JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post (Part of the series on the History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.)
Original photograph, ca. 1880-1885. 9x11.5 inches, pasted on heavier stock. Good condition. $300
I've owned this photograph for a long time. It has been in the files for many years, waiting for something to happen to it, waiting for it to be a little understood in some slight way of identification. I've still not gotten around to it. To me, it has always seemed like a photograph of a small post out in the American Far West, 90 men in dress uniform inside their "fort", or outpost, the commander and the camp dog addressed in front and the sergeants out on the flanks. The enlisted men stand at ease.
I'm really not sure though who or where they are. The camp is very spread out, for one thing. And for the age (I reckon this to be made around 1885, perhaps a little earlier) I would've thought that boots would've been visible under trousers. And their hats/helmets--they really don't look to be made for the sun, and also seem too much of a bull's eye/target. That's on first glance--nothing about their uniform seems fitted to the place: no protection from the sun, trousers caught on low burrs and scrub, and so on. But the uniforms--and helmets--seem to be in line with the Prussian-influenced dress of the time (or at least around 1882), including the ribbon-y materials draped around the commander's neck. (I really don't know enough about U.S. Army uniforms to make a good qualified guess about who these men are.)
But the photo as art has always intrigued me, capturing the heart of a lonely place. I know, though, that having spent a little time hiking in the desert that the place is hardly empty, or blank. But it can still be lonely if you want it to be, a state which isn't dependent on any of the conditions mentioned in the title of this post--its a created space, the loneliness.
I've wondered too about who those people are, sitting together, (huddled?) at the far end of the soldiers' barracks, a speck visible over the shoulder of the sergeant (the last figure on the right in the top photo)? I suspect they must be Native Americans, or at least indigenous people. They've faded into history too with the rest of the people in the photograph, a chance at a piece of tangible memory missed because, well, no one made any notes (that survived, at least) about the image.
(This image is available for purchase via our blog bookstore, here.)