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Friday, 29 November 2013


5 Portraits of European film stars and their strange stories.
“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.” 
Coco Chanel

The idea of the silent film star rescued from obscurity has been played out often since the arrival of sound in cinema, when hundreds of actors discovered they were no longer wanted and sent off to seek their fortunes elsewhere. It’s the motif in Sunset Boulevard, of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions and I recall reading an Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery with a reclusive genius who’d been wronged by the studios, though that was years ago. The point to all these stories is that the actors use their seclusion as a way to get attention. In the real world they tended to vanish, and that was that.
Vera Voronina’s whole life is a mystery. She existed – we have the photos to prove it – but who she really was and what happened to her are unknown. All the records on her, such as they are, say she was born in Russia in 1905, though the date always has a question mark after it. Having acted in three films in Germany, she arrived in Hollywood in 1926, the publicity describing how she had escaped the Bolsheviks by the skin of her teeth. Naturally there were references to her noble birth. She made four films in the U.S and one in Britain. The best known of them, The Patriot, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and had Emil Jannings in the lead, and like Voronina, it has vanished from sight. She left Hollywood, made four more films in Europe and that was the last heard of her.
What actually happened may not be that mysterious. As sound came in, foreign accents went out, even in Europe, and she could have retired, married, taken on her husband’s name and lived out her years in quiet domesticity. But tracking her down could be impossible. We don’t know that Vera Voronina was her real name, when she was born or even that she was Russian.
The photo incidentally is by Eugene Richee, one of Hollywood’s top portraitists in the 1920s and 30s. I thought I’d find a bit about him too but the one source who would know these things, John Kobal, admitted in his book, The Art of Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers 1925 - 1940, that Richee was a bit of an unknown to him. Two riddles for the price of one. 

In the early 1930s Hollywood realized that its public loved a certain type of foreign woman. She was blonde, sultry, mysterious, and Germanic. Everybody was out searching for the new Greta Garbo, even MGM, which had Garbo under contract. Samuel Goldwyn took the credit for discovering Sigrid Gurie. She was beautiful, blonde (or could be) and Norwegian. She never quite lived up to Goldwyn’s hopes but then she was cast in a string of ordinary films. The best known was Algiers (1938) in which she played someone called Inez. For all his boasting, it didn’t seem to occur to Goldwyn to cast Gurie as a Norwegian, or at least a Northern European. He was probably sitting at his desk in 1941 and grumbling over her failure to overtake Garbo when the scandal broke.
Gurie was born in working class Flatbush, Brooklyn. True, her parents were from Norway and they had moved back there when she was three. Her passport acknowledged her dual citizenship and she had spent longer in Norway than America, but that wouldn’t have satisfied Goldwyn. He promptly dumped her, muttering at how he’d been fleeced.
So: here is Sigrid Gurie in The Adventures of Marco Polo. She is playing Princess Kukachin, the daughter of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. MGM had no problem casting her as a Mongolian but refused to recognize she was Norwegian. Some people still think Samuel Goldwyn was a genius.

In the early 1920s aspiring actress Kathe Dorsch was engaged to World War 1 fighter ace and morphine addict Hermann Goering. She broke the engagement off, which sent Hermann into a tailspin. How could any woman spurn one of the only living heroes of the war?
Fifteen years later, Ms Dorsch was an acclaimed star of cinema, the stage and opera and Goering was the head of the Gestapo. He was also still her friend and would do anything she wanted. By now Jews could not marry non-Jews let alone leave Germany without a pass officially signed by Goering. The actual number of passes Goering signed for Dorsch isn’t known but the evidence suggests she frequently went to his office, got what she asked for and saw that many of her Jewish friends and acquaintances escaped to safety.
We could phrase that another way and speculate on how many Jewish people Goering knowingly arranged safe passage for except that it doesn’t exonerate him. If anything it shows what a fool he was and how easily Kathe Dorsch could manipulate him: not so much Schindler’s List as Hogan’s Heroes.

On May 18, 1945 U.S Army officers went to Leni Riefenstahl’s villa in Austria and arrested her, not to face criminal charges but rather to assist them with their investigations. Hitler had killed himself just over a fortnight earlier and Germany had surrendered on May 8. They wanted information in order to draw up a list of suspects and charges as quickly as possible. Riefenstahl was just one of hundreds who would be brought in for questioning and she was an obvious target as her friendship with Hitler had been well known since the international release of her films Olympia and Triumph of the Will in the mid-1930s.
The man in charge of the arrest team was Budd Schulberg, not yet known as a scriptwriter but well aware of Riefenstahl’s reputation as a director. He would later say that he had been given reels of footage and needed someone to help him identify people and events. In the car, Riefenstahl began to talk, of her own free will, or more accurately she began to complain. It wasn’t her fault. She’d done nothing wrong. She knew nothing of the Final Solution. She was not a criminal, only a film director. Back at headquarters she protested that had she said anything, Goebbels would have had her sent to the gas chamber. Schulberg pounced. If she knew nothing, how did she know about the gas chambers? The world's greatest female film-maker had just damned herself.
According to the caption on the back, this wire photo was taken by Associated Press photographer James Pringle at Riefenstahl’s villa as she was being arrested. Pringle’s World War 2 work is well known but look at this image. This isn’t a woman facing interrogation for one of the worst genocides in history. At this moment she still believes she is a glamorous star and an internationally famous film director: so does Pringle. 

In Viking lore a dead nobleman or woman or great warrior was placed on a longship, it was set alight and pushed out into the sea or the lake. Bear this in mind.
Like Sigrid Gurie, Danish born Gwili Andre arrived in Hollywood on the tails of Garbo and Dietrich having either been convinced or persuading herself that with the fashion for blonde Germanic or Nordic women she was a natural star. Her acting career was not spectacular; a handful of unremarkable films, but she did become reputedly the highest paid model in the U.S in the 1930s. It was as a model that she was photographed by Cecil Beaton, regarded then and today as one of the great fashion photographers. Gravures from the 1932 Beaton sessions – this is one – are relatively common, probably because they were cut from high quality mass circulation magazines.
To be a highly paid model in the era of Beaton, Steichen and Blumenfeld might strike some people as a dream come true but we only have snippets of information about Andre and none of the underlying causes behind what happened on the night in 1959 are ever considered.
On February 5, after years of reported alcoholism and frustration at her failed acting career, Andre gathered together a bundle of press clippings, photographs and other souvenirs from her career, piled them in the middle of her apartment and set them alight, then she lay down. It was reported that only after her body was pulled out of the apartment and identified did her neighbours have any idea of her past. The comparison to a Viking pyre isn’t crass; it appears that was exactly what she had in mind.


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.