Disasters, natural and otherwise
“It’s a recipe for disaster when your country has an obesity epidemic and a skinny jean fad.”
Everybody knows about Vesuvius blowing its stack in AD79 and burying Pompeii under lava. In 1944 a smaller eruption wiped out several towns in the foothills and killed 28 people. It also destroyed or damaged 88 US aircraft at a nearby base, which in military terms was a catastrophe. Planes still airworthy were sent up to photograph the eruption. This photo was probably taken after the eruption but while Vesuvius quietly smouldered away.
Mount Asama on Honshu Island blows up so frequently no one bats an eyelid if a chunk of molten lava lands near their feet. In fact there is a museum near the base full of cute and furry Japanese characters ready to explain the science of vulcanology in their high-pitched electronic voices. This stereocard is copyright 1904 but the photograph could have been taken in any year back to 1899, when Asama had an annual eruption. Before then it was approximately every five years. The man on the left is described as ‘an English friend of the photographer’s’. He is carrying a large stereographic camera. Back then, the only way to really understand volcanic eruptions was to get as close as possible to the vent, and a relatively moderate example like Asama was considered safe. The big risk everyone up there faced was suffocation by sulphuric fumes. The actual photographer of this image isn’t named but presumably everyone got back to ground level as there are several stereographs available from the series of close up scenes of Asama.
In 1909 Nampa was a middling sized railroad town in Idaho. On July 4 that year a fire that started in a warehouse gutted the town centre and destroyed 60 buildings. Lee Jellum was a well known Nevada photographer so it would be fortuitous that he happened to be in Idaho that day. Of course, he may not have been but merely licensed this image from the photographer and applied his name to it. Whatever the case the scene is full of detail. We can see a fire truck in the far background with men feeding a hose and the workers in their bib and brace overalls who have come out to watch the drama. Of special interest is the woman just behind the crowd who appears to be sitting on a chair near the sidewalk. You couldn’t call it entertainment; some of these people were watching their livelihoods go up in flames, but it was a spectacle and she has taken a front row seat so to speak.
Disaster scenes are one of the features that distinguish early American real photo postcards. The photographers really regarded it as their job to record the big news stories of the day and while that may have mostly been town parades or the school’s annual theatre performance sometimes it did involve news that reached the outside world. In other countries it seems postcard photographers thought more money was to be made out of charming views. Only occasionally do you see the calamities the Americans recorded as though they were news photographers. On March 30, 1912, the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers broke their banks. The waters in some parts were said to rise thirty feet and the town was almost literally washed away. There are several photos from the aftermath in Nebraska’s archives, possibly taken by the one photographer though it is just as likely that numerous people grabbed their cameras and went out to record the scenes.
There is a documentary about the Pryor Tornado of 1942 on YouTube. Witnesses describe the sudden rise in air pressure followed by a loud bang. One woman recounts how she was taken to a hospital and left for dead in a room. Fifty two were actually killed from what was a particularly powerful and acute twister. It ripped apart the main street but left houses only metres away intact. Martial law was declared. The aftermath of the tornado was one of the most thoroughly documented local disasters at the time. Apart from photographs there was extensive news footage, detailing the destruction that occurred over just a few blocks.
Blizzards happen every year and most of the time so long as you are indoors you are safe - most of the time, because a blizzard can knock out electricity and make access impossible. Occasionally, as happened in Iran in 1972, the snow is so heavy it buries homes and people freeze to death; 4000 in that case. In this scene we have a rotary snowplough attached to a locomotive. Not surprisingly, the inventor of the rotary plough was a Canadian; well why would a Hawaiian invent one? They are still used in Canada and Alaska though they must have been much more impressive in the age of steam when the train belched clouds of white vapour in the air as it rammed tons of snow off the tracks. What you’d get was a photo like this; a cross between J. M. W Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed and Kasemir Malevich’s White on White.
As museum staff around the world are well aware, the centenary of the beginning of World War 1 is almost upon us and commemorative exhibitions have already been planned down to the least significant artifact. This photograph was taken in France around the time of the war but does it show an actual scene or simply some military exercises? If it is only a scene from some exercises it has the blurred intensity of actual war. The figures in the background are over-exposed but they appear to be dissolving under the cannon smoke.
The caption reads: ‘Long queues of sickly and starving people waiting for assistance’. It comes from a wallet of 20 miniature snapshots showing scenes of India and sits alongside images of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. If India’s starving weren’t considered a tourist attraction in the 1950s they had come to represent the country with the same immediacy as the landmark buildings. Every traveller who returned from India with a book in mind described the magnificent temple architecture, the mystical allure and the extreme poverty. One effect was to inure outsiders so Indian famines were thought to be as cyclical and inevitable as the seasons. Whoever published these miniature albums might have assumed customers wanted an authentic photo of India’s poor. Looking closely, it is clear the people are lining up for something but it isn’t necessarily for welfare. They could just as well be buying bread off a street vendor.
On the back of this postcard it reads: “S.S Sakarya/ Selanik Rihtimi/ Aralik 1923”, which translates as “SS Sakarya, Thessaloniki pier, December 1923”. The battle of Sakarya was a turning point in the war between Turkey and Greece that had ended a year earlier and led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic. In July 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne was signed between Turkey, Greece, Britain, France, Italy, Romania and Japan. It laid out the peace terms including the borders of the new Turkish state. Part of the treaty included the notorious Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed between Greece and Turkey. It was agreed that Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece would be repatriated. This was supposed to keep the peace. What actually happened was that more than 1.5 million non-Muslims were expelled from Turkey, which received about 500 000 Greek Turks in return. Not that Turkey was the only ruthlessly opportunistic party involved. The League of Nations was behind the deal and like the later UN, once the treaty was signed it stood back and watched the disaster unfold. Most of the Greek families expelled had been living in Turkey for generations and while Greece might have been a homeland of the mind it was no more a part of peoples’ personal experience than distant America. The refugees who arrived in Piraeus were called Turks and treated accordingly. The refugees who arrived in Constantinople were suspected of being secret Christians. You can still see the legacy today in Istanbul. There are hundreds of ruined properties in the city centre that legally still belong to expelled families.
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