Category Archives: Photography

Charles Marville’s Old Paris

It was a day of Old Paris in New York. The Metropolitan Museum had an exhibit, Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, showcasing a Frenchman who was one of the first people to turn a photographic lens on the world, starting in the 1850s. I think the word “evocative” might have been coined to describe Marville’s glass-negative images, with their rain-wet cobblestones and ancient, crumbling Parisian walls. “When good Americans die,” said Oscar Wilde, “they go to Paris.” I was feeling pretty good.

12. Rue de Constantine  1866

I prepared myself to see the show with a cup of chicken velouté, properly French and exactly creamy enough. Julia Child’s pronouncement about velouté in The Way to Cook goes as follows: “Soups may be creamed in a number of ways, including great lashings of cream itself – an ambrosial item I shall soft-pedal here in favor of the velouté system
 with its flour-butter roux… which looks, feels, and tastes for all the world like a creamy soup but can contain as low as zero fat.” The Metropolitan Museum cafeteria is a place where you can eat hoity-toity French soup and eavesdrop as the people around you have erudite conversations about high art. Those speaking English in any case, which was the minority on this polyglot afternoon. The rest of the diners around me, for all I knew, could be discussing race cars or Swahilian TV stars or the price of eggs in Hong Kong.

We crowded into the elevator with a handsome, voluble French family who looked like they would be saved from every one of life’s hardships by the cut of their clothes.

Charles Marville began his career as an illustrator, coming to photography later in life (and early in the life of the medium, as it had only been invented eleven years before he picked up a camera). His early work displayed country scenes and self portraits, like the one of Marville on the bank of the Rhine, hand held up poetically to brow. The cathedrals at Chartres and Rheims offered fertile subjects for his developing eye. I liked the treasures he showed in a tableau at the latter, complete with a mysterious mummified cat. He also did cloud studies, incredibly difficult in an era when everything shot needed a different exposure.

Then Marville found his artistic voice. He began depicting the narrow, winding alleyways and lanes of Paris just as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was transforming it with new, grand boulevards and public buildings at the behest of Napolean III. The government encouraged him, too, appointing him the official photographer of the city, with a surprising sense that all this would be going away forever. It was now his job to capture the rapidly disappearing, incredibly textured urban micro-landscapes of the mid-century City of Light. The streets glisten, both with rainwater and the sewage that runs down every gutter.

Impasse de la Bouteille, vue prise de la rue Montorgueil. Paris (IIËme arr.), 1865-1868. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 35,90 X 27,70 cm Dimensions de la vue

It was a time that was somewhat appalled to see itself speeding pell mell into the future. Le Temps commented about “grand roads vomiting and absorbing torrents of pedestrians and vehicles” on some of the new perfectly paved roads. It is that very contrast that makes this work so poignant, of course.

Marville frequently used the motif of a “window” or opening at the back of the picture to lead your eye back.

Passage St Benoit. Paris (VIËme arr.), 1865-1868. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 36,50 X 27,60 cm Dimensions de la vue

After documenting the streets slated for urban renewal, Marville was assigned to capture for posterity some of the newfangled improvements Haussman had installed. These included two features that were futuristic at the time. Lamposts. There now stood some 20,000 gas street lamps where before there were none. Marville photographed dozens of them.

gas lamp

And urinals.

Urinoir (SystËme Jennings). Plateau de l'Ambigu. Boulevard Saint-Martin.   Paris (XËme arr.), 1858-1878. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 27,10 X 36,40 cm Dimensions du tirage

Called vespasiennes, the name derived from that of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who supposedly imposed a tax on urine, these represented the ultimate novelty, private (relatively) and sanitary (relatively) and lit by those same spiffy gas lamps. The vespasiennes seemed antiquated when they were decommissioned at the end of the 20th century, but in 1860 it was like a spaceship-pissoir had touched down.

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson. At the exhibit I saw a photo with a heavy brown velvet flap hung down over the front due to the image’s sensitivity to light. There was a line of people crowding up at any one time to lift the curtain and see the magic underneath. It was a nice picture. But I felt that the magic was equally contained in each of the poetic photos around the gallery, impervious to time.

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Bloom Time

My new novel is blooming. Much like the amaryllis opening up beside my desk, at the window overlooking the marsh. This plant with its glowing greenish-white flowers doesn’t care about the snow and cold, it’s gonna display it’s stop-motion beauty on its own time, as it pleases. I’m just there to write it along.

amaryllis 1

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amaryllis 6

amaryllis7

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An Elegant Silhouette

I saw something intriguing at the Winter Antiques Show.

silhouette

A silhouette, definitely old, refined looking as all such silhouettes are, but somehow mysterious in the way the cut-out man held an unidentifiable object up against his body. It reminded me of the 21st century art of silhouette-artist Kara Walker.

kara_walker

Walker has exploded the conventions of the silhouette. She has created numerous black and white scenarios that suggest the depravities of race relations in a mythical Old South. Disturbingly beautiful, beautifully disturbing.

kara-walker-renaissance-society installationinstallation-1997-cut-paper-and-adhesive

I learned from the gentleman offering the Antiques Show silhouette for sale that it was in fact the work of a well-known French artist of the nineteenth century. Auguste Amant Constant Fidele Edouart was his elegant name. Born just before the Revolution, he became proficient in his craft at a time well before photography, when this simple depiction of an individual was a cherished “snapshot” as much as a work of art. The portrait before me had been identified as the British Field Marshal Colin Campbell, 1st Baron Clyde, who lived from 1792 to 1863 and had a distinguished career, assuming the role of Commander-in-Chief of India in 1856. That odd object in his silhouette: his military hat.

colin campbell

Edouart began his career in London, cutting out full-length likenesses in black paper, before moving on to Edinburgh and finally the U.S. He travelled the country creating hundreds of portraits as he went.

Something about the itinerant portrait maker touched my imagination. I’ve been reading a biography of John James Audubon. I always imagined the great man making his way stealthily through the woods, sneaking up and capturing the birds he would bring home to paint in such vibrant pictures.

John James Audubon

It turned out I was wrong on many scores. Isn’t it wonderful when you are wrong and reality is so much more interesting than your naïve imaginings? Audubon did go into the woods, many woods, all around the country, but he rarely caught anything per se. Instead he shot birds, sometimes dozens at a time. Ironic, perhaps, that the person for whom the Audubon Society was named was so avid a hunter. He would keep a few of his prey for dinner (he went hungry a lot at during some lean years of his life) and posed others with a rig he invented. It was a board with pins and string that held the bird in a position that mimicked life.

Audubon-birds

What interested me as much as his technique was that The Birds of America, the mammoth series of ornithological color plates we recognize him for now, was for many years a sideline, a labor of love. He couldn’t make money at it. So he traveled around to cities and backwaters on the frontier, in Missouri, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, getting a few dollars to draw peoples’ likenesses and so put food on the table. I would love to see some of these portraits, but the only sketches of Audubon’s I’ve been able to find are depictions of his family. Here is his son Victor Gifford Audubon.

victor gifford audubon

And here is a self portrait.

audubon by audubon

In the days before photos, people craved having an image of a loved one and a good-sized town would likely have a half dozen artists who were able to provide the service. Audubon was never totally satisfied with his ability to capture the human animal in pencil. I wonder if he ever considered cutting silhouettes.

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A Room of One’s Own-Thank You Virginia

A belated happy birthday to Virginia Woolf (born January 25th), a writer whose fiction I idolized when I was around sixteen. I had the firm conviction that her novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, innovative, modernist, poetic, were about as good as literature got.

Virginia Woolf cu

When I discovered Woolf’s book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, in college, I was thunderstruck. And I’ve never lost that feeling. I re-read Woolf’s arch 1929 critique of a sexist world, a discriminatory educational system, the need to nurture female talent, and I’m still pumping my fist in the air.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A Room of One’s Own

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882, to Julia Stephen, a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Leslie Stephen, a well-known biographer. She had seven siblings and half-siblings, and was brought up in an upper-middle-class Kensington household. That she suffered some sort of mental disorder (she was probably bipolar) was clear from her first breakdown at the time of her mother’s death in 1895. She collapsed again when her father died in 1904. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf and in 1915 she published her first novel. Despite her recurring “madness,” she was able to publish and run Hogarth Press with Leonard and be active in the Bloomsbury literary group for the rest of her life.

Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket

That’s Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket, proving that she had a lighter side.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” A Room of One’s Own

On March 28, 1941, Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse, near her house, to drown. An object that moved me beyond words was the simple wooden walking stick she took with her into the river, found floating near where she went in, preserved in the collection of The New York Public Library and shown in an exhibit of the library’s treasures a few years back.

woolf's walking stick

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.A Room of One’s Own

There is one surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. She delivered a talk called “Craftsmanship,” part of a 1937 BBC radio broadcast.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Here is Woolf’s take on Judith, Shakespeare’s erstwhile sister, also from A Room of One’s Own. Tell me if after reading this you are not also pumping your fist in the air.

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky. too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

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Shorpy Higginbotham’s Buckets

A day before getting my cast cut off my foot (aahhhh…) my cabin fever got the best of me and I made for NYC, to navigate midtown perched on my scooter. The train into town went okay – I watched the gap more zealously than I ever had before – and Maud and I got some laughs out of trying to make my cockeyed vehicle go the way it should on Manhattan’s rough and pitted sidewalks, and there was even salad in a white-tablecloth restaurant overlooking Bryant Park. But the day’s high point came at the International Center of Photography, which was exhibiting Lewis Hine’s photographs from the early 20th century. I knew the show was closing in two days and I just had to see it.

I started paying attention to Hine’s work when I became aware of his Shorpy photographs – a piercingly eloquent series of four images that portrays a child worker in an Alabama coal mine circa 1910. Hine wrote this note: “Shorpy Higginbotham, a ‘greaser’ on the tipple at Bessie Mine, Alabama, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars.”

shorpy

Shorpy, of course, is the little scrapper in front. He lived a hard life and died young, apparently, brained by a rock, but his proud demeanor is ageless.

buckets

A pioneering documentarian whose work portrays factory workers, families in tenements, men building skyscrapers — Americans of all walks of life, as well as some Europeans — Lewis Hine had both tremendous skill and heart. His depictions of child laborers are incredible. This little girl worked in a textile mill.

spinner

The exhibit unveiled a different, difficult world so powerfully it gave me a lump in my throat.

ny tenement

I did not see a picture of Shorpy included among the prints, but these were Shorpy’s people.

women

Seeing Hine’s subjects rendered a foot cast and a wobbly scooter the first world problems they truly are. I made my way to Grand Central Station, past the New York Public Library muscling its way up toward the grey sky above, proud to be a human alongside Lewis Hine.

skyscraper

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R.H. Macy’s Tattoo

We’ve arrived at Macy’s Herald Square to test out the mattresses. Outside in the rain, some typical New Yorkers loiter, including a beautiful bald woman in a gold lame miniskirt with scarification marks across her cheek. The aisles are thronged; New Yorkers love bargains and today is a big January sale day. Elevator up to the ninth floor, hike all the way down the way to the proper department, and beneath our feet the floor changes to deep, wide, richly varnished old boards. We have the space to ourselves, it seems, and the space around us here under the roof is high-ceilinged and grand.

The bed salesman deftly sells us on a Sealy at the same time as he clues us in to some Macy’s history. The founder, he tells us, Rowland H. Macy, was run out of Boston after a series of failed stores, then set up shop in 1858 in Manhattan in a brownstone on 14th Street and 6th Avenue with a dry goods store selling stockings, shoes and gloves, necessities of the time in New York City.

macy's shoes

No gold lame skirts at that point. First-day sales totaled $11.06. The eventual retail giant grew, in 1902 opening up at 34th Street and spreading to the full block it still occupies. The polished wood I hiked along was thronged with the ghosts of that time, when the flagship was so far uptown that it had to import downtown ladies and gentlemen via steam wagonette to get there. (Customers also rode the wooden escalators, vestigial early technology that appears unaccountably elegant to me today.) This picture dates to 1907.

Macy's 1907

That red star you see in all the store’s merchandising? That’s been in use from the beginning, a replica of R.H. Macy’s tattoo, a souvenir between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand from when he worked on a Nantucket whaling ship at the age of 15. A faded Harlem wall sign more than a hundred years old shows it still.

macys.redstar

We came away from 34th Street with a little history and a decent bed for a young woman who is about to move into her first New York City apartment.

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Doppelgänger Photos

“The digital process becomes a tool, almost like a time machine as I’m embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history.” So says Tokyo-born, London-based photographer Chino Otsuka. She created an evocative series of images called Imagine Finding Me in which she digitally inserted the grown-up version of herself into scenes of her childhood. I find the work eerie, dreamlike, and immensely affecting. I can only imagine creating some form of this with my own image. It might be like they say about a doppelganger – your meet yours and you both explode. More of Otsuka’s photos can be seen here; what follows are just a few.

Paris

1982 and 2005, Paris, France.

Beach 2

1976 and 2005, Kamakura, Japan.

Spain

1975 and 2005, Spain.

Japan snowman

1980 and 2009, Nagayama, Japan.

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Bread and Circuses

In the summer of 1977 I ran away to join the circus. I didn’t have to run too far–it was located in New York City, my back yard, where I went to college. The Big Apple Circus was just being born, and I served as a lowly gal friday for the new entity, first in its office in SoHo and later, when the tent went up, at the circus itself, at Battery Park, the lower west side of Manhattan, on a desolate, gritty stretch of landfill in the shadow of the World Trade Towers. Not a circus person, not an acrobat or a performer of any kind – an aspiring writer who did more dreaming than writing – I found myself in awe of the charismatic, enterprising young men who ran the enterprise, Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, street performers just back from doing their ultracool juggling act in Paris.

Paul Binder:Michael Christensen

That July 18, we opened the one-ring, European-style circus with its old-fashioned green canvas big top. No animals, just clowns and tumblers, people I watched balance and jump and stretch as they rehearsed, sweating in the hot early summer weather, some of them street kids seemingly made out of elastic, recruited from some of the less tony precincts of New York.

first tent

I would turn twenty the day after the circus opened. I remember selling tickets out of the office/trailer a stone’s throw from the tent alongside an intense, frizzy-haired kid who taught me the meaning of the term Ashkenazi. Funny the things you recall learning at odd times in your life. The Battery was a magical place to be. Dusk would fall, the hazy sun setting red over New Jersey, shadows would stretch across the landfill, and we would be waiting there, just hoping for an audience for the evening performance.

Earlier, a peak experience came when I somehow got assigned to hop into the cab of the rig that drove into town to deliver the gigantic tent. As I tried to guide the truck around the curve of the Battery to the circus entrance we bumped up over the median with a lurch, and I’m not sure that we didn’t crush it. Oops, don’t send the writer out to get technical with an 18-wheeler.

I came upon these turn of the century circus photos by F.W. Glasier, a commercial photographer in Brockton, Mass., who shot promotional photos of the various circuses that came through town over the years, and I was reminded of that time in the late 1970s when one small-town circus was in its infancy.

Here are strongwomen from 1904.

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A troupe of performers in 1906.

troupe 1906

1907 trapeze work.

Trapeze 1907

A snake handler working it in 1901.

snake1901

The raw energy of clowning.

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A mistress of the wire.

wire 1908

And, from the 1920s, circus twins who look to me like they have the world on a string.

twins 1920s1

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Let’s Celebrate

May you have a warm, happy and little bit crazy New Year’s…

1891 alice austen

and a 2014 that is full of good things.

NB: This is an 1891 photo from the fabulous but now somewhat obscure Staten Island photographer Alice Austen, who took 8,000 photographs over 40 years, usually gems of street photography, then went broke with her work unsung, then was rediscovered in time to move her out of the poorhouse for a celebration of her work in the 1950s.

My vow for 2014: to continue finding gems like the life of Alice Austen and reviving them for the present.

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Portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron

The face in the photograph might seem familiar.

Pomona Alice Liddell

It is Alice Liddell, the original inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, whose visage was captured many times by the author of that book, Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll) – somewhat provocatively, as he liked to depict many of his young-girl subjects.

Alice Liddell:Dodgson

Here, though, in 1872, Liddell appears through the lens of a very different photographer, one whose somewhat eccentric approach to the medium resulted in some beautifully hazy images that bring out the sensitivity, even the soul, of the subject.

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Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta in 1815, and during her life in Britain became friends with some of the leading lights of the Victorian Age. Out of a family of diplomats and aristocrats, she was one of three sisters—the others celebrated for their beauty while she was know for her talent. She was the mother of six, deeply religious, literary and intellectual as well as privileged. However, it wasn’t until Cameron reached 48 that she was gifted with her first camera by her daughter and son-in-law, in 1863. A hobby transmogrified into a passion. Her career spanned just eleven years, until she returned to India and died, it has come down to us, of a “chill”. (Virginia Woolf, incidentally, was her great niece.) “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.” It took her only 18 months to sell eighty prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum, set up a studio there, and make arrangements with the a West End printseller to market her photographs.

Reviewers gave Cameron mixed notices. She deliberately avoided the crystalline resolution and tiny detail that her albumen silver prints from glass negatives would have allowed, instead preferring soft light and long exposures that showed her subjects’ slight movements. In other words, things got blurry. Deliberately so. The effect was one of actual life rather than starchily posed pictures you sometimes see from that era. And the work had a strong pre-Raphaelite flavor.

She had three major bodies of interest: great figures of the day, such as Afred, Lord Tennyson, who called her subjects “victims” for the discomfort they experienced in the lengthy posing process.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Others included Robert Browning, Ellen Terry, Charles Darwin. Leading lights of the age. For some of her subjects she was the only photographer of note, and so her work has an invaluable documentary as well artistic value. Sir John Herschel, for example, whom she captured in 1867, the British scientist whose talents embraced math, astronomy, chemistry and botany.

Sir John Herschel

Then, also, Cameron immortalized family members or friends or household staff, with photograph titles that suggested subjects from history, myth or the bible. This portait of one housemaid she called “The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty.”

The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty

Another photo she titled “Sappho.” She elevated the subject through the name she bestowed upon her.

Sappho

She also assembled groupings to illustrate literary and religious themes. Her husband, Charles Hay Cameron, who was twenty years her senior, she posed in 1872 with, again, Alice Liddell, and two other young women — as Lear and his three daughters.

King Lear Alotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters

“I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me,” Cameron said, “and at length the longing has been satisfied.” Seeing several dozen of these extraordinary images in person is a highly unusual opportunity – they are rarely shown – so if you can manage it, I urge you to get to the Metropolitan Museum before January 5th.

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The Roaring Twenties

Put yourself on a New York City streetcorner on a summer afternoon in 1929. You can imagine it, sure, but can you really hear it? No?

Betty-button256Now you can.

Emma Thompson, a MacArthur-winning professor of history at Princeton University, has constructed a digital time machine that allows you to experience the jack hammers, fog horns and splashing fire hydrants of New York’s yesteryear in a web site called The Roaring Twenties.

roaringtwenties

The way the sound specialist did this is ingenious. She paired actual noise complaints from the files of New York City’s Health Department with  a detailed block-by-block Google Map. It’s a digital interface that covers all five boroughs of the city in the years 1926 to 1933. You can click on one of 600 pins and call up an image of the original complaint – plenty of complaints about noise, then as now – and the official response, if any.

N. Schmuck of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for example, was being driven nuts by factory noise from the nearby Colonial Pickle Works. Another complainant, attorney H. Bartow Farr, said his sleep had been disrupted by a racket on the East River — nighttime dredging close by his Gracie Square home. One function on the site allows you to search by type of complaint, so you can find out exactly how many foghorn complaints registered in a certain time frame. You might not have thought you wanted to know about foghorn complaints with this degree of specificity, but I think you’ll be surprised.

“My first impression of New York was its noise,” said a Japanese governor visiting the city in 1920, cited in The New York Times.

As an aural historian, Thompson believes that it’s important to understand the context of sound, its meaning as well as the sound itself. And that is why this fascinating project incorporates not only paper evidence, the complaints, the maps, but the actual noises of New York themselves, unmediated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in  My Lost City in 1932:

“What news from New York?”

“Stocks go up. A baby murdered a gangster.”

“Nothing more?”

“Nothing. Radios blare in the street.”

listening

How to capture those radios blaring in the street? Well, sound cinema was just then taking off. Thompson and web designer Scott Mahoy assembled images sourced from Fox MovieTone newsreel footage, pictures that once filmed were often left on the cutting room floor. The technology was still crude, but watching a snippet is amazing. Select one newsreel icon on the Roaring Twenties map and you find yourself in the hubbub of Times Square, cruising among the grand marquees.

times square

Another takes you to Central Park and the cheeky frolic of a crowd of kids shooting marbles. Or go visit with a ukelele strummer on the beach at Coney Island one hot day in 1930. The newsreels are not matched precisely to the noise complaints, but close enough. It’s sound-around. For a taste, listen to the NPR segment about the project.

I swear, The Roaring Twenties is as close as you’ll get to Fitzgerald-era New York. (I only wish such a vehicle existed for the 1870s when I was getting into the head of Savage Girl.) The only thing that’s missing is the ripe smell of horse manure and hot dog stands. Those  will have to wait for a new generation of smell engineers, but this web treasure will help in the meantime.

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Desert Desperados

My favorite blogger-in-arms Peter Zimmerman is tall, lean, sun-loving and more than occasionally prickly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So I knew that when he wanted to write about the saguaro there would be no better perspective on the cactus.

pic1Hard to believe [he writes] that it’s been 43 years since I saw my first saguaro. I was twelve years old at the time that the Zimmerman family took a whirlwind trip “out West.” We flew to Colorado Springs and, in a packed rental car, by way of the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite, and Santa Barbara, ended up in L.A., where we took in a Supremes concert at Disneyland!

They don’t call it a Cereus giganteus for nothing. Saguaros can grow as tall as 70 feet.
bird1(woodpecker)
Saguaros have a relatively long life span. They may grow their first side arm at anywhere from 50 to 75 years of age (some lives to be 150 years old), but some never grow one at all. A saguaro without arms is called a spear.
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The rare crested saguaro is perhaps the result of a genetic mutation, or lightning, or freezing weather. Scientists don’t know.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
As a result of their formidable height, it’s very hard to take a picture of a saguaro bloom, located on the top of this stately if comical-looking cactus. Plus they tend to bloom at night.
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I once spent the better half of an afternoon driving the mountainous loop road at Saguaro National Monument, trying in vain to take a picture of a bloom. Try shooting down on a 30-foot-tall plant. I mean, cereus-ly. But elsewhere, I succeeded!
saguaro in bloom
Saguaros are pollinated by bats, primarily the lesser long-nosed variety.
They come in all shapes and forms.
allshapes
Like other cacti, saguaros are water hoarders. Whenever it rains, they soak up the rainwater. The cactus will visibly expand. It conserves the water and slowly consumes it.
Sag. Natl park3

The Tohono O’odham tribes celebrate the beginning of their summer growing season with a ceremony using a fermented drink made from the bright red fruit to summon rains, vital for the crops.

indians
They used the ribs — the skeleton — for building houses. The Seri people of northwestern Mexico used the plant which they call mojépe for a number of purposes.Birds live inside holes in saguaros.
bird3(owelet)
The saguaro has appeared in many Westerns, especially at Monument Valley. Commercially, the saguaro’s silhouette is found on the label of Old El Paso brand products. Old-timey cartoonist Reg Manning made his bread and butter drawing pictures of cacti.manning

His most famous book is What Kind of Cactus Izzat?

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Mandela’s Stitch in Time

Nelson Mandela – we think of him as superman, an inspirational leader. Surrounded by packs of admirers. A global icon, larger than life. After all, he changed the world.

Nelson_Mandela__2305222a

What I find affecting is another Mandela, the one sewing prison clothes in 1966 in a prison yard. Yes, sewing.

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The picture was taken at Robben Island Prison, near Cape Town, in 1966. Mandela wrote in his memoir:

“I was assigned a cell at the head of the corridor. It overlooked the courtyard and had a small eye-level window. I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. The width was about six feet, and the walls were at least two feet thick. Each cell had a white card posted outside of it with our name and our prison service number. Mine read, “N Mandela 466/64,” which meant I was the 466th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964. I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and that small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.”

Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail imprisoned on Robben Island along with other ANC activists. A bout of tuberculosis and recurring lung infections were probably due to the work he was forced to do in the prison’s lime quarry. Other aspects of his stay: crushing stones to gravel, food strikes, smuggling out messages on toilet paper. Horrendous conditions survived by a superman.

I like the image of Mandela in the prison yard because it shows him as just a man. There is super strength in a man nurturing himself through sewing.

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The Spirit of Electricity

I finally saw “The Spirit of Electricity,” the costume worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II at an outrageous fancy dress party she gave with her railroad tycoon husband that was one of the highlights of the Gilded Age in New York City. Textiles perish, and you don’t often get to see the famous gowns of the past. Mrs. Vanderbilt was always going to be a static image on a photo card, fetching but more than a little cracked.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II

Born Alva Erskine Smith, Mrs. Vanderbilt orchestrated the ball in 1883 to christen the new lodgings erected for the couple at 1 West 57th Street. Theirs was the largest house ever built in Manhattan. In staging one of the most elaborate balls of the time, Alva assured the Vanderbilt family a perpetual place on Mrs. Astor’s 400, the list of New York’s social elite.

The New York Times covered the party perhaps less objectively than it would today. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years,” read the article that ran the day after, on March 27th. “Since the announcement that it would take place…scarcely anything else has been talked about. It has been on every tongue and a fixed idea in every head. It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks, and has even, perhaps, interfered to some extent with that rigid observance of Lenten devotions which the Church exacts.”

In advance of the evening, quadrilles were relentlessly practiced, costumes were tailored, quantities of hair powder were  laid in. The party was a showstopper. The Times reporter exclaimed about the “garden in the forest” where guests took their supper, and the phalanx of cops that kept gawkers at bay outside the mansion as carriages began to arrive after 10:30 or so. We have no pictures of the hordes with their noses pressed up against the windows, but the fashionables inside had their images captured for posterity by society photographers.

Mrs. Elliot F. Shepard

Each guest’s getup was wilder than the next.

Mr. Isaac Bell

Jesters, Romams, Mary Antoinette, the Four Seasons – it was a motley group.

Mrs. Arthur Paget

I thought that the souvenir photos were all that remained of the event.

Then I visited Gilded New York, an exhibit that is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The show includes the decorative arts, some paintings and some fashion. Yes, the end of the nineteenth century is big in Manhattan at the moment, with this enterprise and Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at the New-York Historical Society. If you are a fan of ostentation, now is the time to put aside workaday worries and immerse yourself in a level of excess that is hard to fathom today.

The items on display were those that would have figured big in ball culture. Images of the grand Fifth Avenue houses set the stage, most long torn down, commissioned for the new industrial elites. By 1892, 27% of the nation’s millionaires lived in New York City, more than 1,100 of them.

Many of their mansions, like the Vanderbilt house, had a castle-like, European flavor. The structure where the 1883 ball took place was a model for the immense confection inhabited by the Delegate family in Savage Girl.

Vanderbilt home

With their newfound wealth, the millionaires bought jewelry at Tiffany, gold, enamel, diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. But they also went to Tiffany for other accessories, like this card case made of frog leather in 1900.

frog case

They had a taste for the over the top, like a decanter and cup fabricated of Murano Glass.

Murano glass

Long kid gloves were a necessity for a ball-going lady.

kid gloves

When they were feeling rustic they might show off a different style of ware, say the one decorated with an alligator, snake and lizard – this one belonged to Montana copper baron William Clark, one of the Fifth Avenue denizens.

platter

All, it seemed, was glossy, elegant, costly. You can read the plush lifestyle in the portraiture, like the depiction of Helen Virginia Sands at age 19, shortly before her marriage to a successful Wall Street trader.

de la mar pic

What I found most affecting, though, was the golden silk gown, “The Spirit of Electricity,” here in front of me, for real. It had emerged from the black-and-white photo card. Heavily embroidered in beaten gilt, it had silver tinsel filaments that lifted like small wings above the shoulders. Imported, of course, from Worth in Paris.

light gown

That’s a Herter Company jewelry cabinet in the background, for you Herter furniture fans. The dress survived because it was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughter Countess Laszlo Szechenyi (neé Gladys Vanderbilt).

More affecting, even, the yellow silk stockings and pumps that Alva wore with the fancy gown.

pumps

This opulence of the distant past was real, something I could almost touch.

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Victorians Striking a Maternal Pose

The photos published in The Guardian today haunt me.

A series of Victorian babies, each one posed against a fabric-draped… mother. They’re from a new book called The Hidden Mother by Linda Fregni Nagler, which archives 1,002 photographs, daguerreotypes and tintypes, cartes de visite and cabinet cards.

Mother and baby portrait

As a reporter describes it, the requirements of primitive photography mandated extra care in posing children: “A 19th-century parent would have to dress the baby in a starchy gown, transport it and perhaps its siblings to the nearest photographer’s studio as early in the morning as possible, climb several flights of stairs to the skylit attic, arrange the family group against the studio backdrop, get everyone to remain completely still for 30 seconds or so, part with a large chunk of money, and then wait several days for the copies to be finished, before sending them round to family and friends as calling cards, or pasting them into albums.”

Mother and baby portrait

Sound difficult? With long exposure times, the only way to get the baby to hold still was for the mother to grip it in her hands.

Mother and baby portrait

Apparently photography was becoming an acceptable profession for women in the second half of the nineteenth century. The pictures captured by female photographers were no cheerier than those taken by men. Laughing messed with the shutter speed. A dose of opium often did the trick in keeping the subject still if dulled.

You have to wonder about the woman concealed beneath the textile. Was the mother shushing her baby, cooing to it, singing lullabyes? It must have been stuffy in her confinement, and she had no idea what the outcome would be. But she was fierce in her dedication to getting an image of her infant, a keepsake, the face and form of her beloved. Miraculously two dimensional. And always quiet and still.

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