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Textual Illustration Of Images In Claudio Cambon’s Shipbreak

Brittain Smith
p. 223-248

Texte intégral

1In November of 1997, the documentary photographer and author, Claudio Cambon, boards the U.S. merchant marine vessel, the SS Minole, at an old, dilapidated dock in Violet, Louisiana just south of New Orleans. After thirty-seven years of service logging millions of nautical miles, the Minole is about to depart on its last voyage. Still in spectacular shape, the Minole has, in the wake of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill, been condemned to an early death by legislation that banned single hull oil tankers. Cambon would keep a photographic record of the Minole’s final voyage of 13,200 nautical miles to Chitagong, Bangladesh, carrying 43,300 metric tons of wheat for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s “food for peace” program (p.105).

Fig. 1. Shipbreak, Jacket Cover

Fig. 1. Shipbreak, Jacket Cover

2In Chitagong, after its cargo had been unloaded, the enormous ship was run aground and demolished, more or less by hand, over a period of five months. The Minole’s raw materials were reused in countless ways, enacting “a kind of reincarnation” (Shipbreak, jacket notes). Cambon documented this journey in a series of stunning black and white photographs. He then, over a decade and half later, created a compelling narrative to accompany the images for the book under review, namely Shipbreak, but it is important to keep in mind that this is truly an instance of “prima l’immagine dopo la parola.” In Shipbreak, language acts as an appropriation and illustration of image. The book’s thoughtful design recreates this process by placing the images first, then the text, but the book also re-appropriates the text as image by turning portions of the text itself into quasi images on a single page in enlarged script. Fig. 2. For additional such “textual images” of varying font sizes, see pages 109, 117, 121, 129, 133, 137, 143, 147. For future reference, please note in Fig. 2 the waves that mark divisions in the text.

Fig. 2. Shipbreak, pages 144-145

Fig. 2. Shipbreak, pages 144-145

3I want to try to recreate here in breve the viewer’s / reader’s experience of Shipbreak by first presenting a selection of the images. Afterwards, I’ll let Cambon’s language illustrate the images and provide a few observations of my own. Cheating a little, I’ll say that the ensuing images fall under the headings of crew (Figs. 3-6) voyage (Figs. 7-9) , arrival (Fig. 10), unloading (Figs. 11- 15), shipbreak or death (Figs. 16-19). I’ll withhold for later images for the “final” stage, namely reincarnation.

Fig. 3. Roger Organ, Chief Cook and Chief Steward

Fig. 3. Roger Organ, Chief Cook and Chief Steward

Fig. 4. June Emerson, Assistant Cook

Fig. 4. June Emerson, Assistant Cook

Fig. 5. ‘Papa’ John Wallace, Bosun

Fig. 5. ‘Papa’ John Wallace, Bosun

Fig. 6. Out on the fantail after dinner

Fig. 6. Out on the fantail after dinner

Fig. 7. Heading down the Mississippi River

Fig. 7. Heading down the Mississippi River

Fig. 8. South Atlantic

Fig. 8. South Atlantic

Fig. 9. Crew’s mess, Christmas Eve 1997

Fig. 9. Crew’s mess, Christmas Eve 1997

Fig.10. Longshoremen board the SS Minole at anchorage off Kutubdia Island, Bangladesh, December 27, 1997

Fig.10. Longshoremen board the SS Minole at anchorage off Kutubdia Island, Bangladesh, December 27, 1997

Fig. 11. Untitled, pages 48-49

Fig. 11. Untitled, pages 48-49

Fig. 12. Inj.d workers (1)

Fig. 12. Inj.d workers (1)

Fig. 13. Offloading the ship’s contents (1)

Fig. 13. Offloading the ship’s contents (1)

Fig. 14. Offloading the ship’s contents (2)

Fig. 14. Offloading the ship’s contents (2)

Fig. 15. Kholil, age 11, carries a bedframe

Fig. 15. Kholil, age 11, carries a bedframe

Fig. 16. ‘Wire carriers’ move cable to the ship to retrieve a felled chunk

Fig. 16. ‘Wire carriers’ move cable to the ship to retrieve a felled chunk

Fig. 17. Loaders, monsoon

Fig. 17. Loaders, monsoon

Fig. 18. Loaders, frieze

Fig. 18. Loaders, frieze

Fig. 19. Inj.d workers (2)

Fig. 19. Inj.d workers (2)

4Shipbreak, the book, operates with a number of conceits. The first is that ships have a life, a fact accentuated by Cambon’s constant reference to the Minole as “she.” More precisely, ships are, in Cambon’s words, “an emblem [emphasis added] of life itself” (p.9). The original title of the project was “The Biology of Steel”: Note the vertebra-esque chain in Fig. 20. Ships have a birth (Fig. 21) and a death (Fig. 22), a beached whale if ever there was one. Cambon refers to the cutters and wire carriers you see in Fig. 23 as “precarious acrobats” (p.128), but it takes only a small leap of imagination to view them also as crows picking at carrion flesh. From the book we read:

On January 14, 1998 at 2:20 p.m., the steamship Minole beached in the breaking yards of Fahad Steel Industries […] She crossed the sand bar and plowed to a standstill in the shallow water of the beaching plain […] Like an animal shuddering in the throws of death, she slowly vibrated to a halt in that mud […] The engineers shut off her fuel line; she choked and gasped, belching one last, thick cloud of black smoke, and then she died (p.126).

5Again birth: “Launch day, Sparrow’s Point Shipyard, Baltimore 1961” (p.6) and Fig. 21. And from the text, birth and death:

In November 1961[…] Jane McQuilkin, the ship’s sponsor, smashed a bottle of red wine across her hull to launch her; on January 15, 1998, the cutting foreman and an Imam smear the blood of a sacrificed goat in various places of the ship to bless her and the workers, to protect them from harm. She ended her travels here (p.127).

6Not only is there life and death, the Minole has a particular life and is emblematic of a distinct historical epoch.

She had the same aesthetic as old fifties cars.    She felt
solid and luxurious with few hard edges or right angles
[…] One has the impression that no expense was spared
to build her well and beautifully (p.107).

7The demise of the Minole, then, marks the passing of an era and not just of industrial production:

The Minole was a relic of an era of greater certainty and ease.
Forty years ago, sailors were sure of their ship and their jobs;
both seemed capable of lasting indefinitely […] To see her decommissioned was to
bid farewell to a whole period in shipping, a more confident time (p.107).

Fig. 20. Anchor chain paid out

Fig. 20. Anchor chain paid out

Fig. 21. Launch day, Sparrow’s Point Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland, November 1961

Fig. 21. Launch day, Sparrow’s Point Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland, November 1961

Fig. 22. Untitled, pages 58-59.

Fig. 22. Untitled, pages 58-59.

Fig. 23. The beaching of the SS Minole, January 14, 2.20 PM, Lalbagh, Bangladesh

Fig. 23. The beaching of the SS Minole, January 14, 2.20 PM, Lalbagh, Bangladesh

8I think you can also see the effects of a dying industry on the crew: Figure 24 and Figures 3-6.

Fig. 24. Noah Tanihu, AB Seaman

Fig. 24. Noah Tanihu, AB Seaman

9Ships are not only an emblem of life, a particular life in a particular time, they are, Shipbreak argues, also emblems of transcendence:

Many peoples through the ages, from the Egyptians to the Vikings and beyond, have buried their dead in boats…they believed would transport them into the afterlife. The footprint of the Christian church is modeled symbolically on the proportions of Noah’s ark; hence the “nave” of the church which comes from navis, the Latin for “ship.” The Minole has ferried herself into an afterlife, but not one that I initially want to recognize. It seems like hell at first to see her so abandoned to be cannibalized; slowly, though, I begin to witness her own transcendence (p.127). Figs. 25-26

10Transcendence, literally “ascending beyond,” takes the humble and, as we shall see, not so humble form of recycling: Cambon informs us that Bangladesh positively thrives on recycling. He also recounts:

One day I find a craftsman who makes small boat anchors from the rebar [derived from the ship’s hull]. Reluctantly amphibious, the ship returns to the water however [she] can” (p. 145).

Fig. 25. Leaving Baton Rouge, Louisiana, November 18, 1997

Fig. 25. Leaving Baton Rouge, Louisiana, November 18, 1997

Fig. 26. Untitled, page 37

Fig. 26. Untitled, page 37

11Later, we learn that:

Workers then place the [red hot] rebar [from the ship’s hull] on a cooling pile for the rest of the night. […] In the approaching dawn, one can see here and there a worker sleeping on a pile of cooling rebar after completing his shift (Fig. 27); does he dream of the soft grass in the fields of home (Fig. 28) (pp.146-47)?

Fig. 27. Cooling rebar, end of the night shift

Fig. 27. Cooling rebar, end of the night shift

Fig. 28. Shakdahoh, Bogra District, Bangladesh

Fig. 28. Shakdahoh, Bogra District, Bangladesh

12But the most powerful form of transcendent reincarnation is the transformation of the ship’s raw materials—mostly steel, brass, and copper—into works of art. Fig. 29 depicts the burning off of rubber casings to expose the copper cables beneath. And now in Fig. 30 we view but one of the countless works of art made from brass recycled from ships. This is, however, a very particular and most germane work of art: it is the Hindu god Shiva Nataraj or Shiva King of Dance who performs the Tandavam or dance to destroy and recreate the universe, thereby incarnating—himself, the very emblem of death—the very theme of reincarnation and renewal.

Fig. 29. Burning rubber casting off copper wire

Fig. 29. Burning rubber casting off copper wire

Fig. 30. Shiva Nataraj, dancing to destroy and recreate the universe

Fig. 30. Shiva Nataraj, dancing to destroy and recreate the universe

13I want to suggest that what Cambon both recognizes as transcendence and recreates in his book as transcendent is the “ascending beyond” or, in Hegel’s famous term, the Aufhebung or sublation, of opposites such as the opposites of life and death through reincarnation. Cambon quotes Joseph Conrad, “How slow had been the days of passage and how soon they were over” (p.118).

14Given the topic of this volume of INTERFACES, the most important Aufhebungen that Cambon effects are between image and word, but also between space and time, which are, of course, related to image and word. As an aside, it’s important to note that space and time, as Kant reminds us in the first critique, are the very categories of being; in sublating space and time, Cambon transcends quotidian being. Cambon also wonderfully depicts the Aufhebung of past and present, memory and forgetting, but I need to confine my observations to image and word / space and time. Even here, a few examples will have to suffice.

15The first is remarkably succinct. First the image—Figure 31.

Fig. 31. Untitled, pages 32-33

Fig. 31. Untitled, pages 32-33

16Now the words:

[The sea] is splendid and also terrifying. […] Standing alone, leaning against the rail, [I find it] impossible not to look down at the rich, deep-blue water, and wonder how easy it would be to fall in, to be lost in this vast space. Even in the calmest of seas, the ocean remains a threat that forms a constant part of one’s thoughts (p.110).

17I call your attention to just one word, the temporal marker, “constant.” It’s simply genial. With that single word, the static image of the sea we view before us enters time, and for all time—constantly. What I’ve titled a textual illustration of image is also, then, a kind of reverse ekphrasis—not the creation of image in words, but the temporalizing of image via narrative, a via narrativa.

18Let’s take another example, the image from the cover of the book Fig. 1. On first glance, this is an electrifying, but also confusing image. Whence the clouds arising from the ship? Is there an explosion? Yes and no. If you look carefully, you’ll see a gaping, rectangular hole in the ship’s hull which has been cut by the shipbreaking welders. The severed, hundred-ton slab of steel has just fallen to the ground. Let’s listen to the illustration:

The deck shakes; the steel groans as it twists free, falling slowly and heavily through the air. It lands with a resounding, deep thud! which makes the ground bounce underfoot like a trampoline; the sound of the impact echoes off the neighboring hulls like a cannon shot. Mud sprays for many yards and a rising cloud of dust envelops the area. It settles with a brief pitter-patter of falling steel chips and slag that sounds like a momentary rainstorm (p.137).

19Think, by contrast to this passage, of the locus classicus for ekphrasis—Homer’s depiction of Achilles’s shield in Book 18 of the Iliad. As is his wont to do from time to time in his epics, Homer wants to arrest his tempestuous narrative flow; the depiction of Achilles’s shield is dominated by the stasis of nouns; even the verbs are mostly static—“stands,” “pleads,” etc. This passage from Shipbreak, however, is dominated by verbs, verbs, moreover, that form a definite narrative sequence that catapults the captured image of the ship into time: “groans, twists, falling, lands, bounce, echoes, sprays, settles, sounds.”

20What’s particularly striking about both these examples, the sea and the ship being broken, is that, powerful as, in both instances, image and words are separately, the sum of image and words is far greater than each magnificent part. There occurs what the German poet Goethe describes as a “Wechselwirkung” or “exchange effect.” The fact that image and the illustrative text are separated, often by as many as a hundred large folio pages, forces the brain into a back and forth movement that transcends time (the time between viewing the image and reading the words or text) and space (the literal distance in the book between image and text). Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem “Windhover” comes to mind, where the rapid movement of wings creates a hovering stasis.

21To employ a different metaphor, what is created is a mental isosceles triangle (Fig. 32), whereby the base of the triangle is the distance between image and word, and each leg—image and word—of the triangle ascends to the converging apex that is the transcending tertium comparationis (or third thing compared to) formed by the exchange effect between image and word.

22As part of the transcending cycle and recycle of death and regeneration, Cambon relates a trenchant personal story that took place on the bay near his childhood home in Maine:

My brother and I pulled in the oars, and as the canoe [note the ship motif] coasted to a standstill, there was only quiet. My mother opened a small tin, and poured ashes which were once my father into the opaque gray-green water of the bay. They saturated in the water for a brief moment, and then vanished instantly and fully. It was if a primal source from the deep had claimed them. His life was surrendered to a larger process. Our tears, of grief and then also of consolation, followed him into that ocean (pp.148-49).

Fig. 32. Pages 148-149

Fig. 32. Pages 148-149

23I find particularly powerful and human the move from grief to consolation.

24Let me share with you a surprisingly related image Fig. 33. What you’re looking at are the last two pages of the main narrative (there is a brief epilogue called “Return”). On the left-hand side, see the three waves that, as we noted before, serve as a type of divider or chapter marker. They run throughout the main narrative, but at the end we have instead the three stars. We’re confronted once more with the interaction of movement or time represented by the waves and the relative stability or space depicted by the stars, but there is a hidden reference here as well.

Fig. 33. Shipbreak, pages 148-149.

Fig. 33. Shipbreak, pages 148-149.

25As Cambon shared with me, the three stars allude to the three great canticles of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for all three sections, the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, end in the word stelle or stars, as does, parenthetically Cambon’s narrative. In particular, the stars point to Book X of the Inferno where Dante encounters the father of one of his best friends, the famous poet Guido Cavalcanti. The father demands to know why his son is not accompanying Dante through hell, and Dante gives a vague reply, but as Cambon’s father, a well-known Dante scholar, once explained: in his answer, Dante mimics the rhyme scheme of one of Cavalcanti’s most famous poems, as if to say, “I carry your son and my friend with me in my verse.”

26I think Cambon suggests that, for those of us open to this type of secular transcendence, we carry our loved ones, living or dead, with us just as Cambon’s deceased father is reincarnated in the words and images of Shipbreak and statues of the god of destruction and recreation are fashioned out of the dead ship’s recycled brass. Allow me to leave you with this image ( Fig. 34 )of a “[c]row’s nest made entirely from wire stolen from the shipbreaking yards” (p.103), emblematic of material reincarnation and birth from death, which are Shipbreak’s driving leitmotifs.

Fig. 34. Crow’s nest made entirely from wire stolen from the shipbreaking yards

Fig. 34. Crow’s nest made entirely from wire stolen from the shipbreaking yards
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Bibliographie

Work Cited

CAMBON, Claudio. Shipbreak. Zurich: Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Shipbreak, Jacket Cover
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 572k
Titre Fig. 2. Shipbreak, pages 144-145
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 127k
Titre Fig. 3. Roger Organ, Chief Cook and Chief Steward
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 96k
Titre Fig. 4. June Emerson, Assistant Cook
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 65k
Titre Fig. 5. ‘Papa’ John Wallace, Bosun
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 91k
Titre Fig. 6. Out on the fantail after dinner
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 46k
Titre Fig. 7. Heading down the Mississippi River
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 211k
Titre Fig. 8. South Atlantic
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 265k
Titre Fig. 9. Crew’s mess, Christmas Eve 1997
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig.10. Longshoremen board the SS Minole at anchorage off Kutubdia Island, Bangladesh, December 27, 1997
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 323k
Titre Fig. 11. Untitled, pages 48-49
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 198k
Titre Fig. 12. Inj.d workers (1)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 221k
Titre Fig. 13. Offloading the ship’s contents (1)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 119k
Titre Fig. 14. Offloading the ship’s contents (2)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Titre Fig. 15. Kholil, age 11, carries a bedframe
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-15.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 142k
Titre Fig. 16. ‘Wire carriers’ move cable to the ship to retrieve a felled chunk
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 375k
Titre Fig. 17. Loaders, monsoon
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 463k
Titre Fig. 18. Loaders, frieze
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-18.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 179k
Titre Fig. 19. Inj.d workers (2)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-19.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 158k
Titre Fig. 20. Anchor chain paid out
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-20.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 218k
Titre Fig. 21. Launch day, Sparrow’s Point Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland, November 1961
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-21.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Fig. 22. Untitled, pages 58-59.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-22.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 85k
Titre Fig. 23. The beaching of the SS Minole, January 14, 2.20 PM, Lalbagh, Bangladesh
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-23.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 150k
Titre Fig. 24. Noah Tanihu, AB Seaman
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-24.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 309k
Titre Fig. 25. Leaving Baton Rouge, Louisiana, November 18, 1997
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-25.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 63k
Titre Fig. 26. Untitled, page 37
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-26.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 50k
Titre Fig. 27. Cooling rebar, end of the night shift
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-27.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 141k
Titre Fig. 28. Shakdahoh, Bogra District, Bangladesh
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-28.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 281k
Titre Fig. 29. Burning rubber casting off copper wire
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-29.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k
Titre Fig. 30. Shiva Nataraj, dancing to destroy and recreate the universe
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-30.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 214k
Titre Fig. 31. Untitled, pages 32-33
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-31.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 91k
Titre Fig. 32. Pages 148-149
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-32.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 18k
Titre Fig. 33. Shipbreak, pages 148-149.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-33.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 135k
Titre Fig. 34. Crow’s nest made entirely from wire stolen from the shipbreaking yards
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/325/img-34.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 141k
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Brittain Smith, « Textual Illustration Of Images In Claudio Cambon’s Shipbreak »Interfaces, 38 | 2017, 223-248.

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Brittain Smith, « Textual Illustration Of Images In Claudio Cambon’s Shipbreak »Interfaces [En ligne], 38 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 juin 2018, consulté le 17 mai 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/325 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/interfaces.325

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Auteur

Brittain Smith

College of the Holy Cross
Brittain Smith is Director of Study Abroad at the College of the Holy Cross. He has taught German and Comparative Literature as well as Film Studies at Boston University and Loyola University/New Orleans. He is the translator and editor of two volumes of The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche appearing with Stanford University Press.

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