And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 16 February 2013


More studio props

“People think of the inventor as a screwball, but no one ever asks the inventor what he thinks of other people.”
Charles Kettering

On my way, where? On the back of this postcard is a date, Jan 1919, some indecipherable initials and what appears to be “Co. N 57th”. A quick and not very thorough check shows there was a 57th Artillery Brigade, a 57th Infantry Regiment and a 57th Engineers among the U.S forces in World War 1. “The History of the 57th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 31st Brigade, Coast Artillery Corps During World War One” has this line from an unidentified source: “No cheers, not even a smile to send us on our way to an unknown land, to fight for and protect that which we all love best, ‘Liberty.’” It’s a good image to bear in mind if you’ve been brought up on images of flags and streamers and weeping wives and girlfriends waving from the dock as the troop ships departed for Europe. The US entered the War in April 1917, by which time the awful horror of the Western Front was common knowledge. What’s more, thousands of German and Irish Americans were opposed to entry. It wasn’t as though England was an ally; if anything it was a war between degenerate empires. Does all of that explain the sadness in this soldier’s face? Probably not but he does look like he is asking what the point of it was.

Dominion Park opened in Montreal in 1906 and closed in 1937, a short life for what was claimed to be Canada’s largest amusement park. It was located on the north east of the city, with one edge on Ave Notre Dame, the other on the water facing the Îles-de-Boucherville. Nothing remains now of course, though if photographing industrial wastelands is your thing a wonderful collection of gas tanks has replaced it. One of the highlights of the park was a water chute that sent riders in boats down a long slide into an artificial lake. Another was the photo studio. Quite a few artifacts from the studio are still floating around. One thing that was nice about it; instead of customers getting into in a cardboard cut-out of a motor boat, they boarded a liner. Another thing to notice: Montrealers were self-consciously different to other Canadians. It was a French city after all. You can see that here. These people don’t look like they’d call themselves Anglo-Saxon.

Miami, 1938, or so we can surmise from the date on the boat. Before it became a gangsters’ haunt, before Little Havana, before the spivs in white suits moved in, Miami was a resort town. Looking at news footage from the year we find Santa Claus water-skiing, a lot of footage of young women in the latest bathing costumes and various golfers, tennis players and high divers with a skin tone we could describe as ‘rust’ if it wasn’t so evenly spread. If you want to know how the rot set in, take a look at Miami circa 1938. You can see the car crash looming. It’s a city that sold itself on pleasure without discrimination. At least Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, even LA had a work ethic. Miami was just golf and cocktail bars. It’s apparent in this image, isn’t it? Incidentally, 1930s Miami would later become famous for its Art Deco architecture. The prominent building on the right, to the left of the palm tree. Is now known as the Freedom Tower. Back then it was still the Miami News and Metropolis Building.

The backdrop in the Miami photo is a reasonably faithful rendition of the city, close enough at least for tourists to recognize it. You could make the case that it isn’t just a photo, it’s an advertisement for everything great about Miami. In a similar way this one celebrates France. The photo was taken before 1920 and the plane is an approximation of one of Bleriot’s models, the XXVII Racer to be about as precise as we can be. Back then, if the French were going to use a plane as a studio prop it had to at least resemble a Bleriot. He’d been a national hero ever since he flew across the Channel in 1909 and up to the First World War it appeared that he, that is to say France, could dominate aircraft technology. A detail much glossed over in America is that the Wright brothers turned out to be such vexatious litigants, suing anybody who dared build an aeroplane, that the federal government had to step in to protect the industry from the brothers. Technically, the Racer was a single-seater, but most of the fun in posing for a photo like this lay in sharing the experience. And by the way; if you look closely you can see how they made this image. The plane is in two halves, the bottom half at the front so the two boys just have to stand behind it. That was how most of them were made but magicians seldom reveal their secrets so crudely.

In a previous post on studio props it was suggested that a lot of people who posed for these photos were drunk, which would explain the common expressions of sullen bafflement. This looks like damning evidence. Note the way he appears to be staring down the photographer. The drinking might also explain why the plane is back to front.

All photos with aeroplanes as studio props are great but some are more interesting than others; like this one. It appears the man first sat in a studio prop then it was montaged onto the landscape. Most of these postcards come from fairgrounds and carnivals but this could have been something a regular studio thought up since it would take a bit more time and effort than fairground operators were prepared to put into one. It makes you wonder; was the plane more than a prop? Could it have been a prototype for some failed experiment? 

This one comes from the United Photo Stores of Denver, Colorado. It had three addresses when this was taken; 1109 16th St, 1513 Curtis St and 1625 Curtis St, attached to the Majestic Theatre. Doing a Google images search for “United Photo Stores” throws up a few of these images. All have a carefully detailed background and a wry message on the front of the car. My guess is the studios had these props on hand for any customers who wanted them. A good thing it’s the man who’s driving. The woman in the middle looks like she’d intentionally drive into a brick wall. Nice hats.

Finally, what do you do when you’ve been out on a studio boat, up in a studio plane or driven about in a studio car? Naturally, you head to a studio bar. No clue where it comes from but the couple are identified as Erwin and Jean Heider. Another Google search, for Erwin Heider, brought up an image for one Barbara J Dippold Heider sitting with her son, Erwin, and his un-named wife. No doubt they are the same people. Erwin was born in 1896. His wife was Isabel and according to the 1940 census they lived at 5624 N Campbell Avenue, Chicago. With some people, it feels like you’ve just met them and already you know their life story.



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