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Saturday, 31 December 2011


 Some scandalous lives of the Belle Epoque
“I have to admit that I'm up to my neck in frivolity, buried in dresses to the point of ruin!”
Liane de Pougy; My Blue Notebooks
"I have been a slave to my passions, but never to a man."
Carolina Otero

“The thought flashed across my mind,” Carolina Otero explained with studied flippancy to the journalist from the London Daily Mail. “Why not try marriage, just to see what it is like?” In January 1907 she had been married to Englishman Rene Webb for just two months. He came to the marriage with a substantial dowry including a promise to set La Belle Otero’s sister up in business, and something else – his collection of several thousand postcards of the dancer. These images were almost certainly in the collection. Leopold Reutlinger, photographer to the stars of Parisian theatres and dance halls had shot Ms Otero over hundreds of sessions and she was one of the most popular subjects for his photographs. 
The biography of Carolina Otero that appears in the Who's who on the stage 1908 makes for fabulous reading. Born in 1871, the daughter of the Count and Countess Cassarow, she first appeared on the stage at age eight. While performing in Madrid she was kidnapped “by secret agents of the Spanish King, spirited off to his palace and locked in a room. She forced a window and escaped.” More likely she was born to poor Galician farmers a few years earlier, may have been raped when she was ten and possibly married an Italian count when she was fourteen. What is certain is that in the process of bedding a fair number of Europe’s royals and statesmen she accumulated several million dollars worth of jewelry, which she gambled away, dying penniless in 1965 aged about 96.

American journalists working around the beginning of last century referred to prostitutes as courtesans. They would not however call a courtesan a prostitute. A true courtesan was not paid for her services, she received gifts sometimes more from a single assignation than typical streetwalkers could expect to earn in their entire lives. Caroline Otero had no problem with the word courtesan, she exploited her reputation to the fullest, but she was usually referred to as a dancer or, in that way that French can be simultaneously explicit and inoffensive, la belle horizontale. The three great horizontales in the Belle Époque were Otero, Liane de Pougy and Emilienne d’Alencon. They made no secret of their lifestyles or the price they attached to it but flaunted their extravagances with a kind of grinning contempt for the ordinary people who found something offensive about it. Of the three, d’Alencon pushed the idea of succès de scandale to its limits, sharing her bed with the usual motley crew of dissolute nobles as well as the famous can-can dancer La Goulue, the American poet Renée Vivian and possibly de Pougy. She was also an enthusiastic consumer of opium and cocaine, which led many people to assume she lived her final years in a drugged out fog. Actually she lived a respectably long life, dying in 1946 aged 77.
This portrait by Reutlinger presents her as an epitome of innocence. She started out her stage career as a young girl with a troupe of performing pink rabbits and was described by Jean Lorrain (author of Nightmares of an Ether Drinker) as ‘raspberry ice’ – presumably he meant something cute. By the turn of the century the rabbits had been packed away and she was performing with a python as her dancing partner. She was also an inspiration to Coco Chanel and one of her favourite models for headwear in the 1910s.

Were Otero and d’Alencon talented performers or was their fame thanks more to their notoriety? It’s hard to say since very little survives of their work – a brief clip of a frenzied Otero on YouTube and a book of poems by d’Alencon that veers between sentimental and crassly erotic. One way a critic could show disapproval of their lifestyles while maintaining a veneer of sophistication was to soundly trash their performances. That happened often but no performer came under so much cruel scrutiny as Gaby Deslys. “The worse she sings and the further in her dancing she widens the limits of choreographic mediocrity, the more evident it is that she is a pretty girl.” That was Paris critic Ernest Charles writing in 1912 in an article that was so nasty she sued. A year earlier the Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini tersely dismissed her as ‘not art’. (In the same interview the opera singer complained that she had recently seen a suffragette parade but ‘they are all ugly and not neat in their dress’.) In her brief career Gaby Deslys managed to have official censors called in during performances in London, Paris and the US and became the focus of a riot by Yale students when the police cut one of her performances short. Part of the problem was her popularity. She was one of the very few to make a name for herself in Europe, Britain and the US, and that was because her stage act hovered between highbrow and popular. Filling a concert hall with ill behaved students was one way to offend the arbiters of taste. Another was to carry on a very public affair with King Manuel II of Portugal. When Manuel was deposed in a revolution in 1910 Deslys was widely held to be a culprit; her goings on with the King apparently inflaming radical Portuguese tempers. Actually the revolution had been brewing for years and might not have happened had the initial insurrection been handled properly. She had nothing to do with it though years later she was still referred to in some papers as the woman who brought down the king.
In December 1919 she was hospitalized with a throat infection. It may have actually been a tumour. Thinking surgery would destroy her looks and her voice, she refused to allow the doctors to cut into her neck. After nine operations, on February 11 1920 she died, aged 38. One of the minor scandals in her affair with Manuel had involved a string of pearls he had given her on their first date. It was estimated to be worth $70 000. In her will she directed that all her jewelry including the infamous string of pearls be sold and the proceeds distributed among the poor of Marseilles.

Even in death Gaby Deslys could not be left in peace. It had always been assumed she was born Marie-Elise-Gabrielle Caire, daughter of a middle class merchant in Marseilles and her stage name was a contraction of Gabrielle of the Lilies. During her affair with King Manuel a private detective claimed to have discovered that she was in fact Hadiwga Nawrati, a Czech farmer’s daughter. This obviously excited a few people though unlike Otero and d’Alencon Deslys had never concocted a past so at the time the story never gained real traction. After her death however various Czechs, Hungarians and Americans bearing similar surnames came forward claiming her inheritance. One Hungarian man declared he was her father while an American woman cited a cross shaped scar on her finger and a nurse’s story as proof she was the singer’s daughter. It was also said that the real Gaby Deslys, that is to say the woman whose identity she had stolen, was still alive and could be found. These claims dragged on for years. None were found valid though in accumulation they had the effect of adding mystery to a fairly ordinary background. On March 21, 1930 thieves inspired by stories she had been buried draped in pearls smashed open her mausoleum but couldn’t get past a steel plate.
A bed bought for her by King Manuel and designed in the shape of a swan was bought by Universal Studios after her death and appeared in several films, most notably it was Norma Desmond’s in Sunset Boulevard.

Sophisticated critics were in no doubt that Lina Cavalieri was an exceptional singer, and that she deserved her reputation as one of the most beautiful women in the world. The difference in their treatment of Deslys and Cavalieri speaks volumes, especially as both performers came from similar backgrounds and both began their careers in the less than high-toned music halls. What mattered was that Deslys’ persona was funny and animated while Cavalieri played her part with cultivated poise. Reutlinger’s photo of her above was taken near the turn of the century, as she was making the transition from the music halls to opera. Opera singers were expected to lead glamorous public lives with enough romantic intrigue to keep the public interested, but scandal and by extension open sexuality was out. In the future she would be portrayed in ways more fitting to a world famous soprano. Cavalieri might have been astute enough to keep her affairs discreet but she was helped by a fawning press. Critics whose ears pricked up at the latest gossip concerning d’Alencon or Otero turned a deaf one to news that, yet again, Cavalieri’s recent marriage was foundering.
In August 1908, Princess Vittoria de Teano, who claimed a lineage extending back to the 5th century and included several popes among the various dukes and princes, attended a reception held by the Duchess of Sutherland. On hearing that Lina Cavalieri was to be the guest of honour the Princess announced; “I am not accustomed to meeting such people,” before making a haughty exit. A few of her equals, including well known pouncer Edward VII, approved of her stand. Cavalieri’s great offence apparently was that she had begun her working life as a humble flower seller. Apart from casting an unnecessary light on how class bound Europe was, the story reveals something of how the lives of celebrities were already being confected to suit the market. The Princess claimed to have principles and in her vulgar way, she was saying she saw through the hype. No matter how beautiful or talented Cavalieri was, she came from the streets. 

 Cavalieri’s private life doesn’t quite square with her press (Whose does?). Take her four marriages, all to men with either artistic credentials or titles, two of which lasted just months. She could have made poor choices but one mark of an elegant woman is that she shouldn’t. The suspicion is that behind the quietly dignified persona lurked an unpleasantly temperamental diva. Her death is also obscured by conflicting accounts. On February 7, 1944, the US Air force began a bombing raid over Fiesole outside of Florence. Either she was collecting her jewellery before running to the air raid shelter or she suddenly jumped from a car and ran back to collect it but a bomb hit the house, killing her. The first version suggests bad timing, the second that she had misplaced her values.


Friday, 23 December 2011


 transport as studio props

“The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete.”
Marshall McLuhan 

Self respecting books on the history of photography ignore or avoid but in any case stay right away from examining the long tradition of studio photographs using imitation transport as props. It’s frustrating because there is plenty of room for speculation but a few hard facts wouldn’t go astray. It would be useful to know something about the photographers. Most of the photographs here look like they come from fairground midways but were the photographers typical carnies who based the value of their work on the dollars they counted at the end of each day? Was this a viable environment for a beginner to cut his or her teeth on or was it more likely dismissed as assembly line work? If the answer to that is the second, then how did such a system produce some of the most unconventionally compelling images in vernacular photography? People who collect snapshots and postcards will tell you they keep an eye out for them, also that they have seen a lot in poor condition but they’ve never seen a bad image. There are people who find them intensely irritating, but that’s their problem.

There is a genteel history to these photographs. It begins with the invention of collodion plates, the carte de visite and the cabinet card in the late 1850s, when photographers began treating the studio as an element in the photograph rather than just the space the image was recorded in. The first photographers used stage boats and the idea was to make the scene as naturalistic as possible, so even though the viewers knew it was artificial they were supposed to appreciate the photographer’s dexterity (you can see some examples here). By the late 1880s the trick had lost its magic, so to speak, and no one needed to maintain a pretence. It didn’t matter that the background was so obviously painted since the photo was now a joke that everyone could be in on. In the same way that studios used composite printing to place the sitter in Egypt or against Niagara Falls, it wasn’t a case of ‘special’ so much as ‘novelty’ effects. The best place to find studios that carried out this work was at seaside resorts or carnivals.

From the first decade of the 20th century photographers also had trains, planes and cars to play around with, and quick-to-produce postcards. It’s tempting to see the arrival of these new modes of transport on the photographic stage as a response to modernity but if that’s the case we have to ask why so many of the cars are clapped out jalopies and why, even into the 1920s, the most common type of aircraft was still a pre-Wright brothers flying machine. Well, obviously, that was supposed to be funnier, and maybe we don’t need to read anything more into it. If it really were a comment on the marvels of modern technology then we would have to assume that everyone, photographer, subjects and audience, was conscious of the statement being made. Appearances suggest otherwise.

And speaking of appearances, there is some mystery as to why, if being photographed in a studio car was supposed to be fun, people seldom look amused. In Folk Photography, Luc Sante says that “enjoyment was conceived of primarily as an activity and only secondarily an emotion (so) it was not necessary to show yourself laughing”. I’m sceptical and can think of a couple of other more convincing explanations. One is suggested by the man on the right in the photo above. He holds a bottle of cheap looking liquor in his hand. It’s my guess a fair few of the men in these photos were either drunk or most of the way there when they climbed into the props. This was at a fairground after all, and what was that but a place to wander through looking for desultory fun. That doesn’t account for all the families wearing the same stunned mullet expressions.
My suspicion is what looked like a good idea was actually intimidating once you started. The photographer was shouting at you to keep still while glancing over a shoulder at the queue outside and trying hurry it along. He or she had already done the technical work of framing the scene, setting the focus and rigging the lights hours earlier. The only people who were going to mess the shot up were the sitters and they weren’t given the luxury of a second try.   

Not quite a mode of transport, unless you were planning to go over Niagara Falls, the barrel was almost as popular a studio prop as the car and the boat. The oddest thing about this sub-genre is not what point anybody would see in pretending to be in a barrel - that was their choice - but that so many feature the snarling little bulldog chained to it. Most that you see will have it. The dog bears a passing resemblance to Spike the bulldog in Tom and Jerry but that doesn’t mean much. It could be some forgotten piece of folklore but there is also the possibility that one company was producing a lot of the props and this was by way of a signature. The props in the photo of the two men in the speedboat – one with his tie askew and looking like he has already taken a few slugs from the hip flask – look almost identical to others I’ve seen, the big difference being the name of the state on the banner. That also supports the notion one company was producing a lot of the scenery. If that was the case, their place in American folk art is sadly unrecognized

The last in this series is a photo that doesn’t come from a fair and doesn’t use a prop but is actually a piece of artful photomontage. It is postmarked 1906, just three years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and three before Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel. Powered dirigibles were still more popular than aeroplanes for getting about in the skies and for some people remained the most feasible form of powered flight. Only ten years earlier persons still unknown had flown across parts of the southern and mid-western United States in a powered dirigible and been witnessed by thousands. Even in 1906 a dirigible in the sky was likely to draw crowds. This French postcard is obviously intended as a cutely romantic gesture but at the time it would also have been a very contemporary image.


Friday, 16 December 2011


Four cabinet cards that deserve a closer look

“Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.”
Duane Michals

At the beginning of the 20th century Azerbaijan was the world’s largest exporter of oil and Baku was a boom town, thanks in no small part to the Nobel brothers, one, Alfred, being responsible for dynamite and the peace prize. Still part of the Russian Empire, this was both good news for Baku – it became wealthy – and a case of bad timing. The automobile had been invented but it was yet to be mass produced, there were only a handful of aeroplanes airborne and modern plastics were a few years off. The world needed oil but it wasn’t yet dependent on it the way it soon would be. Azerbaijan made money but not nearly so much as Texas would start to in the 1920s.
These men are engineers or chemists in Azerbaijan. At a guess they are either working on the design of a new storage facility or a method for distilling petroleum. The cabinet card comes from the English Studio. Was it a studio run by English people or a studio that used the name because at the time England and the British Empire evoked a sense of power and sophistication? No idea. The British presence in Azerbaijan was apparently strong, helped by the fact that the Tsar was first cousin to the King. The study is posed; the man sitting on the right is not looking at the page he is writing on. Was it used top promote Azeri advances in technology? Possibly.

On the cusp of full independence from the Ottoman Empire, educated and middle class Bulgarians rejected the ties to their Turkish heritage. Because that was so ingrained after 500 years, nationalism meant in part looking westward. Rather than embracing those elements intrinsic to Bulgarian identity, some people adopted French styles and attitudes.  This man is an example. Dressed in the typical outdoor clothing of the Western European rambler he has subtly defined himself as a modern sophisticate. But the most interesting detail is the camera in his hand. It is a folding bellows camera. With a bit more expertise we could probably identify the make and model. Set against a fake outdoor setting, he is also depicting himself as a man of leisure. Whether his favourite subject was flora, fauna or landscapes, he has the time to pursue his hobbies. In other words, compared to a lot of Bulgarians he is free.

At first glance a man who has resolutely clung to his Ottoman heritage, but it is only the fez and the moustache that give that impression. From the neck down he is every bit the European gent. The head and facial wear are signs he was probably a clerk and may well have been Armenian or even Greek, given the fez was part of the standard uniform for civil servants in the late Ottoman era. At the turn of the century Phebus was one of the best known studios in Constantinople, run by Boğos Tarkulyan, an Armenian who had begun his career under the Abdullah Freres. In the 1890s he was one of the photographers commissioned to provide work for the Abdulhamid collection and in the 1920s he was appointed an official photographer to Kemal Ataturk. He is an example of how slippery categories are when analysing photographs from the era. An Armenian who moved from the Sultan’s court to that of the first president of the secular republic would need to be pragmatic in his social and business dealings, aware yet discreet. This portrait captures something of that ambivalence. If the subject is a Turkish Muslim he has already adopted Western modes. If he is an Armenian Christian he is comfortable with Turkish symbols.

Great Falls, on the border of New Hampshire and Maine, was a town built on textile mills so even though that part of the world was famous for its brilliant autumn colours and the forests that ran all the way into Canada, you can bet that at the turn of the last century it was choked with smog and caked with industrial filth.
This man has the fierce glare of the Protestant fanatic in his eyes and there is something God fearing about his beard too. His clothes are well cut. If he was a mill owner or had a managerial position, you assume he knew how to make the workers cower when they came in with their demands. First impressions matter but if you look closer you realize the intensity of his stare may not come entirely from a black heart or belief in damnation. His pupils are tiny and at equal points above them sit two pinpricks of light. This is very likely an early example of photography under electric lamps. Between 1895 and 1905, which is the estimated date range for this image, electric lighting was becoming more common in studios but it was still expensive, first to install and then to use. This might explain the subject’s stiff composure as well. He may be used to being photographed but this process is new to him and he doesn’t quite go for sitting still and staring at a light globe. Who’s to say that when Etters indicated he had finished, our subject didn’t inhale deeply, smile and grant his workers the afternoon off?


Friday, 9 December 2011


Postcards and portraits from the golden age of Stalinist cinema

"You must remember that for us, cinema is the most important of all the arts,"

Back in the 1980s Soviet cinema was still something of a mystery. At one end, the beginning, we had Eisenstein and Vertov, and no matter how excruciatingly boring Battleship Potemkin was to sit through you could accept it was a landmark film. At the other was Tarkovsky, and again, if The Stalker and Solaris were as slow as drying paint they were like nothing else you had seen before. Very little else came out and what did went to the arthouses where they played for a week if they were popular, so between those bookends it was easy to imagine Russian cinema was an entirely strange creature. The few films that emerged from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary perpetuated the sense. Behind the Iron Curtain they were very good at creating a grey and moody and sometimes a sharp, cold cinematography. You could be forgiven for assuming that all Soviet cinema was like that. If most American films were predictable, all Russian films were art. It was a revelation therefore to find these photo postcards in Bulgaria. Graphically, they are different to anything the Americans were putting out and you can still see something of the 1920s revolutionary posters in them, but they are also a reminder that one possible reason we didn’t see a lot of Russian cinema was that it wasn’t worth showing. Back in the Stalinist era Mosfilm was producing dross that looked like nothing else so much as Hollywood at its banal, self censoring worst.

Musicals were the bread and circuses of Soviet cinema, which comes as no surprise. It is the most soporific of film genres. What’s the point to a musical if not to lull the masses into vicarious high spirits? And what more practical way is there to reinforce a political ideology than to get the audience singing along to it in the aisles? The Soviets were somewhat lagging - the high point of Hollywood musicals had passed by the 1940s – but they had studied the formula. Every musical needed one unforgettable song that people would start humming to as soon as they heard the opening bars. They also needed lavish sets. In Hollywood musicals set design and choreography were more important than the script. Not having seen a Soviet musical it is hard to compare them but Russia being one of the centres of modernist design we can hope there were people who knew exactly what to do with light and shadow, symmetry and movement. Musicals also needed stars. Hollywood and Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers, Moscow had Lyubov Orlova. Most of her films were directed by her husband, Grigori Aleksandrov. The most popular was Volga Volga (1938), which was reputedly Stalin’s favourite film and concerned a group of singers and musicians travelling up the river to attend a talent contest. At about the same time, Stalin organized a folk festival for the blind Ukrainian folk musicians, the Lirniki. Every known musician attended – several hundred of them - and all were executed. The synopsis to another of Orlova’s musicals, Circus (1935) reads: an American circus artist has a black baby. The only way she can find happiness is among Russian people. Well she would, wouldn’t she?

We in the West tend to assume the only reason Russians joined the Communist Party was as a means to survive. Alla Larionova willingly joined the Komsomol and ran home to show her family her new red tie. It would be years before she understood why her grandmother said nothing but turned and left the room. This photo is a publicity still for the Russian film version of Twelfth Night, where she played Olivia. There is a yet to be written analysis on why foreign tyrants love Shakespeare. It has something to do with his unimpeachable status as a classic but also because he was so politically ambiguous that you can simultaneously show off your cultural credentials while eluding serious analysis. It actually suggests you have very little curiosity (A bit like saying your favourite painter is – yawn - da Vinci.) but that is another hallmark of the tyrant. Avoiding the plays that analysed political power – Hamlet, Macbeth – the Stalinist cinema produced a few films based on Shakespeare’s plays. With the advantage of distance, critics regard them with due respect, inevitably complaining that something is lost in translation from Elizabethan English to 20th century Russian. Just after making this film, Larionova offended some high ranking official and soon had the displeasure to read stories about herself relaxing in bathtubs full of champagne. I would like to say it was Great Western but I think Peter Ustinov already used that line.

History was a problem the Bolsheviks claimed to have dealt with yet never could successfully. How could they wipe the slate clean without destroying the heritage – the Kremlin, St Basil’s, Red Square – which provided the fundamental Russian identity? How do you make a film celebrating Russia’s glorious imperial past while keeping to the line that what replaced it was absolutely necessary? Eisenstein tried with Ivan the Terrible and only saw part one of his epic trilogy released in his lifetime. In 1937 the director Vladimir Petrov released part one of his intended epic about Peter the Great, with Alla Konstantinovna Tarasova playing Katerina, the peasant girl who became Peter’s queen and eventually Tsarina Catherine the Great. It wasn’t the sheer scale of the enterprise that would be daunting so much as how to structure imperial history to suit a leader who regarded himself as a prophet of the modern world and a legitimate heir to the tsars. Petrov was adept at keeping within the boundaries but the trilogy would take nearly thirty years to complete and in its entirety run to over six hours.

The great Russian novelists of the 19th century were realists critical of Tsarist policies and sympathetic to the oppressed so their works were acceptable for translation into cinema. One thing the Russian filmmakers had over their American counterparts was that they weren’t frightened by endurance. This was a land of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, where even short stories unfolded slowly and hung on a small detail like a raised eyebrow. The problem King Vidor had in the 1950s was how pare War and Peace down to 200 minutes. In 1968 Sergei Bondarchuk, husband of Irina Skobtseva (above), released his eight hour (484 mins) interpretation, which for that curious strain of purists who actually care about Tolstoy on screen is the definitive version. Vidor was an avowed anti-communist. If Bondarchuk was he had to keep that to himself but the real difference was that Vidor was under no pressure to show respect to Tolstoy. He could hack out the dull parts of the novel and reduce it to battle and romance scenes if he wanted. Bondarchuk on the other hand was dealing with a sacred text. He had to be faithful to the novel and to Tolstoy’s reputation. War and Peace isn’t famous for being a funny book though there are lots of jokes about it. On Hancock’s Half Hour Tony Hancock once asked a librarian for a copy just so he could stand on it to get another book off the shelf. In The Champions TV series Alexandra Bastedo’s character disposed of it in under a minute. The novel’s status as a classic owes something to so few people actually reading it, though who would need to with an eight hour film version available?

Marina Ladynina was the ideal of Stalinist beauty, meaning she was a standard that Stalin measured all others by. In this portrait she is young and elegant but not too glamorous or fashionable and the things she wants in life aren’t so far above her station. She is in the role of a demure and obedient secretary or some other office worker and while she dresses smartly she is obviously not wearing major fashion labels such as her American equivalent would be obliged to. In the first years of the Revolution artists were expected to experiment and to spread their ideas among the people so photographers like Rodchenko were free to use any means at their disposal to get the message across. Stalin suffocated all that, insisting on stolid social realism. This image is a result. There is something insentient about her that suggests the passive observer. She may have some idea of what is going on but she has learned to look away. Actually, she was one of the leading comedians of the era, renowned for playing the wise cracking, straight talking worker. This image has been heavily airbrushed; there are plenty of others where she shows why she was regarded as one of the most dynamic actresses of her time.

Soviet film directors working in the immediate post-Stalin era often made the point that though the state relaxed his strictures a little the fear remained. Their work in the 1950s was more timid than it could have been (Ditto for Hollywood post McCarthy; the 1950s were that great.) It would be another decade before they gave the envelope a proper nudge. Though Yulian Panich is still alive, there isn’t a huge amount of information available on him. He looks like he spent a good part of the 1950s and early 1960s playing intense and troubled youths, somewhere between Montgomery Clift and any inarticulate British actor in a kitchen sink drama, with a difference. In America the new teen market meant films about hot rods and rock and roll. One of Panich’s roles here, on the far right, was for a 1956 film with the uninspiring title, The Pedagogical Poem, based on a story by Anton Makarenko about how he came to develop his teaching philosophy. Panich must have played the kid who tested Makarenko’s patience until gentle persuasion coaxed him to see the error of his ways. In the still on the left, for the film that translated as Dearest (1957), he looks like any surly and self absorbed American boy whose parents didn’t understand the world was different now.

No doubt there are Russians alive who look back on this era with fondness and nostalgia, not because the films were artistic triumphs but because they represent simple virtues, which is pretty much what people think of American films from the same time. With some notable and rare exceptions, both sides of the Iron Curtain insisted that good always overcame evil, the family was the bedrock of the nation and questioning those two premises would only make your life more complicated and stressful.


Saturday, 3 December 2011


Boxing photos from the wires

“To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there's no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other.”
Jack Handy

Isidoro Gastanaga, Dec 12, 1935
A glance at Isidoro Gastanega is enough to tell you he didn’t pick those muscles up in a gym; down a mine perhaps or on countless Spanish building sites but he has the look of a man who regarded roadwork and training as unnecessary gloss when the point of his trade was to knock another boxer flat. This portrait was taken in December 1935, a week before he was scheduled to fight up and coming contender Joe Louis in Havana. The fight didn’t place. When Louis’ manager, Mike Jacobs flew to Havana to settle final details he was met by six armed men, promptly turned around and caught the next flight back to New York.
Gastanega’s professional boxing career was as patchy as a crash victim in a hospital bed. He beat better men under suspicious circumstances and some of his fights ended in ways that left a distinct odour in the arena. Purses were withheld and investigations undertaken by boxing commissions, but those organizations existed essentially to see the gamblers and fixers maintained a veneer of respectability and their inquiries had a way of quietly fizzling out when no firm evidence of anything came to light. Gastanega’s death was also murky and unresolved. On the night of April 2, 1944, he was leaving a saloon in the Argentine border town of La Quica when a gunman fired off three bullets into him.   

     Tony Galento, 26/6/1938
Eight years on from the Gastanega non-event, Joe Louis had been the champion for six years and Tony Galento was the next tomato can in the so called “bum of the month” campaign. (You may hate boxing but you have to love its language.) “Two Ton” Tony trained on hot dogs and beer and the morning of the match pointed out to reporters that the proof he was taking things seriously was that he hadn’t had a drink for two days. Watching Galento on YouTube is a revelation in brute logic. Short and fat, he waddled around the ring with his mouth wide open, taking wild swings at opponents who sometimes had the wit to realize that if they only stayed out of danger for another round he’d be out of breath and theirs for the taking. Quite a few didn’t. It may appear astonishing that Galento had actually considered contender material but this photo provides the evidence why. Galento wasn’t a fighter; he was a showman. He bore a resemblance to Bud Abbott and shared his street instincts for timing and hype. This is a great image of a man who knows the odds are against his winning but the glory is in the paycheck and the secret is to get the press to eat out of his hand.

Joe Louis v Tony Galento, 26/6/1938
And here’s the result. It’s the fourth round and Galento has been effortlessly picked apart and punched about by a professional with surgical skills. Well, not entirely effortlessly since in the first round Galento connected and put Louis down for a brief count. Louis was heavyweight champion for twelve years and more than half a century on people may not know the facts or the statistics but they still recognize his name. Here he looks relaxed and unfazed, as though Galento might have fallen over before the fight actually started and he has popped over to lend the referee a hand. This bout marked the high point for Galento’s career, the one he would be remembered for. Later he would appear in a few films (a bit part in On the Waterfront), but he continued to fight, wrestling a reputedly dead alligator and a giant octopus and boxing a bear and a kangaroo. He died of a heart attack in 1979. Those in the press who remembered the 1940s mourned his passing, knowing they’d never get such great copy from a single character again.

Henry Armstrong v Lew Feldman, 30/3/1938
Physically, and somewhat in personality, Galento also resembled the photographer Weegee, both being masters of shameless self-promotion. Boxing photos of the 1940s and ‘50s are usually classified under ‘sport’ but they really belong to the genre of tabloid photography that Weegee exemplified. They share the same graphic quality, particularly in the way the flash bulbs froze and isolated figures against stark black backgrounds, and the photographers operated in the same tribal milieu. The Jewish and the Italian kids battling each other in a small downtown arena was merely a sanctioned version of the violence wrought in the nearby alleyways. The best photographers understood the elemental fascination for the savagery they depicted. In this photograph Henry Armstrong, world featherweight, and lightweight and soon to be welterweight champion, is in the process of finishing off Lew Feldman in a non-contest bout. In a lot of photographs the ropes would get in the way of the action. Here they make it work by dividing it up. They separate the fighters from the reporters, gamblers and fans outside the ring, and from us. They are a reminder that whatever is going on inside their barriers, we are essentially voyeurs. It’s also the ropes that tell us it’s all over for Feldman. In the cramped and claustrophobic territory of the boxing ring he has nowhere to escape to anymore.

Henry Armstrong v Lou Ambers 22/8/1939
The most famous name among boxing photographers of the era was Charles Hoff, thanks largely to a book, The Fights (Chronicle Books, 1996) that rescued his photographs from the storage vaults of newspaper archives. Erecting two strobe flashes at the sides of the ring, Hoff could set the shutter of his Speed Graphic to 125th of a second but capture the action at around 1/20 000 to 1/30 000th of a second. This photo shows Armstrong landing low on Lou Ambers’ trunks. Though The Fights has a photo by Hoff of this bout, the one above is unaccredited so the best we can say is it looks like one of his. High speed flash records at speeds much faster than the eye registers and the results can be deceptive. At this moment Ambers appears to be slouching against the ropes and casually inviting Armstrong to hit low, or at least he looks not so concerned as he ought to. This is one of a few dozen low blows Armstrong would land that night but Ambers was a tough street kid and he’d take them if that gave him permission to land some of his own. He went on to win the decision.

Archie Moore v Joey Maxim, 27/1/1954
Finally, a photo that gets so much wrong yet one thing right. Archie Moore is 38. He has been fighting for around 20 years and in a few minutes he will be crowned world light heavyweight champion. Yet, at his moment of triumph, he is obscured by the referee’s voluminous backside, his opponent Joey Maxim is also hidden and the whole composition becomes a study in boot soles. Maybe the photographer was loading film at the wrong time and turned desperately in the hope of capturing something. What he got was the antithesis of the standard boxing photo, no tight framing and no sense of the significance of the moment. In 1954 a new light heavyweight champion was an international news event but here it is just another contest between two unknowns. It is also a reminder that just because boxing is a legitimate sport that doesn’t make it elegant. For photographers like Hoff the mark of a great photo was its grace, the symmetry of two figures locked in a fight and that eloquent space that existed between them. What they might be depicting was one man who had lost self control and was desperately trying to extricate himself from more bloody humiliation, or another being battered to an insensate standstill. Even in the most brutal of Hoff’s photos, when a fighter’s face is grotesquely distorted by a landing punch, the essential perfection of the image neuters the violence. There isn’t any pain in this image of Moore and Maxim but there is a clumsy banality that belies any idea of sporting excellence.