And furthermore ...

One Man's Treasure encourages the use of anonymous photographs posted here to illustrate books and album covers.
If an image appeals to you, contact John Toohey at

Thursday, 17 December 2015


Pages from an American photo album 1916-1920
“If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement... a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”
James Agee

An album found in Ottawa, filled with more than sixty photographs taken in New York State and thereabouts between 1916 and 1920. Most of the images have captions and were carefully placed in pages that were then dated. This tells us it was put together some years after the fact. What that fact was becomes one of the album’s essential mysteries.

The photos are of the German community living around Utica in Oneida County C WW1. In the way that Swedish emigrants settled throughout the upper Midwest, Ukrainians the Canadian prairies and Basque sheepherders made Nevada their own, the great arrival of German emigrants that began in the 1850s became established predominantly in mill towns in the north-east. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants (nice phrase that; sort of like David Cameron’s ‘hordes of refugees’ but obviously better dressed), the Germans of the mid-19th century were motivated by economics and were not escaping religious persecution. The Anabaptists – Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite – who had arrived in the seventeenth century were exclusive and kept to themselves but where Germans settled in the 1850s they formed communities where it was common to see a Lutheran and a Catholic church close by each other. Several local histories suggest that back in Bavaria or the Rhineland, Protestants and Catholics kept a deliberate distance from each other but in towns like Utica the Catholic Germans were more likely to hang out with their Lutheran compatriots than their Irish brethren.

Around the same time these photos were taken, over in Hustiford. Wisconsin, German had become established as the majority language, meaning that a generation after their parents arrived the children had no need to learn English. Even non-German residents saw the necessity in learning the German language. The people in these photos are also most likely first generation, defined as being born in the U.S though their parents weren’t. The terms ‘first’ and ‘second’ generation need clarifying since demographers appear to use both interchangeably. Whoever put the album together used English in the captions so considered him or herself a native English speaker but probably spoke German at home.

 They ate and drank German too. Prior to the generation from the 1850s becoming established, beer was not especially popular in the U.S. Within the decade the new arrivals set to put things right. Soon enough Pabst, Coors and Budweiser were unleashed upon the world, leaving non-Americans to shudder at the thought things had somehow improved. That generation of Germans also introduced bacon and ultimately the hot dog, pretty much guaranteeing that America will be bed-ridden by 2100CE and effectively deceased soon after. 

A quick skim through the archives doesn’t throw up a Nellie Stiefvater in Utica but a Nellie Wilson born in California on September 17 1877 and dying in May 20 1959, did marry a Julius Stiefvater: all events taking place in the same state. We do find dozens of Stiefvaters in the cemetery records across Oneida County. Like Tremblay in Montreal, it appears that the surname has become so synonymous with place that others from different parts of New York might have assumed at once that a Stietvater came from Utica. 

What about Henry Witte? On draft card Form 886 No.99 we have a Henry Witte, born January 29 1889 and resident at 526 Varick St, Utica. What are the chances this is the same? He fits the bill, but the Henry on the card describes himself as a conscientious objector “opposed to warfare”. This is interesting. Who possessing the merest spark of an IQ isn’t opposed to war? Thousands of Americans tried to declare themselves conscientious objectors in WW1, especially after reading what was going on in France, but there were very few grounds for having the claim accepted without a trial, which was costly, undignified and guaranteed to end in some form of imprisonment. One was if you belonged to a handful of recognized religious groups like the Amish or the Mennonites, and both were originally Germanic. What if the Henry Witte in the public records argued, not unreasonably, that he was opposed to going to war against his ancestral homeland? 

The turnvereins were German community sporting clubs. When they began in Germany during the Napoleonic era they had a marked nationalistic aspect – the idea was to breed a generation of physically healthy German youths who would defend the Fatherland when required (hmm). By the time they were established in the U.S the politics had lost its sting. They were more about getting der jungen from one factory town to play der jungen from another while der mutters und der vaters drank beer, ate sausages and cheered like crazy. 

The people in these photos are not just very normal looking; they are very normal looking Americans. The Henry Witte photo is the only one where the war gets a mention. That’s not surprising; it’s only a reminder that photo albums tell the truth but they don’t tell the story.  It must have been hard for a Stiefvater to walk to school in 1916, let alone 1917 when the U.S entered the war.

 But could we be looking for something that isn’t there? There’s that line that sooner or later every historian feels obliged to quote: ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are all manner of events and situations we don’t see in these photographs simply because they are not something that would have invited a photograph. That’s the problem with photo albums: they don’t show us the highs and lows so often as the grey spaces in between.

I do not think it is a Model T because if it was it should have grilles on the bonnet. There are several other candidates including the Detroiter, the Scripps-Booth Rocket, the Turnbull Runabout and even the Saxon Roadster, all of which sound like someone’s dream machine, but the more important question is who Wenzel is; apart from being the one with his hands on the steering wheel of course. What’s his relationship with the photographer? Have we met him before? What’s the point of a photo if it offers evidence then fails to explain what it is evidence of? 

 We’re lucky. It’s not that albums like this tell us what we don’t know but what we never thought much about. Prior to discovering this album, what might be called a history of the German Diaspora to the U.S was more accurately described as a statistic, so far as I was concerned anyway, and that’s being generous. It’s history from the side door: we should appreciate that.


Thursday, 10 December 2015


The Holmfirth disaster of 1944
“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
H. G. Wells

During the last week of May 1944 an anticyclone developed over the south western Mediterranean, bringing cloudless skies and above average temperatures. Further north the system created an increase in humidity and storms developed over southern England. As the air currents were pushed northwards in a clockwise direction they brought with them a phenomenon known now as an atmospheric river, which expressed itself (for want of a better description) over the Holme Valley in Yorkshire. None of these events were especially unusual; the fog and drizzle that defines the English summer can be attributed to similar effects. In this case however the rains brought flash flooding to Yorkshire on Whit Monday, a public holiday. That was probably fortuitous. A lot of people would have travelled to nearby coastal resorts like Blackpool so missed the full impact. Three people were killed in the floods but the real damage was measured in the destruction of property, which was enormous.

 Holmfirth, a town on the edge of the Pennines better known today as the location for a quaint, rustic sitcom called The Last of the Summer Wine, received the brunt. These photographs were taken by Bray And Son, a photographic company set up in Holmfirth by Harry Bray after World War 1 and continued by his son, Trevor. They were published by the Bamforth Company. Neither Harry nor Trevor Bray considered themselves news photographers as such but realized they had to go out and document the destruction of the Whit Monday Floods, just as the Bamforth Company understood the importance of publishing them. Importantly however, the floods struck just a week before D-Day, when the British Government was heavily censoring all information concerning conditions inside Britain. Very little information on the floods was released at the time. These postcards would have been published months later, if not after the end of the war.   

What they tell us about then is not so important as what they say about today. This week storms struck the same area, and wider parts of central and northern Britain. So far another three people have also lost their lives and the damage is estimated in the hundreds of millions of pounds. The real difference is that when these floods struck in 1944 they were half expected as a once in a century event. Storm Desmond as the present catastrophe is called, should be understood as part of what has now become an annual cycle. But although it was seen on the horizon, so to speak, nothing much was done about that.

Despite the Government apparently being caught by surprise, events have unfolded along a predictable course. Firstly, defences against flooding prove inadequate. Reports emerge that standard procedures can’t be enacted because government funding to the responsible departments has been slashed. TV cameras zoom in on the faces of people who have lost everything. The army steps in. A Captain or Colonel tells reporters he can’t believe basic, sensible steps weren’t taken. In a few weeks official reports will, yet again, outline a woeful response by a careless administration. Next year the process will begin again. In 1944 the Government could present a case as to why it was not prepared for the Holme Valley floods, this being a time of war and an era when available technology could at best only suggest something might happen. Seventy one years later all such excuses are indefensible.

 These photographs aren’t just a reminder from the past of Britain’s future today.    During the war the chimes of Big Ben everyone heard on the BBC were recordings played to prevent the Germans from interpreting weather conditions: the more humid the atmosphere the more muffled the sound would have been. This was the level of sophistication the weather bureau was able to exercise. Today meteorologists can not only see atmospheric rivers developing, they can also reasonably predict how much water will be dumped and where. This raises the obvious question of why the British Government is always unprepared for weather disasters. Consistent failings defy common sense. Not to push the conspiracy argument too far, but you could be forgiven for thinking someone sees some kind of advantage in scenes like these.


Friday, 4 December 2015


Postcards of the Blackpool Illuminations
“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
John Lennon

 In November 1879 Thomas Edison applied for a patent for an incandescent light bulb, and as every American school student will tell you, the light globe was born. However, a couple of months before Edison made his application, Blackpool had its first festival of illuminations and coloured lights were strung up along the promenade. The English may remind you that Joseph Swan beat Edison by a year. Edison is famous for inventing things some time after someone else did but this is beside the point. Even if Swan’s incandescent globe wasn’t quite practical in 1879, electric lighting existed in various forms and, like the automobile, it was understood that it was only a matter of time before it became practical for every house to have electric lamps. This was reason enough to have a festival.

  During the years before the Second World War Blackpool’s illuminations had become internationally famous. Electric lighting was now commonplace in most cities around the world but the illuminations were a celebration of something more ancient and sacred. Held from mid-September to mid-November, they were a final protest against the steadily shortening days; a rebellion against nature, which, some philosophers argued, was what the modern world was all about. Having subjugated electricity we could defeat the powers of darkness.

 As the images here attest (Actually they do something else but we’ll get to that.), Blackpool’s waterfront was transformed into a psychedelic fantasyland of giant butterflies, gondolas, stagecoaches, fish, devils and flowery biplanes. It all looks very wonderful, which is where the problems arise.

 Every year the Valentine’s Company sent out a photographer, probably local to Blackpool, to photograph the lights so the results could be turned into postcards. The initial results would have been drab. The images were in black and white and the discrepancies between light and shadow were so extreme that some areas were either horribly over or under exposed. Even when standing under bright lighting shutter speeds needed to be slow. Obviously, straight photographic representations were out. Fortunately, the Valentine’s Company had never placed much value on straight photography.

Even before real photo postcards emerged in the 1900s, James Valentine’s company had treated the negative as a mere starting point in the process of creating a final image. Beginning and end did not need anything more in common. That attitude was the norm. Very few commercial photographers in 1905 would have argued there was something sacred about a negative. 

 Still, it needed to be the foundation of the image. For the postcards from the Blackpool Illuminations, the predominant features in the scene had to be intact, so here the photographer snapped a gondola and sailboat in the pool in front of the bath house, with Chinese lanterns strung across the water and the fairground in the distance. The people in the foreground were also there, the one to the left just entering the scene. That however was the extent to any veracity. Taking the people as the starting point, they may have been within a brightly illuminated area but only very slow film of around 800 ASA and higher would have had the capacity to freeze them in motion. What if however, the photograph was taken at dusk, just after the lights came on but before the sun set? The people in the retouching studio would have had no trouble creating the impression of night.

It is no coincidence that where it appears in each of these photos the moon is full and approximately the same size as it emerges from the clouds. It is apparent that it is artificial, a detail Valentine’s wouldn’t have tried to hide. It is that moon against a dark sky that tells us this is nighttime. Everything else could be photographed at dusk and then enhanced with colour.

 The decision to use hand-colouring probably wasn’t difficult to make but it was what distinguished the images. Blackpool became lurid and almost grotesque. Of course, the intention was not to strive for authenticity but aspire to the impression created by the illuminations. Pastels were out of the question. The colours had to be vivid, even though it meant that some scenes, like this one, have a sinister quality. 


During World War 1 many British women found themselves working in factories doing incredibly detailed work such as painting in badges and royal seals on military equipment. When the war ended, the factories (on behalf of the government) sacked them. Meanwhile, tobacco companies, postcard publishers etc suddenly needed people who knew how to work in miniature. Much as the boss might want to employ his nephew, young Roger, with his medals, his one arm and his ruined lungs, Roger’s wife, Bessie, who had spent the last four years painting numbers on shell casings was both more able and better qualified. She was re-employed, though rarely on terms that suggested there was something dignified about her labour. Her wages barely paid for Roger’s Player’s Navy Cut and aspirin. Along with rubbish wages, she put up with standing in a line along with dozens of other wives of war veterans, monotonously applying specks of colour to postcards like this, all the time inhaling toxins that would have put an elephant to sleep. Bessie’s work was every bit as dirty, as monotonous and as dangerous as Roger’s had been. But I digress. What’s also worth thinking about is that despite the production line, hand colouring made each of these images unique. We can see some slippage in this postcard, especially along the strings of lights. Despite thousands of the same postcard being printed, that mistake made this like no other.

 This postcard was most likely not published by Valentine’s. The suspicion is that the original negative was under-exposed, which wasn’t an impediment. When the outlines were enhanced a strange scene with this crowd of shadowy figures was created. Once the living of Blackpool retire indoors, the dead arise to wander about in a state of dulled curiosity.

When these photos were taken electricity was still a hallmark of progress, which could be boasted from the crest of the street car. We can’t be absolutely certain when these postcards were produced but we can wonder who though electricity was still a sign of progress after WW2 with its rocket attacks and atom bombs. In any case, once again we get a spectral atmosphere from the brightly lit but empty interior of the car. Who said ghosts have to be monochrome?

We understand the image of Blackpool being created by these images, yet in this final scene the impression is almost the opposite. Brightly lit, yes, but also eerily deserted and joyless. In the bottom right a figure hurries from a taxi towards a café, which also looks empty. Blackpool is like a town in a Robert Aickman story, where everything looks in place except that one, nagging absence, which in this case turns about to be any other sign of life.