Wreck, a short story……..

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.

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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

Written by TacomaHistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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