Recently in History Category

I was researching Harvey Ellis a bit yesterday, and found some strange confluences. Ellis was involved in the design of several buildings in Minnesota, though what brought me to him was his inlay/design work with Gustav Stickley in Syracuse. Apparently, Ellis designed a dormitory for the Farm School in St. Paul (now University of Minnesota) in 1887, and I was trying to figure out where it was. As near as I can figure, it was destroyed probably not long after it was built, replaced by a couple of other dormitories (Brewster and Dexter Hall) that were also destroyed before the 1950s. I have really fond memories of the St. Paul Campus where I studied rhetoric. It was moved to Wesbrook Hall on the Minneapolis side, and rebranded Writing Studies just before I dropped out.

Ellis had nothing to do with Wesbrook, but he apparently had a hand in Nicholson Hall next door where the writing center was located. I always liked that building, it was really full of light. He also was a designer for Pillsbury Hall, around the corner, one of the oldest surviving buildings on the campus. Eventually, after several other stops, Ellis ended up in Syracuse too. I'm looking forward to finding out more about him. A Minnesota historian has written a rather difficult to locate book about Ellis and I've ordered a copy.


In other Minnesota news, I was surprised to see a story on Faribault Woolen Mills on the NBC news last night. I was suprised to find out it had closed in 2009. Krista and I had toured their factory store somewhere around 2007, and wanted to buy something but really couldn't afford to. Locals have purchased the factory, just before the equipment was to be shipped overseas to Pakistan. They are currently employing 35 people, and hoping to expand next year. I went ahead and advanced ordered one of their revival blankets. I'm looking forward to that as well.

It dawned on me that Minnesota was the only place that I have really chosen to live. Most other locations have been happy or not so happy accidents, but I consciously chose to live in Minnesota.

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MORRO-CASTLE-burning-at-sea.jpgMorro Castle burning at sea, 1934 © International News Photos, Inc.

At the end of the 1920s Paris witnessed the birth of the weekly Match, conceived as the sporting version of L'Intransigeant, and simultaneously the creation of the Dephot Agency, the first to provide complete photographic records to the press.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 63

For years, I have wondered what/when the first photo agency was. However, I cannot really take Assouline seriously here. Dephoto was founded in 1928. Associate Press was distributing photographs by mail in 1927, but it seems clear from works comprised of syndicated photos (such as Pare Lorenz's The Roosevelt Year in 1934) that there were a variety of other picture agencies, such as Acme News Pictures, long before AP got involved. A big shake-out occurred in the 1930s with the advent of wirephoto, leaving AP and UPI as the main players in the US. The point being, though, that I suspect that picture agencies or syndicates probably sprung up not long after national distribution of illustrated weeklies like Harper's and the Illustrated London News began in the 1850s or 1860s. I'll bet that it occurred at around the same time in several countries, with international distribution coming just before the turn of the century.

As a lark, I was googling around looking for some dates and found this interesting bit regarding the mail distribution of images on the AP history page:

On rare occasions, the AP would use the AT&T; picture transmission system to send a picture of special urgency from its origin to a distribution point.

In virtually every instance, however, delivery could take up to 85 hours. An example: When the ocean liner Moro Castle caught fire off the New Jersey coast in 1934, an AP photographer flew over the vessel and made shot after shot of the flaming scene. The negatives were then processed in New York and original negatives sent via air mail to key distribution centers in Chicago and Los Angeles. The pictures were printed and redistributed by train and mail.

Compare/contrast this version with a contemporary report regarding AP's coverage from Time, September 24, 1934:

The blackened hulk of the T. E. L. Morro Castle was hardly cold last week before newsphoto agencies leaped headlong into the advertising pages of Editor & Publisher to tell the trade how they trounced their competitors in the race for pictures of this latest marine catastrophe. All the boasting was done by Acme Newspictures and International News Photos at the expense of their common enemy, the Associated Press.

Fundamentally the warfare between Associated Press, Hearst's International News, and Scripps-Howard's Acme should be three-cornered. But last spring AP drove the other two into a defensive alliance by announcing plans for a $1,000,000-a-year telephoto system which would flash all the day's newspictures to all the AP's clients within a few minutes of their taking (TIME, May 7). A few clients have already begun to install equipment, but no date has been set for starting the service. Meanwhile Acme and International have been working hand in glove.

When the Morro Castle's SOS flashed into Manhattan, weather along the coast was vile. The average commercial airplane pilot would have hesitated long before flying a cameraman offshore in the dark, wind, and rain. But International and Acme had classified lists of pilots, including certain ones who had the equipment and the courage to fly through anything. At about 7 a. m. two such pilots took off from New York with International and Acme cameramen, returned three hours later within five minutes of each other, with magnificent pictures of the burning vessel. Somehow AP was left at the post.

Last week's trade-paper advertisements rubbed it into AP unmercifully. International News's spread bluntly stated: "The Cleveland News, first newspaper to be supplied with Associated Press Telephoto, RELIED exclusively on International News Photos for first pictures of the burning Morro Castle." That jibe was mild compared to Acme's. The latter in a two-page layout showed facsimiles of the New York World-Telegram and the New York Sun the day of the disaster. The former, labeled 12:15 p. m., bore a large picture by Acme of the liner ablaze. The Sun, labeled 4 p. m., carried a stodgy still of the Morro Castle in her prime. The credit line was Associated Press Photo. Across the top of the advertisement streamed this headline:


But last week's set to over newsphoto supremacy in the pages of Editor & Publisher was generally considered only a mild prelude to the cut-throat battle ahead, if and when AP's telephoto service opens fire.

It just goes to show you how versions of the same chain of events can be spun. Then, as now, superior technology doesn't always win the day.

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Moral self-education requires of us above all that we erase mistaken representations, reject seemingly obvious postulates, and refuse the familiar recognitions that have become trite through repetition, thanks to our habits of perception. In order to see things, we must first of all look at them as if they had no meaning, as if they were a riddle. (7)

Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (1998, trans. 2001)

Photographic education has, for me, always been synonymous with learning to see, taking notice of those things that other people don't notice. In short, it's learning how to view the world as a riddle waiting to be studied and unraveled. Photography's reward is the pleasure of saying: oh, I see now!  I get it. Such revelations are of a quieter sort than solving a puzzle or riddle; and I don't think that photography's pleasure is equivocal with the assignation of "meaning" to the frame. Perhaps, the pleasure comes from the surrender of/ distance granted from/ fixed meaning. It is the acceptance of a "realm" of metaphoric/poetic thinking that delineates a range of possibilities that must begin apart from the commonplace, although it is always invoked at the risk of becoming the very thing it rejects: just another clich√©, a canned mythic meaning with trite conclusions and predictable resolution. 

Ginzburg's choice of terms in picking "moral self-education" as the goal of learning to see is spot on here, I think. Doing the right thing is something that we have to reinvent every day; it is not something that can be performed by rote according to a mysterious code that once mastered becomes second nature. The essay quoted above is the first of his nine reflections: "Making it Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device." At issue from the outset is the problem of novelty; Ginzburg takes two primary, subtly nuanced, examples as his touchstones. First there is the novelty of Tolstoy (connected with Stoic philosophy through Marcus Aurelius) that proposes "to see things 'as they really are' meant to free oneself from false ideas and images" and accept mortality. Ginzburg's second touchstone takes a different route via Proust.

The realm of Tolstoy is dominated by a sort of platonic view of the world as filled with falsehood and deception where there is an unfamiliar and novel "truth" underneath that might be located by finding the "true causal principles" as antidote (18). Proust, on the other hand suggests that the freshness and novelty of things is polluted by "the intrusion of ideas" (18). To find what is novel, it is better to present things "in the order of perception" and still uncontaminated by causal explanations" (18-19). I cannot recall the source at the moment, but one photographer advised that it was best to approach the world "as a sensitized plate" collecting impressions. Taking this advice, it is best to accept surfaces as they are rather than trying to elicit an impression of "true essence" (the driving force behind modernist photography). 

How might this be manifested? It seems to me that it is not novel in the Proustian sense to try to make a photograph of a iron pipe having the weight and strength of the original pipe (revealing an idealized concept of "iron" and its attributes) but it would be in its Stoic (via Tolstoy) sense. Or, alternatively, if it looked like ice cream, a totally unfamiliar presentation of a pipe, it would match up to the drive to defamiliarize present in the Stoics. What does it mean to be novel in the Proustian sense? Ginzburg quotes Proust:

Now Elstir's quest to show things not has he knew they were, but in accordance to the optical illusions that determine how we first see them, had indeed led him to highlight certain of these laws of perspective, which were the more striking at the time because it was art that first revealed them. A river, because of a bend in its course, or a bay, because of the way the cliffs appeared to draw closer together, would seem to hollow out, in the midst of the plain or mountains, a lake completely closed off on all sides. (19)

Ginzburg connects this with ekphrasis, "elaborate attempts to produce verbal descriptions of nonexistent but plausible, pictures" (19). His definition of ekphrasis is the classical literary distortion of the rhetorical exercise (ekphrasis need not be fictional), but it suggests the "placing before the eyes" that is foundational to this rhetorical performance. Novelty, then, for Proust, is secured by viewpoint rather than essence.

The Proustian approach has more appeal to me (as an artist), but the close of Ginzburg's essay claims that the historian should approach things from an opposite stance:

It seems to me that defamiliarization may be a useful antidote to the risk we all run of taking reality (ourselves included) for granted. The antipositivist implications of this remark are obvious. In stressing the cognitive effects of defamiliarization, however, I also want to take the firmest possible stand against those fashionable theories that blur the boundaries between fiction and history with the aim of making the two indistinguishable. Proust himself would have rejected this confusion. When he said that war might be narrated like a novel, he certainly had no intention of praising the historical novel; on the contrary, he wanted to suggest that historians, like novelists (or painters) come together in the pursuit of a cognitive goal. I agree entirely with this point of view. To characterize the historiographical project to which I see myself as contributing, I would use a phrase— slightly altered— that I have just quoted from Proust: "If we are to suppose that history is scientific, we would have to paint it as Elstir painted the sea in reverse. (22-23)

The stricture then, would not be "make it strange" but rather to make it familiar, which seems to coincide with the declared intent of much of the documentary photography of the 1930s. The irony of You Have Seen Their Faces with its exoticized southerners replete with goiters and Bibles is that it is nearly stoic in its emphasis on mortality and unfathomable strangeness. It is historicist only in the loosest possible senses. But in its earnestness, it contributed soundly to the standards of socially concerned documentary. The schism between documents and history, I think, can be productively traced here. The riddle, ultimately, is how to show the unfamiliar as familiar rather than the opposite.

Behind all this lies a core assumption: it is possible to make the familiar novel.

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