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Saturday, 19 April 2014


An amateur photographer goes to Panama in 1915
“My impression about the Panama Canal is that the great revolution it is going to introduce in the trade of the world is in the trade between the east and the west coast of the United States.”
William H. Taft

In 1915 someone, or more likely a group of people, set out to experience the best America had to offer, which that year meant the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and the opening of the Panama Canal. The result is this bundle of photographs. Crudely printed on printing out paper and heavy, fibre based paper, they have the quality of work carried out in a home darkroom, by someone who was yet to master the trickiest part of amateur photography. Some of them may have turned out to be excellent images had they been finished by someone who knew what he or she was doing, but high standards aren’t a synonym for interesting.

Take this shot of the Washington Monument: an object lesson in why someone needed to have read the Kodak photography made easy manual, but there are so many millions of photographs of the monument that get everything right. Do we really need any more dusk or night shots? Finally we have one that catches the eye.

There is a gap in the sequence between Washington and California. That’s a shame because if we follow the logical progression from Washington to Panama, through the Sierra Nevada, it means they probably drove across the country. Bear in mind that in 1915 that meant unreliable cars on unsealed roads, for at least a couple of weeks. Not many were willing to try that. Unless I have made a mistake in identifying a couple of photos, this image comes next. The sign on the garage indicates it is Lassen County, up in the Sierra Nevada and one of the most picturesque areas in California. There’s a small ‘school’ of photographers: Jervie Henry Eastman, Lawrence Engel and Burton Frasher (kind of), who started out in the county’s timber industry and took up photography in their spare time until they learned to make a profit from it.

Eagle Lake in Lassen County. All of these prints are 4x7 inches, which makes a difference when you realize how large this one is. Its one that breaks all the rules in the Kodak photography made easy manual: subject too far away, too much white space, ignorance of the rule of thirds etcetera, but would they have improved it? 

Richardson Springs, just over 100 miles south west of Susanville, Lassen County, and one of several hot springs in the Sierras that were drawing the tourists in the 1910s. There are a couple of postcards going on Ebay taken from a similar point of view. Did our photographer think about buying one then realized he or she could do better themselves?

An unknown town, somewhere. Like some others, this has the typical light, yellowish look of printing out paper. The uneven printing supports the theory. Like the scene from Eagle Lake, it doesn’t break the rules so much as show ignorance of them. Good.

We’ve arrived in San Francisco, in time for the Panama Pacific Expo, but before we go there, let’s head to Ocean Beach and to Seal Rocks, (note the swell) and to …

The view from Cliff House. So much to look at in this view. In the distance we get the windmills at the edge of Golden Gate Park, the crowds on the beach, the cars, the smokestack, and the curious looking structures on the sands are likely to be building materials for the sea wall that was being constructed.

Here, on the cliffs above the beach we have the Sutro Baths before they were a ruin. There’s an argument that in the late 19th century capitalism achieved a kind of social apogee. This was the so-called gilded age, when wealthy industrialists ameliorated their extravagance by returning some of their gains to the people in the form of universities, opera houses and museums. The Sutro Baths are often cited as an example. Having made his fortune exploiting labour, Adolph Sutro showed his benevolence by building venues for public entertainment across the city. Historians who don’t hold back on Leland Stanford, who see his altruism as little more than self-aggrandisement, reserve some affection for Sutro.

This one makes me think our photographer was Canadian. Well, given the photos were bought in Montreal, you might expect that, but without this image we’d have no real reason to think so. It’s hard to imagine an American showing special interest in the Canadian Hall at the Expo. 

What was it about international expositions that dictated the architecture had to look as tacky as it was ostentatious? Right at the moment when neo-classical architecture was being derided as outmoded and bombastic, the one place you could still find it was at a world’s fair, which was supposed to celebrate the modern world. We can probably blame the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, though the Parisians deserve a finger pointed their way as well. Here we have a view of the Tower of Jewels that completely fails to express any of the grandeur the building was supposed to have. It looks like it was built out of papier-maché.
Here’s an extract from a brochure, sourced from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. It says it all:
“An expenditure of fifty million dollars in construction.
Fifty millions more in the intrinsic value of exhibitions.
Six hundred and twenty-five acres of Palaces and gardens entrancingly beautiful.
Eleven great Exhibit Palaces crowded with objects of interest from every portion of the globe.
Spacious courts and miles on miles of ornamented avenues.
More than two hundred and fifty groups of statuary by world’s masters.
Huge mural paintings, masterpieces by the greatest artists.”
That means money, size, more money, even bigger sizes, and no accounting for taste. 

The choice of San Francisco as venue for the World Expo in 1915 had a lot to do with the Panama Canal, but just down the road at Balboa Park, San Diego had the more official event; the Panama-California Exposition. For political and military historians, the U.S entry into World War 1 is a watershed in the nation’s inexorable rise to global domination, but economic historians look more to the opening of the Canal a couple of years earlier. Taft was right when he suggested European trade wouldn’t be greatly affected by the Canal, except that it secured American authority over the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards.

The very brief account of the Canal goes as follows: Under the directorship of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French begin construction in 1881. Tens of thousands of workers are killed by malaria and industrial accidents. It is generally considered a fiasco. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt annexes Panama with a naval blockade. A succession of engineers are appointed to oversee the project. Most who visit the site wisely resign as soon as possible. The project is bigger and more complex than anyone, including Roosevelt, imagined …

This synopsis makes no mention of the ways debate about the Canal fractured U.S Congress, the creative economics, the figures showing that black workers were ten times more likely to die from yellow fever and malaria than white workers, and various other statistics that baffle the imagination. All that is put aside when the Canal is officially opened in August 1914. It is widely acclaimed as one of the great engineering triumphs in world history. It is this point – the fact America could pull off what Europe couldn’t – that really establishes the nation in international consciousness as the power to reckon with. 

The 1915 Expo and the construction of the Canal were well documented by professional photographers. Amateur views are much less common. Even rarer are collections like this that give them a shared context, and suggest a bigger story of a journey across the U.S. If the view of the Washington Monument came at the end of the journey, there’s still a sense of people heading out to document the country and be witness to its history.


Friday, 4 April 2014


Snapshots of modern architecture

“Architecture is the art of how to waste space.”
Philip Johnson

Looking at two books on architecture, I see one locates the beginning of modernism with the Eiffel Tower while the other reminds us that we can’t ask the question without looking back to the Renaissance. Considering that Renaissance architects had classical Rome in mind, and the Romans borrowed from Greece, this sounds like a polite way of telling us the question is irrelevant. However we like beginnings, and some of us need them, so I would put the Palais de la Jetée in Nice near the start. It was opened in 1883, close enough to the 20th century to be modish. Rather than making grand and tiresome claims on behalf of the state, it offered vicarious entertainment. Best of all, it had a brief life. It caught fire three days after it opened, was restored and reopened in 1891 then in World War 2 the German army stripped it for steel. We are becoming conditioned to the idea that grand monuments should never be around for too long, and if they will be, let them be ruins. Just as megalomaniacs build temples to themselves that quickly turn into shopping centres, the modern architect designs buildings expecting them to be torn down or transformed as soon as someone else has another idea. Still, it takes a cold heart not to regret the passing of the Palais de la Jetée. We know that were it around today, American corporations would have plastered their logos across it or some Russian oil baron would have turned it into his exclusive domain. 

The tower once stood in Trafford Park, Manchester. Its correct name is, or was, the Metropolitan Vickers Water Tower. Built in 1902, dismantled in 1940 on account of German bombers, it carried Radio Transmitter 2ZY on its crown and would be the second BBC radio tower in the country. Industry, technology, modern design, Sigmund Freud: it perfectly represents everything the word modernism meant in the first part of last century. The horse adds a post-modern element of contextual opposition. The man is a Turkish tourist; perhaps the photographer was as well. 

Speaking of contextual opposition, a hallmark of modernism was its rejection of neo-classical iconography while embracing its grandeur. Forget Doric columns, porticos and domes, but don’t ignore the monumental scale evoking the expansive breadth of our culture and civilization. When the Grand Masonic Lodge in London called on Henry Ashley and Winton Newman to build a new temple in 1927, they also wanted a memorial to the masons who had died in World War 1. The architects came up with a building now considered one of the outstanding examples of Art Deco design in the world. The columns and the architraves recall neo-classicism but for its time the building was distinctly modern. I have difficulty understanding how far the tentacles of the Masonic conspiracy have reached into our society. Either they are in league with a group of Jewish bankers and pretty much run the world economy, or they are profoundly anti-Semitic. One thing readily identifiable about masons is their architecture. They love the hidden codes found in symmetry and the hints at arcane science and mysticism. Don’t we all.

New Yorkers like to think they own the triumph of modernist architecture, and for once it is hard to be completely unsympathetic towards them. Impressive as it is from the outside, the really exceptional details in the Empire State Building are the plaques in the lobby identifying by name every labourer who worked on it. There is something in that which shows supreme self-confidence; not so much in the idea of the building being the work of a community, but in the attitude that there will one day be taller buildings than this one but they will never surpass the achievement. 

Here we have the Aldred Building in Montreal; completed the same year as the Empire State Building and, clearly, something of a little brother in the looks department. Like the Empire State Building, it stands out on the skyline but the real beauty lies in close-up, the friezes on the exterior and the design work indoors. Let New York have its Empire State Building; every self-respecting city needs an Aldred. Australian cities like Perth used to have quite a few. Now they don’t, they’re about as interesting as the crust on a three day old cup of coffee. 

Speaking of death, which I think we were in passing; architects have designed tombs. There are monuments in Père Lachaise in Paris that are considered the best work of particular architects. Most of these are massive; the size of small mansions, but a few are outstanding for achieving a lot with a minimum of expression. There is a history of modernism in the cemetery, which I am only vaguely familiar with, but as I recall, following World War 1 there was widespread rejection of anything ornate or elaborate in monuments. In some cases, the architects behind the remembrance fields in France consciously rejected typically pseudo-classical designs because these were associated with the state. The people, those who had paid for the state’s errors with their lives, deserved something more dignified. That idea percolated down to civilian monuments in cemeteries. Where once the size and detail in a stone angel said something about the deceased’s wealth or status, now their families were inclined to go for something simple that said a lot more. Note the American flag to the left. I assume this means this is a military memorial. Notice too how you don’t need much at all to give the site proper solemnity.

We are moving towards what is normally classified as late-modernism, but along the way, let’s stop by this charming house by a Canadian lake. Difficult to be absolutely certain here but there is a suspicion this is an example of a phenomenon that took off in post World War 2 North America and spread worldwide faster than any healthy notion should. The concept of pre-fab homes goes back much earlier; there are advertisements for them from the 1849 Californian gold rush, but we associate them with the great suburban land grab of the 1950s. Why think this is a pre-fab? Well, it’s too neat, too small and the asymmetry of the entrance emphasizes the symmetry of the rest. The too small and innocuous verandah above the garage adds to the effect of something built with mass production in mind. The giveaways are the too narrow eaves and the fake shutters. The reasons for investing in a pre-fab are obvious; they were cheap. The desire to design them is harder to understand. One began with a basic premise – two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, dining room etc – then worked down from there. It became an exercise in trimming the details so that the homeowner scarcely noticed the difference in space. Designing pre-fab homes was a job for the fundamentally cynical and anti-social.

Here we arrive at something easier to identify. Streamline Moderne was one of those hiccups in taste that did not feel so obnoxious after the first convulsion. One thing to love about it was that it drew its basic influence from ships. The authentic streamline moderne building was supposed to remind observers of ships cutting through the high seas. Really, though a few houses were built in the style, it belonged to just three types of buildings; motels, apartments and factories - perhaps because it was the best design for hiding the drab sordidness of what went on inside.

Here we can see the basic outline of the ship a little better, though this is an example of what we might call streamline moderne light. Real S M would have more features and flaunt its style like a peroxide blonde. Note the broken windows on the first floor, and this apartment was still relatively new when the photo was taken. One measure of how badly Australia’s building heritage has been handled by state governments is that in Perth and Brisbane there would be a fight to preserve this building. That’s sad and embarrassing. This was bought in England. The broken windows have an English look to them, though they tend to turn up more often on housing estates.

I’m not sure if this is south-western U.S desert or Canadian prairie, and I’m cannot say what exactly the building’s purpose is, apart from something industrial or wholesale, but I do know that it belongs out here. Once modernism got over its thing about height and thought about breadth instead, the number of regions it fitted in with suddenly expanded as well.

Interestingly, the cars belong to the era of high S M, as do the portholes over the portico, but the building itself doesn’t really qualify. It’s a motel of some description. My limited experience with American motels accords with what I’ve read in Learning from Las Vegas. All the energy in attracting customers was directed to the street front. Once past the neon you were in a place that could suddenly look old and ordinary.

Several of these photos came from the same box in a flea market, and I’m guessing were taken by the same person. Full credit to them for getting the New Topographics look while making it look so patronisingly easy. Here we have a school, presumably in Mexico or south west USA, judging by the sign on the roof. There’s something about the look of this place that encourages truancy. That something is called modern architecture.


Saturday, 15 March 2014


Cat photos
“If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.” 
Terry Pratchett

You can guarantee that right now somebody, or more likely quite a few people, are wracking their brains trying to write a scholarly essay on the phenomenon of cats’ domination of the internet. Statistics, those ever trustworthy numbers, indicate that several thousand cat videos are uploaded to Facebook every minute. People who wrote blogs about poetry and had three viewers a month have discovered that if they write one about cute cats they can get thousands a week. The irony for the scholars is that cat videos are essentially anti-intellectual. You are supposed to sit at your desk for a couple of hours struggling over a difficult issue, every so often switching to a cat video because it relaxes the mind. The other thing to point out is that cats were considered furry little bundles of joy long before we had computers, let along an internet. The difference is that in the old days we sent each other postcards, of someone else’s cat. As for our own little parcels of feline sweetness; we took photos, put them in albums and soon forgot about them.

Another postcard, from prehistory so far as computers are concerned, and a question: who would send this postcard? By that, I mean, which occupation? Librarians, obviously, love cats, so much that most must own at least two, a black one with a personality and a tortoiseshell that thinks life is about lying on cushions. They would have definitely sent this card to each other. Professors of ancient Greek or Medieval history also own cats, but they wouldn’t have sent a postcard like this to their friends, because, back in the day when the arts were valued, they went for whimsical but not cute. Unless of course the recipient owned a dog. Police officers, on television anyway, often own cats. How many have wearily returned home after a long, sordid day dealing with society’s worst and the first thing they do is pour a saucer of milk for their Siamese sweetheart? My experience with hired assassins is limited, but you’ll notice how in novels most of them own cats. It is a clue to their humanity. They might send a card like this, but it would contain a veiled threat: ‘you, and your family, are dead’.

Some postcards of cats may be interesting but most snapshots are; and not always because of the subject. One can understand why someone would want to take photos of their cat – we all do it; most cat owners probably have hundreds – but when said animal looks like this; hateful and diseased, an animal that owes nothing to humans because, frankly, what have they ever done for it, you have to wonder; are there people who just assume all cats are cute. Here's one who isn't.

According to some recent statistics cited by National Geographic, cats in the U.S.A kill “between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 billion to 20.7 billion mammals in each year.” I assume rats figure highly in those astonishing numbers, so I am not too fussed, but that said; the humble squirrel, the innocent groundhog, the neurotic but otherwise non-bothersome chipmunk – which I always assumed was a squirrel but may be more closely related to the plague carrying Rattus rattus, so maybe we’re better off without them – it would be ironic and pathetic if the real blame for the sixth great extinction fell on those dear little soft balls of gentle lovingness, who gaze up at us so expectantly each time we go near the fridge. 

Case in point: a creature with the smug expression of one who has just killed an endangered species for no other reason than it could, yet it is also confident its owner (primary carer?) will ignore the pile of feathers behind the shed because his or her tortoiseshell treasure is the sweetest, most loving thing on the planet.

But an insatiable capacity for murder may not be the most sinister aspect to cats. They have an array of forms of communication at their disposal yet the only time they meow is in the presence of humans. These meows have been measured and amazingly, they fall within the same range as a baby’s cry. Evolutionary biologists are beginning to think that cats developed the meow to mimic a baby’s cry, knowing they would get a positive reaction from humans. Cute? Maybe. Downright deceitful? Absolutely. 

Part of the passage from childhood to adulthood is coming to the realization that cats have no strong feelings regarding being photographed, but they’d rather they weren’t. Also, they don’t like children. Adults feed cats and leave them in peace when they want to sleep on the sofa, which is all cats ask for from humans. Children think cats are better than teddy bears because they can pull their ears and get a reaction. Mother cats love their kittens; watch them care for their newborns and you realize there is no other word for it. This emotion does not extend to other species.

When my cat was in the best of health, an active day meant moving from the bed to the kitchen, with a couple of spells in the lounge room, and time spent on the windowsill or the balcony. Some of us believe this shows an innate curiosity in the outside world. Animal behaviour specialists differ. Cats like high places to view the world because it puts them at an advantage. As hunters they can track the movements of their prey. As prey themselves, they are in a protected place. Imagine a drug dealer who enters a bar, immediately cases the exits then has to face the doorway at all times in case the police make an appearance. That’s how cats think too. 

A few claims have been made lately regarding the difference between cat and dog owners. The basic formula is: cat = introvert, dog = extrovert, which falls apart as soon as you think about the cat owners you know V dog owners. Apart from the determinable detail that most of us hover around the centre with a preference for one state or the other depending on what is happening in life at the moment, quite a few dog owners I know tend towards the introvert, having little in the way of a thrilling social life while looking forward to that long walk with Spot on the weekend. A more accurate equation might be: dog owners value loyalty, humour and generosity while cat owners are content with sophisticated elegance. 

A troublesome photo, because it appears to make a distinction between cat owner and sheep owner that may be a matter of circumstance rather than a generalization, and one I am not well versed in. Notice how she holds the cat, preventing it from making any sudden moves. I don’t know what cats think of sheep, and vice versa (and incidentally, sheep aren’t that dumb; they know very well what they can get away with) but it does seem the relationship here is a little complex. Imagine our drug dealer again, meeting someone who posed no threat whatsoever but bored the pants off him and didn’t look right to boot. Sometimes you just have to put up with stuff you’d rather not.

Dear little things. Wouldn’t you like to pick them up, say, ‘live with me forever, my soft little sugar balls’, take them home and make a litter? Unfortunately, these examples of feline gorgeousness may be dead. It was very common around the turn of last century to photograph cats and dogs or even chimpanzees in all sorts of beguiling positions, made possible because they’d been to the taxidermist first. Far from being scandalous, this was acceptable, because how else would you get cats to pose? It isn’t that they resist behaving for us; they just have a different way of looking at the world.

Speaking of the dead; there are volumes worth of accounts of people who have been obliged to send their little one off to the great beyond, only to see or hear them return a few days later, and what’s interesting is that when you look at the accounts, it seems the number of cats returning considerably outweighs the stories of dogs. Why? I don’t think these cats are ghosts; it seems more a matter of the owners’ psychology, yet it points to something about cat owners we can almost put our finger on yet remains allusive. 

It is like another mystery about cats. When our cat’s health is good, which is becoming less frequent these days, we can play one, particular Bach CD and she will immediately jump on the sofa and nestle down. No other music gets that response from her. I’ve searched on the internet and found owners who swear their cat does the same to just one Black Sabbath LP. Obviously, cats aren’t hearing a structured composition of musical notes but something else. With dogs it doesn’t matter. Play any music and they will lie down, dribble out both sides of their mouth and wag their tails. Cats are different, and how they respond to music is intriguing. They are enigmatic.