Open flame: from the last years of a mode of seeing

Jack Delano, “Worker inspecting a locomotive on a pit in the roundhouse at the C & NW RR’s Proviso yard, Chicago, Ill.” December 1942. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Color Photographs, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Weather report: being taken over

“Is football playing?” asks the voice from beyond the tomb in A. E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing?” By 1896, when the question was asked in that grammatical form, it required less a reply than a footnote. Footnote, then: “Is football playing?” is a middle-voice construction called the passival, and by 1896 the passival had been almost completely supplanted by the progressive passive: “Is football being played?” (Liberman). Housman was a crotchety man, the last significant writer in English who refused to use a typewriter, and that line of his lives on in crotchety uprightness. Crying incredulous tears, its ghostly speaker refuses to concede that he speaks a dead language.

By 1941, when Jack Delano exposed film to summer light in Virginia’s plowland, the passival was firmly dead. “House in the area being taken over by the army,” says the caption appended to the film by the Farm Security Administration, and it says its say in the passive progressive. Under changing skies all over the world, bodies, some of them still alive as of 1941, were beginning preparation for military burial.

But for the woman and four girls on the house’s porch, the change hasn’t arrived yet. Their flowers still show signs of being tended, and in one of their upstairs windows a bed with a homemade quilt can be seen. After the change, they and their house, quilt and flowers will be commemorated by a print in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and that document will show no change impending in the sky.

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47df-f901-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wBut it was impending. Under certain conditions forecasts can be made seeable, and after all some of them are known all along. The dated caption to this one told us so before we even needed to see its illustration. Latent in the sky, the clouds needed only to be developed under the control of an idea of the symbol. Then and thereafter, they took over and began footnoting the history of being seen.


Mark Liberman, “A peeve for the ages.” Language Log 13 January 2011. In the twenty-first century, the passival survives in idioms like “now playing,” “now showing,” and “What’s cooking?”

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “House in the area being taken over by the army; The family will be moved out in a few days, Caroline County, Va., June, 1941.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Photoshopped.


The old noun is enameled iron. The fabric bears the impression of another old noun, mangle. The glasses’ thin delicate lenses are actually made of glass. The wide eyes and smiling face are turned full on toward an about-to-be-blinding light.


As things lose their immediacy of reference and become mere historical artifacts, the names they once had (“mangle”; “bedstead”) become hard, ironic, and unforgiving. The trusting smile that the picture shines toward us isn’t like the smile we return, because the man in the picture isn’t thinking, “Little do I know.” He is innocent. If he should say “bedstead,” the sound in his smiling mouth would lack the overtones demanded by our third-person knowingness. The reproduction would be low-fidelity, as if it had been played by a Victrola invisible within the image frame. Only we outside the image frame have been equipped by the passage of time post-flash to hear ourselves wanting to believe, “Little does he know.”

In the flash, “Little does he know” underwent a change of tense to “Little did he know” and the image acquired a caption. In the language of the past it can now say, for instance, “Bedstead.” Post-flash, we translate such words into bedtime stories that we force-read to ourselves, making believe that seeing what no longer exists (for an illuminated moment, a bedstead) can somehow come to mean understanding what no longer exists (forever, a bedstead). But the translation is a language we don’t understand ourselves. Now that the bedstead’s touchable knowable actual iron has passed out of reach in a flash, little can we know.

Source: Jack Delano, “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. Engineer John Johnson.” January 1943. U. S. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Lights out

Jack Delano, “New Bedford, Massachusetts. Foggy Night.” Fall 1940. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress.

From the bedrooms all the light has disappeared. The citizens of this night have dropped into the dark behind the image plane.  Now that they are there, they have gone permanent. They can never be seen again.

Outside their windows, the surface of the picture is a box of light-soaked fog, seemingly open. We can look at it, and we think that looking at implies looking into. Diffusing out of the picture’s permanent unchange into time, the light illuminates the sign on the wall and tempts us to think that come November we’ll be able to take it at its words, surrender our light source in exchange for the source within the picture, take a stroll down the picture’s cracked sidewalk, and cast a vote for or against John Francis Morrow, citizen of the night.

But at the end of the avenue of fog, perspective merges the street lamps into a backdrop. From there, illumination shines back at us, overmatching our every attempt to see more of the fog than its display on the surface of the photograph’s silver halide replica. Behind the silver halide is the fog we can’t see into, within the fog are the fog’s own sources of light , and what they illuminate is what the fog illuminates, under fog terms. Because it is not our light that shows us the name on the wall in the box of fog, it is one of the names of the dead.

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.


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.


Jack Delano, Street corner, Brockton, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress,

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.


Jack Delano, Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Mass., January 1941
Library of Congress,

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.