And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 17 November 2012


Marshall McLuhan

Real photo postcards of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico

 I went to Reno once, thinking for some reason it would be like this photo, but all I got was a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. So let’s leave and head out on Highway 40, as it was then known. But before we do: an earlier post had some photos by the same company, described then as ‘unknown photographer’ but which we now know was the Nevada Photo Service, run by Lawrence Engel. Born in Wisconsin the 1890s, Engel fought in the Mexican Revolution, against the Mexicans, probably just before he arrived in Nevada in the 1920s. He began Nevada Photo Service as a photo finishing business but built it up to, among other things, the most prolific photographic company in the state, until he drowned in a boating accident in 1953. His obituary – the best place to find information about respectable citizens of small town America – suggests the company was state wide with several branches, meaning he wasn’t the only photographer, but if so the company’s stock showed remarkable consistency. There’s a particular look to Nevada Photo Service images. The scenery isn’t spectacular; the scenes suggest long hours on straight roads that the driver knows all too well. 

In the 1910s and ‘20s Nevada was a sinner’s paradise. The laws regarding gambling, prostitution and divorce fluctuated but the state was always amenable. Outside of mining, they were the only reasons anyone would want to stick around. Most people on the roads were just passing through. When the Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1912 with the idea of developing a highway from New York to San Francisco it expected a few fights with the states but none were as fractious or threatening to the scheme as Nevada’s. The choice lay between a route that entered at Wendover then followed the old California Trail through Elko, Lovelock and Winnemucca to Reno, or one that cut south to Ely, to Austin and Fallon, before arriving in Reno. At stake was the prospect that whichever route lost out stood to lose most of that migrating traffic. At one point things got so bad the LHA considered avoiding Nevada altogether and putting the route through Arizona until straitlaced, teetotalling Mormon Utah raised a stink. Some of its residents wanted access to Reno. In the end Ely got the Lincoln Highway, but did that help? In terms of getting to Reno from Utah there wasn’t a lot of difference but the Elko route had the railway, it had history and it was better looking.

Historians are vague as to how Battle Mountain got its name, but this being a border between Shoshone and Paiute land and an area rich in minerals you can probably guess. (Speaking of Paiutes, Winnemucca on Route 40 was named after Sarah Winnemucca, teacher, activist and the first Native American to publish a book,) Reading the promotional literature coming out of Battle Mountain, you’ll catch a distinct, plaintive tone, which isn’t surprising given that after 150 years of mining the landscape has been gutted and there aren’t many reasons left why a tourist would want to go there. The Paiute weren’t the only people to suffer at Battle Mountain. In the 1920s, ‘red’, i.e. union affiliated, miners had confrontations with their employers, or to put it another way, were beaten, shot at and otherwise brutally victimized on the orders of industrialists who thought organized labour was un-American. Maybe that’s why Battle Mountain had its initials impressed on its side. Its history was too violent to ignore.

It’s sunset and we’re heading towards the Utah border, in the opposite direction to the wagon trains of pioneers who started appearing in these parts a hundred years earlier. They didn’t think much of Nevada; not enough that they’d want to settle down. If this image looks familiar it’s because Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore etc, all parked their cars and stood in the middle of a lonely highway stretching to infinity. The difference was that for them it was a new road and a new revelation. For Nevada Photo Service this highway was as familiar as a cough to an old smoker. Sometimes, you think, when the day was drawing to a close and reception was fading on the car radio, a pattern in the clouds or the colour of the sun on the desert changed everything.

Utah. Land of the Saints; the driest state, which was sad news if you were thirsty because you could go for hours without seeing a bar. Even coffee was hard to find. It was a state without much to attract the unconverted until copper was found in Bingham Canyon. The Bingham Copperfield Tunnel ran for a mile and a quarter through the mountains to the town of Bingham and for reasons even the engineers might not have understood it was one way only. Think about it. Before the lights at one end could change the tunnel had to be emptied of oncoming traffic and once the cars could enter they had to proceed at a slow pace through the dimly lit passage. You could be waiting at the other end for half an hour before you were let through. And look at the dust coating some of the cars. It was only a short drive from Salt Lake City but it’s a good thing miners weren’t obliged to carry guns.

And this was what awaited on the other side. Bingham reminds me of the mining town in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” Maybe it wasn’t as corrupt but it looks like a place that had its own rules. It’s gone now. Everything in this scene has disappeared, even the mountains in the background. The mine is still there. It is one of the biggest man-made holes on the planet. Have a look at it on Google Maps. 

Wellton Arizona didn’t have much to pull the traffic over in the 1940s but there was Ralph’s Mill, where you could get gas, coffee and maybe some advice from the kid behind the cash register. Most people on the road were travelling between Yuma and Tucson; living the dream, if that happened to be a western starring Joanne Dru and Dan Duryea. Not much more can be said about Ralph’s Mill but we know a bit about the photographer Burton Frasher. Long before Ansel Adams and Edward Weston set out, Frasher was travelling the roads of the American southwest taking photographs of the landscape he turned into postcards. Before his son died in the late 1990s he handed over his father’s archive of more than 60 000 negatives to the Pomona Library. Frasher’s postcards are distinctive for their sharp detail and clear tonal range. He must have used a large format camera to achieve that quality.

Maybe it’s the name but you expect that anything that happens in Gila Bend, is bad and setting foot in a café like this is the beginning of something that won’t end well. This postcard was sent to Fort Worth, Texas, sometime in the 1940s by a woman called Stella. She wrote: “ … We ate breakfast here. Floyd said helo (sic). Mother please don’t say any more about S S and my trouble. S S got hold (told?) of it at Coleman he didn’t like it. So mother I love you and Daddy tell Daddy to be careful.” Some people have to write a whole book to achieve that much pathos.

Given all that Arizona had – the Grand Canyon, Sedona, the Painted Desert, Route 66, just for starters – you are forgiven for wondering why the photographer thought this photo would make a saleable postcard. Maybe after hours of driving through rust coloured canyons and stony desert littered with giant saguaro he just got sick of nature. What he really longed for was the concrete and straight lines of civilization. Years later, about thirty of them, a small army of photographers would move in on Arizona and look for scenes like this as being emblematic of the new West. They weren’t wrong, but when you see images like this you wonder if the art critics were hyperventilating when they called The New Topographics a radical departure.

Here’s a partial list of actors who have played Doc Holliday: Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Adam West, Jason Robards, Stacy Keach, Dennis Hopper, Willie Nelson, Val Kilmer, Dennis and Randy Quaid. Not having seen them all it’s hard to say who would be the most credible as a 5 foot 10 emaciated sociopath with severe alcohol and opiate addictions. Like the gunfight at the OK Corral, Holliday made a brief appearance in Tombstone but it is forever associated with him. When this photo was taken, Tombstone was a functioning town with a colourful past and the Crystal Palace just a long standing hotel. The touristic renovations began in the late 1960s and today, judging by more recent photos, it’s a bit like Victor Mature playing Doc Holliday – a real test of our gullibility.

Speaking of art, we’re in White Sands, New Mexico and considering if this was an attempt at it. Did the photographer see the shape of the dunes mirrored in that of the car and was each detail down to the woman on top of the dune conceived before the shutter was snapped? The viziers deciding what was art in the 1950s were certain postcards couldn’t be but if anybody in their little canon had tried this scene there’s no doubt the composition would be rich in irony etc. If we want to call it art we have to think of modernism, and ‘modernism’ and ‘New Mexico’ in the same sentence can only mean one thing. Not long before this photo was taken, the first atomic bomb was detonated a few miles down the road at Jornada del Muerto. You have to wonder if the photographer or the woman on top of the hill thought of that, not in terms of art but their physical well-being.
Maybe the air is cleaner in Colorado.


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