The photograph’s composition is unbalanced. The building on the left isn’t matched by anything comparably massive on the right, and the line of people extending all the way from margin to margin has no margins of its own. The people aren’t arranged in any obvious order, either. Some of them are looking at the harbor scene in the distance but others aren’t.
Within the image, we can see only detail by detail, each sub-image in isolation from the rest. It will take some help from literary cliché before we can even decide what’s represented by the details. In the crowd, for instance, there does exist an image of a skipping little girl in antique clothing, her feet poised forever above a matched pair of shadows that vanished from time only a little before the little girl also vanished from time.
Counterbalancing that platitude of interpretation is another. No doubt, says this platitude: All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players, with the cynical emphasis on “merely.” And here in the crowd shot stands a predictable allusion, likewise merely that. Now its task is to illustrate stage 6, the one named Pantaloon: his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide / For his shrunk shank.
But so far this is much too easy. Platitudinous moralizing is one of the clichés routinely evoked by street photography and its photographers. But before this third detail, the moral refuses to let itself be drawn. Because a platitude is a platitude, its explanatory power is baffled as soon as it encounters the not yet already explained. Yes indeed: why are some members of this crowd still waving to the distant ship? They must know their signal can no longer communicate itself to anyone on board.
Well, language can help with at least that. Language asks us to take note of the barely legible words at the top of the image — “La Lorraine 8/5/14” — and then entrust ourselves to the words outside the image frame. There outside the frame, a word broker in a library will confide to us that the words in the cryptic line refer to the French Line ship La Lorraine and the numbers refer to a date in the twentieth century. Furthermore, this date is far more than a mere date of sailing, and this harbor is not just any harbor. The harbor is New York, the French ship is carrying French reservists home from the United States, and as of August 5, 1914, World War I is about to begin. Something henceforth central to history has begun occurring.
Heraldry, a visual genre of literature, has a technique for helping us understand the sense of something central. On either side of the changing genealogy chronicled generation after generation by a coat of arms, heraldry often places an allegorical human or animal figure facing the history and extending its changing interpretations toward the margin of the frame. Mediating between the changing chronicle at the document’s center and its not yet changed readers at the edge, these figures are called supporters. Auxiliaries to meaning, they transmit and interpret the news of meaning’s advent.
Not long before the photographer of August 5, 1914, set down for history his wide-angle memorandum of crowd and departing ship, he was able to move in for a different view: a tight shot poignantly sustained by supporters. That image, too, is still readable in the library. We could look it up, for instance, in a textbook of photographic composition. Unfortunately, however, the chemistry of decay has reduced the image’s central element to indecipherable glare.
But it is recoverable. There, flanked by supporters, two lovers part. Wordlessly, the unsupported central part of the image tells us that much.
And the supporters tell us the wordy rest. The supporter on the left may see the camera, may even understand thereby that his allegorical function is to represent the idea of a communication that has begun and will end in a single instant. But the supporter on the right has no need for either the lovers or the image into which they are about to enter. Holding his American flag and his Royal Navy ensign, he is looking straight ahead toward posterity. He is the custodian of the part of this image that is about to vanish. He is in charge of that which tells its story outside the image frame, in the library. On his side of the frame, the intent is to reassure. Don’t worry, say the supporter’s flags, waving to us spectators at the image’s front margin. Don’t worry; wave your summer hat at the ship. Don’t worry; we two wave and these two live, forever.
Only the decaying center where the lovers are would suggest otherwise.
Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005016973/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ggbain/item/ggb2005016965/. Photoshopped.