Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Lost Tower

This postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge and the adjacent waterfront, published by the Rotograph Co., was postmarked in 1905. Offering a view of the bridge at a time before automobile traffic had begun to transform the city, and of the rough-and-tumble district that, considerably scrubbed-up, is now anchored by the South Street Seaport, it's interesting for a number of reasons, but there's one particular detail that leaps out, and that's the curious structure on the far right that appears to be some sort of obelisk or monument, and which hardly seems to belong in the picture at all.

A bit of research soon revealed that the tower was not a ceremonial structure or an observatory for turn-of-the-century sightseers but, in fact, an industrial building constructed to serve a very specific purpose. It was one of two cast-iron "shot towers" designed by the 19th-century architect James Bogardus for use in the manufacture of lead shot. From a vat near the summit of the building, molten metal would be poured through a sieve; as the droplets fell from the heights they would be shaped by surface tension into tiny spheres, which would then harden when they fell into a tank of water at the bottom. This particular tower, which stood at 82 Beekman Street and rose some 215 feet high, was built for Tatham & Brothers around 1856; its construction followed by a year or so that of a similar but shorter structure which Bogardus had built further uptown for the McCullough Shot and Lead Co.

A pioneer of cast-iron construction, which relied on prefabricated elements that could be strikingly ornate, James Bogardus designed a number of important commercial buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere, but only a handful are still standing, including buildings at 75 Murray Street, 63 Nassau Street, and 254 Canal Street. A plaque at City Hall memorializes the McCullough Tower, and in TriBeCa a street sign officially designates James Bogardus Triangle.

The New York Times reported, in 1892, that the formerly dull red Tatham Tower had recently been repainted a yellow so vivid that "you can hardly see anything else as you look off toward the river." The color shown in the Rotograph postcard is not reliable, as it has been layered onto an image taken from a black-and-white original. Over the years the building suffered at least two serious fires, which were reported in the Times on February 8, 1895 and June 28, 1899. The image below depicts the earlier incident, which resulted in one death. Both shot towers were demolished in 1907.

The definitive volume on James Bogardus is Cast-Iron America: The Significance of James Bogardus, by Margot and Carol Gayle.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Bleaching Stream (Peter Blegvad)

The modest-looking covers of this 80-page paperback conceal a number of curiosities and mysteries within and without, starting with the identity of the book itself, which is actually The Bleaching Stream by Peter Blegvad "in conversation with Kevin Jackson." The title page, which features an elaborate illuminated red letter "B," informs us that the words "the bleaching stream" are a literal translation of what the name "Blegvad" means in Danish. It also designates Peter Blegvad as the "President of the LIP" (London Institute of 'Pataphysics), an organization which apparently does exist, this being Number 3 of its journal, and identifies his interviewer or interlocutor Kevin Jackson as "Regent of the Collège de 'Pataphysique." The cover date ("Absolu 139 EP") corresponds to Alfred Jarry's 'pataphysical calendar, though in a concession to Gregorian reckoning it also includes "September 2011 vulg." in parentheses. There are actually two monograms on the cover, for in addition to the obvious one of the LIP at the bottom the drawing of a glass of milk (yes, it is milk) in the center slyly incorporates Blegvad's initials.

An introduction is probably in order. Peter Blegvad is, depending on your perspective, either a rock musician and songwriter who also draws, or a cartoonist and graphic artist who also engages in music-making. As a musician he has been a member of such ensembles as Slapp Happy, Henry Cow, and the Golden Palominos, has collaborated on the progressive rock landmark Kew. Rhone (the lyrics of which contain one of the world's longest palindromes, "Peel's foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep"), and has written a number of unusually verbally adept songs, including the ineffable "King Strut." As an artist he is best known for the cartoon strip Leviathan which ran for several years in the Independent, though he has always been doodling this and that, both professionally and for his own amusement. The full range of his activity is in fact greater than that, as he has written fiction and essays, delivered lectures ("performances" might be a better word), and compiled various aural collages and "eartoons" which have appeared on the BBC and elsewhere. Born in the US in 1951 (his Danish-born father is a prolific illustrator of children's books, his mother an author), he has lived mostly in Europe since his teens. He is 6' 7", which means that in several photographs included in this volume he is seen looming over everyone else in the frame.

The Bleaching Stream consists of a series of interviews covering Blegvad's childhood, creative activities, influences, and obsessions. The last, which have been remarkably consistent through his life, notably include milk (hence the monogram). Printed on glossy stock, the book is generously illustrated with drawings, photographs, album covers, and ephemera, mostly in black-and-white although there are a couple of color plates. (I haven't attempted to scan any of the interior art, which I couldn't really do without dismembering the book.)

The influence that Alfred Jarry and his disciples have had on Blegvad was not something I was aware of nor would necessarily have suspected, though when you read these pages it all makes good sense. Blegvad mentions, and wears with pride, the fact that he has several times been disparaged by critics or collaborators for his "flippant" attitude; the ludic element has been a constant in his work, whether in the elaborate image-and-text punning of Leviathan or the droll recitation over Andy Partridge's musical backdrop of the whimsical text of "The Cryonic Trombone," to be included on the forthcoming Ape House (UK) CD Gonwards.

Over the years Blegvad has worked with or for a surprising variety of people and enterprises. For a while he drew backgrounds for some books spun off from Charles Schulz's Peanuts; later he served as a personal assistant to the director Arthur Penn. At one point in the freewheeling mid-1970s he was working with a German record producer who, though Blegvad wasn't aware of it at the time, had ties to the Baader-Meinhof group. His own position, characteristically, is traced out in humor and paradox:
KJ: And you weren't very interested in revolutionary politics?
PB: Everybody was, they were desperate times. But my "politics" came down to basically siding with the underdog. I wouldn't have been able to kidnap an industrialist because that would mean I'd immediately be on his side against me.
Blegvad has long had a following, which, though perhaps never very large, has been enthusiastic and appreciative. (A footnote here mentions that a first pressing of Slapp Happy's debut record recently sold for £1,131.00.) The Leviathan strips have been collected in a wonderful volume which remains in print, although according to Blegvad it only includes about a third of the total run. Some of his earlier print projects were run off in small numbers and left in restaurant napkin holders and subway cars for people to find by chance. His musical output, both solo and collaborative, has been issued, discarded, re-recorded, and re-issued by a variety of record labels, most of them small and European; my favorite disc (though not everyone's) is the mostly acoustic Choices Under Pressure. John Relph maintains a useful and admirably comprehensive discography. Blegvad can be heard as a regular participant in the Radio Free Song Club, a podcast of (mostly) original songs contributed by a variety of songwriters.

The present volume, which has been issued in an edition of 501 copies, is unlikely to bring Blegvad much additional recognition, though it should please, if not the audience he deserves, the audience that is devoted to him. A future LIP volume, collecting Blegvad's "scientific papers," is promised.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The stain

"The little tintypes, and their more elegant cousins the ambrotypes and daguerrotypes, provide the oldest direct connection to the visual past that we can depend upon. All photography is fictional, by which I mean that any photograph is a picture, not the world from which it was generated. But these little bits of early photography pull that fiction closer to the world than any pictures known. Many other photographic techniques make pictures that "look" more like the world, but the early direct-positive photographs on glass and metal bear the actual stain of light from the past." — Richard Benson, The Printed Picture

Three of these tiny images were produced by photographic studios in Philadelphia, possibly as early as the 1860s, though they could be somewhat later. The other is unlabeled but may be from the same city, as they were purchased together. The first three photographs above, of which the visible part is less than an inch high, are tintypes (or "ferrotypes" as they were then called); the last, which is slightly larger than an inch, is probably an albumen print. The embossed mounting cards, which were manufactured by several companies and sold in bulk to photographers, are about four inches high.

None of the sitters can be identified. The images that were intended to capture their likenesses for posterity now display only disinherited chemical traces, while preserving, ironically, the names of three of the photographic studios on the backs of the cards. Below, for instance, is the reverse of the card shown at the top of this page.

An Albion K. P. Trask (c. 1830-1900), born in Maine, was active in Philadelphia from the 1860s until his retirement in 1891. He was the author of Trask's Practical Ferrotyper, a popular manual, and his passing was duly noted in the pages of Wilson's Photographic Magazine, where it is observed that "many of the prominent photographers of to-day served an apprenticeship under him." If this photograph is in fact from his studio (there is some indication of an "E. K. Trask" being active in Philadelphia at the same time) it was probably produced before 1870, as he operated from a different address on 8th Street (and later still from Chestnut Street) after that date.

Trask's book mentions C. L. Lovejoy, whose studio produced the second image from the top; below is the reverse.

According to The American Tintype, an outstanding reference volume compiled by Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart, and Robert W. Wagner, Charles Lovejoy (they list his middle initial as "K") operated his tintype studio c.1864-67, and was also Secretary of the Ferrotype Association of Philadelphia during that period.

There's no studio name on the third tintype, but the albumen print is the work of the United Photographic Company of No. 808 Arch Street in Philadelphia. In this case since there is no hole in the card (the image appears to be pasted onto the front) the address is printed directly on the back of the card, rather than on the labels that were pasted on to reverse of the others. The delicate design surrounding the photo gives the only clue to the sitter's possible identity, as there is a letter "C" on both sides of his name. Did the studio have borders for each letter in the alphabet?

On the first two tintypes there are faint traces of added tint to give the women rosy cheeks.