And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 17 November 2012


Marshall McLuhan

Real photo postcards of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico

 I went to Reno once, thinking for some reason it would be like this photo, but all I got was a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. So let’s leave and head out on Highway 40, as it was then known. But before we do: an earlier post had some photos by the same company, described then as ‘unknown photographer’ but which we now know was the Nevada Photo Service, run by Lawrence Engel. Born in Wisconsin the 1890s, Engel fought in the Mexican Revolution, against the Mexicans, probably just before he arrived in Nevada in the 1920s. He began Nevada Photo Service as a photo finishing business but built it up to, among other things, the most prolific photographic company in the state, until he drowned in a boating accident in 1953. His obituary – the best place to find information about respectable citizens of small town America – suggests the company was state wide with several branches, meaning he wasn’t the only photographer, but if so the company’s stock showed remarkable consistency. There’s a particular look to Nevada Photo Service images. The scenery isn’t spectacular; the scenes suggest long hours on straight roads that the driver knows all too well. 

In the 1910s and ‘20s Nevada was a sinner’s paradise. The laws regarding gambling, prostitution and divorce fluctuated but the state was always amenable. Outside of mining, they were the only reasons anyone would want to stick around. Most people on the roads were just passing through. When the Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1912 with the idea of developing a highway from New York to San Francisco it expected a few fights with the states but none were as fractious or threatening to the scheme as Nevada’s. The choice lay between a route that entered at Wendover then followed the old California Trail through Elko, Lovelock and Winnemucca to Reno, or one that cut south to Ely, to Austin and Fallon, before arriving in Reno. At stake was the prospect that whichever route lost out stood to lose most of that migrating traffic. At one point things got so bad the LHA considered avoiding Nevada altogether and putting the route through Arizona until straitlaced, teetotalling Mormon Utah raised a stink. Some of its residents wanted access to Reno. In the end Ely got the Lincoln Highway, but did that help? In terms of getting to Reno from Utah there wasn’t a lot of difference but the Elko route had the railway, it had history and it was better looking.

Historians are vague as to how Battle Mountain got its name, but this being a border between Shoshone and Paiute land and an area rich in minerals you can probably guess. (Speaking of Paiutes, Winnemucca on Route 40 was named after Sarah Winnemucca, teacher, activist and the first Native American to publish a book,) Reading the promotional literature coming out of Battle Mountain, you’ll catch a distinct, plaintive tone, which isn’t surprising given that after 150 years of mining the landscape has been gutted and there aren’t many reasons left why a tourist would want to go there. The Paiute weren’t the only people to suffer at Battle Mountain. In the 1920s, ‘red’, i.e. union affiliated, miners had confrontations with their employers, or to put it another way, were beaten, shot at and otherwise brutally victimized on the orders of industrialists who thought organized labour was un-American. Maybe that’s why Battle Mountain had its initials impressed on its side. Its history was too violent to ignore.

It’s sunset and we’re heading towards the Utah border, in the opposite direction to the wagon trains of pioneers who started appearing in these parts a hundred years earlier. They didn’t think much of Nevada; not enough that they’d want to settle down. If this image looks familiar it’s because Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore etc, all parked their cars and stood in the middle of a lonely highway stretching to infinity. The difference was that for them it was a new road and a new revelation. For Nevada Photo Service this highway was as familiar as a cough to an old smoker. Sometimes, you think, when the day was drawing to a close and reception was fading on the car radio, a pattern in the clouds or the colour of the sun on the desert changed everything.

Utah. Land of the Saints; the driest state, which was sad news if you were thirsty because you could go for hours without seeing a bar. Even coffee was hard to find. It was a state without much to attract the unconverted until copper was found in Bingham Canyon. The Bingham Copperfield Tunnel ran for a mile and a quarter through the mountains to the town of Bingham and for reasons even the engineers might not have understood it was one way only. Think about it. Before the lights at one end could change the tunnel had to be emptied of oncoming traffic and once the cars could enter they had to proceed at a slow pace through the dimly lit passage. You could be waiting at the other end for half an hour before you were let through. And look at the dust coating some of the cars. It was only a short drive from Salt Lake City but it’s a good thing miners weren’t obliged to carry guns.

And this was what awaited on the other side. Bingham reminds me of the mining town in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” Maybe it wasn’t as corrupt but it looks like a place that had its own rules. It’s gone now. Everything in this scene has disappeared, even the mountains in the background. The mine is still there. It is one of the biggest man-made holes on the planet. Have a look at it on Google Maps. 

Wellton Arizona didn’t have much to pull the traffic over in the 1940s but there was Ralph’s Mill, where you could get gas, coffee and maybe some advice from the kid behind the cash register. Most people on the road were travelling between Yuma and Tucson; living the dream, if that happened to be a western starring Joanne Dru and Dan Duryea. Not much more can be said about Ralph’s Mill but we know a bit about the photographer Burton Frasher. Long before Ansel Adams and Edward Weston set out, Frasher was travelling the roads of the American southwest taking photographs of the landscape he turned into postcards. Before his son died in the late 1990s he handed over his father’s archive of more than 60 000 negatives to the Pomona Library. Frasher’s postcards are distinctive for their sharp detail and clear tonal range. He must have used a large format camera to achieve that quality.

Maybe it’s the name but you expect that anything that happens in Gila Bend, is bad and setting foot in a café like this is the beginning of something that won’t end well. This postcard was sent to Fort Worth, Texas, sometime in the 1940s by a woman called Stella. She wrote: “ … We ate breakfast here. Floyd said helo (sic). Mother please don’t say any more about S S and my trouble. S S got hold (told?) of it at Coleman he didn’t like it. So mother I love you and Daddy tell Daddy to be careful.” Some people have to write a whole book to achieve that much pathos.

Given all that Arizona had – the Grand Canyon, Sedona, the Painted Desert, Route 66, just for starters – you are forgiven for wondering why the photographer thought this photo would make a saleable postcard. Maybe after hours of driving through rust coloured canyons and stony desert littered with giant saguaro he just got sick of nature. What he really longed for was the concrete and straight lines of civilization. Years later, about thirty of them, a small army of photographers would move in on Arizona and look for scenes like this as being emblematic of the new West. They weren’t wrong, but when you see images like this you wonder if the art critics were hyperventilating when they called The New Topographics a radical departure.

Here’s a partial list of actors who have played Doc Holliday: Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Adam West, Jason Robards, Stacy Keach, Dennis Hopper, Willie Nelson, Val Kilmer, Dennis and Randy Quaid. Not having seen them all it’s hard to say who would be the most credible as a 5 foot 10 emaciated sociopath with severe alcohol and opiate addictions. Like the gunfight at the OK Corral, Holliday made a brief appearance in Tombstone but it is forever associated with him. When this photo was taken, Tombstone was a functioning town with a colourful past and the Crystal Palace just a long standing hotel. The touristic renovations began in the late 1960s and today, judging by more recent photos, it’s a bit like Victor Mature playing Doc Holliday – a real test of our gullibility.

Speaking of art, we’re in White Sands, New Mexico and considering if this was an attempt at it. Did the photographer see the shape of the dunes mirrored in that of the car and was each detail down to the woman on top of the dune conceived before the shutter was snapped? The viziers deciding what was art in the 1950s were certain postcards couldn’t be but if anybody in their little canon had tried this scene there’s no doubt the composition would be rich in irony etc. If we want to call it art we have to think of modernism, and ‘modernism’ and ‘New Mexico’ in the same sentence can only mean one thing. Not long before this photo was taken, the first atomic bomb was detonated a few miles down the road at Jornada del Muerto. You have to wonder if the photographer or the woman on top of the hill thought of that, not in terms of art but their physical well-being.
Maybe the air is cleaner in Colorado.


Thursday, 8 November 2012


Postcards of US highways from Washington to California

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
Jack Kerouac

Before the US had highways it had routes and roads, and before them, trails. Some of those had been charted by trappers and wagon trains and most started somewhere in the east to end up on the west coast. The basic network that would become the highway system was in place before the arrival of the automobile and when the highways were being mapped out in the 1910s it made sense to stick to the pioneer trails because they followed the most accessible courses and they were where the towns had sprung up. When Americans seriously started taking to the road in the 1930s it wasn’t always with the awareness that the routes were the same their grandparents took four months to cross, assuming they survived typhoid and yellow fever.
When the Grand Coulee Highway was officially opened on May 13 1934, it was praised for being the most scenic in the country. Today the name exists in a short strip cutting through Grand Coulee, itself overshadowed and some might say only surviving, because of the dam. 

Still on the Grand Coulee Highway. All these Washington photos are all by J Boyd Ellis, former schoolteacher who tried his hand at wedding photography before nature called. People are inclined to dismiss scenic views as kitsch, but kitsch implies a vapid or false sentimentality, which I don’t see here. True, they are too few to be considered a real sample of Ellis’ photographs – like a lot of photographer’s we’re going to meet on our road trip, he published thousands as postcards - but they have a definite enthusiasm for the highway. This was taken in the 1940s, when cars were relatively cheap, gas exceptionally so and America swelled with patriotic pride. All that is in this scene: the Texaco billboard, the tyre marks on the asphalt and the underlying message that this is a great land you have to get out and take a look at; a notion that had a much shorter life span than people imagined.

Originally the Sunset Highway was a wagon road laid out with timber sleepers, and because it provided access through Snoqualmie Pass and a direct route to Seattle, it gave the city eminence over Portland. When the highway was built in the 1920s, it was famous for its switchbacks, much loved by motor heads until they lost control and plummeted over the edge. Though just over 12 miles long, it was part of a system that linked Chicago to the Pacific. All that is interesting but this photo gets to the point of what this post is about. In the 1940s the landscape of the US northwest may have been spectacular, but it was nothing without a streak of black tarmac cutting through. What did Americans love more, their country or their cars? It was a close call.

The pioneers might have been scared of Indians – they were told to be – but the real dangers were disease and becoming trapped in the mountains. The Rockies stood sullenly in their way, like grim bouncers in a nightclub doorway, and you don’t read too much from the early crossers about the glorious views looking over the peaks. Mostly they shivered and prayed and scratched entries into their diaries about how the folks in the neighbouring wagon buried their youngest last night. There was no Summit Inn to welcome them once they got to the top. 

Roads in Washington don’t stretch on forever. They twist around, following river systems, rise up through hills and mountain passes and generally think of themselves as interesting. Some thirty years after this photo was taken, a generation of photographers would come along for whom the tarmac and the powerline would represent urban degradation and the destruction of the wilderness. What did J. Boyd Ellis see in this scene? Probably a sunny spring day.

Heading south from Washington into Oregon, the most beautiful of the American states (according to its residents), with three mountain ranges, the Columbia River, a desert, wild coastline and a lot of trees, relatively speaking. It also has the Bridge of the Gods. Despite the grand name it wasn’t considered an exceptional feat of engineering, not compared to other structures being built in the 1920s. The original Bridge of the Gods was a landslide that had occurred recently enough to enter indigenous folklore and which dammed the Columbia River. The bridge links Washington with Oregon and the Columbia River Highway. You can’t talk about Oregon’s early highways without mentioning Sam Hill, Quaker, philanthropist, inveterate traveller and champion of good roads. Frequently depicted as an eccentric and a genius, he was more likely an astute businessman who realized in the 1910s that the prosperity of the northwest depended on a proper road system. Oddly enough, most politicians ignored him so he built the first asphalt road in the area out of his own pocket. He also built Maryhill Stonehenge, which sounds like a typical American roadside folly but was a respectable monument to the fallen soldiers of World War 1.

While Ansel Adams campaigned for pure photography and insisted justice couldn’t be done to the American landscape without using his zone system, the less intense were happy to buy a Sawyer’s postcard for a penny, and they probably reckoned they got more for their money. Coming out of Portland, Carlton Sawyer was only running his studio for a few years in the 1910s before he sold it, the new owners keeping the name. The same company later invented the Viewmaster. The big difference between a Sawyer's photo and one by Adams wasn’t so much technique or printing method but rather, Adams generally shunned the highway, Sawyer's celebrated it. So long as you have a car and a tank full of gas, the company was saying, you don’t need us. Get out and see America for yourself.

The two people you were most likely to encounter in real photo postcards of Oregon were Arthur Cross and Edward Dimmitt. From 1916 they travelled along Oregon’s highways snapping the landscape but they showed more initiative than most. Not happy enough with selling their postcards in the racks at local gas stations and hotels, they went to the spots tourists were most likely to gather and set up a stall from their car. They could appreciate a good view as much as the next person but they knew that the drive was the real experience and a photo captured nothing if it didn’t include the road. This is a good one, the white barrier lending what the critics would call a subtle touch to the scene.

“Go where you may, within a radius of from fifty to a hundred miles or more, there stands before you the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in ice and snow, the one grand, unmistakable landmark - the pole - star of the landscape.”
That was John Muir writing in 1888. He wasn’t the only European to feel the spiritual pull of this geographic anomaly, which rises alone on a coastal plain. In the 1930s, not long before this photo was taken, Guy Ballard was hiking on the mountain when he met a man who was either Count Saint Germain or a Lemurian. One thing led to another, as so often happens, and soon Ballard was leading an esoteric cult with a membership claimed to be in the tens of thousands gathering annually at the mountain’s base. I prefer this image of Shasta. You still have the impression it is a special place and there is a road worth taking, only the revelation will be less about self-importance, more about insignificance.

Spare a thought for Lewis Mumford. In the 1950s he was warning that the highway system would ruin small towns, suck the soul out of major cities and destroy any genuine sense of community, and it was his tragedy that he died in 1990 having seen his prophecies come true. But they sounded ridiculous when he first made them. For Americans with cars highways were the nervous system of the country and the notion that it was a bad thing to be able to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles on one seamless road sounded bad itself. Note the caption: “Mt Lassen from Red Bluff, California”. Actually it’s a photo of a viaduct on one of the few straight stretches of Highway 36. It looks like Jervie Henry Eastman was so taken by the juxtaposition of the road and the mountains that he got out of his car and stood on the sidewalk to take this.

Heading south before we turn up again we hit the Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave Desert; stage set for countless westerns, haunt of ancient spirits and modern mystics and a place of pilgrimage for Gram Parsons worshippers, but he was likely just a baby in Florida when this was taken. Interesting that someone wrote on the front of the card without posting it. People did buy postcards because it saved them the trouble of taking photographs. Maybe someone picked this up in a roadhouse and figured they couldn’t do better themselves.

Eastman admired the Californian landscape but I think he loved its highways, gas stations, motels and small towns. He was a commercial traveller whose trade was photography and people in itinerant occupations quickly learn to appreciate the little comforts, like the diner that serves a decent coffee and the motel with air conditioning. The landscape will always be there but the barmaid who serves a larger slice of pie to the regulars will move on. Most of California’s famous photographers – there are quite a few of those – made their reputations concentrating on a specific area but Eastman covered the state, leaving an archive of thousands of photographs, including postcards of small towns like Loyalton that wouldn’t earn a glance from most people. Why? Obviously, since he was in the business of making postcards he’d want to offer a comprehensive selection but who would be after a scene of Loyalton’s main street, especially when it was overshadowed by the spectacular Sierra Nevada just a few miles away? I suspect he had an obsession, call it a personal responsibility if you want, to photograph the state in encyclopaedic detail. No town could be left out and if no one ever bought a postcard of Loyalton it didn’t matter because he had done his work. Loyalton is on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, not far from where the Donner Party began their ascent to starvation and cannibalism in 1846. Using Google Street View and taking the hill in the background as a locus, this looks like Main Street viewed from the corner of Railroad Ave. The Golden West Hotel still stands and it is possible the shopfront with the barber poles does too, but little else. Reno lies just across the border.  


Sunday, 4 November 2012


Some tintypes
 “When a man is one of a kind, he will be lonely wherever he is.”
Louis L’Amour

The first thing to say about tintypes is that if you were rich, famous or notable you didn’t sit for one. They were strictly for the common people, and just about everyone who posed remains anonymous today. The same can be said for the photographers. We have plenty of information about studios that offered tintypes but since they didn’t identify themselves on the print but the paper casing, which was often discarded, here we are, over 150 years after tintypes were invented with a huge but scattered record of our ancestors, whoever they were.

Looking through America and the Tintype (2009, Steidl) we find on one of the cover pages an advertisement from Ormsbee’s First National Gallery offering eight carte de visites for 50 cents or 18 ferrotypes (aka tintypes) for the same price, all taken with the “improved patent multiplying camera”. Consider the peculiarity of economics. The carte de visite could be reproduced ad infinitum but for less than half the price you could get a unique portrait, the only one that could ever authentically exist. It says something about the business of photography in the 19th century that uniqueness had no intrinsic value.  

From the New York Times of June 27, 1875 comes a story about the Rogues Gallery held at police headquarters; hundreds of tintypes of convicted felons. “Here are hard, careworn faces, the dissipated look, the shrivelled up hands, the ragged clothes, and the ‘hunted down’ expression of the eyes which a thief can never get rid of.” The writer of the article looks at the murderers, pickpockets and housebreakers and wonders where all the dashing criminals of popular fiction might be among the faces. Rogues galleries weren’t so much records of crime as poverty and wealthy tax evaders and wife killers were seldom expected to sit for them. Here are two men who look like they wouldn’t be averse to a spot of petty crime. Something about the glazed stare of the one on the right suggests this wasn’t the first bottle they have shared today.

Also from the New York Times, twenty years earlier on December 21 1865, comes these recommendations for Christmas gifts:
“At FOUNTAIN's India Store, No. 858 Broadway, Chinese, Indian and French fans, embroidered work, mull dresses, &c.;
At Dr. SARAH A. CHEVALIER's, No. 1,123 Broadway, a preparation for promoting the growth of the hair, and for restoring it to its original color.
At BAXTER's Gallery, No. 812 Broadway, near Twelfth-street, admirable ferrotypes;”
The idea of giving a portrait of yourself as a gift sounds odd today, but that’s only because we are familiar to the point of being anaesthetized with photography. In 1865 most people hadn’t sat for their portrait; ‘likeness’ was the more common term. It was the new technology that was really fascinating.

Collectors won’t normally give a second glance to a damaged carte de visite but scratches and other flaws don’t detract from tintypes. It has something to do with the authenticity of the image. No idea where this was taken but most likely at a seaside resort. She looks like she is dressed for a Victorian holiday by the sea.

Two actual cowboys, the proof being they aren’t carrying guns. Both look somewhat perturbed by the portrait sitting, as though this is the first time they have done it. Compare them to the two below …

… More relaxed, better dressed but they look like they come from the same part of the world, which is to say not New York or Chicago. Notice how the man on the left and the two above appear, at first glance anyway, a but rough around the edges but look closer and you realize they’ve paid careful attention to their appearance. 

Most of the photos here have two people in them. It’s a reminder that going to the photographer was a social activity best done with friends, and it probably wasn’t spontaneous. People planned for it and spent time preparing. They became actors on a stage. 

A good example of a later tintype, probably taken around 1900, with the portrait framed inside a card. As photographic processes go, the tintype lasted longer than most, still popular in the 1930s 60 years after its invention. Why that was is a small mystery. It’s original attractions, speed and cheapness, were more or less redundant by the turn of the century when it was possible to shoot, develop and print a photo in minutes and at much less cost. Maybe what really attracted people to tintypes was that there could only ever be one of them. Maybe in the age of mechanical reproduction people valued them as art.