Two grammars of seeing


At the top and bottom of this photograph, clumsy slashings have separated the image from its background in the reading matter.

The wavy lines are history’s way of showing us that the negative was scissored from a roll of film exposed in one of the cameras that were generically known then in the United States as kodaks. From the clothing fashions within the image frame, we can establish that “then,” the era when kodak was spelled with a small k, would have been approximately the turn of the twentieth century. The orthochromatic film that rendered the red in the image’s American flag as black was also responsible for whiting out most of the real from the sky, but if we desire sky we can partially reconstruct it by turning away from the image and reading its textual metadata.

The image before us, for instance, is archived in its primary form in the California Historical Society. There, the catalog will tell us that at this instant in its photographic history a flag was being paraded through San Francisco by volunteer infantrymen returning from service in the Philippines. Knowing that much, we have thereby been granted the full freedom of every library, with all its newspaper files and army records. Those have the power to restore some of the image’s missing metadata: a specific date, for instance, and possibly too a time of day and a weather report and a parade route showing the location of a school.  We might even learn the name of the soldier carrying the flag. All that is missing from this reading is power within the image. The woman in the tall hat can never turn and show her face. She is a display behind an image pane. The pane illustrates history in the act of passing her by.


The phrasal verb to pass by operates across two loci of meaning. Within the image of woman and flag it refers to a transition seen within space. Outside the image, where it is not seen but read, it refers to a transition from one state of time to another.


Now see this.

You find yourself seeing under two simultaneous but administratively distinct constraints. The constrained disappearance of content from the metadata (after the history of Romania in the twentieth century, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever relearn this twentieth-century Romanian baby’s name, let alone the name’s felt meaning) is an episode in the history of history. The constrained disappearance of form as the image squirms out of focus and breaks up is an episode in the passage across time to the vanishing into death.


“[Spanish-American War] Return of volunteers from Manila,” Photoshopped.

Costică Acsinte, “Bebeluṣ,” Not photoshopped.