Tuesday, July 31, 2012

From the history of gray

Paris, March 1839: Samuel F. B. Morse, in France to obtain European patents for his telegraph, attends a demonstration of Jacques Daguerre's new system for recording what has been seen. Taking note there of a gap in the record, he writes to a New York newspaper:
Objects moving are not impressed. The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion. (Taft 12)

The headless, bodiless ghost that Morse saw in Daguerre's studio was probably this one.
L. J. M. Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple, 1838 or 1839
Click to enlarge.

Just over a hundred years later, in America, another man fell under the influence of long exposure and went ghostly likewise.


Jack Delano, Street corner, Brockton, Mass., January 1941

The grammar of Morse's 1839 description is beautifully precise. The feet of the shoeshine man's customer are described in the past tense because their moment of stasis is now only a historical fact, but the body and head remain in the historical present (as in "In 1865, Lincoln dies") because their invisibility now belongs to the category of the forever after (as in Secretary of State Seward's sentence after Lincoln's last breath: "Now he belongs to the ages"). As history, too, Morse's description approaches the fundamental. It reminds us that photography has erased every identifying mark of the shoeshine man and his customer and sunk them deep in a memory record which endures only as its elemental daguerreotype forms, copper and silver and mercury and gold.

Later in the process, Jack Delano was able to supplement Daguerre's monochrome mnemotechnic with color. To him it was given to see an image through to its end in Kodachrome, the crystalline and slow to fade. But the ghost in the margin of Delano's record is even less visible than the one in Daguerre's. In each of these two photographs with men in their corners, the process has failed to hold life still at the instant of its final pose.


In ways that Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have discussed, Delano's photograph of a street corner is history inscribed in the genre of elegy. Once, not long before the approach of a photographer named Jack, a New England storm swept through Brockton, Massachusetts. For the moment and yet also approximately forever, a memory of the storm remains in white on a utility pole. There, seen as an image in a photograph, the white is a metonym for "winter" or "New England" which any American will know how to read.  With the metonym's help, too, an archivist might be able to write (say) a history of snowplow routes in Brockton as of January 1941. But of course metonymy can't restore les neiges d'antan, or the way a winter day in Massachusetts would have made itself known to eye and flesh eleven months before Pearl Harbor, with so many of New England's soon to be dead still alive in their snow. In this image, snow reads its white to us, but its cloaking gray surround seems not yet to be readable, even after 71 years.

That color-coded signal warns the eye that Massachusetts's gray extends not just through its space but through its time as well.


Jack Delano, Near the waterfront, New Bedford, Mass., January 1941

Yes, there's time in this picture. Those squat steel towers in their girdered cages were called gasometers, and few remain now in the United States. The smoke pollution may be due to return under a Republican administration, but for now it too is largely a thing of the past. And finally the image itself is depopulated of the people of 1941. As of 2012, what you see here of historic New Bedford is less a photograph in its own right than an architect's rendering of a not yet written history. It is a visual metonym for the past, camera-ready to be positioned on a page between paragraphs full of words about the past. Call your metonym something like "the gasometer era," and there's your symbol,  right in the illustration. As an illustration, too, the symbol may be applied to any number of subjects.

But its grays don't cling to anything like a subject. Jack Delano, a documentarian with the Farm Security Administration, certainly had subjects in mind when he arranged to depict them, but even if he had considered gray to be a political quality (as in a pictorial equivalent of a phrase like "the grim gray of industrial New England"), he couldn't have taught it to make a political impression. In Jack Delano's New Bedford, gray is the unruly all-color that takes dominion because it defies classification by hue. Sunk below form in the color layer, a surround that decolors the image it encloses, the gray will be seen always to have been ghosting itself away from subject and composition and social order. If we could speak of a form in transit into the unsymbolizable, we might be able to name that thing "Gray" and speak of it as such. But it can't be spoken of as such. It is only the gray: a form that neither Samuel Morse nor we know how to say we didn't see.


Source of the passage by Samuel Morse: Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene. 1938; New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

I am not related to Samuel Morse.