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Sunday, 23 June 2013


Keystone stereographs and God.
“Many people have never stopped to wonder why they have two eyes.”
Albert E, Osborne; The Stereograph and the Stereoscope, 1909

The story of the Keystone View Company really begins with early rivals Underwood & Underwood. Two brothers in Ottawa, Kansas, Elmer and Ben Underwood, were only 20 and 18 at the time they set up that company in 1882 but their business plan had foresight. Firstly they would not only produce stereographs but act as agents for smaller American companies in the region. Within a few years U&U would be the leading provider of stereographs on the eastern side of the country.  Rather than sell the cards in the usual way, in small sets of ten or a dozen, they packaged them in boxes of 100 along with the stereoscope. They understood that customers were willing to pay more for a set of 100 than wait for the series to be released in small doses. They also used a modern sales technique we normally associate with bibles and encyclopaedias, door to door, and for that they needed a small army of travelling salesmen. The brothers were devout Christians and hired their crew on the understanding they dressed well, did not smoke or drink and attended church every Sunday. For the Underwoods, stereographs were not just pretty pictures in 3D; they were morally improving. Show people scenes of Yosemite Park or New York’s architecture and they would be moved by the works of God and man. One category the company specialized in was biblical lands. Using its stereographs, Sunday school and other teachers could educate children about the Bible. With a scene of a side street in old Jerusalem the students could see where and how Jesus lived.

Underwood & Underwood was successful but they entered the scene as the stereograph began to decline in popularity. The reasons for this probably have more to do with people tiring of the novelty rather than any threat from alternative technology. The company’s sales techniques and their religious fervour re-energized the market and they were smart enough to buy up the stock of companies that were folding. Still, by the turn of the century the brothers had diversified and were becoming less interested in stereographs.

Enter former U&U travelling salesman B. L Singley. He had started a small and undistinguished company called Keystone View that struggled along until the Spanish American War, when President McKinley encouraged companies to go south and send back propaganda. By the first decade of the 20th century Keystone was strong enough to challenge U&U’s dominance and in 1912 it bought the U&U archive, which was itself a collection of other archives. Though there were a few companies still producing stereographs. Singley had a virtual monopoly in the U.S.

A good account of the business of stereographs is found in Anthony W. Lee’s A Shoemaker’s Story (2008). Ostensibly about the interaction between Quebecois and Chinese and workers’ resistance in a Massachusetts town in the 1870s, it takes a diversion into the story of the Kilburn brothers, then significant publishers of stereographs. Though Benjamin Kilburn was a photographer the company began buying images from studios or sourced them from collections and built up a library of American images. He takes the credit for the idea of buying images then selling stereographs in boxed sets through door to door salesmen. Lee is good as describing how the Kilburns’ nard-nosed attitude to business and sharp sense of what the customers needed, rather than just wanted, set a template for others.

Although U&U frequently credited the photographer this was unusual. Most companies including Keystone rarely bothered. We know this photograph was taken by Wisconsin photographer H. H Bennett in 1886, not because Keystone tells us but because Bennett was significant enough to have his work held in Wisconsin archives and it can be traced. Other times the only way to know the photographer’s name is if their image appeared in an earlier series by U&U or another company and had been recorded. Even that can be uncertain. Some scenes had a natural vantage point for the camera so on the same day two photographers could take near identical shots. Likewise copyright dates refer to publishing, not necessarily when the photograph was taken. This is particularly relevant to Keystone because by the 1920s, when it was effectively the only company in America publishing stereographs, it used stock negatives that could have been taken in the 1860s. 

A case in point is this and the other image from Russia. On the back of both are references to the Communist revolution (it was rare for Keystone to make explicit political comments though it would always make an exception for the Soviets). Both look decidedly 19th century and could well have been taken pre-revolution. Following the revolution, Russia wasn’t exactly cut off but travel was difficult and in some parts still dangerous, so if the company wanted Russian scenes it was likely to look through its stock rather than send someone out or try and buy some from Russian agencies.

Singley may not have shared the Underwood brothers religious zeal but along with the negatives Keystone inherited the U&U philosophy that stereographs were best thought of as didactic tools. On the back of the cards was a short essay giving a brief history and geography of the place and an introduction to the culture. In a lot of ways the company’s approach mirrored that of National Geographic, which had begun publication in 1888. Both considered their photographs objective studies, anthropology for the masses, and who could fault an organization that only wanted to educate people? The problem was that to express that idea they paradoxically had to make foreign lands look as exotic as possible. Take this scene from Hungary: the shepherd’s life however was “characteristic of the Tartar nomads who were (his) ancestors … They have no dwellings.” in the 1920s, when it was published, Budapest was a centre of contemporary European intellectual culture. The shepherd may not have cared much about modern art but not only did he have a house he could well have driven out to his flock in a car. 

Or take this scene of a Czechoslovakian village. Clearly the scene was carefully arranged by the photographer, down to getting the boy on the left to look towards something off camera. We can’t be too sure how the original photo came about; Keystone could have bought rights to an existing image or sent someone out to find a scene. Whatever happened, it was taken without awareness of the text that would accompany it. “Almost entirely an agricultural people, the Slovakians are an untrained, uneducated nation who chose illiteracy in preference to Hungarian education”. Forget Slovakian Ján Bahýľ, who built the first motor driven helicopter, wireless inventor Jozef Murgaš or some 300 years of classical composers’ those kind of details might have obliged Keystone to explain to its viewers that they were actually looking at the effects of economic deprivation.

In 1909 Underwood & Underwood commissioned Albert E. Osborne to write The Stereograph and the Stereoscope. Like any book with the subtitle, What they mean for individual development. What they promise for the spread of civilization, it has dated, but it casts light on the thinking of U&U and Keystone. The central argument is that in itself the act of looking at beauty is moral improvement. To make his point Osborne had to define his terms; beauty, image and reality, which he did in a very early 19th century way, but his grounds became shakier when he tried to persuade us that the stereograph was even better than the real thing. “The farther an object is away from us the more air we have to look through in seeing it”. Most decent scientists would say that it is light not atmosphere that disturbs vision - unless you are in a fog – but that would have spoiled Osborne’s real argument. Because the stereograph rendered the world more accurately in images than any other process it was the best means for viewing the world and all its wonders. Because it removed the flaws of natural vision, ultimately it drew us closer to God.  


Thursday, 20 June 2013


Reno in postcards

“Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would come here and look sadly around then get homesick and go back to hell again.”
Mark Twain

The city of Reno began its life as a bridge over the Truckee River. Charles Fuller built it in 1859 and charged wagon trains a fee to use it. Soon enough someone decided to set up a store and then there was another, followed by a hotel, and by the time the Central Pacific Railroad was being built in the 1860s, Lake’s Crossing, as the settlement was now called, was large enough to justify a train station. It was officially named Reno after Major General Jesse Lee of the same surname, who fought and died on the Union side in the Civil War. It seems he never got close to the place but he couldn’t have complained if he did. To the west it faces the Sierra Nevada and on all other sides it is surrounded by desert; scenically speaking one of the best sited cities in North America.

When I was in Reno recently I was describing a building to a woman who had lived in the city for ten years but had trouble placing it. “We really don’t go into the downtown area that much,” she explained and that made sense. Even if residents were interested in gambling they’d have no reason to go there. Poker machines are everywhere but for day to day living needs downtown has nothing in the way of services anyone would need. That might explain the curious atmosphere of the place. It is crossed by a grid of wide avenues devoid of real traffic. If you are conditioned to wait for the light to go green before you cross, you can stand for five minutes at an intersection with no moving vehicles in sight in four directions. It is a strangely silent place too. 

The impression from historical documents and photos is that downtown Reno was much livelier when it was smaller, and there’s a reason for that. The huge skyscraper hotel casinos that dominate the skyline now only arrived in the 1980s. The way they work, if you book into one like the Eldorado or the Circus Circus for a weekend of relaxation at the tables, you have absolutely no reason to go anywhere else. Food, drinks and entertainment are laid out for you along with coupons that make it seem you are saving money. In the old days, when the businesses were smaller, patrons moved between establishments more often either because they had to – if you wanted a slab of prime Nevada beef you might go to Harold’s rather than the Nevada Club – or because people inevitably tire more quickly of smaller places. They get crowded and smoky and like a television channel it isn’t long before you start wondering if the passing parade isn’t more interesting somewhere else. It is worth remembering incidentally that everything you see here has gone. Where the Frontier, Nevada and Harold’s Club were there is now a blank space given over to one of the super casino’s entertainment venues. The famous sign in the distance has been moved to Lake St, about five blocks away, which is a lot better than demolishing it altogether but in its new position over the Truckee River, and not in a place you’d call the entrance to Reno, it has lost its magic. Then again, you could look at a scene like this and think the whole city has. Incidentally; compare it to the one immediately above, taken perhaps ten years earlier, and notice how casinos have altered the streetscape.

Here is the famous sign, and a photograph that, if not quite famous, is instantly recognized by Nevadan historians. Most of the photographs here were taken by the Nevada Photo Service but this is one of the very few where the company gave itself credit. It’s an image that has become emblematic of old Reno, a city of the night, a neon city. Engel’s studio was just around the corner and he made several versions, including some he took in daylight. All of them contain those elements we’ve come to associate with Reno’s façade; the signage and the cars. The cars especially; this was a city for visitors.

Another landmark was the mural outside Harold’s Club. Painted by Sargent Claude Johnson from a design by Theodore McFall. According to his Wikipedia entry, ‘Johnson was one of the first African-American artists working in California to achieve a national reputation’. Race may not have meant a lot to Harold Smith but Johnson was also a member of the Communist Party, which might have. In any case, the mural showed a group of pioneers with their wagon trains in a circle around a campfire while up in the rocks behind the waterfall a group of Native Americans watched passively. Backlighting gave the impression the campfires were crackling and the waterfall flowing. In 1995, when Harold’s was being demolished, a group of concerned citizens moved to save the mural. It sits out at the Reno Livestock Events Center behind the University. We are grateful it was saved but have to accept that in its present location something is missing.

After the gold rushes of the 19th and early 20th centuries faded, Nevada was stuck with the problem of how to attract people. An early answer was to legalize boxing, or prize fighting as it was officially known, but the trouble was that 100 000 spectators could descend on Reno for the Johnson Jeffries fight of 1910 yet as soon as it was over they left. Still, rewriting that law gave the city fathers other ideas. Over the next few years they would legalize gambling then divorce. Both of them proved incredibly successful, until towns like Atlantic City took the idea and sucked the northern visitors away. Nevada would always promote the notion that it had the most liberal laws of any state in the U.S though pragmatic is a more accurate description. The Doghouse used to advertise itself as “the divorcees’ haven”, which gives you some idea of what it was like behind closed doors.

I thought for a while this was one of the Nevada Photo Service postcards but now I think the handwriting is close but not enough. To say it has the NPS look would be misleading because there were particular scenes that lent themselves to photographers and we know that other studios such as Frasher Fotos and J. H Eastman took near identical photos as Engel of some Reno landmarks. More interesting than who took it is the way that signage and Neon became identified with Reno. People would come to speak of ‘Nevada style’, which wasn’t entirely accurate since it was never indigenous, but what looked normal in a Chicago street could be transformed in a desert town.

There was a curious side effect to Reno’s divorce laws. When we say divorce was legalized, what that really means is that the state got rid of the paperwork. Divorce was of course legal across the U.S but as a state law with federal effects it could entail a year of expensive legal wrangling plus, and this was the worst, publication of the spouses’ intentions in the local papers. Nevada’s only stipulation was that one of the couple spend six weeks in Reno while the paperwork was sorted. Because men were more likely to have full time jobs than women, it was usually the women who went to Reno. This was of course red rags to the bullish young cowpokes working the nearby ranches and there are stories of women who arrived in Reno to get a divorce and never left, and others of women who got their divorce, moved in with the cowboy and a month or two later were back at the registry office filing another request. In the meantime they had another six weeks to kill. 

Reno’s history could be distilled into the story of one city’s constant struggle to bring people in, against the constant fear that with an economic downturn it could vanish back into the desert. When the transnational Lincoln Highway was being planned in the 1910s, the choice was to go through Nevada and end in San Francisco or avoid the salt pans and go through Arizona, which meant the road would end in Los Angeles. Apparently it was Mormon filled Utah that pushed for the Nevada route on account that so many of its citizens wanted access to Reno’s nightlife. Whatever else the city had on offer, casinos were what drew people to Reno. Without them it is likely the divorce laws would not have had such appeal. Six weeks in a sleepy desert town with nothing to do can make a bad marriage seem tolerable. 

 For most of Nevada’s history Reno was its largest and pre-eminent city. Las Vegas to the south was just a small service town, until the gangsters worked out that being much closer to LA and Hollywood gave it cachet. In a short time Vegas would be hosting Sinatra and Martin while Reno was left with a few sad also-rans. As Vegas boomed, once again Reno found itself battling for economic relevancy. What kept it going were those elements that had drawn people in the first place: mining and location. It still has some of the biggest gold deposits in the world and it is only a short drive from Lake Tahoe and Silicon Valley. In the 1980s however the decision was taken to redevelop the downtown district. In a few years the monstrous Silver Legacy and only slightly less ostentatious Eldorado and Circus Circus resort hotels would snuff the life out of smaller places. The only way to compete was to build big, offer more inducements like special packages and fill the lobbies with more machines. An older Reno still survives. There are plenty of small motels that look like the final scene in an independent film about someone whose luck ran out a long time ago. And there are also those parts just outside the downtown district that belong to another world; Manzanita Lake at the University of Nevada could be the grounds of a prestigious eastern college and across the river are streets lined with 19th century wooden houses. You can’t however escape the impression  that it is defined by that area bounded by Arlington, Fourth, Centre St and the River. What lies outside might belong to Nevada but not Reno.


Monday, 17 June 2013


Mary Forbes’ Calendars

“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I recently found these seven calendars in an antique store in Reno. They are small, postcard sized, and are real photographs with the stamp and calendar added on, or in one case typed in. The calendar interested me because I hadn’t seen this kind of presentation of real photographs before and at a dollar each they seemed a useful acquisition. Back at the hotel I did a quick internet search and discovered Mary R. Forbes had dozens of entries under her name, thanks mostly to her assiduous documentation of family history as well as her husband having some reputation as a photographer. These cards aren’t just curiosities, they have direct connections to the early history of photography in the American West.

Mary Rozette Prutsman was born on March 5 1876 in Illinois. At some point her family moved to California where in 1909 she married Andrew Alexander Forbes. His name meant nothing to me when I first looked it up but it transpires that in the 1880s he began working as an itinerant photographer in Oklahoma, specializing in images of cowboys and sodbusters. He moved to California about 1902 and began photographing local Paiute people, at home and in the studio. These weren’t ethnographic studies in the sense that Edward Curtis thought his were. If anything it appears Forbes had his eye on the touristy trade and turned a number of his photographs into postcards. At least one article about Forbes’ Paiute photographs has been published – Jon Bosak’s Andrew A. Forbes - Photographs of the Owens Valley Paiute in The Journal of California Anthropology, Vol 2 No.1, 1975. His photographs however are held in university and museum collections across the southwest USA. They have become important because they document the era when the West underwent transition from frontier to industrialization, the arrival of the car and the telephone and the fencing off of the wilderness.  

This is the only photograph among the seven attributed to Andrew Forbes and as you can see it doesn’t exactly typify the American west. He had been dead some eighteen years when it came out on the calendar though Mary had access to his stock. Throughout their marriage she had been the business manager of the studio, had travelled with him and taken her own photographs. The one in the gallery of the Illinois house might be one of hers, might even be her family home given she came from there.

Clearly Mary Forbes knew a thing or two about managing businesses since the photographic studio and real estate were just a couple of her interests. According to the 1934 calendar she was also a notary and insurance broker. Apart from her role as press secretary for the Covina Women’s Club, she was a genealogist. On both sides of her family she could trace her ancestry back to immigrants who had arrived in America in the 1730s. Some had taken part in the War of Independence, which entitled her to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In the 1940s the DAR was vocal in support of segregation. This didn’t necessarily mean all its members took a hard line on race though obviously, if you were in any degree left of centre or a campaigner for civil rights you wouldn’t join on principle.  

The signature “JMF” on some of the photographs refers to her son John McLaren Forbes, a geologist who worked in the Philippines in the 1930s and in Nevada in the 1950s. As another photo shows, he also travelled through Central America. It appears he died some time in the 1980s so in all likelihood these photos began their journey to the antique store from his attic. One reason I think that is because none of them have been used. The paper on the calendars has yellowed but the prints look as fresh as if they’d been kept in a box for years.

Here is Mary Forbes C1950. She would have been in her mid 70s when this was taken; notice the cluttered desk. She was still hard at work and for all we know may have only retired reluctantly. She died in 1967, aged 91. The photographs on the calendars may not be especially interesting though the way she used them was. They are perfect examples of ephemera, intended to be thrown out once the last sheet on the calendar had been used. But here it is worth remembering that when Mary died her husband’s name meant little except to a handful of social historians. Like a lot of itinerants his work was scattered across several states and when it entered collections curators didn’t always make the necessary connections until the Internet made that easier. Now he is regarded as a photographer of some importance these provide a link back to a pioneer era in American photography.


Sunday, 9 June 2013


Postcards of the Yosemite Valley

Everything is photogenic once it has been photographed.”
Lewis Baltz

There is a story that before he sailed to America in 1850, Eadweard Muybridge promised his family that he wouldn’t return to England until he was famous. That probably says more about his character than any of the later suggestions he suffered some nervous disorder or psychiatric condition. As it happened, he did return an unknown. Between 1860 and 1866, following a stagecoach accident that left him in a coma for several days, he was in England inventing a washing machine and – this is one of those details we tend to forget – a director of the Bank of Turkey. When he reappeared in San Francisco around June of 1866 he became a photographer and in the way these things happen, shot his wife’s lover, photographed a horse in a split second and invented the zoopraxiscope. For a while he was what he had wanted to be; one of the most famous men in the world, but here’s the thing. Had the court been one that believed a man who shot another in cold blood deserved punishment and sent Muybridge to jail, so ruining any chance of him photographing Occident the racehorse, we would still acknowledge him today as one of the great photographers of the 19th century, if only for his images of Yosemite Valley. Everyone who went there afterwards with a camera owed him some debt. As these postcards reveal, it was often explicit. For a long time there was only one way to photograph Yosemite.

Take for example this study of Mirror Lake; plate 70 in Era of Exploration by Weston Naef shows a view by Muybridge that must have been taken from almost exactly the same position. Of course if you were going to take a camera into the park there were only a few accessible and obvious vantage points to capture the reflection of the lake so it is entirely possible the photographer had never seen Muybridge’s original yet he or she didn’t stumble in here by accident either. In the eighty years between Muybridge’s photograph and the postmark (1940) on the back of this one, Yosemite had acquired status as the apotheosis of the American wilderness. Everyone from Albert Bierstadt to Ansel Adams had portrayed the place, and as two other images here might suggest, Mirror Lake had been done to death. But why seek out an original point of view? This was what people wanted to see. Anything else would have been a disappointment.

Muybridge doesn’t deserve all the credit. Carleton Watkins went before him and was the first American photographer who realized there was a market for epic landscape images. Charles Weed might have actually beaten Watkins to Yosemite. The dispute is meaningless, like arguing a preference for one photographer over the others. Together their real achievement was to reduce painting to a secondary medium for documenting the landscape. From here on it was to be done with a camera. What’s a Bierstadt or a Thomas Hill painting compared to this postcard? Somewhat artificial, especially as neither could resist adding personal touches such as a lone horseman or a Native American warrior staring off into space. There were places on earth, the photographers were saying, where nature is bigger than art.

Watkins also photographed Agassiz Rock from the same position as this photographer, or maybe that should be the other way around. In a way it represents a secondary achievement for the photographers. Agassiz was a promoter of catastrophism, the theory that the geology of the planet was formed through a series of sudden, violent events, and formations like this were the evidence. How else to explain the implausibility of a huge boulder perched on a tiny point? Today catastrophism can sound suspiciously like intelligent design, a half-baked compromise that gives creationism the respectability of conviction. At the time it was actually a scientifically credible alternative. One of the briefs for the 1871 Hayden Survey of Wyoming, for which William Henry Jackson was the photographer, was to search for evidence of catastrophism. The irony was that far from confirming the theory, formations like Agassiz Rock would give substance to the argument that the Earth was shaped gradually over millions of years.

Though the national park is more extensive, the actual valley only takes up about fifteen square kilometres and is dominated by a handful of features; El Capitan, Half Dome and Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Mirror Lake and the Bridalveil Fall. Muybridge made the boast that he reached places no one else was game to in order to get his images. Given there were so few essential sights he probably figured that unless he climbed to apparently inaccessible places people would soon tire of Yosemite views. If so he was underestimating public taste. Not only are his best photographs the ones he took from obvious vantage points, the scenes that took his breath away in the first place, the public never grew tired of photographs. Anyone who went in with a camera and the intention to produce a few postcards would find customers. Partly, and you can see this in these images, so long as your exposure was good and your hand steady, you couldn’t go wrong. The picture took itself.    

One final detail to consider: all of the postcards here were toned with sepia, giving them the distinctive yellowish brown hue of 19th century photographs. Did the publishers consciously evoke the style of 19th century photography as a way of selling the prints to customers? If so, were the customers – and the photographers – after the effect that brought to mind a time when Yosemite was a genuine wilderness barely touched by Europeans? Alternatively they may have become so used to viewing images of the landscape in these hues that without that 19th century appearance the photographs lacked authenticity.