Larry Clark and William Gedney: documentarians of the prehistory of the Trump era

A Larry Clark archive is at

https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/larry-clark?all/all/all/all/0

A William Gedney archive is at

http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/?keyword=kentucky

Forty years ago, the prophetic photographs were silent and still. We thought they were archaeologies of civilizations relegated to the archive. Now they pass among us in color and motion, telling us in their dead language what we have become and retweeting the corpus in the language of the undead. We are joining them in the archive.

Archaic preposition

A year after the Great War, life was still bringing forth cripples. In the New York Tribune for September 21, 1919, news of the routine event made page 12.

A century later, this article is still generically recognizable as a human-interest feature, but its language hasn’t aged well. In 1919 it tried in its generic way to communicate a sense of warm-heartedness, but as of 2017 the temperature of the heart is to be taken in a different range of the thermal spectrum. “Propaganda in behalf of one-legged boys”? “To hunt up and help all crippled boys and men”? Or

The cripples play every day at noon. Every morning and afternoon they work at bench trades, learning to be draughtsmen, jewellers and typewriter repairmen

? No, we don’t say such things now. They have become obsolete. The noun “cripple” has gone the way of the draftsman and the typewriter repairman and the typewriter. In their Bain News Service photograph the cripples themselves now seem little more than components of an abstract textural study comprising a wall of antique handmade bricks, a cluttered dirt surface, and, off to the side, half of a boy without a face. Two decades later, Walker Evans would redo the same formal presentation with another brick wall and a poster of black dancing girls and a stationary wagon with a team of mules.

That image from Alabama in 1936 is famous now. I don’t need to reproduce it here; you can find it in any history of photography. But this prior image?

Almost incidentally in the center are also a one-legged boy with a baseball catcher’s backward cap but no mask or glove, and another boy, a dwarf in little-boy shorts, playing batter. Citation counts in the history of photography will tell us that these human beings have meant less than Evans’s mules. They have spoken to history only the accidentally ironic words that the Bain News Service wrote on their image for them, with its adjective scratched in by Great War reflex and then scratched back out:

ARMY CRIPPLES AT BASEBALL

Those words and that strikethrough have defined the cripples ever since. It has reduced them to a textbook example of irony. And because their image has been transformed by words into something merely exemplary, it probably can’t accommodate the extra non-verbal value of (for instance) colorization. Their caption has reduced them and their name (“Cripples”) to allegorical abstractions. Speaking the dialect of caption, they now tell us only a moral tale in a dead language, archived only in black and white.

Whereas these words and this image from the lower left corner of the newspaper page . . .

She is an idol of nameless wordless life, the unendingly changing. All of her and her breathlessly capitalized Kitten’s Ear Crepe we can love, forever. Six years from now, she may take on, for a moment, the name of Daisy Buchanan. Trembling with anticipation, we read down the page to where she now waits below the fold, and deck her image with Photoshop gold and pink.

As to the cripples, their pre-Photoshop image has now faded almost to vanishing. It can mean little more to memory now than they now do.

But within the image the unfaded caption is still blackly clear — in fact clearer now than it was in 1919, when it was camouflaged by freshly photographed bricks. One day in 1919 a stylus scratched a caption so far through the picture of the bricks laid down in photosensitive emulsion that it reached the hard all-revealing glass of the emulsion’s backing and left there a passage for light to pass through. Passing through ever since, light has faithfully continued transmitting the cripples’ archaic name (“Cripples”) from its incised archive to us and our time. And the name grows darker year by year as the image of crippled bodies fades to white.

But “at baseball”? What can unfade that phrase?

Under at, the OED explains, in language left unchanged since its first edition a century ago:

In his novel, Jane Austen’s Mr. Palmer, exemplifying what Austen calls his Epicurism, is at billiards; on their glass plate the cripples are at baseball. The at phrases and their grammar ought to be equivalent, but they aren’t. I can easily visualize Mr. Palmer, but even with the cripples’ photograph right before me I can barely see them. Somehow, “at billiards” communicates more from the nineteenth century than “at baseball” communicates from the twentieth.

One reason may be that the photograph imposes physical limits on the scope of the words it contains. The cripples’ at is a word from the universe of 1919, only, as seen in an image representing a moment in 1919, only. As its surrounding photograph has become archaic, it has become archaic. Surrounded on all sides by change, it walls off a corpus of the unchanged. But in the invisible medium of the unillustrated, Mr. Palmer’s at lives on for at least a while longer. Unbounded by the borders that constrain image, the archive of imagination has made room within itself for one more old word, communicating one more new meaning.

 

Source of the newspaper: Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1919-09-21/ed-1/seq-12/. Photoshopped.

Source of the photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006004847/. Photoshopped.

 

 

Notes toward a theory of this portrait

It must be seen that you aren’t a being that smiles.

Gaze is a contemplative gesture. Downward gaze might represent a self remembering what it has felt; upward gaze might represent a self imagining what it is going to feel. In these instances and all others, the represented self is a self looking inward. Nothing outside the self can be thought to matter. That is, in a portrait nothing except the self can be seen to matter.

Technical note about that: in a portrait, selective focus has the effect of subordinating and excluding from consideration all that is not face, contemplating.

Test: as portrayed, does your face entail the term “distinguished”?

 

Content though blind, had I no better guide

In the Library of Congress’s William A. Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, theĀ carte de visite print is labeled on the reverse in what looks like twentieth-century penmanship:

At the time when this image was formed, “contraband” was the ordinary colloquial term for a slave who had escaped through the lines to the Union forces and at least a hope of freedom. Lexicographically considered, it’s a nonce-word. Everywhere else in the dictionary, “contraband” refers to a thing, not a person, so the penciled markings you’re reading now on a slip of light-sensitized paper amount to a one-word history of American slavery considered as a mercantile institution. Whatever image may be visible when you turn the slip over, it will have no recorded name. It will not be a human image; it will be an image of a thing.

What that thing-named-contraband is, what it has, is something that a photographer somewhere, some time between 1862 and 1865, considered worth his while to transport into a studio for posterity to look at. Perhaps it was the looped and windowed raggedness. At any rate, the looped and windowed raggedness is almost the only trace of content that survives in the faded and discolored albumen on the card’s obverse.

But after all there are new ways to see this superannuated image. A single pass through Photoshop restores some of the contrast between the man and his impassive architectural setting, for example. The splendor of his image’s gilded double margin shines again as well. On our side of the image, at least, some of the light that once transited through a lens on its way to the past seems to have been returned.

It still has no name, but now it seems to promise us the chance to look at it with decent duteous human love. To see it might be a step — perhaps a first step that can’t be followed by a second step, but at least a step — toward perceiving and taking into ourselves an idea of sorrow. Emboldened by that idea, emboldened too by our distance in time from the unquestionably dead-now and copyright-free contraband, we carry his image once again into a photostudio.

Then we close the door on it. Then we feed it into an apparatus running Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Detail, Topaz In Focus, Lucis, and a battery of superimposed Nik filters. Then we look.


Once the contraband was led out the door of a studio on a no longer recorded day in the 1860s, his name was lost to history. But a century and a half later, we can at least recover one historical datum that wasn’t recorded then: the contraband had to be led out because he was blind. Once upon a time people could see that. Once upon a time people dressed him in their rags and perhaps spoke his name to him. Now we know again.

Once too, perhaps, people could also read the look on the man’s face. But the lexicon on the back of his image doesn’t seem to be written in that dead language.

Source: Library of Congress, itemĀ https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010647919/. The quotation in the subject line is from Milton’s “To Mr. Cyriack Skinner upon His Blindness.”