Sunday, October 16, 2011

Problem #6 - Images: Titanic Survivors

For this week's assignment, we were told to select "two or more images...that pose an interesting historical problem or mystery. The images should raise questions about a topic and...contribute something to the answer that cannot be found in textual sources." I believe I have accomplished the former; I am not so sure I have accomplished the latter.

I selected some images from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online site. I chose to peruse the Bain Collection. George Grantham Bain operated one of the first news picture agencies; the bulk of the collection covers the early 20th century.

When I began scanning through the Bain collection, I was looking for something esoteric, odd, obscure, below the radar. Instead, I got stuck on some pictures from...the sinking of the Titanic. So I guess I can kiss any bonus points for going outside the box this week goodbye.

What originally drew me was, actually, the initial lack of any surprises. The sinkig of the Titanic is as well-known disaster as there has ever been; it's been the subject of numerous movies, including the one which forced me to listen to Celine Dion and the general outline of the story is well-known to anybody remotely culturally literate. So imagine my lack-of-surprise as I looked through the pictures covering the entire story, from the construction of the ship in drydock (in turns out that the Titanic was, in fact, really big), to the pictures of lifeboats 'full' of survivors approaching the Carpathian (I'm no sailing man, but those lifeboats didn't exactly look filled to capacity), through to the aftermath, including various fundraisers, and presentations of memorials.

In short, the pictures mostly told the story I already knew. And, really, that should not be surprising; for whatever reason, several generations have tried to either draw deeper levels of meaning out of the bare bones of the story, or to layer allegory and metaphor on top of it. James Cameron's blockbuster movie tried to do the latter, with a very heavy-handed class-conflict theme; oddly enough, the pictures I saw tended to support Cameron's Les Miserables-on-a-ship storyline fairly well. The survivors who got their pictures taken on board the Carpathian looked both well-to-do and rather put-out that their trip was being delayed; and as noted, there was room to spare in every lifeboat pictured. News flash: Rich people don't give a damn about anyone else. This is not surprising.

Less successful than efforts to make the sinking of the Titanic a metaphor or symbol of some moral or ethical truth have been efforts to find actual importance and meaning in the actual historic event. I've never been convinced by the argument that the disaster somehow signaled a loss of absolute faith and certainty among the elites of the Atlantic World; these were, after all, the same geniuses who mobilized Europe for war two years later. I admit that this period isn't my area of expertise, but simple fact remains--sometimes, boats sink. I realize that this was an "unsinkable" boat, but it wasn't the first time confident, charismatic experts were wrong, and it wasn't the last.

And I was scanning through the pictures, I came across three pictures which were so touching, human, and small-scale, that my cynicism and sheer boredom with the whole tired story were suddenly put at bay. I was looking at different pictures of survivors, some of which were taken on board the Carpathian; others were taken at unidentified places on land. Mostly the survivors were well-off adults, some of whom have appearances just odd or off enough to suggest an interesting backstory (why Stuart Collett, who is otherwise nattily-dressed to the nines, is wearing one glove--in two different pictures--is a question I wouldn't mind finding an answer to). And then there's this:

It's worth remembering--particularly if you're as prone to glib cynicism as I am, that even discrete events with no particular historical import or lasting impact still involved real people, and that what may seem a minor footnote to later generations--or even disintersted contemporary bystanders--was quite possibly of vital importance to somebody.

So what do we have here? We have two survivors of the sinking of the Titanic. Their names are Louis and Lola. I think it is safe to presume that the question mark indicates that the photographer did not know--and the kids either weren't asked or didn't know--their last name. But we can't be sure--these are very young children, who had been through a great deal of trauma; it's entirely possible that they weren't being entirely clear even about their first names.

Given that other survivors were identified by full name, and given that there is another picture of an entire family together, I would also assume that Louis and Lola's parents--if they were on the ship--did not survive.

We can also tell that this picture was not, like many others, taken on board the Carpathian. The plants, the brick wall, the wire fencing--this is taken on dry land. I think this picture was being taken for identification; I think that no survivors could identify the children, and White Star Line had so far failed to identify who they were.

Further evidence for this guess comes from the fact that the photographer took another photo; I assume this is the second and the above is the first, but even if I have the order backwards the basic fact that the photographer was taking multiple shots in order to make sure he got at least one good one:

This shot is essentially identical to the first (or second--again, I don't think the order matters much), except that the photographer had either lost the children's attention, or hadn't yet gotten it fully. The fact that these two were being asked to stand still for a picture in an otherwise rather drab backyard suggests a spontaneous, urgent need to create an image to share with...somebody.

What is touching about this picture is that the older child is holding the ball in a way to suggest that she isn't very familiar with it. It's a bit of a novelty to her. I don't think these were toys the kids were playing with at the time, in whatever housing they were being provided with. They were props to keep their attention for the picture shoot. Not to suggest that they were being deprived of play (they seem clean, well-dressed, and well-cared for), but rather that they had been taken somewhere for the picture. And apparently it didn't occur to the photographer that a kid whose parents had most likely drowned in the most famous ship sinking in history maybe shouldn't be given a toy ship to play with.

But, you might say, that's most likely an absent-minded oversight. And it might be. And, you might go on, there were probably no other toys for this child to play with. To which I reply--not so fast:

Somebody, I believe, finally came to their senses and discretely took the toy boat away--or at least out of the picture--and gave the younger child a stuffed animal instead. And we get yet another picture. The children smile dutifully; they seem confused but possibly not fully aware of what is going on.

Of course, "Louis and Lola" were later identified; they were the famous "Titanic Orphans"; they weren't, happily enough, orphans, nor were they named Louis and Lola. "Encyclopedia Titanica" entry. Their names were Michel and Edmund Navratil, and although their father indeed perished, their mother was back home in France and they were eventually reunited with her. Among Titanic aficianados, they are quite famous.

But I'm glad I didn't know that before their pictures caught my eye, because I might never have "seen" them; rather, I would have "seen" some famous images of two well-known names from a famous event. I would have seen artifacts illustrating a narrative I already knew. Do I know any more about this famous shipwreck? Well, yes. Does it matter? As a historian--no, frankly. I stil maintain that it was simply a great human tragedy with no broader reprecussions. But I may have learned one small lesson--be careful when you're looking for what you think you know, because it may keep you from seeing something smaller, more intimate, more individul and peculiar, right in front of you. I knew the broad outlines of this story, but not the trivia; not the "human interest stories." And that lack of prior knowledge most likely enabled me to more clearly see little Michel and Edmund. See them not as figures from a story, but as real people.


Anonymous said...

"So I guess I can kiss any bonus points for going outside the box this week goodbye."

What are you talking about!?! This entry gets major points for going outside the box. That sequence of images were a great find. I, too, know nothing more that the pop culture flotsam about the Titanic, but your images brought it down to a real and tragically personal level.

BTW, next year in April is the 100th anniversary and to celebrate that infamous event, some brilliant person came up with the idea to re-create Titanic's maiden voyage.

As my husband's says, "There's tempting fate, and then there's giving it a lap dance."

Anonymous said...

I thought that your post was very interesting. I had seen those pictures before but did not stop for a second to think about what the children were holding and if they seemed accustomed to playing with those type of toys. It brings up interesting questions about the environment in which they were raised and why the photographer chose those particular toys.

Prof. P said...

Kirk, this is damn good stuff. Prof. P