Pictures I Like: Kids and Water

My Story: Around 1970 I started putting up pictures on the wall over the desk where I worked. This picture of a little girl swimming was the first. I put it on the wall because it made me smile every time I looked at it.

A little while later I added this picture of a kid who probably doesn’t know that he looks like a pharoah but who is having a good time anyway.

Then I added this one, of two kids in a drainage ditch or maybe a jungle river. A friend saw this picture and was horrified, “Who cut up those children and threw them in a ditch?” It was then that I understood that something was very wrong with her.

So what is it about these pictures? Well, there are kids having a good time — not being told to sit still or behave or not get their clothes dirty — they are totally without care and feeling good. Cold water, hot day, what’s not to like? Jung has something to say about these images as archetypes but I skimmed past that last time I came across it. I don’t want to over-analyze these pictures and lose their immediate virtue: They make me smile. Every time.
The Facts: I confess that I have lost the name of the photographer who took the first photo. (Yes, I’ve tried both TinEye and Google Image search — perhaps it’s not on line.) I recall that it’s a photo of his daughter taken late 60s or very early 70s at their vacation place in Maine or Massachusetts, but my recaller is not always reliable. Perhaps someone will write in and identify this photographer. Meanwhile this is a scan of an original artifact, punched full of holes made by staples and pushpins as it was moved from location to location.
The second photo was taken by George Krause in Philadelphia, 1966. Krause titled this picture “Fountainhead”.
The third photo is by Bruno Barbey and was taken in the Brazillian Amazon in 1966.

Pictures I Like: “A Walk To The Paradise Garden”, W. Eugene Smith (1946)


My Story: Isn’t that sweet! Those two kids and that wonderful light. All is joy and hope at an age when everything is new! No wonder that this photo was the final shot, the coda to Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit.

The Facts: Eugene Smith was an ordinary photographer before the Second World War, handling routine assignments for Life, Newsweek, and Parade magazines. After Pearl Harbor, he tried to join Steichen’s Navy photography unit but was refused because of his small size and an injury that hampered his movement. Smith persevered and managed to contract with Ziff-Davis Publishing and was assigned to the Pacific. He photographed combat at Rabaul, Tarawa, and in the Marianas. After his contract with Ziff-Davis ended, he got Life magazine to send him back in time for the fighting on Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.
Smith’s father had committed suicide in 1936 and…:

…the sensational­ism of the local newspaper’s coverage of his death caused Smith to bitterly hate dishonest journalism. Smith almost decided to quit journalism, but a friend convinced him that, “honesty is not of a profession, but within the individual and what he brings to his work.”

This passion for honesty caused him to despise sentimental depictions of war’s glory (such as the Iwo Jima flag-raising); Smith was determined to show the gritty realities. These included dying soldiers caked in mud, and civilians caught up by chaos and fear.

Saipan, 1944. Smith: "They burst out through the opening, stumbling, dazed, choking, and nearly blinded by the fumes, trying to lurch and claw their way past the still warm body of a man, and another of a boy. Trying for an escape when there was no escape."

Saipan, 1944. Smith: “They burst out through the opening, stumbling, dazed, choking, and nearly blinded by the fumes, trying to lurch and claw their way past the still warm body of a man, and another of a boy. Trying for an escape when there was no escape.”

The Pacific war was brutal and nasty, and the battle for Okinawa was a horror show. This was the bloodiest battle Americans had fought since the Civil War and it included mass suicides by civilians who feared capture. Smith photographed it all. He hated what he saw but:

If I could photograph powerfully enough… If my photographs could grab the viewer by the heart, making the enormity of the terribleness of war lodge heavilly, they might also prod the conscience and cause him to think. [Smith]

Okinawa, 1944. Smith: "In his first action he had been quickly hit and was now lying on a stretcher... The blood had sprayed the length of him and behind him as he ran... it now was mixed with the muck of Okinawa from his boots to the head wound from which it had come... As he lay thee he touched the tips of his fingers together... The last I saw of him...two men running and creeping with the recent replacement between them... I think the boy on the stretcher was already dead."

Okinawa, 1944. Smith: “In his first action he had been quickly hit and was now lying on a stretcher… The blood had sprayed the length of him and behind him as he ran… it now was mixed with the muck of Okinawa from his boots to the head wound from which it had come… As he lay there he touched the tips of his fingers together… The last I saw of him…two men running and creeping with the recent replacement between them… I think the boy on the stretcher was already dead.”

While photographing the fighting, a shell hit near Smith and shrapnel tore through his body. One shell fragment passed through his left hand that was focusing the camera, and then ripped through his face, shattering parts of his skull. Smith was shipped back to the US and spent two years having metal and bone splinters removed from his face. His skull was reconstructed and his hand rebuilt, but fluid constantly dripped from his nose and he could not fully close his hand. For a time Smith thought he would never use a camera again.

Two years after he was wounded, Smith determined to make an effort to create a photograph. He decided to photograph his youngest children who were too small to recognize the struggle he was undertaking. He got his wife and oldest child out of the house, not wishing witnesses to what might be a failure. Once they were gone, Smith faced his first trial:  he had to load the camera with film.

I struggled to tear open the cardboard container, and then struggled to open the camera and insert the roll. This, at the beginning, almost proved my undoing, for as I fought to give my mangled left hand a strength and a control it did not have…the pain and the nerves and the fear and the inadequate fumbling left me trembling, sweating, and coldly hunched in cramp. [Smith]

Now, with the camera loaded, he and the children went outside. It was a lovely day and the children scampered about as Smith walked behind, trying to work the focus with his ruined hand. Whenever he brought the camera to his face, nasal fluid splashed on the glass viewfinder and obscured his vision. He struggled along, forcing his hand to work and swallowing the vile, bitter, seepage from his wounds.

Then Smith saw the opening in the trees, full of light, and thought his children might walk into it. It was the shot he hoped for.

I became acutely sensitive  to the lines forming the scene and to the bright shower of light pouring into the opening and spilling down the path toward us. Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. [Smith]

Smith struggled with the camera, pain ripping from his hand through his arm as he focused, sucking down the “ugly tasting serum”, gauging the light and composition, and trying to determine exactly when to press the shutter to make up for his slowed reaction time. He squeezed off a shot and knew that he had something. He forced himself to take another. Then he turned away from the children so that they would not see him weep.


Life photographs by Smith
a biographical essay
the lengthy piece by Smith excerpted above
Photography Made Difficult, American Masters documentary

Pictures I Like: “Mary Greyeyes”, photographer unknown 1942


The Story: This photo is in the Library and Archives of Canada with the following untrue caption: “Mary Greyeyes being blessed by her native Chief prior to leaving for service in the CWAC “. Other places have Mary as an “Indian princess” being blessed by her father and chief. Also untrue.

The Facts: Here is the true story as related by her daughter-in-law, Melanie Fahlman Reid. Mary Greyeyes, aka Mary Reid, enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps  in 1942. Her brother David had joined the Army not long before, so Mary decided to give it a go as well. She was living on the Cree reserve at Muskeg Lake, north of Saskatoon, at the time. She wrote to the War Department and eventually got a letter telling her to travel to Regina and take a test. Mary had gone to a residential school and, in those days, there was no education for Indians beyond Grade 8, so she was apprehensive. But she passed with flying colors and became the first native to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

Lt. David Greyeyes, 1943. [Department of National Defence]

Lt. David Greyeyes, 1943. [Department of National Defence]

The white women didn’t want her in the barracks and so Mary boarded outside the barracks. One day, her sergeant and two Mounties came by the boarding house and told Mary that, if she came with them and had her picture taken, they would give her a new uniform and a really good lunch. So they drove out to the Piapot Reserve, which is northeast of Regina, and there Mary knelt in the grass before band councillor (later chief) Harry Bull and had her picture taken. She remembered that there were a lot of bugs in the grass and it was uncomfortable. She and Harry had a conversation:

Harry says, “God it’s hot. What did you get for this?”
Mary says, “I get a good lunch.”
Harry says, “I got 20 bucks.”
Mary says, “So what are you bitching about? You get 20 bucks and I’m down here with bugs.”

Harry was a World War I vet and probably the original notion was to show an elder blessing the youth going to war or some such. The photographer went to local houses and found some stuff — pipe, bonnet, blanket, a knot of sweetgrass –that was cobbled together into a costume for Harry. He wasn’t Mary’s chief — they’d never met — and she wasn’t an Indian princess, whatever that was supposed to be.

Anyway, after the picture was taken, Mary was shipped out to England where she mostly worked in a laundry, which she hated. She asked for a transfer and her sergeant wrote on her application “Does Not Speak English”. But she did get reassigned to a kitchen. Whenever there was a need for a bit of colonial color to brighten up the news, they called on Mary who became “The Indian”. “She’s A Full-Blooded Indian But Now She Cooks For Palefaces” was one headline. It wasn’t all bad. She met Princess Elizabeth and the Queen Mother and sometimes enjoyed her status. Later she said that these were some of the best years of her life.

In 1946, Mary shipped back to Canada and was discharged. She returned to the Muskeg Lake reserve. One day, during a federal election, her old sergeant and a couple of Mounties showed up. They said, “Mary, you’ve got to come and vote.” The deal was, Indians who had served in the war could vote, if they gave up their treaty rights:

So Mary says to them, she says, “Can my mom vote?”
And they said, “No, she didn’t fight in the war.”
She said, “Well, what about my cousins over there, can they vote?”
And they said no. They said, “C’mon Mary, you gotta come, we’ve got the photographer.”
And she said, “All those years, I said nothing. Now I’m saying no.”

And that’s the real story of Mary Greyeyes.

[for a more complete version of the above, see Melanie Fahlman Reid’s account in The Tyee]

Pictures I Like: Diane Arbus, “Xmas Tree In A Living Room In Levittown, Long Island, 1963″


My Story:

“Here it is, the most beautiful tree on the lot. Cost me $18, but what the hell it goes to a good cause. At least I think it does. Depends on what the firemen do with it. Probably buy booze for themselves. So what! I got the tree, the best tree. Just have to get this damned stand screwed on, Fill the thing with water later so the tree won’t dry out so fast and shed needles all over the rug. Love that evergreen smell! Okay, upsy-daisy. Jesus, this thing’s heavy. Move the stand over. Try again. Stand up goddamit! Jesus, it’s too tall! Oh hell it’s falling over. Christ! My back! Okay, okay. It’s still a beautiful tree, nice shape, I’ll just trim a little off the top. Get the fucking saw. Where did I leave it? Out in the shed. There it is, under the lawnmower. Okay, back inside. God, my back! Okay, saw off a little. Now heave the damn thing… Still too tall goddamit! Okay, okay. Saw off a little more. And up… Just fits! Ha! Got you you bastard! Okay, no angel on top this year but put the damn presents around and who gives a shit. My back! Every step is agony! I need a drink a really really stiff drink. The most beautiful drink in the house.”

The Facts:

Diane Arbus got a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on a project called “American Rites, Manners and Customs” that she completed in 1963. This photograph was made during the end of that project as she was perfecting her head-on square format style. Arbus’ work is often called strange or freakish but it is really just ordinary life in photographs — trees like this one are the subjects of millions of family snapshots — the problem is that people don’t recognize just how strange the ordinary actually is.

“…if you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic. You know it really is fantastic that we look like this and you sometimes see that very clearly in a photograph. Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it.”
(Diane Arbus quoted in the 1972 Aperture monograph Diane Arbus published shortly after her death. New edition which may or may not include this quote: Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary Edition)

Pictures I Like: The Jap Skull

My Story: Well, maybe I don’t like this picture so much as I am compelled to think about it. From a 1944 issue of Life magazine, the “Picture of the Week”. Here’s the caption:

When he said goodby two years ago to Natalie Nickerson, 20, a war worker of Phoenix, Ariz., a big, handsome Navy Lieutenant promised her a Jap. Last week, Natalie received a human skull, autographed by her lieutenant and 13 friends, and inscribed: “This is a good Jap — a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” Natalie, surprised at the gift, named it Tojo. The armed forces disapprove strongly of this kind of thing.

But Natalie doesn’t show any sign of disapproval. I wonder what is going through her head.

The Facts: The armed forces definitely did not approve of “this kind of thing” and on several occasions warned US publishers that printing such pictures might result in retaliation against American soldiers. Nevertheless, the practice of taking skulls and other parts of corpses as souvenirs was widespread in the Pacific theater during World War II. A contemporary poem, “The US Sailor with the Japanese Skull”, by Winfield Townley Scott, actually detailed one method of cleaning a souvenir skull. Other methods were practiced by US servicemen.

Marines “stewing a skull”. [Wikipedia]

At one point President Roosevelt was presented with a letter opener made from a man’s arm. He is said to have received it warmly but to have had the item interred with other remains later. That story and the photo of Natalie and Tojo found their  way into the Japanese press. Some historians have claimed that stories of US soldiers desecrating remains helped cause the mass suicide of civilians who leaped into the sea at Saipan and Okinawa. After the war, as Japan became a trusted US ally, souvenir body parts ceased to be respectable conversation pieces and were quietly put away. Sometimes they re-emerge to the consternation of police who have to determine their origin.

But the question remains, what is Natalie thinking? Is she pleased and proud? Is she mystified or confused? Is she writing a polite thank-you note to her Lieutenant or a excited demand for lots more skulls? Women’s attitudes toward combat were probably quite different in 1944 then they are nowadays with women serving as active warriors. The division between those who fight and those who need protection was part of the great gender divide of the day and helped bolster male demands for female obedience. But that is a topic that somebody else can analyze.

Pictures I Like: Grand Central Terminal, 1930 by Hal Morey

My Story: What a great picture! Cathedral light streaming through the windows of what was once one of America’s greatest places. A unique and… What? It’s not unique?

The Facts: Lots of photographs of Grand Central Terminal (aka Grand Central Station) with light streaming through the glass were taken from 1920 to, well, yesterday. There seems to be great confusion over when they were taken. The above photo may be found on line attributed to 1929, 1930, 1934, and other dates. That specific image is from the N.Y. Transit Museum. Most places claim the photographer is unknown, but there is a tagged photo from Getty Images that seems to identify the photographer. Or else Hal Morey of the N.Y. Central R.R.  just used this picture to advertise his photography.

When is this one? One place says 1926, but no other info:

Here’s another, similar, view tagged 1934, photog unknown:

But maybe the place selling that poster was lazy in its attribution. Because there are photos showing the opposite windows such as this one by John Collier, 1941, which is obviously the same picture from a flipped negative or plate:

 Just so you get your bearings, that kiosk is in the center of the concourse. This is 1920,we are told:

But it’s a cropped version of this one from the New York City Municipal Archives, who date it 1935- 1941:

But, whoever and whenever, these pictures are much the same. The image is striking but how many times can it be repeated before it loses its artistic punch and becomes just more kitsch? I don’t know, but I still like looking at these photographs. All of them.

Pictures I Like: Tankman, Charlie Cole, 1989

My Story: Whoa! What can you say? You know how big a tank is, there’s one on display somewhere within a hundred miles or so no matter where you live. Maybe it’s a Sherman tank at an American war memorial, maybe it’s a T-34 somewhere in Eastern Europe — these are smaller than the one in Beijing in 1989. Even so, walk around and stand in front of that thing and imagine it’s coming at you, how long before you step aside? And this guy stepped back in front of the tank when it tried to get around him! Then he climbed up on top of it and said to the driver: “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.” Man, what can you say?

The Facts: Charlie Cole was shooting from his hotel room when the tanks rolled into Tienanmen Square. He knew right away he had a good picture but was afraid the authorities would confiscate it. He hid the exposed roll in the bathroom and loaded the camera with blank film. He had another camera with shots of the wounded on it but he had no film left to substitute and he thought the authorities would be suspicious of empty cameras. Sure enough, the security police came into his room about fifteen minutes after the shot was taken. They stripped the  film from his cameras and lectured him on taking pictures while the city was under martial law. They left and Cole recovered the film from his toilet. His shots of the wounded were gone (but you can see plenty here and shots of corpses, too, if you need to).

Cole was not the only photographer to shoot this scene, there were at least four others. Here’s a shot by Stuart Franklin:

[photo removed at Franklin’s request]

How many tanks does it take to put down a student demonstration anyway? Here’s another shot from ground level by Terril Jones, notice the guys fleeing:

(credit: Terril Jones, AP)

There’s some video of this episode, too. People (army? security police? maybe friends?) dragged the man away. An American network tried to track him down years later but to no avail. That makes the song by Cui Jian adopted as a student protest anthem, “Nothing to My Name”, even more appropriate.