And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 17 November 2013


Some postcards of rural America
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” 
L. P Hartley: The Go Between

At a conference a few months ago we were asked to consider the argument that in the future history will be based around images. Central to the case is the idea of the photograph as trace, a concept that is open to interpretation within academia so hard to understand outside of it. Anyway, we are familiar with one of its basics, that the photograph is a subjective record of an event and when we look at one we are obliged to consider various elements outside of it, such as who we are and what we respond to in it.  The devil is always in the details. We can see the above photograph was taken around the beginning of the last century and we can think of several reasons why it was taken, but note the woman second from the left. Not only does she have a holster strapped to her waist, she shares holding the rifle with the man, as though both claim ownership of it. Most of us would assume it would be the man who’d wear the holster. Why she does however seems to me to be part of the issue around this idea of the trace. She’s presenting us with a piece of evidence that might challenges our assumptions but we can’t treat it as categorical. We don’t know she didn’t strap on her husband’s holster just for the photo. Behind the woman second from the right is a sign painted on the wagon. The complete sign would read, “New Stoughton Wagon”. The Stoughton Wagon Works was in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Well, that answers a question, but not an important one.

Here’s a different type of problem. Which Locust Grove was this photo taken at? There are quite a few across the U.S, mostly in the Midwest, and all of them small farming towns. There’s a lot to read in this image: most of the kids look like they are in lower primary and come from poor farms, which would fit with what we know about children at that time being taken out of school early to go to work. The schoolhouse looks like it has one classroom. You can read a lot into the individual faces but beyond that, until we know which school it is and who the people are, all that is speculation.

Watching Disfarmer: A Portrait of America it was easy to understand the point of view of some of Heber Springs’ inhabitants. They’d seen people from the big cities turn up and turn their one and only famous resident into an industry. In some cases, you think, they’d been persuaded to hand over photographs only to see them suddenly get a massive price tag attached to them. It probably reminded them of various real estate and insurance agents who had blown into town over the years. And some of the rapturous analysis of Disfarmer wasn’t that persuasive. One commentator explained the Disfarmer style as though it was his and his only. Ask anyone who collects studio portraits: there were hundreds of small town studios using the Disfarmer approach, putting the customer in front of a plain backdrop and telling them to behave.
I think this portrait is the equal of anything by Disfarmer. Here you have the straight and unaffected portrait from small town America, and something more. There’s just enough information to tell you she probably drives this car out on the farm, but where that would be exactly, who knows. The postcard was bought in Nevada but it didn’t have to be taken there. It has a cold feeling to it, as if there isn’t much to scrape from the earth once the snow thaws.

Another postcard that shows how widespread the Disfarmer approach was, although, when I see a dusty workspace like this I also think of Walker Evans. Both are false allusions. What is striking about this image has to do with how carefully arranged everything is. It could be a theatrical stage shot except no theatre could make the dust authentic.

When I bought this card I did the usual brief research and discovered two things that had not occurred to me. The first is that there is a sub-genre in postcards based around telephone and electricity poles. The other is that there are groups dedicated to collecting them. We’re inclined to think that the modern world made its entrance in an automobile but for small towns it really arrived with the telephone. And it wasn’t a case of bringing the world to Main Street but the other way around. Towns that once could be isolated for weeks following a flood or a blizzard could now make contact with the outside world. I don’t share the passion for old postcards of telephone poles but it is to be encouraged. It beats watching videos of Miley Cyrus.

The early postcard photographers often functioned as provisional news agencies, recording events such as the erection of telephone poles that were of little interest outside the local community. They were also the local advertising service. There are a lot of postcards of shop interiors, and a lot, like this one, are beautifully lit, full of sharp detail and have some element that would appall modern ad men. If photographs of events tell us something of the unfolding history of small towns, these scenes of shop interiors reveal more about the society. Note the way the cans and bottles behind the counter have been so neatly stacked. From our point of view the design is apparent. Someone didn’t just want to show what goods were on sale, they wanted a beautiful display. So what about the nun at the right? 


The moment I saw this postcard I thought of Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, but only because I recall odd scenes of men and horses being part of a recurring theme. Partly because he is photographed outside of the bakery, we might think this is an odd image too, though at the time neither subject nor photographer would have thought so. What really gives it its strangeness is the slight tilt of the horizontal plane. When film-makers want to suggest altered states they subtly tilt the horizon to about the same degree. On the back someone has written ‘Overland Park Ks’. At the turn of last century Overland Park was about ten miles outside of Kansas City. You could ride in but it would take most of the morning. He carries a crop so he must be going somewhere. Today Overland Park is a suburb of Midwest middle America, lined with wide, neat green verges.

This is from Brattleboro, a mill town in Vermont. F. L Shaw pops up in the town’s archives, mostly as a member of the Vermont Wheel Club, which started off as bicyclists but by the 1910s had become the regional advocate for automobiles. My guess is either Shaw or Hartmann is the man immediately to the left of the horse and the people are getting ready for a July 4th celebration. The world has many images of people standing outside stores. They always tell us more than whatever it is we are looking for.

Speaking of history and the trace. It occurs to me that I’m fairly well up on the U.S 1848 to 1890 and 1920 to now, but that bubble in between remains a mystery. I recall an episode of Twilight Zone where a man stumbled into small town America C1910, and I watched the Disney version of Pollyanna when I was young. Both inform the idea that small town America at the century’s turn was a gentle paradise. I suspect otherwise. The real Pollyanna would have had to deal with polio or typhoid and if it was your fortune to slip back in time to small town America it might strike you how poor a lot of the citizens were. So, welcome to the Santa Rosa Rose Carnival, California’s ongoing celebration of all that was worth preserving and has since vanished. We know that every time corporate America raises its head some part of the nation’s soul dies, but let’s not fool ourselves. We are talking about the trace, that subtle, mercurial element of photography that suggests we are looking at history then tells us it wasn’t necessarily that way. Look at the faces of these women: some smile but the others look stony, as if to tell us they can dress like Greek nymphs but frankly, they’re not in the mood for playing the game. They have other things on their mind. But maybe that’s my interpretation. You see things otherwise.


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