Captions and unreading

What am I reading here? Some history. I can place the document in that genre because it explains and is explained by its date of composition: April 1942. Off the page, history has already taught me that April 1942 has something to do with the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, and I accordingly think I understand what the words on the page mean when they say: “Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of the Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese-American children waiting for a train to take them and their parents to Owens Valley.”

That timestamped and circumstantial text isn’t only a history, of course. It’s also a literature. Shaped by narrative convention, it belongs to the literary genre of the caption — specifically, the caption to this photograph by Russell Lee in the Library of Congress’s Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information archive at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998003537/PP/.

Because a caption has an explanatory power over its attached image, its words make the image in some sort verbal. They make it tell a story. From this historical era, for example, there exist similar photographs taken in other theaters of World War II, and our reaction to any of them will be, so to speak, captional. If the caption tells us of a Japanese baby being evacuated from Los Angeles, we’ll react one way; if the caption tells us of a Chinese baby being evacuated from Nanking, we’ll react another. Likewise, as of August 2014 I think most of my academic colleagues would react with sympathy if a caption told them that the image were of a Palestinian baby, but with exasperation if an editor then corrected the caption’s adjective “Palestinian” to read “Israeli.”

It’s been a long time since a news photo could be thought of as intelligible on its own terms, of course.  A century ago, not long after Freud taught us how hard it is in principle to know what we’re seeing, Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that in practice we can’t even see the difference between a dead baby and a bowl of soup. In Kuleshov’s experiment, a movie clip — one clip, only — showed an actor going through the physical correlates of emotion. A montage of that clip with some ostensible stimuli of emotion then made clear that any imputed sense of emotion, of emotion about an ostensible stimulus,  was demonstrably nothing but an artifact of the montage effect. Juxtaposed with the image of the baby, the actor’s mobile features and heaving chest seemed to mean one thing; juxtaposed with the image of the soup, they seemed to mean something else. We might have thought they expressed feeling, but In themselves they were nothing but mobility and heaving. Whatever emotion we derived from them was an illusion.  We were misled by our expectation of a caption to read. But from the belated realization that Kuleshov’s tiny silent movie is captionless there follows a happy ending. To learn that one is free from captions is to learn to be free from other things as well.

Alternate link: http://youtu.be/4gLBXikghE0

Therefore, face to face with an image that has been captioned, I find myself wondering whether I can do something in the captional space above the border where the caption’s words begin. Wondering, I open Photoshop and set about trying to change the non-verbal part of this historical record. Timidly, at the start, I may tell myself and you that I’m only restoring the captioned image, only using modern narrative technique to put an illustrated story — a children’s book, a picture book! — back together.  But of course what Photoshop and I are doing to this ensemble of words and non-verbal forms isn’t merely a historiographic revision. Photoshop and I aren’t doing history now; we have subordinated ourselves to a corpus of aesthetic principles that have nothing to do with Los Angeles or trains or 1942. Our project has been taken over by art. So:

And you see: I have not merely restored the record or corrected it. I have (as editors used to say in the days of Thomas Bowdler, he of the verb bowdlerize) improved it. See how much more tragic than Russell Lee’s original my little girl is, hear how much more clearly we can say “Little does she know” about her! How satisfyingly pretty I have made this children’s story!

Because it’s open to the possibility of an aesthetic judgment like that one, my version of Russell Lee’s photograph is no longer quite a historical document. It can now be read without its caption, as if it were in the process of growing distant from the history of events. It’s no longer merely captional. If it isn’t yet art, it may at least be art history. Because the space around the little girl has now been filled with art, her mother has now been barred forever from entering the image frame to reroll her daughter’s cuff. Because art always has a completion function, the caption below this image has now been translated into a dead language and made emotionally unreadable on any terms but art’s.  The little girl’s picture can now say only the one thing art ever can say about itself: The End. Waiting for a train which can now never arrive to transport her out of the image, holding the doll which she now will never outgrow, the little girl has become an unravished bride of quietness.

Smile, late winter 1916

1

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.

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2

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.

Sources

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.

 

Exegi Polaroidum aere perennius

“Hi, this is Steve,” said the voice on the phone. “How are you?” The voice was a breathy basso and the intonation oozed with benevolence. A few seconds after that, Steve revealed that he was calling to offer me a reverse mortgage and I realized that Steve was an interactive audio file.

A cynosure of the international art world in the first decade of this century was the American artist Dash Snow (1981-2009). A member of the princely Menil family of art patrons, Dash devoted his life as an artist to wearing hats, vandalizing hotel rooms, and not much else. But he was also an almost unbelievably handsome young man, with waist-length blond hair and a really big trust fund, and he took tens of thousands of Polaroids of the life his Dionysiac force created around him. Most of these images are of people being drunk or drugged.

It was the drugs that got him. At

http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/10/asx-tv-dash-snow-talking-about-dash-snow-2012.html

you can see an elegiac interview about that event with a gallerista who fondly remembers the fun she unfailingly experienced when Dash was in the room. Even as a little boy, the gallerista recalls, Dash was a nonstop source of creative energy: throwing things, smashing things, and setting fires until the very moment he was sent off to reform school. After a while, the interviewer cuts the conversation short and abruptly leaves the room. It’s time, he explains to the gallerista, for him to pick up his little boy.

At

http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/09/asx-tv-dash-snow-interview.html

you can see Dash in extreme closeup with cigarette, aetatis suae XXIV. If he had lived, he would have looked like Mitch McConnell by the time he was 40. But art, even Dash’s art, admits you to an interior zone from which the human reaches out toward immortality. Back from the immortal, in this case, come a couple of sentences’ worth of Dashtalk: “I don’t believe in the laws or the system by any means whatsoever. I try not to obey them at any time.”

The words are just phatic sound, of course, like Steve’s “How are you?” They might as well be the clay language of a Grecian urn, stilled into perdurable ceramic. Yet when the speaker fills his lungs with smoke and speaks the words to the video track, he looks as real as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Dash-in-the-Polaroid doesn’t believe in the laws. He thinks of what he does generally, in the abstract. (The drugs probably have something to do with that.) Steve-in-the-computer doesn’t believe only in the Do Not Call List. He thinks of what he does in a focused pragmatic way, with the help of lawyers who edit his script and computer programmers who help him speak it. Dash represents inhuman art. Steve represents the humanity of the hucksters who ascribe a value to art.

At the end of The Bacchae, Dionysus destroys first those who didn’t worship him and then those who did. Look at this image and discuss.

 

White – unto the White Creator –

The Time magazine images at

http://lightbox.time.com/2012/08/23/the-convention-draws-near-the-romney-ryan-road-trip-to-the-party-in-tampa

show the current Republican candidates for President and Vice President campaigning and fund-raising in New England and Long Island. One hundred percent of the people in every photograph are white.

But in one of the photographs (by Lauren Fleishman) the personnel have become invisible. Their traces exist only outside the image frame. A moment prior to the image’s time, something human, perhaps even something unwhite, created its composition and then removed itself. Alone before the composition now, we see a still life of an airplane’s tray table in repose. Resting upon it are a plastic plate in green and yellow imitation wicker, a white napkin on which rests a single chocolate chip cookie, and a transparent plastic cup of milk. As the beloved hymn of the party of the War on Christmas says,

All is calm, all is bright.

Like a tag on a toe in a morgue, a caption informs us that the cookie is still warm. When old age shall this generation waste, it will remain.

Malevich, just think how much greater an artist you might have been if you had only owned a dacha in East Hampton!

Sources: Emily Dickinson, “Publication is the auction” (Fr788) and Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White. Click to enlarge.

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world

The fat man appears to be airborne over the deck of his ship, hovering with arms stiffly extended forward and down like landing gear. His cushiony, shock-absorbing hands appear to be huge, but perhaps that’s an illusion produced by foreshortening. In his image, outlined by a rectangular frame of decayed photographic emulsion, he is strongly foreshortened at every point.

“W. N. McMillan.” G. G. Bain collection, Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.18560/  Click to enlarge.

At and around the man’s hands, further decay has accentuated the contrast between the image’s light and dark areas. The decay has done an artist’s job: it has shaped an outline.

An outline is usually a line of demarcation which an artist lays down between his creation and the rest of the universe. Here, however, outline is an index of decay. The universe has invaded the physiology of this image like a virus and set it to manufacturing a counterfeit of the artist’s death-defying gesture of separation from time.

And the optics of photographic image-making have bloated the man into an incipient sphere: a fruit rounding as it ripens toward decay.

The rounding has been preserved in its incipience, however. It comes to us educationally, preserved through natural history as if it and we had been destined from the beginning to face each other from opposite sides of a vitrine.

Surrounded by the Library of Congress’s explanatory words, the image is a fat mute struldbrug surrounded by volubly signifying youthfulness. The words singing in the surround are a choir of still unravished brides.