Fanfare for bagpipe

What is the woman thinking as she grasps a glass in her huge hand? Her clothes are firmly secured and no communication can be opened with her eyes or her mouth.

What is the man in the cap thinking? His body is relaxed only to the extent necessary for taking a seat at the table. His mouth is smiling but his eyes aren’t.

Both hands extended along the legs in the military posture called Attention, the little boy in front of the man is rigid. But his body deviates by several degrees from the perpendicular, and one of the two fastenings that close his tattered coat against the cold is a safety pin.

The expression on his face . . .

But it doesn’t matter, because at the center of the scene, eyes alert behind pads of fat, sits the big man with the big glass. He is his image’s low center of gravity. His legs take up all of the space under the table. It is his table, his. He stabilizes all the lives that have been brought close to its cold wood, freezing them into a dark tableau. Upstage, positioned apart from the snow, a greatcoated soldier looks watchfully sidelong toward the wings, while at the big man’s furrily warmed ear a bagpiper in a folk hat worn comically low over the brow makes a crosseyed face while he plays a song.

It can’t be heard on our side of time, but we who can’t hear have been admitted by the photographer Costică Acsinte to a place where the moment of its having become music is remembered. Seen there in snow, frozen note by note into a composition, the song appears to be part of a pageant of praise for the big man. But the auditorium for Acsinte’s pageant is so ample that it can accommodate men even bigger than this one. In fact, you are among some of them now, and they have begun striding forward from your vantage point to approach the image.

Not at all long after March 3, 1940, they will break through the fourth wall, enter a snowy little town in Romania, and make themselves welcome: Brueghel’s hunters, bringing to the big man’s newspaper-covered table their glad news of fresh kill.

ca_20150730_000

Source: Costică Acsinte Archive, Slobozia, Romania, https://www.flickr.com/photos/costicaacsinte/, image 19957175330. Photoshopped.

“Snap shots of an event that may become historic”

The microfilm readers in the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library are now linked to computers running Irfanview. Scholarly readers no longer have to work with a copy machine’s blurry approximations of the film; now they can scan an image from the film, save the scan to a thumb drive, and then Photoshop that digital copy. Here’s an example of what that labor can make available: visible again after decades of deterioration, three photographs taken in Honolulu harbor just after the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, 1917.

Click to enlarge.

With the United States poised to end its neutrality and enter World War I, the crew of the interned German gunboat Geier had tried but failed to destroy their ship, and a photographer was there, recording. His editor called the results “snap shots of an event that may become historic.” And yes, an independent historiographic record of the event does exist. You can read about it at, for instance,

http://navalwarfare.blogspot.com/2010/05/sms-geieruss-schurz.html

But that record may not quite be history. Readers mark the distinction with a cliché. We don’t quite say the stern word “history” after we close a book about SMS Geier; instead, we tend to Disney-fy our newly read text by calling it something like “a footnote to history.” If it’s the short story of a little warship at the edge of the Great War, beached in a backwater that didn’t become canonical in the history of war until the war that followed this one, then of course (we think) it doesn’t belong in historiography’s large print. Fine-print footnotes like the anecdote about the gunboat Geier are detachable.

Here in Hamilton Library, both the thick books of history and the reels of microfilm testify that the anecdote named Geier was detached a long time ago. The newspaper from 1917 is gone, its microfilm archive is deteriorating, and these images are unlikely ever to be seen again where thick books about the Great War are written. As to the white-suited civilian that Photoshop has now brought back as if he had never left his spot on a pier in Honolulu, he can never again be more than a white footnote to the anonymous anecdote of Geier’s white sailors. The civilian’s hat is still on his head and the wrinkles in his clothes still say that he has a hand in his pocket, but his face has gone under permanent shadow and his body has come under the striped mark of the printing from 1917 that has now obliterated his name. Without Photoshop, he wouldn’t be visible in 2012. But even with Photoshop, he’s now one of the unreadable parts of his own history.

Illusive immortality, then; merely anecdotal monument and memory. Photoshop drills itself into a slip of microfilm, penetrates and reshapes the images there, and then rises with them, glowing, to the surface of a monitor. There, the newly illumined images will endure for the single moment before vision’s format changes again.

Update, June 6, 2014: the unphotoshopped original of this picture of Geier in Honolulu is image 000104 in the Al Menasco photo album in the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive,

https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/14359722802/in/photostream/

It must have been taken in March 1916, when Menasco and his partner Art Smith stopped in Honolulu en route to a series of exhibition flights in Asia. (“Art Smith Has Ten Little Red Racers With Him,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin 8 March 1916: 6. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014682/1916-03-08/ed-1/seq-6/)