“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/)

Life: two temporary artifacts

1

On August 21, 2011, Kim Jong Il crossed the border between North Korea and Russia by train and made a brief stop at a station in Siberia to accept the greetings of local officials.

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A 24-second video from the scene shows the hemiparetic tyrant walking with a characteristically Korean gait — arms at sides, legs apart, abdomen thrust forward — but also with the toddling little steps of any sick old man, in any culture.

http://portamur.ru/video/133079/

And when Kim reboarded his train after that walk, his ascent was by a ramp built of structural steel.

In this array of tilted perspectives and gazes focused off-scene, the red steel is the stablest element. Only it seems as if it might still be present tomorrow.

2

On September 4, 1939, three days after the beginning of World War II, Adolf Hitler stepped down from his train to confer with his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Beside a coniferous forest somewhere in Germany, a photographer recorded the meeting for a fraction of a second, perhaps the time it would have taken to speak one syllable. The silent record now waits to be seen in Life magazine’s online archive.

I open it in Photoshop. Within minutes, I have undone some of the wastage of time.

Once again, perhaps as in 1939, colors are bright and outlines are sharp. I have pushed the image back across time in the direction of what was once a moment of lived historical experience. But of course the moment itself has now been absorbed by pictorial design. The film is still silent. What Life and I have generated here on your monitor is only the optical illusion of a time with lives in it.

Nevertheless, images like this one attract certain viewers who use them to generate a substitute time: the time universe of dream. Ubiquitous in the comment streams that make up the fantasy life of the world online, these viewers are the fetishists. We can tell them from other viewers because they view as an act of love. Some of them are Hitler fetishists and some are train fetishists, but whatever the ostensible subject of their love, they all experience that love as a generalizing, all-purpose experience. It is a paraphilia made of Agfachrome and pixels: an undying idea which now immortally substitutes for what was once steel and leather, rust-brown rail and green tree.

Unvanquished sepia

In July, the dark summer clouds rolling in from Lake Michigan would have been full of warm rain. But on the flat land beneath them, tiny people in white are moving about in ways that have little to do with the drama overhead. The people in white are forming themselves into a white group before a white arch.

 Click to enlarge.

The clouds and the flat land and the dark sky are vast. They have miniaturized and trivialized everything else in the image. An aerial perspective (in 1904, how? from a balloon?) has scaled down the big buildings and broad streets to fit the tiny people. “Welcome home,” say tiny words on the arch, but up there in the sky is something which is not to be engaged on any terms but its own. The clouds communicate only with themselves, and what they communicate is only moving air and light and the water from which they came, to which they will return.

Within its frame, the picture of clouds and land is captioned, “Welcome home of the General Overseer, Rev. John Alex. Dowie. July, 1904. Zion City, Ill.” Outside the frame, a few clicks in Google will construct a context for those words and convert them to a text illustrated by the people and their arch.

Zion City, Google’s texts can tell us, is a small town north of Chicago, now called simply Zion. With its broad boulevards laid out at the beginning of the twentieth century in the form of the Union Jack, it was a fully planned community with an intended population of 200,000: the proposed Vatican of a cult called the Christian Catholic Church. What it actually became you can learn here from the Zion Historical Society.

http://www.zionhs.com/index.htm

And about its founder and first ruler, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), you can see and hear a great deal at this site, including three cylinder recordings of Dowie’s voice and a colorized photograph of Dowie, “First Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ,” in the priestly robes of Elijah the Restorer.

http://www.james-joyce-music.com/extras/dowie_bio.html

These words from outside Zion originate in yet another text: James Joyce’s Ulysses. When the historical John Alexander Dowie passed under his arch into Zion City, there to be overthrown by his followers and to die, he was returning from a tour of the world which took him — in Ulysses, though not in what’s called historical fact — to Dublin, where he passed through the mind of Mr. Leopold Bloom. Searching for Dowie’s words there, the Joycean Kevin McDermott has found them, embalmed them in historical context, and laid them to glorious rest in a cybermausoleum more lasting than any perishable city could ever be under its burden of passing, changing, indifferent cloud.

We clicked Google. It surrounded a photograph with words, but the photograph itself couldn’t be changed back to what it might have been in 1904. A century later, it has become nothing but an artifact. It has faded into its own sepia toning, visually and conceptually. But its visual aspect, at least, can be rejuvenated. All that takes is a few clicks in Photoshop.

The clicks transmute the image’s spectrum. They transfer its tonal range from the pale browns and oxidized-silver grays of a Frederick Henry Evans cathedral over to the glare and muddy green-blacks of a Robert Capa D-Day. Post-Photoshop, these clouds have a different kind of weather to dispense. It still won’t be the weather of 1904, of course. The rain that seems about to fall can no longer be thought of as what Zion City might have expected: a bestowal. Having been photoshopped, the sky over Zion City today is nothing but a formalism: not a manifestation of the presence of God, not even a natural map of regions of air, but only an either-or of black and white.

Those contrasty shades of black and white are on the coat of arms of photojournalism. They seem to tell us that Photoshop can bring history back to life and make it news again. Once more, as if no one need ever die, the sky of 1904 seems current. But under that reborn sky, the triumphal arch of 1904 seems even more ephemeral. The newly victorious sky has reduced it to an irony (“Little did the people of Zion City know . . .”). On them and on what we see now of the great flat land stretching to the horizon, Photoshop has brought down what we might call the Ozymandias Process: “Nothing beside remains.”

Before that moment descended on Zion City, we learn, Zion City’s policemen carried clubs and Bibles and wore badges emblazoned with a picture of a dove and the motto “Patience.” Patiently, let’s close that part of the history of this image and acknowledge that it has forever passed over into the region of sepia, where all will eventually fade to white. No, we’ll never again be able to understand this image. Yes, it is lost now, even as it survives on the page as an incomprehensible artifact. But if that thought comes to us through the agency of a written text, there’s a possibility that our loss may be irreversible but not irremediable. Inside Mr. Bloom’s head, James Joyce’s unillustrated words are still at work, translating the black and white of Zion City into bright color.

I thank Reinhard Friederich for showing me the DVD database Panoramic Cityscape Photo Collection (EURISKOData.com, 2001), where I found the image of Zion City.

Update, July 2, 2013: the image of Zion City was taken by George R. Lawrence (1869-1938), a pioneer aerial photographer who worked first with balloons and then with arrays of large kites, including one seventeen-kite array that lifted a 50-pound camera to an altitude of 2000 feet.

http://www.openculture.com/2013/06/amazing_aerial_photographs_of_great_american_cities_circa_1906.html

In the Library of Congress collection of Lawrence’s work, the aerial photograph of Zion City is image number 91 of 247.

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/panoramic_photo/pnphtgs.html