Sunday, June 26, 2011

Central Viaduct, Cleveland Ohio

"A street car went through this viaduct several years ago killing all passengers."

Postcard, the Rotograph Co., probably printed before 1908.

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History has an account of the disaster:
The Central Viaduct streetcar accident occurred on the dark, foggy night of 16 November 1895. Cleveland City Railway Co. streetcar No. 642, on the Cedar-Jennings route, plunged through the open draw of the Central Viaduct into the Cuyahoga River, over 100 feet below. The mishap resulted in 17 deaths, making it the worst traction accident in the United States at that time and the worst such disaster in Cleveland's history. It was the second trip that evening for motorman Augustus Rogers and conductor Edward Hoffman. There were 21 people aboard, many of them women and children who had boarded the car downtown. Visibility was poor as the car approached the derailer switch. Hoffman went ahead, threw the switch, and motioned the car forward, jumping aboard the rear platform as the car passed. Unknown to either man, the draw was open, permitting the passage of a tug towing two vessels, and the power cutoff had not operated for some time.

Peering through the mist, Rogers thought he saw that the draw was open over the tracks, but since there was still current, he dismissed the idea. As he increased the throttle, the mist cleared, revealing the open draw. Slamming the transmission into reverse, Rogers and three passengers leaped to safety. Crashing through the warning fence, the streetcar plunged downward, striking a support piling and rebounding into 18 feet of water. Only one passenger survived the plunge, Patrick Looney, and he spent the rest of his life as an invalid due to of (sic) the injuries he sustained.

Two more Bowery views

Belle époque Paris boasted its arcades and flâneurs; turn-of-the-century Manhattan had strolls under the El. This postcard, which was mailed in 1910, was issued by the firm of Theodor Eismann, which had branches in Leipzig and New York and published cards with the Theocrom brand. It's a lithograph based on a photographic original, with considerable added color, thus neither strictly a photograph nor an artistic "print." The obviously photographic ironwork in the lower righthand corner hardly seems to belong to the same image as the cartoonish buildings in the background in the upper right, yet the whole composition has a distinct liveliness and beauty.

The Bowery was once New York's theatre district, rowdy and open to all classes in a way that Broadway wouldn't come to be. The poster on the sidewalk appears to advertise the London Theatre, founded by the impresario and politician Henry Clay Miner, but the London itself was several blocks away at at 235 Bowery. I haven't been able to find out what the Saranac at 57 Bowery was, but there's a photographic view of the same sign here at Shorpy (you'll have to click through to the enlarged version there to see the sign in the lower righthand corner).

The card above, published by the Rotograph Co. some time in the first decade of the 20th century, looks down the Bowery from where it ends at Cooper Square. It appears to be a collotype rather than a lithograph, but once again the image has been extensively colored. Browning, King & Co., the large building on the right, was a clothing chain with stores in several cities.

Below, a few thoughts which are not meant to provide any kind of rigorous analysis of these hybrid pictures but rather an attempt to come to terms with why I find them particularly interesting.

An image that is entirely one thing or another -- a photograph or a print or a painting -- is an object that purports to be existentially intact and complete, a fulfillment, to the degree that it succeeds, of a single artist's intentions and abilities. (In saying that it only "purports to be" I am, of course, deliberately deferring to another time the issue of how reading the context of an art work affects our understanding of it.)

An image that has originated in one process but which has then been visibly altered by being subjected -- usually by someone else -- to techniques from another process, an image that continues to preserve visible evidence of having been "worked on," is an image that refuses to be complete, refuses to be "flat." When we examine such an picture we see a disjuncture, a clash between multiple processes and multiple creators, and that conflict re-opens the image -- in fact it refuses to allow the image to re-close. Instead of seeing an "artistic statement," we see an unresolved dialogue. An image that may have originally intended to be documentary, to represent what is as closely as possible, takes on a layer in which what will appear is shaped by an entirely different set of aesthetic or market considerations, but without entirely erasing the trace of the original or revoking its documentary claims. There is no way of deciding how much "weight" to give to the claims of one partner in its creation or another.

In some cases retouching may take over an image and conceal the original entirely. When that happens the underlying structure remains but by no longer being apparent on the surface it loses its destabilizing power. It has become fully contained.

Of course photography is never merely documentary; the way in which an image is framed and developed is necessarily guided by the photographer. But we don't see the photographer, at least at first sight; we only see the image. In a hybrid image, on the other hand, we see visible evidence of the ways in which one set of intentions and processes interferes with another.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

There are some of them here yet

This postcard was mailed from Noboribetsu on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido on May 12, 1914 and addressed to E. J. Thompkins in Albany, NY. The inscription on the back reads "These people inhabited Japan before the Japanese came here and there are some of them here yet." The name of the sender seems to have been Henry Russell. Was he in Japan on business, as a tourist, or for some other reason? (Intriguingly, a Henry Russell, who had a Japanese mother, was born in Yokohama in 1880, but that may be pure coincidence.)

The town of Noboribetsu (the name is derived from the Ainu language and is said to mean something like "dark river") is today known for its hot springs. It also boasts an Ainu museum village. Though the photograph doesn't necessarily represent Noboribetsu itself -- it could have been elsewhere in Hokkaido -- I wonder whether the scene depicted might not have been a tourist trap even then.

The card, which was undoubtedly part of a series, was probably published by the Tomboya company in Japan. It lacks the little dragonfly in the front right-hand corner that was Tomboya's emblem (tombo or tonbo means dragonfly in Japanese), but there is a dragonfly on the back next to a row of characters. The photographer could have been Takaji Hotta, whose work was often published by Tomboya. The caption below the photograph (its true color is blue-green) has been printed so firmly that an impression can be felt on the back.

The block on Hamilton Street in Albany where E. J. Thompkins lived apparently no longer exists.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Postcards, continued

Below, two more examples of the mutability of historical images, as filtered through various technologies employed in the mass reproduction of postcards in the first half of the 20th century.

This Real Photo postcard from an unnamed commercial studio (almost certainly the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Co.) depicts the Waldo-Hancock Bridge in Bucksport, Maine. The bridge was completed in 1931, so the image probably dates from the early 1930s. (A newer structure at the same location was completed in 2006.)

In the postcards below, which appear to be later modifications of this image, the steamer becomes a sail boat, or disappears entirely, obeying whatever the whims of marketing or aesthetics were at the time they were produced. Despite extensive retouching and radically shifting color palettes it seems almost certain that the card images began as copies of the photographic print. The bushes and trees in all three views have almost exactly the same branch structure and orientation, even though in one of the views an attempt has been made to suggest fall foliage.

The next two postcards show the Equitable Building in Manhattan. The first, postmarked 1919, is from an unknown publisher and is probably a tinted halftone. The second version shows a virtually identical perspective -- note the horse-drawn wagon at bottom left -- but by day. All of the indications of night seen in the former image -- the moon, the dark clouds, the illuminated windows, and the glowing lamps above the sidewalks -- are artifacts of the printmaking process, as are the sky coloring, the red of the adjoining building, and the flag in the daytime card. Underlying both cards is the ghostly trace of a single black and white photographic original, now possibly lost.

Mass-produced postcards were never intended to meet high evidentiary standards, of course, but their wide distribution must have had a profound effect on how people regarded their surroundings and how they interpreted two-dimensional representations of sights both familiar and distant. These cards sought to portray a real world but they also built imaginary worlds as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Bowery, looking north

This tinted postcard depicts the Bowery in Manhattan, probably between 1901 and 1905. It was published by A. C. Bosselman & Co. of New York but like most better quality postcards at the time it was printed in Germany.

The tinted halftone process added layers of printed color to an original black and white image, and thus represented a kind of hybrid between photomechanical and traditional ink printmaking. The appearance of the finished image would be affected by the skill, the patience, and in some cases the imagination of the printer; details might be added or brushed out as desired. Some of the vehicles and figures shown above appear to have been retouched by the printmaker, and details like the steeple in the distance between the two converging rail lines were probably added as well.

The New York Public Library has a photograph, attributed to John Loeffler and dated 1895, that depicts a similar vista.

(Courtesy the New York Public Library)

John Loeffler died in 1901; the postcard below, which corresponds closely with the Bosselman card, was published by his brother August, who was active until 1905.

(Courtesy the New York Public Library)

Here is yet another version, issued by the Souvenir Post Card Co., which was active from 1905-1914. It uses the relatively crude line block halftone process.

(Courtesy the New York Public Library)

In addition to the coloring, there are a number of differences between the photograph and the postcards. Whether there once existed an alternate photographic original or whether the differences were due to retouching I don't know. The general prospect looking uptown was evidently a popular one, and a number of imitations or variations were marketed. The next image, published by Valentine & Sons (active from 1907-1909), has only one train and a far less busy street, but a bridge has sprouted crosstown in the middle distance.

(Via Wikipedia)

Looking from one image to another, pedestrians who stride by unaware of the photographer's presence or who may never have existed at all appear and disappear, signs leap out or vanish, streetcars and elevated trains advance like the flickering phantoms of early motion pictures. In some images trucks replace trolley cars, day becomes night, yet some of the same figures seem to stroll in the shadows of the elevated rails. Below are a few among many. The first one, by the way, is the only one that clearly depicts the casket factory sign that appears in Loeffler's photo, and thus is probably a direct descendant.

This uncredited photograph, via the Bowery Boys, also shows a roughly similar perspective, though it doesn't seem to match up closely with any of the postcards. The "casket" sign isn't shown, but there seems to be a "coffin" one on the same building.

Here, from the digital collections of Library of Congress, are two photographic views taken by J. S. Johnston in 1895. Either or both may have been retouched a bit.

The card below, published by the prolific Detroit Publishing Co., provides a different angle and a better view of the faces of some of the buildings on the west side of the street, including the Gaiety Musée, a famous vaudeville theatre, whose garish facade, just uptown from Glassman's Hats, is much less obvious in the other pictures. Dominating the scene is the monstrous bulk of the Bowery Savings Bank, designed by Stanford White (and now a registered landmark).

(Via the Georgetown County Digital Library)

One of the things that appeals to me about many of these images (other than their historical content) is that they seem to inhabit a fertile middle ground, staking out various points along a spectrum between the supposedly "documentary" status of photography and the "artificial" methods of painting and drawing. (Later postcards, which fall solidly into one camp or the other, seem as a consequence far less interesting.) The same basic scene could be reshot, or an older original could be adapted, in order to include details that would make the final image more quaint or more contemporary as market tastes might demand. Complete "fidelity" in mass reproduction, at least in regard to color, was as yet impossible in any case. In my next post I'll look at a few more examples of image manipulation.

I am grateful to the phenomenal resources of the Metropolitan Postcard Collectors Club for much of the background information above, but any confusion is my own.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

A temple bell in Kyoto, Japan

The image above, hand-dated 1905, probably depicts the bell at the Chion-in Temple, which is said to be Japan's largest. It appears to be a hand-tinted collotype; there is no dot pattern that would indicate lithography.

The card is addressed to "Mrs. Militz" at the Home of Truth in Alameda, California, presumably Annie Rix Militz, a prominent New Thought minister who had co-founded the Home of Truth that year before traveling abroad. The initials on the front also read A.R.M., so she may have mailed it home to herself as a souvenir. The stamp has been torn off, no doubt for a collector's album, obliterating with it most of what must have been the original Japanese postmark. There is no message on the back, as postal reservations at the time reserved that space for the address alone.

The Russo-Japanese War had concluded a few weeks before this card was mailed. Lafcadio Hearn had died in Tokyo one year earlier; the great San Francisco earthquake, across the bay from Alameda, still lay a few months off.