A picture, in a thousand words

I like this photo.

The photographic process involves exposing a sheet of nitrocellulose coated in silver halide crystals to light. Where light strikes, the crystals convert to metallic silver. During the developing process, unconverted crystals are washed away, giving a photonegative image. This is then laid atop a sheet of paper treated in the same fashion and exposed to illumination again to produce a positive print. A black and white photo is literally a picture etched onto the page in grains of silver. People say photos are precious, but rarely do we think of them being elementally so.

Early photography required lengthy exposure times, to the point where a brace to hold the subject steady was standard equipment in a photographic studio. At the dawn of the 20th century, Eastman Kodak ushered in the era of the snapshot by releasing the Brownie box camera, which required only that one pointed it at the subject and pressed the shutter button. Candid and mock-candid photography quickly became the normal style. Cameras no longer recorded stiff formal portraits for posterity, but fleeting moments. Subjects could be captured on the verge of motion, or caught in a sidelong glance. This new fluidity afforded an intimacy which before could only have been experienced in person, or as an imagined interpretation of a text.

I always find these things more interesting when I know who the subject is.

The composition is graceful, the main lines of action sweeping up from the endpin of the cello to the scroll behind his neck, and down again along the bow arm and the shoe nearest the camera. The instrument is not in a performance stance, but leaned against his back knee, braced down through the ball of his right foot on the floor, and the heel nocked like an arrow against the leg of the stool. The negative has not been flipped; the cellist is left-handed, and the strings have been reversed to accommodate him. The cello is his own, and he has been annoying railway luggage crews with it since his first round-trip performance tour of America. Sixty years after it was taken, the photograph will be published in a large book of illustrated reminiscences, where he will claim off-handedly to not be able to do much with the cello but pose. What "not much" means to him, exactly, he does not say.

The image catches an instant in 1915. He is twenty-six, never married, and already well-established as an expatriate Englishman in the US. Four years hence, he will partner with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford to establish United Artists, the first movie studio controlled by the actors it employs. For now, he is writing, directing, and starring in his own comedies for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Co. He is making $1,250 a week, which is an absurd amount of money for the time. He is on the verge of a dalliance with Edna Purviance, his favorite leading lady at the time. They will both eventually come to marry other people -- he, three actresses and the daughter of a playwright; she, an airline pilot -- and though they don't stay particularly close, she remains under contract to his production company until her death in 1958.

In Europe, the Great War has started. People will say that the devastation is beyond belief, that this is the war to end all wars. It isn't. He will live through the Armistice, women's suffrage, the beginning and the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, a second World War, atomic testing and the doomsday clock, Brown v Board of Education, and McCarthyism. The last will see him politely booted out of the United States in 1957. While he is in exile from the country where he has lived and worked for forty years, two Kennedys and a King will be assassinated, and Title IX will pass. The self-proclaimed "peacemonger" will live through the era of flower children. When he came to America for the first time, he made the crossing by steamer; when he visits for the last time, to collect a special achievement Oscar in 1972, the easiest way to travel is transatlantic jet service.

His front shirt cuff is likely blown because it is celluloid, which reflects light differently from linen. Much Victoriana was made from celluloid; Victorians were fascinated with artifice, and celluloid was the first man-made plastic. It was introduced as artificial ivory and used to make billiard balls. Celluloid shirt cuffs, collars and tuxedo fronts were advertised as detachable and easy to restore to brand-new whiteness with a damp cloth. Pencil lead came off with a bit of pressure; making notes on a wipe-clean cuff was the Victorian equivalent of jotting something on your hand with a ballpoint pen in modern times. Celluloid is best known now for its role in the early cinema, where it served as the substrate for movie film.

The carpet beneath his feet is a Persian rug. The Victorians, and later the Edwardians, were fascinated by the idea of traveling to the far corners of the globe. (He himself will be inspired to see Japan by a travelogue written by Lafcadio Hearn, a highly-romanticised account called "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan".) Those who could not travel, and many of those who could, opted to bring the Orient home. Chinese lacquer furniture was en vogue, and Japanese kimono were used as dressing gowns. Rugs came from Persia -- modern-day Iran -- in rich colors and a variety of intricate patterns. In a home which could not afford the real deal, it would not have been unusual to see the same designs painted on "linoleum carpet", spread across the floor like an area rug. Traditionally, a small break in the pattern is deliberately inserted somewhere in the plush carpet, on the grounds that only Allah could create something perfect, and it would be the height of arrogance to try.

I do not know of any extant recordings of his cello playing. Pity.


  1. "His front shirt cuff is likely blown because it is celluloid, which reflects light differently from linen."

    That was one of the first things I noticed, but I kind of like it. It adds an element of magic to the picture, like his hand is charmed, about to play a perfect pieced empowered and blessed by the gods.


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