Saturday, April 28, 2012
Dear Aunt Harriet
Hope this your birthday finds you well and happy with many more.
A group of views from a village within the boundaries of the town of Newton, Massachusetts, a few miles west of Boston. As one might suppose, there is also a Newton Lower Falls, but the town includes Newton Centre, Newton Corner, Newton Highlands, Newtonville, and West Newton as well, along with several villages that don't include the name Newton in any form. The stream is the Charles River.
The images below are not identical, though they both originated from the same photographic negative. If you look carefully there are differences in coloring and cropping, which are most evident along the bottom border and in the bushes in the left and right foreground.
Do you have anything like this in Seattle
Saturday, April 21, 2012
Above, Weary & Kramer's 1893 Christ Methodist Episcopal Church (now the First United Methodist Church) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The building, which replaced an earlier church structure destroyed by fire, still stands, though recent photographs show no sign of the ivy. Below, some brief and very amateur thoughts on the historical uses of Rotograph's output of scenic view cards.
Dissertations could no doubt be written (and in fact, at least a few have been written) about postcards as an early form of social media (one often derided by traditionalists of the day as a trivialized and mass-marketed substitute for proper letter-writing), about what images were produced and why, and about the place of scenic views within the history of photography and modern art. Another body of potential historical evidence can be found in the messages that were written on the cards, which, while they tend to the banal and formulaic, sometimes illuminate tiny corners of interest to the microhistorian, as well as broader trends, like immigration, as in the example below, which was posted to a Norwegian-American woman.
On the most superficial level, of course, Rotograph's archive of thousands of images preserves a record of how the country appeared a century or so ago, but the fact is that most of what we see in them is amply documented elsewhere. Unlike Real Photo postcards, which sometimes captured unique images of ordinary life and events both profound and trivial, Rotograph's views tended to concentrate on those aspects of life that were most public and unchanging, at least from one day to the next: monuments, bridges, schools, churches, office buildings, parks, beaches, hotels, and so on. They were scenes that the purchaser might want to preserve as souvenirs, or share with others who lived at a distance (though postcards were very often exchanged between correspondents who lived no more than a few miles apart), but they did not in themselves reveal anything to those who were already familiar with the locations they depicted.
Cities and towns grow, but they also decay; often, they do both simultaneously, as one form of urbanization supplants another. Most buildings have lifetimes -- sometimes surprisingly short ones -- and only the most indispensable or symbolically significant structures are likely to be preserved indefinitely. A high percentage of the inns and resorts shown in Rotograph's views of New England, for instance, were lost to fire, often within a generation or two of their construction -- but recognizing this immediately raises the question of why many were not replaced. This negative evidence, the absence of these structures today, may be traceable to shifts in vacation patterns due to the rise of the automobile and the roadside motel.
The disappearance of some structures, like Hammatt Billings's canopy over Plymouth Rock (above), accompanied shifting fashions in aesthetics and public taste, while other absences -- buildings once regarded as assets that were later demolished as liabilities -- may be linked to demography or to changing patterns in the use and management of public space. The survival of certain buildings, like the "casino" below (really more of a recreation hall and sometime theatre) may speak to the relative immunity to change of favored enclaves like Nantucket Island.
To me, however, the aspect that is of greatest interest is cumulative, and comparative. Looking at an array of these images in succession and in juxtaposition, we see a world that is partly familiar but partly radically different. Manhattan, for example, has changed dramatically in the past hundred years, but most of its essential qualities of size, infrastructure, economic and political function, ethnic diversity, and so on were already firmly established by the first decade of the twentieth century.
From the perspective of a hundred years we see the changes, but from an even longer perspective there are equally significant continuities. New York is, as it was then, a busy, dense megalopolis where millions of people of different classes and backgrounds live, work, study, shop, fight, love, and die. When we look at the city a hundred years ago we are, in a real sense, looking at ourselves, but in a way that highlights both what we share and don't share with those who came before us.
Saturday, April 14, 2012
[This project, while not completed (it is in fact meant to be open-ended) has reached a point where it can be considered established, and I plan to add new material far more sporadically in the future so that I can return to other endeavors. Below is the first installment of a two-part overview of some of the interpretive aspects of the project. This post deals with aesthetic issues; the next will look at the use of Rotograph's work as historical evidence.]
The Rotograph Company produced tens of thousands of scenic views in its brief history. Its photographers -- whoever they may have been, since by and large their identities seem to be unrecorded -- captured engineering marvels of the day, from bridges and canals to skyscrapers; they documented the civic and religious buildings of small towns as well as the well-tended monuments with which Americans declared their connections to their own past; they depicted the seaside resorts and tourist traps of an early 20th-century America where increasing numbers of people went to taste the benefits of leisure time; above all, they preserved in material, visible form both the country's physical appearance and, equally important, evidence of how Americans conceived of the land they inhabited.
The archive of images that they created was broad and rich, but it was not unselective. In general, Rotograph's view cards show us little of factories and sweatshops, bars and missions, tenements and shantytowns, and much else that we know -- and that its audience knew -- was in fact present. Unlike Jacob Riis or the WPA photographers of the 1930s, the company did not deliberately set out to confront Americans with aspects of their country that were normally concealed or ignored. Nor were they carrying on the same task as the countless thousands of small-town professional photographers and amateur shutterbugs who, in the first decades of the twentieth century, preserved images of everything from family life to lynchings in continuous-tone "Real Photo" photographic postcards.
Without denying the active role that the company's photographers, printers, and management played in creating the images, in the end what was shot, printed, and distributed was determined, above all, by market considerations. But acknowledging that fact inevitably leads to the question -- which I will not attempt to answer but do intend to raise -- of why the market wanted certain things: what scenes of their country were Americans interested in seeing, and how did they want them to be depicted?
The postcard boom of the early 20th century paralleled the flowering of other forms of popular art and entertainment that were affordable to all but the poorest Americans, from the newspaper comic to the motion picture and the phonograph record. Although tintypes, cartes de visite, and other inexpensive photographic media had been available for decades, the rise of the postcard greatly expanded the inventory of images that could be manufactured, distributed, and exchanged. This project has only been concerned with scenic view cards, but the postcard format was adaptable to everything from salacious humor to sentimentality to reproductions of fine artworks that would normally only be seen by those with access to the collections of one of the great metropolitan museums.
The mass production of postcard images by lithographic screen processes, rather than by continuous-tone true photographic printing, entailed certain limitations. The crucial one, from the perspective of this project, was the matter of color. The challenge lay not so much in printing color per se as in reproducing the richness and subtleties of color that were encountered in the real world. Despite some promising early experiments, mass-produced true-color photographic reproduction was not yet feasible.
In response, postcard manufacturers developed a workaround. They would not attempt to directly employ the output of the camera lens as a medium for transferring information about real-world coloration to the finished project. Instead, they would start from a black-and-white original and artificially introduce appropriate pigmentation during the printing process. When done crudely and cheaply, the results were unimpressive, but in skillful hands the resulting images could be, if not fully true-to-life, satisfactorily pleasing to the eye. The ultimate goal, let us remind ourselves, was to entice a buyer.
But something odd happens here. Photographic images that might have seemed utterly pedestrian in black-and-white took on an extra dimension when carefully printed in color (or when colored wholly or partly by hand, as some Rotographs were). Coloring did more than restore natural hues; it created artificial objects with supernormal aesthetic qualities of their own. The great accomplishment of the coloring process lay not in better capturing the real world but in creating a different one.
Photography is, of course, an artistic genre, and a photograph, if taken with any kind of attention, is always more than a passive reflection of its subject. Even photographers with proclaimed "documentary" intentions are guided, to a greater or lesser degree, by aesthetic principles. But by applying a second level of artistic intervention to the original photograph, Rotograph's printers created hybrid images in which more than one strata of artistic activity could be seen to be at work. The finished postcards were documentary, because they were constrained by the real world that was present to be filtered through the photographer's lens, but they were also imaginary, because they had been manipulated in ways that corresponded both to notions of what coloring was appropriately natural and to judgments about what would be pleasing to the eye.
This manipulation -- which, I might add, anticipated the use of hybrid, "impure," artistic techniques like André Breton's collages, the incorporation of "found" objects and textures in the constructions of Joseph Cornell, and Andy Warhol's Pop Art employment of photographs as a base for silk-screened prints, to cite just a few examples -- produced artworks that were aesthetically irreducible. That is, it's impossible to casually dismiss them as nothing but kitsch created to satisfy a particular market fad and to flatter the self-image of the buyers, who were largely American citizens with a vested interest in beholding images of the country that reinforced a certain national ideology. The cards may indeed have been all that, but they also had an additional dimension, a disruptive strangeness, that may have been invisible to those who created and purchased them.
Looking at these postcards now, hopefully with a minimum of nostalgia, we miss much of the original context of associations that would have been familiar to their original creators and beholders, but in exchange we are able to see them through the perspective of subsequent artistic, technological, and historical developments, and we can see how technical limitations and the constraints of the market prompted creative solutions that can be encompassed within the broader history of producing -- and regarding -- art during the past one hundred years.
All of which is perhaps only a long-winded and abstruse way of saying that the artistic possibilities opened up by these images have not necessarily been followed to their exhaustion.
Saturday, April 7, 2012
Shown above is the so-called "Conus" of Marietta, Ohio, one of the hundreds if not thousands of substantial mounds and other earthworks built by the inhabitants of eastern North Americans before the arrival of European settlers. Many of these sites were long ago ploughed under, but this one survives, in part because of its sheltered location in a cemetery, and in part because, according to archaeologist George R. Milner, the town's citizens made a point of preserving it.
Over a century and a half ago, Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis singled out the citizens of Marietta for special praise for preserving their mounds, while lamenting the loss of what would have been "striking ornaments" in other cities. In fact, the early settlers of Marietta were so proud of their mounds that they dignified them with Latin names.Squier and Davis were the pioneering archaeologists whose 1848 report for the Smithsonian Institution, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, provided the first scientific survey of the earthworks. Like many of their contemporaries, they assumed them to be the work of some vanished people, since the region's Indians were deemed too "primitive" to be capable of such accomplishments. George R. Milner's The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of North America (W. W. Norton, 2004) is a good recent overview.
Despite the inscription on the postcard above, the Standing Stone Monument in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania is not "an Indian relic" but a memorial to a relic. A history of the monument can be found in the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (1910).
A famous Indian landmark on the right bank of a creek of the same name, on the Kittanning trail, at the site of the present Huntingdon, Huntingdon Co., Pa. The "standing stone" is described by John Harris (1754) as being 14 ft high and 6 in. square, and covered with Indian pictographs. It was highly venerated by the Indians, and is supposed to have been erected by one of the tribes of the Iroquois. After the treaty of 1754 the stone was carried away by the Indians. A similar one was erected on the same spot, which soon became covered with the names and initials of the Indian traders who passed by...The Handbook doesn't mention that the second stone was eventually destroyed (a piece is said to have been relocated to the Huntingdon County Courthouse). The third-generation monument shown in the postcard was erected in 1896 as part of a centennial commemoration of the incorporation of the Borough of Huntingdon. The fate of the original stone, with its mysterious "pictographs," is unknown. The recipient of the Standing Stone postcard, incidentally, was one Forney Gilliam of Ardmore, Indian Territories (now Oklahoma). Gilliam seems to have operated a small store in Ardmore; his solicitation for magazine subscriptions can be found in the Daily Ardmoreite for November 19, 1906. Either as part of his business or as a hobby (quite likely both), he appears to have been a quite active exchanger of postcards. (He also published at least one, a crudely printed black-and-white view of the Ardmore's Main Street.)
Rev. Dr William Smith, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, laid out a town on the site of Standing Stone in 1767, to which he gave the name of Huntingdon, in honor of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (England), who had made a gift to the university. The old name, however, clung to the place for years afterward. Nearly all the traders and military officers of the 18th century use the old name.
Finally, above is "the Devil's Den," a rock ledge in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, which one source indicates was believed to have been used by Indians as a place to store dried fish. There must be countless numbers of sites in the US with an equally hazy folk memory of use by the original inhabitants of the land. There are a number of other Rotographs of Newton Upper Falls, so perhaps they will be the subject of a future post.
The inscription, by the way, reads "Serg't I wish you would try and Send me Perry's Address he is a former member of your Co and a very good friend of mine. Sergt Regan." It was mailed to a Serg't E. R. Gross in Attleboro, Mass.