839
Click to enlarge.

Just over a hundred years later, in America, another man fell under the influence of long exposure and went ghostly likewise.

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Jack Delano, Street corner, Brockton, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992000029/PP/

The grammar of Morse’s 1839 description is beautifully precise. The feet of the shoeshine man’s customer are described in the past tense because their moment of stasis is now only a historical fact, but the body and head remain in the historical present (as in “In 1865, Lincoln dies”) because their invisibility now belongs to the category of the forever after (as in Secretary of State Seward’s sentence after Lincoln’s last breath: “Now he belongs to the ages”). As history, too, Morse’s description approaches the fundamental. It reminds us that photography has erased every identifying mark of the shoeshine man and his customer and sunk them deep in a memory record which endures only as its elemental daguerreotype forms, copper and silver and mercury and gold.

Later in the process, Jack Delano was able to supplement Daguerre’s monochrome mnemotechnic with color. To him it was given to see an image through to its end in Kodachrome, the crystalline and slow to fade. But the ghost in the margin of Delano’s record is even less visible than the one in Daguerre’s. In each of these two photographs with men in their corners, the process has failed to hold life still at the instant of its final pose.

In ways that Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have discussed, Delano’s photograph of a street corner is history inscribed in the genre of elegy. Once, not long before the approach of a photographer named Jack, a New England storm swept through Brockton, Massachusetts. For the moment and yet also approximately forever, a memory of the storm remains in white on a utility pole. There, seen as an image in a photograph, the white is a metonym for “winter” or “New England” which any American will know how to read.  With the metonym’s help, too, an archivist might be able to write (say) a history of snowplow routes in Brockton as of January 1941. But of course metonymy can’t restore les neiges d’antan, or the way a winter day in Massachusetts would have made itself known to eye and flesh eleven months before Pearl Harbor, with so many of New England’s soon to be dead still alive in their snow. In this image, snow reads its white to us, but its cloaking gray surround seems not yet to be readable, even after 71 years.

That color-coded signal warns the eye that Massachusetts’s gray extends not just through its space but through its time as well.

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Jack Delano, Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1992000028/PP/

Yes, there’s time in this picture. Those squat steel towers in their girdered cages were called gasometers, and few remain now in the United States. The smoke pollution may be due to return under a Republican administration, but for now it too is largely a thing of the past. And finally the image itself is depopulated of the people of 1941. As of 2012, what you see here of historic New Bedford is less a photograph in its own right than an architect’s rendering of a not yet written history. It is a visual metonym for the past, camera-ready to be positioned on a page between paragraphs full of words about the past. Call your metonym something like “the gasometer era,” and there’s your symbol,  right in the illustration. As an illustration, too, the symbol may be applied to any number of subjects.

But its grays don’t cling to anything like a subject. Jack Delano, a documentarian with the Farm Security Administration, certainly had subjects in mind when he arranged to depict them, but even if he had considered gray to be a political quality (as in a pictorial equivalent of a phrase like “the grim gray of industrial New England”), he couldn’t have taught it to make a political impression. In Jack Delano’s New Bedford, gray is the unruly all-color that takes dominion because it defies classification by hue. Sunk below form in the color layer, a surround that decolors the image it encloses, the gray will be seen always to have been ghosting itself away from subject and composition and social order. If we could speak of a form in transit into the unsymbolizable, we might be able to name that thing “Gray” and speak of it as such. But it can’t be spoken of as such. It is only the gray: a form that neither Samuel Morse nor we know how to say we didn’t see.

Source of the passage by Samuel Morse: Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene. 1938; New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

I am not related to Samuel Morse.

Objets d’art

Posting my photographs on the microblog site Tumblr has taught me something cute: some teenage girls like to set up Tumblr pages and decorate them with images appropriated from other Tumblr pages. Tumblr’s nice technical term for the game is “reblogging.” It implies that the girls and the creators are working together at the task of realizing and then furnishing a home space for imagination: a little steel addition to the sensorium, a locker.

My own latest image to be posted in that kind of locker, on December 30, 2011, is a picture of a flower. Tenderly plucked from my own page, it now appears as well in a Tumblr site called “A Room with Color.” There, reblogged into the context articulated by that title, it mingles with reddishness and purplishness, only. The moment the steel door closes on them, my former image’s colors unclothe themselves from the shapes I thought I saw around them and stand forth alone in their new dark. There, all that remains to them is a chaste, autistic beauty. It is color meant to be seen for no more than itself; color as a form that has left behind its non-chromatic meaning. The non-chromatic would include, for instance, any idea.

Click to enlarge.

For whether the chromatic throws its light over lips or Jews, beauty under this regime of pure, unmediated perception has neither object nor subject. It only is; it only is color. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, and the people who love Schindler’s List have always been part of the color field. To glow, the images in their sensoria need nothing more than dark.

Polychrome

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.