Actor; sound barrier

Once, this is what some men did just before they took action. For a moment they stopped playing and stood still for the record. At their side, their musicians were silent. One day in the second decade of the twentieth century, some of the light that fell on New York was allotted to shadowing the face of a sousaphone player and making his horn glint and his ringed playing hand glow.

But the illumination wasn’t completed. At the edge of its history, a horn slides away behind the dark.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Dress for vitesse

St. Julien’s face is all animated agony. As an image, it could have been conceived by Cowper or Blake, passionately tender men of the late eighteenth century whose ways of thinking about animals were contemporary with Beethoven’s first analyses of the bonds between chord structure and emotion. As St. Julien runs the track of this 1880 Currier & Ives lithograph, his tail spills like an arpeggio into the lap of Orrin A. Hikok, and if Orrin A. Hikok hadn’t been signing his name in 1880 with a late-nineteenth-century middle initial he might have noticed the many fingerings of the blowing hair.

But by the time Currier & Ives got around to portraying St. Julien, the late nineteenth century had arrived and chord progressions had been scaled up into industrial sentimentality. For P. I. Tchaikovsky, 1880 was the year for both the sobbing strings of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy and the cannons-and-all practicalities of the 1812 overture, and Currier & Ives’s 1880 lithograph is another example of that rationalized division of labor. On the right of the image is the horse: naked yet bound by his harness, with open agonized mouth and desperate eyes. On the left is Orrin A. Hikok: not merely dressed but bound by his dress in way that seems focused on keeping passion under rein. Mr. Hickok’s legs are open as if to embrace St. Julien, but they remain covered, with every ankle-button buttoned. His jacket is buttoned too, and behind its buttons are enclosed a vest and then a hard-starched shirt and then a knotted necktie. Lip is shut tight within lip within lip. At Mr. Hikok’s breast there will be no opening.

And Mr. Hikok’s cap is on, and in his mustache not a hair is out of place, and the grandeur of his grand horse has been rigorously quantified by his century’s progress in chronometry. “Record,” Currier & Ives told themselves as they sat down in 1880 before a lithographer’s stone, and the record that they set down in response to that imperative translated an artist’s word into a technologist’s number. After translation, it had become both precise and (in physics’ strict sense of the term) undimensioned. With words no longer attached, it had ceased to be even a number. It was now number as such, pure and absolute and as completely unified into a general idea as the multiple lines on a lithographer’s stone which coalesced into a single picture of St. Julien.

As of 1880, Currier & Ives hadn’t yet understood this process all the way to its completion, and that innocence on the brink of knowing is a part of what now gives their work its antique charm. What they didn’t understand in 1880 was that at the moment of St. Julien’s transit across their visual field, their chronometric word “2:11¼” was becoming idiomatic in a language changing under the technological influence of Eadweard Muybridge. As Muybridge’s multiple-camera array began showing the world for the first time the fine details of what the word “run” can mean, the world began learning, in flashes of revelation experienced one by one but only fractions of a second apart, that both verbs like “run” and nouns like “St. Julien” are meanings running along a continuum. Currier & Ives’s artist John Cameron may have intuited this, but only a Muybridgian understanding of the term “2:11¼” can articulate it. Articulated for now in a post-1880 vocabulary, it says: because the grand horses of words running at the rate of 2:11¼ never stop changing in every pulse-charged muscle, they never come to rest in the known.

Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Silent, upon a peak

Until a moment ago, nothing in this photograph was not wood or mud. But as soon as a man within a wooden box picked up an apparatus shaped like an iron flower, he and it carried each other out of the box and into the pictorial record. The record has changed itself accordingly. For example, it now takes into account a space between boxes where there is newly to be seen a man’s clumsily hemmed suit and a name, Edison, in gold amid the mud.

But the man isn’t going to remain in the light of that temporary setting. His music is waiting for him, and the only place for sound here is off the record, back in the dark of the box. After the man has vacated the photograph he has caused to be made, it will seem once again to signify nothing but wood and mud. But the form that once penetrated the record of that which was to be photographed will have changed it forever. From now on, whatever new light falls on the picture will be seen within the spectral limits of a prior illumination that once made visible the panoply of the man: his wrinkled cloth, leather to be sited on mud, and iron horn.

Leaving the interior of the box and carrying the apparatus into the light to be photographed was the dispositive event. By forcing us to see, it obviated our surmise. Now that we know we have seen a flower with a golden name, we know we can hear its music. The man who carried it toward the mud and the light c‏aused it to change forever from the not yet seen to the soon to be heard.

But the effort has left a blankness in his face. Something previously there has been erased. He will never again stare at the Pacific.

Source: I haven’t found a provenance for this image. A chain of Tumblr and Pinterest reblogs eventually terminated without bibliographical data at a site called

I have photoshopped the image for contrast and clarity. Kim Bridges contributed extra post-processing in Nik.

“A certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough of the very best”

The two wistful images below depict an uneasy dream staged during the long naptime between the death of Victoria and the beginning of the Great War. That was the era of G. K. Chesterton, when language sweated grease under starched linen as it sleepily tried to say what it had to say; then tried again; then tried again.

All that the Philharmonic Society of Buffalo wanted to say during three spring evenings in 1912, for example, was one simple, poignant thing: “Beauty deserves to be noticed, even if we are in Buffalo.” But what prolonged the poignancy through seven agonizing paragraphs wasn’t its multiplying words; it was their echoless surround. In the merchant city of Buffalo, a city that was all transaction with others, the Society’s prose was admitting to itself that it could speak only to itself. Knowing (the Society’s own Buffalo ledgers confirmed the truth) that its words were being ignored, it comforted itself with a little song whose words went, “I am beautiful, nevertheless.” It repeated the song, tema e variazioni, but still heard no reply. Then, by way of at least salvaging a memory from  the hurt, it wrote out the song’s verses in a pretty typeface and gave them a poem’s pretty title: “Proem.” At exactly the same historical moment, Lewis Wickes Hine was capturing his images of child laborers, some of them the scions of parents who had loved them and given them wishful aristocratic names. The images forecast no future except misery and premature death, and the Buffalo printer had trouble with the name “Philharmonic.”

But a century after that sad last paragraph, the Buffalo Philharmonic is alive and prospering. In 1912 the authors of “Proem” did not labor in vain. The memorial to their achievement is now an archival online tombeau that also holds the program of (for instance) a piano recital performed on April 17, 1928, by the undying Maurice Ravel, assisted by the soprano Greta Torpadie. During that era, too, Greta Torpadie not only sang beauty into a passing Buffalo night per “Proem” (“Music . .  in the very act of being is gone”). No; in herself, as herself, probably while located somewhere other than Buffalo, she enacted a silent beauty within the universal memory of not-Buffalo. There in the not-Buffalo, at the instant she took a ceramic cat into her hand and instructed a photographer to commence recording, she established the shape called Cat in a form capable of communicating in human terms. Touching the cat under the camera’s transforming gaze, the soprano made it desirable. Desire then diffused throughout the camera’s work product, making its image of the piano and the pictures on the walls and the woman’s flowered tunic and smooth dark hair and profound eyes into the working, intercommunicating organs of a single living thing. Like “Proem,” that living thing came into being under the aspect of a generic name. The name of the unified life in the photograph was Collectible (noun).

In Buffalo after Buffalo, Collectible originates by acquisition and inheritance of a single genetic trait: “a certain pleasant sense of over indulgence, of having absolutely enough.” But uttering the spacious pronoun “enough” frees us to reutter “Collectible” in a simpler, grander way. “Enough” connotes the unlimited, connotes inexhaustible happy surprise, connotes treasure. The nouns “collectible” and “treasure” then combine into something like the emotion we feel when we experience certain faces. We call that emotion Beauty. Its origin is the idea of treasure: something desired without yet being namable, then acquired, and only then experienced as a growing, changing life in memory and as memory.

Reconsidered that way as a memory treasure, beauty becomes a Pharaonic inheritance of Cayman Island safe deposit boxes stuffed with mummified cats and remembered in wills. Soprano memento, beauty expresses itself as a culture’s collective will. Finally, says the document to us readers of its words, I, beauty, am so all-comprehending that I’m simple. All I’m for, all I am, is committed desire and the promise of return. The term of my bequest is this: the instant you vest me in the documented form of dark eyes and a score on the Steinway, I’ll burst into song, forever.


“Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Pre-History: 1840-1935.”

The image of Greta Torpadie is from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped for contrast.

The Simplex advertisement is in Vintage Automobile Ads & Posters CD-ROM and Book, ed. Carol Belanger Grafton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010), image 080.