Pictures I Like: John Decker

The other night I watched a 1940s crime movie, Scarlet Street, on TCM. Edward G. Robinson plays a hen-pecked husband who holds down a stultifying job as cashier/bookkeeper at some sort of company. His only joy is painting, which he does in the bathroom of his run-down apartment. His wife hates his painting — doesn’t like the smell. One day, Edward G. Robinson meets Joan Bennett and is enraptured. Dan Duryea plays the heel who Joan loves (she likes to be smacked around). He persuades her to seduce the old guy. Things lead to a murderous climax. Okay, pretty much standard noir fare, but…

The paintings that Edward G. Robinson’s character creates are derided by his wife and others, but the first one I glimpsed made me sit up. The subject matter is a nondescript white flower in a glass, the painting looks like the artist was using hallucinogenic drugs. This was something special! In the movie, critics and dealers agree. Leaving aside the movie plot, I had to know more about the flower, some street scenes, and an incredible portrait of Joan Bennett, with eyelashes spiky as a psychedelic flower!

Screengrabs from Scarlet Street: the flower, portrait of Joan Bennett, closeup of portrait. The movie is in black-and-white, of course. I don’t know if any color was used in these paintings or not. (At least one of the paintings — that features a snake wrapped around an elevated train support — was in color). Decker has deliberately aimed at a primitive, untrained style — look at the dead-on composition of the Bennett portrait, for instance.

It didn’t take much digging to discover that the paintings had been made by John Decker. I researched him and that’s where things got really interesting, because John Decker was an artist, art forger, and drinking companion of W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, and other famous boozers. He may or may not have been a spy. He may or may not have forged the Head of Christ attributed to Rembrandt that hangs in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He certainly did a famous portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Any of these accomplishments are enough to make a man interesting.

John Decker probably about 1935. [Wikipedia]

John Decker was born Leopold von Decken in Berlin. Or possibly in London. Or Greenwich. One story had his aristocrat father eloping with an English opera singer and the young couple fleeing social scandal to England. An art gallery bio has him born in San Francisco before being abandoned in England. Wikipedia has the more conventional tale: that the child was two when his parents moved to London.

Graf Ernst August von der Decken, son of an artist, worked as a reporter and married Maria Anna Avenarius, an opera singer, in Greenwich in 1898. Their son was born in 1895. Hence the scandal. Maria abandoned the household at some point in what was, apparently, a stormy marriage. Ernst left his son alone in 1908. Decker despised his mother, “That red-headed whore!” “I like John Decker,” John Barrymore once said, “He hates sunsets and his mother.” Sunsets, possibly, because they reminded him of his mother’s red hair. At least that is the legend as recalled by one of Decker’s cronies. It does appear that Decker hated the natural auburn shade of his own hair. Maria died in 1918. Ernst in 1934.

Legend has it (meaning John Decker told a drunken story that was recalled later by someone who had heard it while drunk) that, at the age of thirteen, the young lad began to work for an art forger, whose specialty was conning tourists. During World War I, some of these paintings were shipped back to the continent and some had writing on the back of the canvas that may have been coded espionage messages. And that, according to legend, got the young man interned on the Isle of Man in 1917 or 1918. Later, Decker said that it was a terrible experience; that he had witnessed scenes of depravity too horrible now to relate. One that he did relate had to do with an internee who committed suicide by immolating himself on an electric fence. Since there is no record of electric fences at the Man internment camp, that seems unlikely. Decker also claimed that internees had to eat the corpses to keep from starving.

Internee art for one of the four newspapers published at the Isle of Man camp at Knockaloe. [via bbc.com, copyright Manx National Heritage, knockaloe.im]

Most likely Decker was interned because he had been born in Germany and was still a German citizen. His father may have left him in 1908, but someone seemed to support him, and it probably wasn’t an art forger. Decker was studying art at the Slade School of Art in London (where Barrymore also studied) before his internment, but that factoid was later embellished by naming his teacher as Walter Sickert, who, both legend and Patricia Cornwall claim, was Jack the Ripper.

Released at the War’s end, the young man may have travelled to Europe (or not) but did shift his name from von Decken to John Decker. Using phony papers, at some point he sailed to America, probably in 1921. He hung around New York for a while, working as a newspaper caricaturist and set decorator for stage productions. He tried acting, but, legend has it, he was already a heavy drinker and passed out on stage during a scene with Jeanette MacDonald. In 1928, or possibly 1930, Decker emigrated to Hollywood, where anybody can be anyone they want to be. He left his first wife, Helen, in New York, along with his baby daughter. When he arrived in California, Decker had a second wife, Judith. He never divorced Helen, not even after marrying a third time.

Decker had met John Barrymore in New York (in a bar, of course, where they discovered they had the same taste in beer, the legend says) and soon became part of a drunken crew known as the Bundy Drive Boys. Bundy Drive was the location of Decker’s studio and the boys included, besides Barrymore and W.C. Fields: Ben Hecht, who wrote the dramatic sketch that Decker performed in New York; Gene Fowler, journalist turned script-writer; Sadakichi Hartmann, art critic and poet; and actors Errol Flynn, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Alan Mowbray, and others who drifted in and out. Toward the end of the group’s existence, a few younger men, such as Anthony Quinn and Vincent Price, tagged along. Members of the original group had achieved some success in New York, where several of them first met, and had trekked out to Hollywood where the money was. Most of them hated the place and the film industry. All wanted to be a different kind of artist than they were — the screenwriters wanted to be novelists, the actors wanted to be painters, and so on. Decker was very clear about his art and his motivation: he wanted to make money and he would paint anything, anytime for a fee.

Decker was very gifted and could draw well and paint quickly. Somehow, though, he could not become wealthy, or at least, not wealthy enough. Mind you, he was living the high life through the 1930s, but there was an air of dissatisfaction about him that was revealed in the coat-of-arms that he hung on the Bundy Drive door. It shows his initials on a shield flanked by unicorns and bears the motto: “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”

Decker portrait of Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, 1935. [photo from eBay sale of painting. It went for $3250.]

For a time, Decker produced caricatures, the same kind of work he had done in New York. Occasionally, he did a portrait and, one auspicious day, someone — legend varies as to who — requested a portrait in old master style, or as a knight or royalty or something, and Decker obliged. Soon, many of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars had paintings that showed them as a lead character in some historical fantasy. Decker’s forte turned out to be satire and most of his clients understood his work. There were some dissatisfied customers, though — Clark Gable is said to have refused to pay for a portrait that made his ears look big — and there were lawsuits. When one client refused a portrait, Decker painted prison bars over his face and was sued for defamation. Decker counter-sued and the case was dropped.

Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton admire paintings of Cyrano de Bergerac and Hamlet. Note the Army outfit on Durante who was probably on his way to or from a USO gig.

Sometimes Decker worked for himself and not a contracted customer. So he produced a portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Her Majesty, recognizable both as herself and as Fields, frowns at a picture of Johnny Walker. Fields pretended outrage: “Decker has kicked history in the groin.”  Dave Chasen, owner of the restaurant where the Bundy Drive Boys hung out, demanded a copy. Decker dashed one off for him. He claimed to have done many others in various sizes, small copies going for $50 a picture. One would think that there would be more examples on the Internet, but surprisingly few examples of this famous image can be found on line.

 

Fields/Victoria hanging. [via Movies from the 20’s – 60’s]

Decker continued to create other works besides the caricatures. A few items can be found by googling. A painting of the Normandie on fire in New York harbor is interesting, but a study of black singers is not. Recent auction prices have Decker’s portraits going for $10000 and up, depending on who is the subject, and his “serious” work selling for $2 – 5000.

Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”. Dave Chasen liked this painting so much that he commissioned one with his face on it. The Chasen picture actually was blue and not green.

In 1941, Decker did a series of murals depicting the history of Hollywood for the Wilshire Bowl nightclub. The murals have disappeared, but Decker’s preliminary drawings are in the Smithsonian. Then, in 1942, Decker produced a great piece: a drawing of John Barrymore on his deathbed.

Barrymore on his deathbed. He had eczema and clawed at his skin as he died. Decker turns this into a theatrical gesture.

Barrymore was Decker’s closest friend. The actor’s self-destruction was mirrored in that of the painter. Both were very aware of the damage that they were doing to themselves. Later, Decker worked up some finished, sentimental, death-of-Barrymore pieces, but it is the drawing that strikes home. It may have hung over Barrymore’s coffin at his funeral, or that may have been one of the more sentimental pieces that Decker did at the time. Errol Flynn once claimed to have abducted Barrymore’s body and, with some other Bundy Boys, transported it from bar to bar, feeding it booze. Later, Flynn admitted that he made up the story (which has also been told of other dead drinkers).

Hartmann was the next of the group to die. He was also the oldest, 78 at the time of his death in 1944. In some ways. Sadakichi Hartmann was a model for the other Bundy Drive Boys. Born to a German father and Japanese mother in Japan, Hartmann was thrown out of the family (he said) at the age of fourteen and later adopted a Bohemian lifestyle in New York. He met Walt Whitman, quarreled with him, it is said, and eventually moved west to California. He is more known now for his criticism, which took photography seriously, than his other work, which included poetry, painting, and a brief turn as an actor (he appeared in Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad).  Alcohol and other drugs fueled his poetry. He had the habit of pissing himself while drunk. Decker’s daughter found Hartmann repellant and steered clear of him because he smelled so bad. Alcoholics may be fun to read about but aren’t so nice to live with. [pictures by or of Hartmann may be seen here. And here.]

Decker portrait of Sadakichi Hartmann, 1946 [via Laguna Art Museum ]

Born in Japan with two Axis parents meant that, during World War II, Hartmann was a person of interest to the FBI. He escaped internment because of age and infirmity, but was visited several times by federal agents, just to make certain he wasn’t passing information back to the Motherland. Gene Fowler was working on a biography of Hartmann that was never finished. In 1952 Fowler published a book of Bundy Drive tall tales about attempting to write the bio. Hartmann’s daughter was incensed by the fact that her father’s life had been reduced to a bunch of drunken anecdotes, but that was the fate of others of the Bundy Drive Gang as well, including Decker.

At the end of 1946, W.C. Fields died. Six months later, suffering from diabetes and cirrhosis, Decker passed away. His then-wife, Phyllis, had an open bar at his funeral. She also darkened his red moustache with mascara. The drawing of Barrymore on his deathbed was placed on Decker’s casket and a Decker portrait of Barrymore hung on the wall. Legend has it that, when the minister recited the words, “Let us pray”, the flower wreath fell from Barrymore’s portrait into the coffin. John Decker was 51 at the time of his death.

Van Gogh or Decker?

But that’s not the end of the story. In 1949, a Van Gogh self-portrait purchased by William Goetz, Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, was pronounced a fake by experts. Goetz angrily defended the work, which he had bought from a dealer in 1946. The dealer, said to be reputable, withheld the painting’s provenance for “business reasons”. The authenticity of the picture is still being debated and one name that keeps coming up is that of John Decker. According to a drinking buddy, Decker loved Van Gogh’s work and claimed that the Dutch artist sometimes used his penis to apply paint. No one has examined the disputed painting looking for traces of Decker’s organ, but legend has it…

The Fogg Museum says this is a Rembrandt study. Legend has it that the painting was done by Decker.

And in 2003, Stephen Jordan published a biography of Decker in which he claimed that Decker faked a Rembrandt study at the behest of Thomas Mitchell. Whether Mitchell was part of the con or its victim is unclear. According to the story related to Jordan, Mitchell, who was an art collector, bemoaned the fact that he could not afford a Rembrandt. Decker said that he could locate one that only cost $2000. Then Decker bought a piece of 17th Century furniture and pulled out a drawer bottom that he used as a surface. After painting the piece, Decker then cracked it along the back and sent it to Holland for repairs. When the piece returned to the US, it bore Dutch customs papers, which helped provide some provenance. Mitchell may or may not have paid $45000 for it, but it seems to have been part of his estate. That painting is now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum (which bought it for $35000). Harvard and the Fogg maintain that the work is genuine. Some testing was done a few years ago which showed that the wood panel was, indeed, Baltic oak from the 17th Century.

Finally, although not as valuable as Rembrandts or Van Goghs, Decker’s paintings have been a target for thieves.

Notes:

Bohemian Rogue: The Life of John Decker by Stephen C. Jordan, so far as I know the only full-length biography. The paperback now sells for $90

Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack: The Bards of Bundy Drive by Stephen C. Jordan. Out of print.

Hollywood’s Hellfire Club by Gregory William Mank. Was out of print, now seems to be back in stock.

The books above recycle all the legends and anecdotes that might better be read in:

Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler. Fowler’s account of trying to write Sadakichi Hartmann’s biography. Mostly anecdotes about the Bundy Drive Crew.

Good Night, Sweet Prince by Gene Fowler. Bio of John Barrymore with lots of anecdota.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures I Like: “Red Flag Over the Reichstag”, 1945 by Yevgeni Khaldei

Either the seventh or eighth day of May, depending on where you are, is the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. This is the key image of the end of that war, but it is one that has aroused some controversy over the years.

The original photo for TASS. Note the seam along the center where the tablecloths were sewn together.

The original photo for TASS. Note the seam along the center where the tablecloths were sewn together.

Yevgeny Khaldei had been a photographer with TASS and then the Red Army since 1936. Now he was photographing the push toward Berlin — a massive battle that took a month and involved more than three million soldiers altogether. It became known to the Soviet war photographers that Stalin wanted an historic flag-raising scene — Stalin had been very impressed by Joe Rosenthal’s photo of US Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi while taking Iwo Jima. So Khaldei got his uncle, a tailor, to sew together three tablecloths and make a flag from them. He carried this home-made flag into Berlin. By the end of March the Red Army had taken Vienna and was pushing into Germany. Following a huge battle at the Seelow Heights, Soviet forces pressed into Berlin and had entered the city limits by April 20. Stalin had two generals with their respective armies attacking Berlin and he pressed each man to be the One, the general who took Berlin. Meanwhile, the Americans were unwilling to expend the manpower necessary to take Berlin — after all, they still had to defeat Japan. The bloody battle for Okinawa was to be the next big American fight. Even so, American bombers pounded Berlin for weeks, creating a great deal of destruction. The Red Army advanced into Berlin, fighting the Germans who took cover in the rubble. As the Soviets moved deeper into the city, German troops ensconced themselves on the rooftops and upper windows of the massive buildings. (Albert Speer recalled that everything was built to the scale of gods, not of men.) On April 22, the Red Army first attacked the Reichstag building. The defenders were mainly SS with a large contingent of non-German troops — Dutch, Swedes, Danes — they had nowhere to go and saw no alternative to fighting to the death. Here, the Soviet forces bogged down for a bit. The prime date for taking Berlin was Mayday. An all-out assault on April 29 -30 brought Soviet troops into the foyer of the huge building, but German soldiers firing from the wrecked floors above turned the lobby into a slaughterhouse. Still, the Soviets pressed forward, through the lobby, and managed to get on the upper floors where the battle was fought, room to room, until May 2. A force of Red soldiers managed to get onto the Reichstag roof and raise a flag on April 30, but it was too dark to photograph and German snipers soon brought it down. On May 2 (probably) Khaldei managed to get up on the roof and persuaded some soldiers to raise his tablecloth flag. Khaldei shot an entire roll of film on his Leica, 36 images, of the event. Jubilant, he sent his pictures back to Moscow. Then he was summoned back to the TASS main office in Moscow. An editor threw a print of the flag-raising on the table. “What is this?” he demanded, “That soldier is wearing two wristwatches. That means he has been looting. Red Army soldiers do not loot! Remove a watch!” So, Khaldei scratched out a wristwatch on the soldier to the right of the man raising the flag. (Some say that the item on the man’s right wrist is a compass, not a watch.) Khaldei also sharpened and darkened the smoke in the distance. Later, the photo was colored, resulting in this: khaldei_color Khaldei never expressed regret for retouching the photo, nor was he shy about staging the flag raising. Some perspective might result from remembering that Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo was a re-enacted event, though Joe Rosenthal always denied that it was staged, even though James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, was on the scene and demanded a bigger flag be raised for the camera. Khaldei also photographed his flag being raised over other Berlin landmarks, including the Brandenburg Gate, and other photographers recorded flag-raisings throughout the city, from the Adlon Hotel to the Tempelhof airport. The men who are shown raising the flag are now thought to be, left to right: Alyosha Kovalyov and Abdulkhakim Ismailov, and (outside the frame in some photos) Leonid (or perhaps Alexei) Gorychev. Kovalyov was Ukrainian, Ismailov was from Dagestan, Gorychev from Minsk. Those names were supplied in 1995. For propaganda reasons, in 1945, the soldiers identified as raising the flag were Meliton Kantaria, a Georgian (like Stalin) and the man below,  Mikhail Yegorov, a Russian. The third man, Alexei Berest, was a Ukrainian and his name was deleted from the official captions. Mikhail Minin may have been the actual soldier who raised the “Victory Flag” on April 30, but by now who can say? Khaldei’s photo is the accepted popular version. With all of this, it is no wonder that some claim that Khaldei’s photo was “doctored”. Khaldei himself said that it was a good photo and depicted truth. And that leads into debates about photography and authenticity that I don’t want to get into here. Doctored or not, the photo is great propaganda. Khaldei had gone to work with TASS in 1936. He photographed much of the Second World War, including shots of Russian crowds hearing the official announcement that Germany had invaded, right through to photographs of the Nuremburg war crimes trial. Shots of Göring predominate there, although Khaldei claimed that Göring blamed him for some indignity suffered at the hands of a guard and covered his face when Khaldei approached. In Hungary, Khaldei photographed Jewish men and women wearing yellow stars, then ripped the stars from their clothing. His father and three of his four sisters were murdered by the Nazis. Khaldei’s mother and a grandfather were murdered in a Ukrainian pogrom before the War. In 1948, Khaldei was fired from TASS because, according to Khaldei, he was a Jew. Khaldei free-lanced until 1959 when Pravda hired him. In 1970 he was fired again. All during his career, Khaldei got others to take his picture as he posed before places he had just photographed minutes before.

Khaldei at Nuremburg. Goring is in the dock, possibly shielding his eyes from the glare. The defendants began wearing dark glasses soon after.

Khaldei at Nuremburg. Goring is in the dock, possibly shielding his eyes from the glare. The defendants began wearing dark glasses soon after.

The general Communist principle was that “art workers” were only a voice of the masses and not individuals, so it was many years after the War before Soviet authorities attached his name to his photographs. Khaldei began receiving recognition in the 1980s and, when a book of his photos was published in the early ’90s, Khaldei received enough money to buy a new camera: a Rolleiflex. “I never had such a camera in all my life!” he said. Khaldei died in 1997 at the age of 80.

Notes: At least eight of the 36 exposures made by Khaldei can be found via various Google searches. So far as I can determine none are copyright because the Soviet Union didn’t believe in such stuff. Khaldei was interviewed several times after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Here is a short piece where he describes retouching the wristwatch. Some of Khaldei’s images in a short video promoting a book about Khaldei. Witness to History: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei and this is the book promoted above. More about the Reichstag flag on Iconic Photos, here and here.

My Adventures With Wikipedia, Copyright, Photography

I like Wikipedia. I use it a lot. But if you try to do something with Wikipedia besides simply look at an article, sometimes it is a giant pain in the ass.

Seven or eight years ago, I was browsing Wikipedia and looked up a lesser-known author I like. The article was contributed by a young Australian who had written a number of Wikipedia entries on a variety of topics. The article I read was full of misinformation; I never looked at any of the others she wrote. (I think it is much more difficult for this kind of contributor to create an entry now.) I thought it important that my writer have an accurate Wikipedia article so I thought I’d re-write it. It took me a while — Wikipedia has its own system of coding that has little to do with HTML — but it got done. Then the fun began.

First, there were the busy-bodies, busy busy all the time, who came in to “correct” this or that. I left all the grammar and style corrections — possibly they were improvements — but reverted one or two changes of factual material that were wrong, explaining this in the place provided to give reasons for an edit. Next came the spoofers and vandals, who wanted to turn the entry into their own private joke. (I am not naming the subject of my entry so as not to attract griefers who might think it a challenge.) Most of these malicious changes were caught quickly, sometimes in a few minutes, by Wikipedia editors on the prowl, bless ’em. The entire process was a fairly positive experience, though so time-consuming that I have never tried to write another entry from scratch, though I have added material to other articles from time to time.

An article on the Vancouver Canucks failed to mention that their first few seasons in the NHL were marred by the prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of their owner. I have a special interest in criminal hockey owners and a particular interest in the Canucks, so I added that info, with footnotes, of course. Someone deleted it. So I reverted it. For a while my words stood, then someone chopped off a phrase and took a footnote with it. I repaired the notation, but left off the phrase. This repair took place some while after the chopping. I don’t go to Wikipedia daily nor do I keep track of my entries. I just check on them once in a great while to make certain they are still there.

One reason that I began this blog was to write without having to worry that my stuff was being edited or re-written without my approval, as was the case with Wikipedia. The posts here are personal and I can be a bit loose about my approach. One category that received a new post every month was Pictures I Like. The subject was a photo that I found striking for some reason or other and some background on the picture. This was a fairly popular feature here and some of these posts — such as the one on Grand Central Station — are still being discovered and linked by other bloggers.

Then, early last year, I got an e-mail from Stuart Franklin about a photo that was reproduced in the post Pictures I Like: Tankman. Franklin was somewhat exercised that I had used this photo not simply because it was copyright violation but because it was not at all a good picture that he had taken, it had technical flaws and so on. But he was also miffed because, 2014 being the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he hoped to get some reprinting of the photos that he had taken that day and smuggled out of China, including one that won a World Press Award. Franklin is a professional (Magnum!) photographer, after all; this is his livelihood. I understood this and removed the picture from this site. Then I got another e-mail from Franklin: the photo was still up — on Wikipedia!

So I checked out Wikipedia and there was the photo in the “Tank Man” article. And it was credited to this blog which is how Franklin came to associate me with it. So I edited the article by removing the photo.

And then somebody put it back.

Now began some rather frustrating correspondence with a busy bee on Wikipedia, an increasingly perturbed Stuart Franklin, and myself. The busy bee was a helpful type who thought, he said, that republishing the photo was Fair Use, although, of course, he was not a lawyer. Franklin had written to Wikipedia himself and Busy Bee had taken it on himself to move Franklin’s correspondence to a different niche in the vast Wikipedia morass of places where things can be stored. He was only trying to help, he said, because he knew Wikipedia could be daunting to the uninitiated. Meanwhile, the photo was being considered for deletion by Wikipedia editors, though this proved to be a rather lengthy process.

Then, Franklin re-examined the photo and discovered that he hadn’t taken that particular picture! No wonder it was technically deficient. So, back to Wikipedia with this info (which created some more editorial discussion about who the photographer actually was). And Franklin e-mailed me a JPEG of a photo that he did take and which might be used by Wikipedia. So, I made that edit to the Tank Man article. Also I changed the file name on the several instances where the non-Franklin photo included his name, though I could not get them all.

Now everything was quiet for a time.

In December of 2014, I got a message from a Wikipedia user that the photo I had forwarded from Franklin had been “orphaned” and would be deleted. I found that curious as the photo was still quite visible in the Tank Man article. I looked at the photo history and saw that the user who had e-mailed me had changed the size of the picture and now his name was there as the photo source. That’s okay by me. You enjoy, Dude!

Over the course of this affair, I gave a lot of thought to how I should handle pictures on this site. The photo that I used, wrongly attributed to Franklin, was floating around on the internet and I carelessly scooped it up. One other time I got a smack on the wrist for using photos on this blog that were not properly attributed to the photographer. The place where I had gotten the pictures had not given the correct source. I was happy to make the change and give credit where credit is due, but that really doesn’t answer the questions that arise here.

Photographers create works that can easily be digitally copied and distributed. The final distinction between the original and a copy is disappearing along with chemical/film processing. So, once a photo appears on the internet, it loses commercial value. Of course, photography is not the only form to suffer difficulties from new technology: music, print publishing, movies and video — all are going through changes, but photography has been there from the beginning. Or at least, from the moment that it was possible to digitally reproduce images. Pornography was the original internet business opportunity because an image was something that could be sold on-line.

It is now so difficult to protect image copyright that some photographers are quitting. Watermarks are not the answer. If an image is published, the publisher will want it pristine, and, since print newspapers and magazines are dying, the internet is now the major place to publish. But once published, the image leaves the control of both publisher and photographer. Indeed, there are predatory photographers and graphic artists who steal the work of others and put their own name on it.

So, how to steer through all this? I have been trying to develop a publication code for myself, basically a set of personal rules that are under constant scrutiny and re-thinking. After all, I don’t want to do blog posts without pictures — they are, like this post, boring to many. Anyhow, pretty soon I hope to do another Pictures That I Like post.

 

 

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.

kid1
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.

kid2
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.

kid3
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)

smith_garden2

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.

More:

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

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

mary-greyeyes

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”

arbus

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)