Regina in the Tarnhelm

By the summer of 1922, ten years after the event, Meyer Wolfsheim had shaped its memory into a well formed, well rehearsed narrative, organized classically into beginning, middle, and end. “The old Metropole,” ran Mr. Wolfsheim’s beginning. “Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can’t forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there.”

During the event’s immediate aftermath, of course, the classical hadn’t yet gone into effect. The very long article that the New York Times published on July 26, 1912, for instance, couldn’t settle down to its storytelling until it had jittered and rasped its way through a pre-classical lead-in groove communicating little more than surface noise. That was the pre-narrative sound-effect analogue of a stage direction reading, “Time: the present.”

Likewise, the contemporaneous photograph that accompanied the article was little more than beginner’s literature, with content predetermined by a didactic caption right up top and a moral communicated by a pair of overly obvious symbols: on one side of the image’s woman protagonist a dark portal, on the other a sign proclaiming, with sweatily indignant irony, “Tables for ladies.” The picture story’s supporting roles, too, betray negligence in the casting department. Pigeontoed gumshoe in ill-fitting suit, bald and distressed proprietor wanting to get back inside: the hiring decision that brought these types onto the scene was 9-to-5 hackwork. This photographed setting is just a trailer for a story that (the picture promises us) is fully communicated somewhere else. It satisfies nothing but whatever demand there may be for an illustration of the words “Dodging camera.” In a composition that amateurishly cancels out the overdetermined with the unseen, can Rose be more interesting than the dark behind the door to her right?

But now submit the image to the discipline of the classical. Delete the dark, for instance, and make Rose symmetrical by arranging for her to become a center. Then see:

The delicate mesh purse, the clutched glove, the ungloved fingers daintily curled beside the daintily tenacious thumb and index, the drooping plumes atop what was called, at the time, a picture hat . . .

Seen now merely as she is, freed from the interpretive shackles of her caption, Rose has become fully visible. Now the details of her image have acquired significance and become character attributes. They are honest agents of their protagonist now, working hard to conform themselves to the Aristotelian unities. A photographer has caught them in the act of policing themselves into subordination to the art of the photograph, which is the art of being caught in the act.

On a stage somewhere else, perhaps in the same moment, an artist in a different medium is making cognate gestures in obedience to the discipline of his own art. This artist is a worker in sound, but at the moment he has become quiet —

Vorsichtig löst er den Helm und hebt ihn der Schlafenden vom Haupte ab: langes lockiges Haar bricht hervor. Siegfried erschrickt.

(He carefully unfastens the helmet and lifts it from the sleeper’s head. Long, curling hair pours out. Siegfried is startled.)

— and as we watch, his silence pours from the stage, fills the theater, and becomes another episode, this one silent, of the story noisily illustrated elsewhere by a photograph and a set of stacked headlines. There on the sidewalk in front of Hanover Lunch, the corresponding part of the story turns out to be an American translation of the moment when the warrior woman Brünnhilde was put to sleep somewhere in Germany, there to await the future.

Looking at the photograph, we may still think it differs from the opera. But the classical organization of detail is the same in both works of art, and perhaps the only significant reason for difference is that the art of helmet-making underwent changes between Wagner’s time and, say, Otto Dix’s. In the days of the helmet-shaped picture hat, a single image of the deathly still could be beautiful enough to startle a heroic tenor into silence. Ten years later, it was only the subject of a picturesque anecdote told by Mr. Wolfsheim to his indulgent young friend Major Gatsby, who had already seen the sights from under a helmet of his own.


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

Estampe XVI: blemish

In waters off Chicago the 1901 race for the Canada’s Cup is on, and judges on board the yacht Pathfinder are recording the progress of its history. From a distance, a man with a black curtain over his head watches the racers as they move upside-down across ground glass in an apparatus belonging to the Detroit Photographic Company. Between it and the boatload of judicial sportsmen rides another craft, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Morrill, and off Morrill’s quarter can be seen one of the yachts competing for the cup, the American Cadillac of Detroit or the Canadian Invader.

On Morrill’s lower deck some sailors have grouped themselves into a pyramidal composition signifying youth and eagerness. Over the course of the century that is beginning around them, their pose will be restruck again and again, in posters and movies and wartime photoessays in a magazine that will comprehensively call itself Life. As of 1901, however, the sailors and their way of being in the body haven’t yet become a cliché. Just now they are only angled over the rail that way because they want to see the race. Immediately influenced only by the physical law that prevents two objects from occupying the same space at the same time, the array of sailors’ bodies immediately communicates nothing more than subjection to force. During the open-shuttered instant of that communication, the sailors’ entry in the historical record need be read only innocently.

Innocence also seems to govern the rest of the image. It’s an image of events unfolding by game plan in accordance with a kind of prehistory, but during a single instant in 1901 a shutter opened and closed on the sequence and demarcated it from time. The shutter was open for only a fraction of a second, and when it closed it separated the time now secured in the camera from time’s slow accretions of win and loss, closure of the record book and judgment, good and evil.

Here, then, during the innocent instant before the close, the judges on Pathfinder are executing historiography under a pair of delicately rigged awnings. Atop Morrill’s bridge ride more observers of the yacht speeding from right to left across the negative. These observers, three civilian men and an officer, are depicted in costumes and body language connoting a dignified connection with the boys below them. Filled full with its boys and men (and, by my count, one woman), Morrill displays itself to the light under some such name as “diorama” or “microscosm.” In the light, before the camera that has been waiting for it per plan, it models a life as regulated as the universe. Black smoke tumbles from its funnel and a white wake streams behind. Inside the white hull, men we can’t see are busily at the boat’s work. Outside, the Great Lakes’ waves are their customary tidy selves. On the shore of Lake Erie a month later, the President of the United States will die at the hands of an assassin and a team of surgeons, but here on the water of Lake Michigan this August day, everything that the camera is capable of recording appears shipshape.

However, this particular shipshape happens to be blemished. Click the image to enlarge it and you’ll see: at either end of the line marking the horizon, somebody in 1901 touched the image’s gelatin matrix and marked it with the print of a finger or (I’d guess, as I think of the surgeons probing President McKinley’s abdominal wound with ungloved fingers and then try to visualize how a man in 1901 would hold a wet 8-by-10 inch glass negative) a thumb. The cute little freshwater waves, the tumbling smoke, the pretty boats, the eager young men, everything that filled this fraction of a second of the Detroit Publishing Company’s place in the chronicle of 1901, were intended to fill a sheet of hard transparent permanent glass to overflowing with photography, from margin to margin, instantly. That instantaneous filling is the unique trait of being in time that Emily Dickinson realized on behalf of photography when she said, “Forever is composed of nows.” But here a pair of thumbs has come blundering into the forever, birthmarking the glass with two smudges left by the not photographic.

You see what a problem that is: the thumbs have become a permanent, physical part of a conceptual record where they don’t belong. The record was intended to immobilize time forever in a realized idea of light and shadow and silver halide crystals. Then, however, two thumbs supplemented it with the illiterate X-marks of life. More, and something terrible: those marks are now as clear and as permanent as anything on this plate that was recorded by the camera. Made hard and historical by the chemistry of fossilization, they require us to see them in the same way we see the boats and the waves. But they can only be seen. Unlike the images of the boats, they can’t be interpreted because they aren’t a part of any record. Off the record, the only power they possess is the power to remain silent in the face of question, communicating nothing. As Wallace Stevens observed of the guest of honor at a funeral,

If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

The Chicago Tribune’s record of the Morrill event is less a photograph album than a sentimental movie in two scenes, segueing from a captain yelling on his bridge to a yachtsmen’s chorus singing “Hear, hear” back on land.

The ability to segue is what enables a movie or an epic poem to turn what is seen into narrative. Photographs and lyric poems don’t command this power to create sequence and story. Because they are unmoving amid the flow of time, they can do nothing with remembered events but illustrate and exemplify. But one August afternoon in 1901, a blemish moved itself so far into a photograph that the photograph took on the blemish’s property of warm, soiled life. Its glassy image has been tainted ever since by life’s grease spot of the mortal.

You could call that a spoiler alert. It gives away the surprise ending in which a photograph turns into a story.


“The revenue cutter Morrill and yacht Pathfinder.” Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

“Canadians Win Back Their Cup.” Chicago Tribune 15 August 1901: 4.

Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows,” Fr690.

Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”


We think the flower looks feminine. Expressed in a medium by an artist, the thought becomes an anecdote. In the museum, a gallery full of Georgia O’Keeffes or Imogen Cunninghams become an anecdote exchange. Soon everybody gets the joke.

Linking the sight with memories of stories we read when we were children, we decide that the insect looks armored in bronze. The men pictured in the books had broad shoulders, too. Shortly after that thought has been acted on with a camera, an anecdotal image of the insect begins communicating itself from Tumblr to Tumblr specialized in militaria and inspirational National Socialist anecdotes.

The communications become entrained by the economic mechanisms of desire. Getting the joke comes to mean acquiring it on an exchange. The interval during which value is transferred, that epoch between the just-seen subject of a future image and the completed and collected painting en route to a warehouse in the Caymans, is what in a story is called the middle. Into the image below, between records of the moment after one seeing and the moment after another, I insert a pictured page from a story. Click it to enlarge.

Gardenia, Perseus, mantis small

Unenlarged between two other images, the image in the middle may resemble the middle term of a single three-part idea, but it isn’t. The panels to its left and the right are wordless souvenirs of the seen, but the middle panel comes to us with an anecdotal pretext arguing that it represents not a seen moment but a known history — in this specific case, the history of the hero Perseus. Guardian and curator of the image, the history won’t allow you to see it as an image. It will impose a context. If the context isn’t visible to the unaided eye, the histoire will slip into its other English translation, “story,” and improvise a substitute out of invisibility. To the left of the middle, there will promptly emerge from the void a panel 1 in which Andromeda’s clothes are being taken off. To the right will emerge the necessary completion of the story, a panel 3 in which Perseus is hauling the dragon’s corpse away to the landfill.

And if you close the handbook of mythology long enough to effect a small change of wardrobe, panel 2 will show itself capable of migration to another story, provided only that the new story belongs to the same genre. The story in the image above and the story in the image below, for instance, are each about a hero. Visually, each is a two-part composition: dark and light, male and female, draped and undraped. The family solidarity of genre even allows the second image to retain its visual integrity after it has been reduced to the status of illustration and humbled by a didactic caption. After all, both the sophisticatedly allusive image above and the demoted image below are histoires. Because they narrate a passage through narrative time with a beginning, a middle, and an end, they transcend depiction in or as themselves. They have a literary history. Just as much as Perseus and Andromeda, the Klansman and his belle refer their meanings at this point in the story to earlier meanings.

(Thomas Dixon, The Clansman)

But the flower on the left and the insect on the right, the images seen only in the moment when they seemed to halt perception with held breath for a moment?

During that moment, they had ceased to become and only were. They had fallen out of the sequence of story. Outside sequence, they had lost their susceptibility to narrative’s power of explanation. We can’t tell a story about the image of the flower; all we can say about it is that during the moment before the words “Once upon a time” could be spoken of it, it may have been in a state of depiction. Supporting a story on either side but capable of referring vision only back to a not yet told story about themselves, such images are not yet readable. And about the moments like those when the told makes contact with the depicted, literary history tells us that after story has been brought face to facing page with a wordless image, it sometimes draws back into itself and goes silent.

At those moments, the story’s words are released from narrative into depiction, there to be seen only as what they are: words, alone or in new associations with other words. I think Pope’s string of naked words, “This long disease, my life,” must have had some genetic homology with the famous glitter of Pope’s eyes. An instant before the words could come to be, the eyes took into themselves the deformed little shape that they had seen in the mirror.


Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfilled120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book, ed. Jeff A Menges (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2009), image 022.

The illustration from Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905) is by Arthur I. Keller, online at

“This long disease, my life” is from Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, line 132.

The moment of the gardenia, according to metadata, was June 30, 2014, at 5:48 PM Hawaii Standard Time. The moment of the praying mantis was July 7, 2014, at 12:43 AM.