Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Pretty embarrassing for an English major! I mean, I even took an oral exam in Middle English in college while also reading a Shakespeare play every day. But yesterday, as soon as I posted “America’s First Woman Author – Hannah Adams”, inspired by a portrait on a daguerreotype in my collection, I received a number of comments from people better informed than I, all asking “What about Anne Bradstreet?"
Anne Bradstreet was born in 1612 in England to an aristocratic family, married Simon Bradstreet at the age of 16, and sailed to America with other Puritan emigrants in 1630. Surviving the deadly travails of the voyage and the starvation of the first months, these Puritans soon founded the city of Boston (and Harvard University). Eventually Anne had eight children and was sickly all her life. She died at 50.
In 1650, a book of her poems was published in London as “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America” composed by “A Gentlewoman from Those Parts.” This made Anne the first woman poet published –both in England and the New World.
So what about Hannah Adams, who was born in 1755 and published her first book in 1784-- 134 years after Anne’s book of poetry?
I went back to my research on Hannah Adams, and saw that each biographer had described her carefully as:
“… the first woman in the United States who made literature a profession.”
“… the first American woman to support herself by writing.”
“… the first American author to make a living solely from writing.”
So, although yesterday I wrongly ignored Anne Bradstreet, I was partly right in that Hannah was the first female professional writer who supported herself with her writing. (She never married and her father went bankrupt.)
I’m delighted that my literary readers corrected me and pointed to Anne Bradstreet, whom I should have remembered from my English Major days. It was a woman friend from my high school English class—where we were classmates over fifty years ago-- who first pointed out my slip yesterday.
But I’m also still thrilled to own a daguerreotype of Hannah Adams, the first female professional writer, who championed education for women and lobbied for the first copyright laws in our country. Like Anne Bradstreet, she was one of our feminist godparents and a brave example to all women writers.
Monday, March 28, 2011
One of the categories of antique photographs that I collect is photos of paintings, especially portraits. Photography began in 1839 with the daguerreotype process, and many Americans quickly went to a photographer’s studio carrying a painting of a deceased relative—for how else would future generations remember the face of their ancestor?
The most touching example of this that I’ve seen was a daguerreotype of a man seated in a chair, flanked by his young children, holding on his lap a primitive painting of what was undoubtedly his deceased wife. Even separated by death, he gathered the whole family together for the only photograph they would ever have.
I bought this sixth plate daguerreotype of an old woman wearing a mob cap (much like Martha Washington) from a seller on E-Bay in 1999. He wrote that it was “identified by the previous owner as Hannah Adams (1755-1831)”. He then quoted part of a biography that identified her as the “first American woman to support herself by writing.”
I researched Hannah and her works. Born in Medfield, MA, the second of five children of a farmer and bookseller named Thomas Adams, Hannah was sickly and was not sent to school. She read on her own and learned Latin and Greek from divinity students who boarded in their house. Her mother died when she was only 12.
Hannah’s father became bankrupt when she was 17. She supported herself during the Revolutionary War by making lace and later by teaching. (Her father, a scholarly man, also tutored students from Harvard who boarded with them “on rustification”—country leave from classes in Cambridge.)
Hannah was curious about all varieties of religion. She once said “My first idea of Heaven was of a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified.”As she studied, she found herself “disgusted” by the “lack of candor” of writers about religion, who always seemed to prefer one denomination over another—so she determined to write a book comparing all religions without showing preference for any one. In 1784 she published the result, under the verbose title: “An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which Have Appeared from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day”. It sold out, but her agent kept all the money, which led Hannah to lobby for the United States’ first copyright law, passed in 1790.
More books came from this prolific author, mostly about history and religion. She was much sought after as a dinner guest and houseguest during an era when no women were allowed to attend university. According to one biographer, “She was cherished by affluent New England women as an embodiment of the benefits of permitting female equality in higher education.” When she died in 1831, she was the first of many important figures to be buried in the new Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
Although Hannah was a distant cousin of President John Adams and stayed for two weeks at his house, she never traveled beyond New England, and she never married.
As always, I tried to verify that my daguerreotype was in fact Hannah Adams. The engraving above is the only authenticated image of her that I could find. It’s obviously based on a painting, and “my” Hannah is a painting, so we’re dependent on the skills and vision of the two artists for an answer. Nevertheless, I’m happy that the image I bought, of a crone who was born before the American Revolution, introduced me to Hannah, the feisty and intelligent trailblazer of every woman writer came after.
Friday, March 25, 2011
I drove to New York last weekend to see all the photo-as-art shows, including AIPAD at the Park Avenue Armory, but really, I was desperately seeking signs of Spring, which usually shows up in Central Park about two weeks ahead of its arrival in Massachusetts.
We dined Friday night at Il Cantinori Restaurant, as guests of owners Steve Tsolis and his wife Nicola Kotsoni, where a towering bouquet of forced cherry blossoms redoubled my resolution to look for flowers blooming in Central Park. (Il Cantinori has always been famous for its extravagant floral displays, which are created by Nicola.)
Running all over Manhattan, I never managed to take my camera into the Park—no time—but as I scurried about, I began to feel like Alice in Wonderland, encountering all sorts of super-sized flora and fauna.
Walking up Park Avenue from 57th to 67th, I photographed gigantic red and pink roses—rising up to 25 feet high. They were created by artist Will Ryman, who decorated them with whimsical beetles, bees, ladybugs, aphids and thorns. (He said the thorns are meant to give them “a sense of foreboding”.) The artist had even scattered giant rose petals on the mall outside the Armory, six of which will also serve as lawn chairs when the weather becomes balmier. (The display of giant roses went up at the end of January and will stay through May, when Park Avenue’s traditional fields of tulips will add color.)
A Park Avenue restaurant displayed giant daisies, probably inspired by Will Ryman's roses.
Whimsy also greeted me on 57th Street as I saw tourists photographing each other in front of the windows of Louis Vuitton, featuring super-sized ostriches and ostrich eggs decked with super-expensive shoes and luggage.
Saturday night after dinner we walked to Central Park South because I wanted to get a look at the spring solstice’s full “super moon” which was supposed to be bigger than ever before or after. But I only succeeded in annoying the horses lined up with their carriages waiting for tourists. The moon was a disappointment: it looked no bigger than the street lights.
On Sunday, as we drove away from our hotel on Seventh Avenue, I glimpsed yet another super-sized Manhattan animal –this giant red-eyed rat. New Yorkers know that it means that the employees are on strike and some non-union scabs have crossed the picket line. Not exactly a cheery sign of spring, and I don’t think it really counts as art, or even pop art, but it made me smile anyway, remembering a dog-sized rat that once crossed my path running into the Park. As Cindy Adams likes to say at the end of her column: only in New York!
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Hearing of Liz Taylor's death saddened me, although I never met her, because I almost feel we grew up together, ever since "National Velvet" in 1944. Well, I was only 3 then, and she was 12, but I've always followed her illnesses and romantic adventures with interest. And I always thought she was intelligent (if not in her choice of husbands), honest and selflessly dedicated to the cause of eradicating AIDs.
I also vaguely remembered hearing that she had ESP and twice demanded to get off an airplane because she (correctly) believed it was going to crash. I just started googling to confirm that memory and found this quotation from an interview with her, but I wasn't able to ascertain when it took place or who was asking the questions. But here are her (alleged) words:
And she claims that during her various illnesses, she has already died four times--once when she saw Mike Todd waiting for her on the other side but he told her she must go back, because she had important work to do.
I suspect she's in heaven now surrounded by Mike Todd and Richard Burton and many other lovers.
Since I occasionally nominate women of a certain age as "crone of the week" for something remarkable or courageous or outrageous they've done, I hereby propose the late Elizabeth Taylor for "Crone of the Year.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)
Every time I return to Manhattan I’m reminded of why it’s my favorite city in the world. Nowhere else can you find such a mix of faces, languages, rituals, talents, and incredible sights. This past weekend, as the weather turned spring-like, I was constantly reminded of a P.R. slogan from the 1970’s, (when Manhattan was so much scarier, dirtier and less friendly), that we single working-girls would toss around with heavy sarcasm during the sweltering, foul-smelling hot months: “New York is a Summer Festival.” This past weekend, the city was indeed a spring festival with crowds on every corner in a party mood.
On Friday, we walked from the hotel at 56th and Seventh Avenue. It was the first time I had seen Broadway and Times Square since they turned it onto a pedestrian walkway.
In the olden days, the only moving sign on Times Square was the Camel-smoking man on a billboard who blew real smoke rings into the air. Now, all the billboards seem to move with mind-blowing activity and color.
One huge billboard projects the actual crowd of pedestrians on the sidewalk below, who are frantically waving at the camera. There is a pretty woman on the billboard with a magnifying glass who periodically magnifies some of the eager wavers. In other words: go down to Times Square and you can be on a billboard like all the models and actors. After some searching, I decided that the pretty girl a with magnifying glass does not actually exist—she is virtual, but the waving tourists are real.
Of course I photographed the statue of George M. Cohan. (For you youngsters, he was the guy who wrote “Give my regards to Broadway”—a song that inevitably gets stuck in my brain and drives me crazy. He was a songwriter, playwright, actor, singer, dancer and producer who lived from 1878 to 1942.)
Crowds of eager tourists surrounded the sight-seeing-bus stops and watched an artist who seemed to be creating his paintings out of spray paint and selling them on the spot.
Times Square is a photographers dream.
The reason we were going to Times Square was that I wanted to see the Pompeii exhibit which had gotten a good review in the New York Times. I realized that, even though it was tourist-y, that was probably the closest I’d ever get to the real Pompeii, which has always fascinated me.
At the climax of the exhibit,you are herded into a closed room where a vista of the city of Pompeii and the volcano Vesuvius are projected on one wall. Thanks to special effects, you see the slow pattern of destruction as the volcano smoked, then erupted over a period of about 36 hours. The floor shakes and the sound intensifies as the roofs collapse. There is smoke, fire, lava, and then at the climax, a giant wave of hot ash and intense heat overwhelms everything including the audience. The winds whips by you and then the wall in front of you opens and you see the white plaster casts of the dead bodies (including a dog and a pig curled in their last agonies.) You can walk among them--the family of four including two children and the man who died trying to crawl up a staircase, the couple reaching out to each other and a room full of 12 skeletons including nine children. These casts were made by pouring plaster into the hollow impressions left by the bodies that were encased by the ash as they died.)
Although I had planned weeks ago to visit the Pompeii exhibit, the drama was made so much more real and poignant by the tragedy in Japan. It was impossible to watch the tsunami of ash coming at you without thinking of the thousands of innocent people there who suffered a death much like those who died in Pompeii, but they were swept out to sea without even the memorial left by those who died in 79 A.D., who were preserved in solidified ash so that we can share their agony two thousand years later.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
The Story Behind the Photo
(Please click on the photos to make them bigger.)
When I began collecting antique photographs about twenty years ago, like most collectors I started out buying everything I could find. Then, as I gained expertise, I began to specialize, gravitating toward early images of children, twins (which I wrote about in a April 29, 2010 blog post: “Diane Arbus and Spooky Twins”) and photographs reflecting attitudes toward race and slavery. (For example, I wrote about the image of “The Scarred Back of a Slave Named Gordon” in a post dated Oct. 2, 2009. My information about that image was also printed in the New York Times book review of Oct. 4, 2009).
While collecting slave photographs, I became fascinated with the “white slave children of Louisiana” as I call the series of CDV (carte-de-visite) photos of freed children from New Orleans who appear to be completely white. These small, cardboard-mounted photos were sold in great quantities by abolitionists during the Civil War. On the back of each photo was printed: “The nett [sic] proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the Department of the Gulf, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks.”
I had so many questions about these CDVs. First, why did the abolitionists go down to the schools of freed slaves in New Orleans and pull out only those who appeared to be white, then send the children up to New York and Philadelphia to be dressed in fine clothes and posed in sentimental scenes for photos to sell? Why did black-appearing children not get chosen for this? And how did these former slave children feel about being taken away from their mothers, paraded up north for the media like zoo animals and then sent back down South? (They even got kicked out of their hotel in Philadelphia when the owner discovered they weren’t “really” white.)
Through research, I’ve learned the answers to some of these questions about the Louisiana CDVs, but that story is for another day when I’ll have enough space to analyze this early attempt to raise funds and arouse anti-slavery sentiment through the new-fangled “scientific” process of photography.
Today I’m only focusing on one photograph that was made about nine years before the Civil War CDVs. It’s a ninth-plate daguerreotype of a little girl in a plaid dress that I bought on E-Bay in 2000.
The seller, from Tennessee, included with this cased image information on where it was found. “This…photograph was purchased at Headley’s Auction in Winchester VA, July 1997. It came…out of the “Ashgrove” estate in Vienna, VA. The house originated as a hunting lodge in 1740 …and was sold to James Sherman in 1850, who would never own or hire a slave. He died in 1865 and passed it to his son, Capt. Franklin Sherman, Tenth Mich. Cavalry. Capt Sherman’s wife Caroline (Alvord, a native of Mass.) came to the country in 1865 to teach the children of the newly freed slaves.”
The most intriguing thing about this daguerreotype, of course, was the faded inch-square piece of paper glued to the back of the case upon which someone has printed “Mulatto raised by Charles Sumner”.
I put this image aside in 2000 along with the papers the buyer had sent me about the Ashford plantation, and forgot all about them.
Then, last November, I had a visit from Greg Fried, a professor at Suffolk University in Boston who wanted to scan some of my photographs for a new web site he was preparing called “Mirror of Race” (www.mirrorofrace.org.) I showed him the Louisiana CDVs and the daguerreotype of the “Sumner-raised” child. After he left, I went on Google and typed in the words “Charles Sumner” and “slave”. I discovered a short article from the New York Times dated March 9, 1855, which read:
A WHITE SLAVE FROM VIRGINIA. We received a visit yesterday from an interesting little girl, — who, less than a month since, was a slave belonging to Judge NEAL, of Alexandria, Va. Our readers will remember that we lately published a letter, addressed by Hon. CHARLES SUMNER, to some friends in Boston, accompanying a daguerreotype which that gentleman had forwarded to his friends in this city, and which he described as the portrait of a real "Ida May," — a young female slave, so white as to defy the acutest judge to detect in her features, complexion, hair, or general appearance, the slightest trace of Negro blood. It was this child that visited our office, accompanied by CHARLES H. BRAINARD, in whose care she was placed by Mr. SUMNER, for transmission to Boston. Her history is briefly as follows: Her name is MARY MILDRED BOTTS; her father escaped from the estate of Judge NEAL, Alexandria, six years ago and took refuge in Boston. Two years since he purchased his freedom for $600, his wife and three children being still in bondage. The good feeling of his Boston friends induced them to subscribe for the purchase of his family, and three weeks since, through the agency of Hon. CHARLES SUMNER, the purchase was effected, $800 being paid for the family. They created quite a sensation in Washington, and were provided with a passage in the first class cars in their journey to this city, whence they took their way last evening by the Fall River route to Boston. The child was exhibited yesterday to many prominent individuals in the City, and the general sentiment, in which we fully concur, was one of astonishment that she should ever have been held a slave. She was one of the fairest and most indisputable white children that we have ever seen.
This discovery got my adrenaline going. I googled “Mary Mildred Botts” and learned that the white-appearing slave child who was admired by the New York Times was discussed in a 2008 book called “Raising Freedom’s Child—Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery,” written by a University of New Orleans professor, Mary Niall Mitchell, who (small world!) was someone I had communicated with six years ago while trying to research the Louisiana CDV’s. I immediately ordered the book from Amazon.
When it arrived, I was stunned to find on page 73 a photo of Mary Botts that was the mirror image of MY dag. (The one in the book was from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.) Prof. Mitchell gave more explanation about why this young girl was photographed and brought north by Charles Sumner.
“By the eve of the Civil War, abolitionists recognized the potential of white-looking children for stirring up antislavery sentiment…Although it was the image of a raggedy, motherless Topsy that viewers might have expected to see in a photograph of a slave girl, it was the “innocent”, “pure,” and “well-loved” white child who appeared, a child who needed the protection of the northern white public.
“The sponsors of seven-year-old Mary Mildred Botts, a freed child from Virginia, may have been the first to capitalize on these ideas, as early as 1855. Her story also marks the beginning of efforts to use photography (in Mary Botts’s case, the daguerreotype, as the carte-de-visite format was not yet available) in the service of raising sentiment and support for the abolitionist cause. (bold-facing mine.)
“…In his own characterization of Mary Botts,” Mitchell continues, “Sumner set a pattern that other abolitionists would follow. In a letter printed in both the Boston Telegraph and the New York Daily Times, he compared Mary Botts to a fictional white girl who had been kidnapped and enslaved, the protagonist in Mary Hayden Pike’s antislavery novel Ida May: ‘She is bright and intelligent—another Ida May,’ [Sumner wrote] ‘I think her presence among us (in Boston) will be more effective than any speech I can make.’”
This comparison of Mary Botts to the fictional kidnapped white girl worked well for Sumner and the Abolitionists and made the little freed slave quite a local celebrity. Prof. Mitchell quotes the diary of a Quaker woman named Hannah Marsh Inman who saw Mary Botts at a meeting house in Worcester, MA (which happens to be where I live now). On March 1, 1855, Hannah wrote: “Evening all went to the soiree at the Hall. Little Ida May, the white slave was there from Boston.”
Sumner realized that he was on to a good thing and circulated daguerreotypes of the child to prove her whiteness to those who might doubt. (Keep in mind—the daguerreotype process was the first one ever made available—by Daguerre in 1839-- and the images “written by the sun” on the silvered copper plate were considered undeniable scientific proof of the sitter’s appearance.)
Sumner passed a daguerreotype of Mary Botts around the Massachusetts State Legislature “as an illustration of slavery” and sent one to John. A. Andrews, the governor of Massachusetts.
Only a year after parading Mary Botts through New York, Boston and Worcester and dubbing her “The real Ida May”, Charles Sumner’s devout abolitionist views led him to a crippling disaster, when, in 1856, he was so badly beaten on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, who broke a cane over his head, that it would take years of therapy before Sumner could return to the Senate.
As soon as I realized that my dag of Mary Botts was one of the images used by Sumner himself to advance the abolitionist cause, I got into an excited e-mail correspondence with the book’s author, Professor Mitchell, and Prof. Greg Fried, who pointed out something I’d forgotten: an advertising card on the back of my image showed that it was “Taken with the Double Camera For 25 Cents by Taber & Co., successors to Tyler & Co. Cor. Winter & Washington Sts. Boston”, while the mirror image belonging to the Massachusetts Historical Society was taken by Julian Vannerson, probably in Richmond, Virginia, and seems sharper than mine, so mine must be a copy dag. (The only way to copy a daguerreotype is to take a new daguerreotype of it. Each daguerreotype is one of a kind. Taber’s price of 25 cents sounds affordable, but at the time, the average working man made only about a dollar a day.)
Prof. Mitchell is currently working on a book about Mary Botts that will tell more about this former slave’s life, including the drama of how Sumner purchased her and spirited her out of Virginia, how he introduced her to the media and society as a living advocate for the abolitionist cause, and how her family settled in the free black community in Boston.
I’m eager to learn the rest of the story, but, for now, it’s enough of a thrill just to know that the daguerreotype, taken in 1855, that is part of my collection may represent one of the first efforts EVER to use the modern discovery of photography to touch people’s emotions and change their minds. This small image of a seven-year-old girl may be an example of the first time photography was used for propaganda, but it was certainly not the last.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Most people use their skill and energy every day to do a job that they don’t like, but need to survive: everything from flipping hamburgers or laying bricks to drilling teeth or programming computers.
But some people use a special talent or skill with such pride in what they’re creating that they qualify, in my opinion, as artists, whether the creation is food, clothing, embroidery, furniture, music, ceramics or whatever. And these artists are usually happy to demonstrate their art and to allow me to take their photos, even in Mexico where many people don’t want their photo taken. (I think this reluctance is because of concern about the Evil Eye, rather than fear, as in some countries, that the camera will steal their souls.)
Here’s one example of an unsung Mexican artist I met a couple of years ago in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico. Her name is Maria and her embroideries knocked me out—I thought she was the most skillful of the women displaying their textiles in the city’s marketplace. I wanted to buy all of Maria’s creations, but could only afford one. (Her costume or traje indicates that she comes from the village of Cholula. One of the great things about San Cristobal is that all the women still wear the trajes from their native villages.)
On my visit to Morelia, Mexico, a month ago, I met several more of these “unsung artists” as I like to think of them. They each take pride in producing the best product they can and are happy to display their technique to a gringa from the U.S. who can’t even speak Spanish.
(I already wrote, on Feb. 13, about two indigenous Mexican women, Benedicta and Cayetana, who have improved the quality of life for themselves and their families and won prizes and renown through their skill at the labor-intensive, pre-hispanic cuisine of Michoacan.)
On our way from Morelia to see the Monarch butterflies at the El Rosario mountain sanctuary, we stopped at a humble restaurant on a curve in the highway to try their carnitas and were fascinated by the skill of the Tortilla Lady, who was turning out tortillas on a primitive wood-burning stove with amazing skill and speed. She was happy to demonstrate, and even offered us a chance to try our hand, but I already knew from experience that tortilla-making is a lot harder than it looks.
Back in Morelia, the leader of our culinary tour, Susana Trilling, (www.seasonsofmyheart.com), led us to the small store where she said we’d find the best gazpacho in the city. You probably think, as I did, that gaspacho (that’s how they spell it) is a cold tomato soup, but in Morelia it’s a mixture of exotic tropical fruits topped off with just the right seasoning of chili flakes. I could see by the care and concern (and pride) that the owner, Sr. Sandoval, showed while demonstrating his specialty that he was a true artist, determined to produce a gazpacho that lived up to Susana’s praise.
The unsung artist who stole my heart was the star of a mariachi group whom we met when a new friend—who makes the famous Cotija Cheese –took us to a beautiful national park, Lago de Camecuaro, filled with families boating, swimming and partying around the crystalline lake shaded by ancient trees.
One family invited us to join them at their table, and soon we were surrounded by a group of mariachi musicians. The older man who seemed to be their leader sang with such intensity and passion that I couldn’t stop taking his photo, and everyone else kept requesting more songs. Now I’m obsessed with painting his portrait.
I love painting the people I encounter in my travels, --portraying them in their native surroundings, especially involved in their daily work.
The gray-haired Mariachi singer reminded me of an even older musician, well into his eighties, whom my daughter and I met in Crete a few years ago.
He came up to us as we were drinking coffee in his mountainous village of Axos. We learned that his name is Yiannis Demarachoyiannis and he is the self-appointed mayor and greeter for his village. He said he wanted to practice his English with us. “You look so young,” he said to me, full of Cretan flattery and charm, “that I thought you were brothers.”
He insisted we come to his barbershop where he served us pears and his homemade raki (moonshine) and played and sang to us on the lyra—a rare instrument native to Crete. He sang mantadas—the Cretan songs which the singer makes up in rhyming couplets to suit the occasion. “Take me to New York as your bar-bear,” he sang to Eleni, “and I will style your golden hair.”
I hope he’s still playing the lyra on his mountaintop in Crete. He probably is, since both his parents lived past 100. Like the Mariachi singer in Michoacan, Mr. Yiannis deserves to be remembered in a painting, because he is an artist.