Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

Tulip Time

Red Tulip Blossoms Close Up

Today, despite the vaguely threatening weather, Martine and I went to Descanso Gardens to see the tulips, which are at peak bloom right now. They were magnificent! For Martine, it was even better, as we dined twice at her favorite Glendale eateries: Sevan Chicken and Elena’s Greek and Armenian Restaurant.

If I were asked which are my favorite flowers, I would answer tulips and California poppies. Roses are nice too, but I have too many memories of having to pick off and kill Japanese Beetles from my parents’ tree roses in Parma Heights, Ohio. Moreover, roses never look quite so perfect as tulips and poppies do.

This Tulip Reminds Me of a Venus Flytrap with Its “Teeth”

Next after poppies and tulips come camellias. At Descanso Gardens, this has been a bumper crop year for the camellias, which are still at peak bloom throughout the park. We have had a relatively wet and cool winter, and the camellias has responded in great profusion.

Descanso was more crowded today than I can recall from any of our previous visits. The parking lot was full, and hordes of people were positioning themselves in front of the tulips with plastic smiles while others pointed their smart phones at them and clicked away.

Purple and White Tulip Blossoms

I have always hated posed photographs, particularly in front of flowers. Is it because my mother and father always had me positioned in front of flowering plants with an artificial smile? Ever since I have started taking pictures, I have avoided posed pictures, preferring always to shoot candids. One gets more natural facial expressions when they are not expecting a picture. In the end, I got even with my mother. When we were visiting the former Marineland in Palos Verdes, I posed my mother to the right of a sign pointing to the right with a large arrow, with the sign reading “To the Walruses.”

By the way, if you like tulips as much as I do, I highly recommend that you read Alexandre Dumas Père’s novel The Black Tulip about tulipmania in Holland.

Images of a Grittier America

Burlesque Performers

In the photographs of Weegee (born Usher Fellig in Austrian Galicia in 1899), the streets are not paved with gold. They are occasionally paved with the bloody bodies of slain hoods. According to Edward Kosner writing in the New York Review of Books:

He snapped his mesmerizing photographs in a sweaty frenzy between seventy and eighty years ago. There are two haughty dowagers accosted by a shabbily dressed drunk woman at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera; children sleeping on a fire escape in a slum; a man arrested for cross-dressing grinning and baring his thigh in the back of a paddy wagon; a panoramic mob filling every inch of sand at Coney Island; an anguished mother in a black kerchief staring at the tenement fire in which her daughter and granddaughter are perishing. These familiar images were captured by an immigrant working in the depths of the Depression and wartime for a couple of dollars per newspaper shot.

Body of a Gunshot Victim Lying in the Street

Weegee’s pictures were shot with a Speed Graphic in high-contrast black and white. A few of his pictures show people celebrating, but most are somber pictures of a society peopled by floozies, cheap hoods, juvenile delinquents, and other victims. Through sheer persistence and bloody-mindedness, Weegee became something of a celebrity with his photographs. He took to calling himself Weegee the Genius and hoped to become a celebrity himself—and he was one, but always in a minor key.

A Thug (or Victim?) Being Hauled Off to the Police Station (or Hospital?)

Hollywood gave us one picture of life in America, but Weegee presented us with a grittier alternative America. The men wore suits, hats, and ties, but one had the feeling that was most of their wardrobe. Look at those faces peering through the car window in the above photo. These people will not be found in screwball comedies. They don’t have English butlers, and their wives are not dressed in the latest fashions from Paris.

 

Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.

 

The Photographer and the Cañar

St. Anthony Day Parade

St. Anthony Day Parade

In preparation for my trip, I am reading Judy Blankenship’s excellent Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador. Although the text is excellent, what impressed me the most were Judy’s photographic portraits in black and white of the Cañar villagers she and her husband Michael got to know in the time they spent in the indigenous Andean area some two hours north of Cuenca. Unfortunately, these portraits must be well protected, because I was unable to hijack any of them to show you. (I guess you’ll just have to get your hands on the book.)

Below is one of Judy’s pictures in black and white of the Carnaval parade in Curreucu:

Carnaval Parade in Curreucu

Carnaval Parade in Curreucu

Although Judy Blankenship is not a professionally trained ethnologist, she could have fooled me. Her description of marriage, entrada (betrothal), funeral, and other rituals makes for delightful reading—not to mention her photography workshops for indigenous women and even a few nuns. Below is a photograph of the author:

Judy Blankenship

Judy Blankenship

At this point, I have not read anything else by her; but I do believe it would be worth hunting down some of her other work, most especially her photographs.

At the Café of Lost Youth

Paris Café Scene, 1950s

Paris Café Scene, 1950s (Ed van der Elsken)

On the back cover of my New York Review edition of Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth was an intriguing blurb:

In the Café of Lost Youth is vintage Patrick Modiano, an absorbing evocation of a particular Paris of the 1950s, shadowy and shady, a secret world of writers, criminals, drinkers, and drifters. The novel, inspired in part by the circle (depicted in the photographs of Ed van der Elsken) of the notorious and charismatic Guy Debord, centers on the enigmatic, waiflike figure of Louki, who captures everyone’s attention even as she eludes possession or comprehension.

Naturally, I was intrigued and looked up the photos of Ed van der Elsken, of which I present two samples here. The above café scene is strongly suggestive of the Modiano book. The Parisian girls shown below are appealing images from a time long past:

Parisian Girls 1950s (Ed van der Elsken)

Parisian Girls 1950s (Ed van der Elsken)

One of the reasons I am drawn to Modiano’s work is that I am in love with Paris of the 1950s. I love the films (Melville, Chabrol, early Godard), the philosophy (Sartre, Camus), and now, with Modiano, the writers—even though he is writing retrospectively about the period over the last decade.

For more photos by Ed van der Elsken, click here.

 

Dogs in Cars

An Eerie Collection of Photographs

An Eerie Collection of Photographs

I saw it on the CBS News website. It was a slideshow of photographs of dogs sitting in cars. The photographs are the work of Martin Usborne which were published in a book called The Silence of Dogs in Cars. According to the CBS website, which I recommend you visit:

Fine art photographer Martin Usborne has a unique vision of man’s best friend. His book The Silence of Dogs in Cars is a entrancingly intense emotional study based on his memory of being once once left in a car as a child. “I don’t know when or where or for how long, possibly at the age of four, perhaps outside a supermarket, probably for fifteen minutes only. The details don’t matter. The point is that I wondered if anyone would come back. The fear I felt was strong: in a child’s mind it is possible to be alone forever.”

That deep-seated fear and his affinity for dogs led to his often dark series of images where very often the canines look sad or bereft, gazing forlornly through car windows, but really show a range of emotions … not unlike humans. The cinematic photos reinforce the connection between people and dogs.

The name of the dog in the above photo is Buzz. This is my favorite photo of the lot.