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 18 October 2012


A myth that took some dying

“Get off your horse and drink your milk.”
John Wayne

 The six photos here have all got to do with the American West and attempts to keep the legend alive, so let’s start in London, at the Fancy Dress Studio at 37 Oxford St, sometime between 1910 and 1920. One can forgive the English for getting a few details wrong; they weren’t there after all, and no real cowboy ever posed with a gothic manor in the background, but the woollen chaps? Somehow around the turn of the century the idea got about and then became fixated that woollen chaps were a standard part of the cowboy’s outfit. As we have come to understand things, chaps were worn by Native Americans and then by Mexicans as a way to protect the legs when riding through thick scrub. Wool, you’d think, would only attract thorns and burrs and make things worse. Another point you can forgive the English for because it was Americans who spread the idea, was that cowboys were bred musical. By the time this photo was taken you couldn’t dress as a cowboy without strapping on a gun and holding a ukulele. You get the impression real riders of the purple sage did nothing else except sit in the saddle and yodel at the cows. No wonder they complained theirs was a lonely life.

This image has it all, the cattle scattered across the wide open plain, the solitary cowpokes, the mesas in the distance. Welcome to Wyoming, battleground of the Johnson County War and close to the Hole in the Wall, legendary hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch gang. We’re in the heart of the Old West, a time and a place that has passed, though you wouldn’t know it from the photo. Maybe you have to live in a certain part of the US, map-wise on the left side of Nebraska and Kansas, to believe that America was born in the west, but you’d have a lot of arguments on your side. From the moment its death was announced people have kept the Old West alive, a cottage industry of small town photographers as much as anyone. This scene probably wasn’t staged but it’s a fair bet the photographer knew that on a certain day the ranch hands would be moving a small herd of cattle a short distance, maybe to an auction, and drove out, knowing exactly what image he or she wanted and was guaranteed to get.

There are ghost towns all over the world but they have a special association with the American West, especially with gold and silver mines and dozens still litter the lower edges of the Sierra Nevada where the 1849 gold rush took place. The wind moans through the broken shutters, the tumbleweed bounces erratically through the dust. In the 1930s Buena Park berry farmer Walter Knott thought a way to expand business at the roadside stand where his wife Cordelia sold her fried chicken dinners and raspberry pies was to keep the customers hanging about, so he built a few attractions including a twelve foot high volcano and a mine shaft where diners could pretend to pan for gold. In 1940 he began buying up buildings and salvaging furniture, wagon wheels and implements from actual ghost towns around California and Arizona and trucking them in. Knott took pride in his research, making sure that every feature of his ghost town came from the period and it took two decades to complete. In the meantime it was a serious rival for Disneyland, just down the road.

 More singing cowboys … Out west, the early pioneers were told, was the land of opportunity, meaning that if you had an idea, the nerve to risk it and a little luck you could go far. In 1931 pharmacist Ted Hustead bought a small drugstore in Wall, population about 200 and just outside of South Dakota’s Badlands. The one thing the town had going for it was Mount Rushmore, 100 kms away and pulling in the tourists while it was still under construction. Hustead had a similar idea to Knott but on a grander scale, figuring that a department store was just what the middle of nowhere needed and a few life size models of dinosaurs would help draw the customers. He was right. Today the Wall Drug Store has an estimated turnover of $10 million a year. The animatronic cowboy orchestra was one of Hustead’s early strokes of genius and today it has a revered place behind glass.

 In 1937 Edward Weston came across a man’s corpse out in the Colorado Desert in southern California and photographed it. We’re not really sure what happened after that, whether Weston set off immediately to tell the police or if he wanted to whether he’d even know how to find it again. Such is life and if you believe the stories the deserts of the southwest were littered with the desiccated, vulture picked bodies of men who’d gone out to find something and only got lost. The grizzled old prospector wandering through the desert with only his mules for company is one of the classic images of the Southwest, so much that if you actually encountered one on the trail you’d know pretty much exactly where you were.

As the word suggests, rodeo was a Mexican invention and it didn’t become emblematic of the Old West until that was gone to dust. In the late 19th century rodeos were found all over the US but cities like Chicago and New York began to doubt their relevancy and soon they were mostly found in places where the myth of the cowboy needed to be kept alive, like Pendleton in Oregon, home to the Roundup established in 1910. At that time Walter Bowman ran one of the town’s photo studios and was little known outside its perimeters but in the early days of the Roundup he made his name with action shots like this, taken in 1912, at a time other photographers were struggling to photograph a Model T on the move. Talking of speed, Bowman was the first person in Pendleton to own a car and was once arrested for speeding at 12 mph down the main street. He was killed in a car accident in 1938.


Friday 5 October 2012


 Exaggeration postcards by William 'Dad' Martin
 “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.”
L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

 There’s a photo of William ‘Dad’ Martin floating around the Internet. He is wearing a battered Civil War style forage cap and is cross-eyed. In other words he looks like the village idiot. But he can’t have been that silly. Within a year of hitting on the idea of constructing his first photographs featuring giant rabbits, corn and other agricultural products, each real photo postcard he produced was selling in the tens of thousands. At a time when most studios in New York were just getting by and serious art photographers couldn’t think of their work in terms of sales because they were so meagre, he was the most successful photographer in the US, and he was working out of Ottawa, Kansas, a town that wasn’t much more than a main street. Maybe that’s what the boggle eyes and the dopey expression are all about. Maybe they are pointed at those people up north – meaning New York and Chicago – who thought Kansas was inhabited by inbreds and other simpletons. Martin may just be saying, ‘everything you believe about us folks out here is true. Just ask my accountant’.

Even though he is usually described as being a photographer before he began creating his postcards, there doesn’t seem to be much or any of Martin’s earlier work around. Like a lot of small town photographers he could have left off identifying stamps, or more likely the popularity of his exaggeration postcards led him to neglect the standard studio work and the old negatives were sold off, destroyed or left to rot in a shed somewhere. He must have been a photographer in his early years. While imagining the scenes in his postcards was easy enough, creating them took skill only someone with considerable darkroom experience could have pulled off.

 It wasn’t just his darkroom skill you have to admire. His attention to detail was scrupulous. In this image the ribbons on the girl’s bonnet as she squats on the running board are stretched out and her father is hunched forward as though the car is travelling at high speed. The top speed in the best cars at that time was about 40 mph, which may have been fast enough to flutter her ribbons, especially if the car was pointed into a breeze. Still, if it were really travelling that fast the spokes on the tyre would be a blur. The point is, when Martin set up the scene he understood that what made the image really funny wasn’t just the giant eggs and the potato on the back; it was the idea that the family would drive helter-skelter into town to sell their produce, the daughter hanging bravely off the car as it churned through a puddle. That puddle, obviously added on afterwards, is one of the few examples where Martin couldn’t get things precise. 

The humour in the detail comes through in this one too, where the watermelon has fallen off the wagon and split. Lesser operators, and in the years following his success there’d be a few, rarely thought the scene through that carefully. How Martin achieved it was fairly straightforward. He took a photograph of the farmer on the road with his broken wagon and one of the melons and spliced them together. Even so, examine his postcards under a magnifying glass and only a few show the seams so to speak. 

Another reason why he was the most superior of the exaggeration postcard creators in rural America was the sense of movement he brought to each scene. Here’s one by the Rotograph Co that is excellent in the care with which it has been made yet static compared to Martin’s scenes. In the one below, the hunter at the front slouches as though carrying a heavy load, (which he obviously wasn’t when the photo was taken) adding to the credibility of the scene. This one (of the giant ear of corn) is copyrighted 1907, at least a year before Martin started producing his cards. So he wasn’t the inventor as is often claimed but then he didn’t have to be. Comparing his to this, it’s clear he brought an energy and sophistication that hadn’t existed before.

Sophistication sounds like an odd word to use for Martin since the humour isn’t exactly subtle or restrained but it is carefully orchestrated and he knew all the jokes about rural Midwesterners, milking them for everybody else’s benefit while turning them on their head. Eight years earlier L Frank Baum had written The Wizard of Oz, a huge success critically and publically. To transport Dorothy to the fantastic world of Oz he needed a starting point and so he chose a place he had visited for only one day - two at most - yet appeared to be the dullest place on earth; “the dry, grey place you call Kansas”, as the scarecrow describes it to Dorothy. That seems to have been the general opinion of the state; flat and dull and running on a clock several hours slower than civilization desired. Martin understood that. Most of his farming folk don’t seem too bothered by time but if you were growing the world’s biggest cabbages would you need to be? So was Martin responding directly to Baum? There’s no proof though he is clearly taking aim at the attitude towards Kansas that Baum typified.

Interesting … When you read a lot in a hurry you tend to take things for granted, like the idea that Martin basically took two photographs and combined them. But look at this photo of the wagon loaded with giant cabbages and the one at the very top with the giant mules. Notice something similar? Look at the man leaning against the mules (or horses) in this photo and the man standing at the front of the wagon in the top photo. He’s one and the same. It seems Martin didn’t use just two photos as several commentaries suggest but several to make his images. In that sense he was a direct descendant of Oscar Rejlander, whose best known example of combination printing is The Two Ways of Life from 1857, involving 32 montages photographs. The difference is that Rejlander could have taken just the one photograph but artistic sensibilities of the age compelled him to make his job difficult. To make his vision of rural America work Martin had to go to just as complicated lengths. Another one of these people who didn’t invent anything yet was an original.