Sunday, June 28, 2009

When contexts vanish, part 1

The two young women who look out at us from a pair of tintypes on the website of New York's International Center of Photography ( are dressed in symbols. From under a hat captioned with the word "SLAVE," the first young woman looks futureward in the iconographic pose established for explorers and pioneers. With the help of that hand shading her brow, we may feel entitled to call the expression on her face "resolute."

Daniel Cowin Collection, The Museum at ICP, accession no. 70.2004.
Unknown photographer, about 1875. Click to enlarge.
The tintype process produced mirror images.

The studio setting in which this image was taken is right for a pioneer, too. Not yet fully pastoral, it shows a landscape like the one in George Inness's 1855 painting The Lackawanna Valley, where the train steaming forth from its roundhouse has upstaged the forests that are no longer there in the picture. On the mountain backdrop, they have been minimized to a color wash; downstage, they are only a dotted pattern of stumps communicating what was there before the ground and sky had been made conceivable as a landscape.

120 Great American Paintings
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), DVD-ROM image 041.

This landscape was commissioned on behalf of the stump-making mechanism by a shaper of American landscapes: the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. But we have to call the person posed in the painting's foreground by a European term, "lad," because his Claudine pose tells us that his creator is one who has studied the culture of painting in Barbizon. But what about the presumably American woman in her Pocahontas landscape, with her slave hat and her slave skirt and her chains? And what about her companion?

Accession no. 69.2004

This young woman too is clad in allegories of servitude. But the painted landscape behind her is more civilized than the one in the first picture, with a conspicuous steeple like the one near Inness's Scranton roundhouse. And is that a bale of hay in the foreground, with a discarded garment draped over it in the mode of pastoral love comedy? (Or is it a runaway slave's bandana-wrapped bindle, with comic-strip hobo connotations?) And is there a hint of tentativeness in the fingers not fully touching the girl's hat, and an element of distraction in the tilt of her head and hips, and the beginning of a smile on her face?

A more modest question: what is the nature of the slavery being protested? Toward the end of Reconstruction, could these girls have been participating in something like a pageant about the Civil War? On the other hand, could it have been a suffragist demonstration? Or (though the poses and the expense of taking the pictures would seem to belie it) could the girls even be wearing the code of the scarlet letter in an unabbreviated form?

We certainly can't answer my first set of questions, and (barring the recovery of the tintypes' original micro-context) we can't answer the second set either. On the other hand, if the members of the board of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad were educated to any extent in Renaissance aesthetics, they had no trouble breaking the code of Inness's picture. It will cause us no trouble either, even though the landscape it depicts has vanished along with the emotions that once accompanied the sight of a locomotive. After all, The Lackawanna Valley now hangs on a wall in the National Gallery of Art, curated for our benefit by specialists trained in the code. In the mid-twentieth century, too, Leo Marx translated the code for us in one of the early classics of the American Studies movement, The Machine in the Garden. By this date, Inness's straw-hatted lad looking across stump-dotted fields toward the train has been allegorized. He belongs to education now. There is nothing more that he needs to say to us, because we have been taught that we can understand him.

But what of the girls in chains?

They are nothing but other people's MySpace pages now: the visible signs of emotions incomprehensible to us. There is one difference between them and the contemporary, however: these older images seem to come to us bearing the tribute of motive. In my June 7 post to this blog I found myself bewildered before a MySpace page expressing savagery under the guise of film appreciation, but these allegorical pictures seem to want to undisguise and unbewilder. They probably mean us viewers only good. But the context of that desire is lost now. We don't know where these girls posed for the tintypist or why, and because we lack those links to the world where the pictures came into existence, the pictures are now unreadable. Even though they are old, they are as bewildering as something new. They would probably remain bewildering, too, even if, say, we were to come into possession of program notes for the slave pageant they depict.

The pictures' body language insures that. Coming to us now from a corpus of idiom which has changed and then vanished, it tells us: You're too late; we can't tell you now what we were. Better if we had turned our backs on you like Inness's boy in the Lackawanna Valley. As it is, you've caught us staring forward into the future like Columbus or Daniel Boone in the schoolbook pictures we knew and you don't. From inside the frames that secure us to your wall, we see you fade and blur and vanish into words that can't be used to understand us: words like "museum" or "blog." Who are we when you have taken us there? We can't know, so you can't know either.