On a summer day sometime around 1920 this small ensemble of actors played out the last act in a drama that involved an automotive miscalculation. Based on the expressions and posture of the driver and passenger, the wreck seems to have been a source of entertainment for the travelers and a source of temporary employment for the roadside wreckers.
The damaged glass plate image is a study in visual storytelling and photographic composition even though the people and location are unknown. It’s a road movie without motion. The modern paved road establishes a perfect vanishing point in the distance where the sharp road edges and sparse forest of conifers and telephone poles all taper to a long perspective.
The action veered off the centerline into a brushy ditch, stage left, but that part of the story has already unfolded.
It’s the upturned coupe and scattered car parts and tools that fill in the first crashing act in the story. The well dressed couple seem both relieved and amused in their cheeky body language and proud smiles. They add the story arc, mystery and central characters to the episode. At first glance they look like big game hunters posing with their trophy. With a replacement limousine already waiting they seem to be making a photo-op visit to the site, carefree of cost and consequences.
The right side of the photo is more real, slightly upstage, larger and closer to the photographer and audience. The hard work and heavy lifting ahead are acted out by the two workers and their shadowy third partner, just out of sight. The jagged, cracked emulsion on the photograph hangs over their heads like a theatrical dark balloon- an accidental metaphor for the little roadside disaster.
But what makes this century old black and white photograph worth looking at closely is the wonderful story it presents, the drama and humor it suggests and the people it introduces in their own unique place and time. It is indeed like a movie in a single frame full of cinematic language and clues. Such a satisfying thing to watch, beginning to end.
Image from the Washington State Historical Society