Labor history, considered axially

Under electric wires and parallel to them in the vertical plane, a trolleycar comes rolling into the image. Above and just ahead of it hangs an arc lamp, suspended from its horizontal boom. Everything in this part of the record is diagrammable, and the diagram is a map of obedience realizing natural law. Alongside the trolleycar’s rails, even the picture’s human elements have become points in a specialized geometry of motion. There they are, the capped and dark-clad men and boys, displayed by the picture’s organizing force as if at the vertices of a baseball diamond. Their diamond-shaped matrix didn’t exist until they took their places, but they are playing within it now, and following the rules applicable to diamond.

Out of sight above this part of the image, a breathlessly unpunctuated rush of words and numbers explains: “Stoning a car Philadelphia 2/21/10.” Two days later, a different language convention will expand the caption’s sports-page telegraphese into a page of prose with a prologue:

“CARS BLOWN UP,” shouts the excitable sans-serif. But that zippy string of introductory monosyllables is only a noise made to call to order a citizenry whose true language is thoughtful, slow-moving black letter. Black letter is the visual dialect not of the boys playing on their diamond but of the men keeping score in the stands. Black letter’s blackness comprehends as well the colorful coat of arms of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with its plowhorses laboriously supporting a motto whose first word is “Virtue.” On the brickwork of their Philadelphia street, the stone-throwing men and boys can make themselves seen in only one way. On his newsprint in Honesdale, the Citizen can make himself seen in many ways, all of them virtuous.

But intersecting with the axis along which virtue is to be read as an attribute of black letter’s typographic geometry . . .

But intersecting with the axis along which virtue is to be read as an attribute of black letter’s typographic geometry stretches the image’s other axis: the one demarcated from its virtuous civic axis by a building labeled “Kaufmann House.” If the name “Kaufmann House” is read as a string of words, its significance has been lost to the history depicted within this picture. Here within the picture, the three syllables of “Kaufmann House” don’t become part of our comprehension in the way that the two syllables of “stoning” do. But what is comprehensible is the Kaufmann House triangle, generated within the image by the image’s own self-referring and self-enforcing laws of intersection and juncture. Before that triangle had a name (“Kaufmann House”), at the instant it drew itself into being on February 21, 1910, the geometry of the human along one of its extended sides was supplanted all the way back to the vanishing point by winter light, shadows lengthening and darkening in accordance with natural law, and a history of men and their labor recordable thenceforward only by Euclid.

Sources: “Rioters stoning a trolley car, Philadelphia.” Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004004535/. Photoshopped.

The Citizen (Honesdale, PA), 23 February 1910: 1. Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87078082/1910-02-23/ed-1/seq-1/

Click images to enlarge.

Cylindric equilibrium

1

Past the French Art Shop they come, coats swinging, with a jaunty ID provided by the Bain News Service: anarchists on the march, in March. If anarchists could have a captain, their captain might be the man on roller skates. Dressed like a boy in cap and Norfolk jacket and knickers, he swings his arms and pouts. All with him is precarity, stopping just short of hilarity. Click his image to enlarge it.

2

In 1926, a work of French art, Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma, rolled up to offer first aid and counsel. Between spinning spirals, M. Duchamp’s words advise the marching anarchists to take, as necessary, “Bains de gros thé pour grains de beauté sans trop de Bengué.”

http://www.openculture.com/2011/10/anemic_cinema.html

All with the spirals is lucid geometry. All with the words is lucid balance. Dragées Bengué were sold at the time as a cough drop. Their active ingredients were menthol and cocaine.

3

One way to see Labor Day 1915 was as an affair of cylinders. Upright in the exact center of his image, the shaved and neatly suited man raising funds is holding a metal pail which is dented but still round, round. His mustache is a perfect horizontal, and above it the placard on his hat makes it into another cylinder. Mustached and cylindered, the man looks now like the always endangered, always genially victorious capitalist who rides his train from rectangle to rectangle along the route of the Monopoly board. On the man’s right, a narrow, perfectly horizontal beam of light sets up a reflection within the camera’s lens. On his left, in perfect balance, the beam of light bounces back from a window in specular reflection. On each of the man’s two cylinders, a sentence in English reads, “Help the furrier strikers.” Just below that, a sentence in macaronic American Yiddish reads, “Hilft die furrier strikers.”

The English reads from left to right. The Yiddish reads from right to left. On their cylinders the words counter-rotate in equilibrium. Wallace Stevens, who once walked into a restaurant, walked out again, and explained to his chauffeur, “Too many Jews come in here,” might have made an exception for this one.

Sources

The two photographs are in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, at

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001704472/

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005019070/

The Stevens anecdote is in Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 248-49.

A friend wonders whether the caption “Labor parade” may refer to Labor Day or, on the other hand, May Day. I don’t know, but the photograph is identified as from Labor Day at http://www.apwu.org/laborhistory/07-5_laborday/07-5_laborday.htm . Speaking of ambiguous attribution, I wonder now whether the man dressed as a roller-skating boy in the first photograph may in fact be a boy — a boy who looks as tall as the marching men behind him because he is closer to the camera than the image makes him appear.