Friday, September 25, 2015

My Folks, Rocking Fashions of the 1930's

The other day I came across a folder of old family photos that I had filed in the wrong place and hadn't seen for years.  Many of the snapshots showed my parents as they were in the 1930's. (They were married in 1932, but I, their first child, didn't come along until 1941.)
The thing that struck me was how dressed up everyone was in the 1930's.  Even in the 1950's, when I was growing up, I remember my mother would always put on a hat, even to go next door.  And when it was a tea party or church, both she and I would wear a hat and white gloves.  (Please click "read more" to see the other photos)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Before TV and Movies, There Were Stereoviews

This post was first published on 7/23/12

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them and see them better)

The Story Behind the Photos--19th Century Greece

Starting around 1860 and lasting well into the 1900’s, nearly every home in the USA was equipped with a stereopticon viewer and a good supply of stereoview cards.  Some of the stereo-viewers were fancy tabletop pieces mounted on a base, often with inlaid wood.  But most of them, like mine above, were simple hand-held models.
"An old dream realized at last, ship-canal through  Isthmus, E.S.E. Corinth, Greece" Underwood. 
It was traditional for wealthy families to send their adult children on a “Grand Tour” to finish their education.  Families of more modest means could sit in their parlors and view all the outstanding sites and monuments of the world in 3-D thanks to their stereo viewer.  The reflecting lenses inside the viewer fused the two images on the stereo card—which were taken by separate camera lenses-- into one image that appeared to be three dimensional.
"A Father and Son of the race of Homer, Patras, Greece. 1897"
From the very beginning of photography—the daguerreotype in 1839—photographers have created stereoviews that appear three-dimensional when seen through a  viewer, but if you ever come across a stereo daguerreotype (polished silver on a copper plate)  or ambrotype (on glass), you’ve found an extremely rare and valuable photograph.  Oddly, the few stereo dags I’ve seen often portray nude or partially nude women—I guess the porn industry began long before the invention of photography.

The stereoviews that flooded the country from 1850 were (first) albumen prints pasted onto cardboard cards.  From the 1880’s to the 1920’s, the 7  by 3 1/2-inch cards had rounded corners and were curved to enhance the 3-D effect.

In their parlors, Americans viewed the horrors of dead bodies on Civil War battlefields, exotic customs of foreign cultures and the wonders of the world.  Explanatory notes were usually printed on the back of the card. 

By the turn of the century, viewers often collected groups of cards that were posed by actors to tell a story—for instance a series showing a soldier leaving his fiancée to go into battle, then being wounded and finally nursed back to health by his sweetheart who traveled to the hospital to care for him.

Sometimes the series told a humorous story like 10 cards I once owned showing how Mrs. Newlywed catches on to her husband’s dalliance with the comely cook by spying a floury handprint on the back of his suit coat, so she replaces the attractive cook with a plug-ugly one.

Often identical views were published by more than one company—many of these were pirated and of inferior quality.
"Temple of Nike, Acropolis, Athens, Greece."
In the U.S. the major makers of these super-popular stereo cards were (first) the Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia, then Underwood and Keystone and dozens of other lesser-known publishers. I haven’t been able to find proof of a connection between the humorous stereoview series and early silent movie companies like Biograph which produced “The Keystone Kops”, but it seems that early silent movies would be a natural successor to the stories told by actors in stereoviews.
"Statue of Byron, Athens, Greece."
Before 2004, when Athens was preparing to host the Olympics, I started collecting stereo views taken in Greece around 1896 when the first modern Olympics were staged in the country where the Olympic games were born.  I used the photos on  these stereo cards to design a series of note cards and a poster, sometimes adding a touch of color.
Left:  "Recruits for the Army before the Temple of Theseus, Athens." 
Right: "The best preserved temple in all Greece, the Theseion in Athens"
What thrilled the original owners of these stereo views was the lifelike three-dimensional quality of the scenes. But what thrilled me, upon viewing the antique photographs of Greece, was the chance to see my husband’s native country and countrymen the way they looked as they went about their daily life at the end of the 19th century.  It wasn’t the  temples and ruins that  intrigued me—they look much the same today when I visit Greece.  It was the people—the extras in the scene—that I cared about.
Left: "The Argolis plain, looking from Nauplia to Mykenae
Right: "East end of the Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens"
Because the photographer wanted to dramatize the 3-D quality of each photo, he would choose some important site—let’s say the Acropolis—for the background, then he would put something—or someone—in the foreground and often in the middle ground too.  And the “models” he’d ask to pose were people who were handy-—soldiers, farmers, school children, pedestrians.
Left: "The Acropolis from Philopappos Hill", 
Right: "Columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis in Distance, Athens"
I’ve never read anything about the methods of these stereo photographers, so I don’t know if they paid the bystanders whom they coached to stay very still until the photographer had focused on the scene with his large, boxy stereo camera on a tripod.
Left: View from Lykabettos Hill past the Royal Palace and the Acropolis to the sea, 
Right: "Greek Girls among ancient ruins"
I suspect these “extras” in the scene posed for free, just to witness this new-fangled thing called photography.
"City milk delivery, Athens, straight from the goat."
But in their traditional dress and everyday tasks, these humble Greeks achieved a kind of immortality as they became extras in historic scenes illustrating how life was lived in the days before electricity and television, smart phones and I-pads.
"Shepherds bringing Lambs to Market, Nauplia, Greece"
When I first visited Greece in 1968, there was still no electricity in my future husband’s village of Lia in Epiros, and women often wore their traditional garb, including the headscarves and embroidered vests, but by the seventies, electricity and television made it to the villages and all that authentic traditional detail was lost by the time they’d seen “Dallas”  and “The Fugitive.
"Holy Trinity Monastery, Greece, 1896" (Look at the artillery on the monk in the foreground!)
Whatever your area of interest—trains, ships, history, architecture, native Americans, anthropology, you can put together a great collection of antique stereoviews on the subject without a huge outlay of cash, thanks to EBay and sellers like my friends at Dave’s Stereos.  But if you come across any great views of 19th century Greece, give me a heads up first.

"Monastery of Hagia Trias (Holy Trinity) Meteora Rocks, Northern Greece"

Monday, September 7, 2015

Another Amalia Birthday—New York Style

Amalia’s a lucky girl.  A week after celebrating her 4th birthday at a pool party at her grandparents’ house in the country, she got a second birthday party in her hometown of New York City.  In Manhattan, Amalia has been invited to toddler birthdays that included rented function rooms, hired entertainers and waiters passing out hors d’oeuvres, but her folks managed to throw a super fun birthday with a minimum of expense (and a maximum of lugging things) in New York’s Central Park on Sunday, Aug. 23.   (Meanwhile in the nearby ball field, a bride and groom and their large audience were celebrating their wedding ceremony, which culminated with a loud cheer from the onlookers.) 

The day began with a safari or wagon train to transport everything over the four crosstown blocks from Amalia’s 14th floor apartment, into the park, and then on behind the Metropolitan Museum to a spot near Turtle Pond. Of course the passengers in the wagon train included Amalia’s little brother Nicolas, four months old. 

We used two strollers and a cooler on wheels, and the stuff we toted included a pink “princess castle” and a small inflated Doc McStuffins “bouncy house” filled with multiple balls.   Amalia and her Mommy wore matching dresses from Nicaragua.

Parents with toddlers and babies arrived; wine, beer, pink lemonade and popcorn were dispensed and Amalia’s Papi walked over to Farinella’s on Lexington to pick up long, rectangular pizzas (called “palams”). 

Meanwhile little Nicolas made friends with Milind, Siya’s little brother.

 We had already bought and transported the two cakes—a carrot cake from Citarella’s (the only cake flavor Amalia will eat—and only $20!) and a Sugar Cookie Cake from Insomnia Cookies on Second Ave. and 82nd.  

 This was an expanded version of the only cookie Amalia likes--she calls them “moon cookies” because of the moon on the Insomnia Cookies sign (They deliver warm cookies to your apartment up to 3 a.m., hence the “Insomnia” in the name.)

The candles on the cakes were lit and blown out by the birthday girl.   

 After that came the Doc McStuffins piñata, under the direction of Amalia's Papi, which was gamely attacked by Amalia, but not broken open until an older boy took the stick.  But before the cake and piñata came the highlight of the party that everyone had been waiting for—Manny the Bubble man.

Amalia’s folks had discovered Manny the Bubble Man in Central Park a year earlier.  He’s not the only street entertainer in the park who creates giant bubbles with sticks, rope, water and dish detergent, but he is probably the maestro of bubbles. 

 He considers bubble making an art form and was a little disappointed (as were the parents) that the youngsters kept popping his giant bubbles before they reached their full size.

Manny told me that he has done ads or commercials for Tiffany’s and with Sarah Jessica Parker. 

  Eleni and Emilio had booked him for half an hour, but he stayed an extra fifteen minutes, creating customized bubbles for each child plus parent.  Here’s Eleni’s long-time roommate Katherine with her son Pace.

 And Amalia with her Papi.

 Nobody wanted to leave, but it was getting late and people started packing up.  “The goody bags come at the end,” Amalia informed me, as she passed out Dr. Seuss bags from Target with back-to-school treasures inside.

We reassembled the wagon train, complete with all our gear and lots of presents for Amalia to unwrap later, and headed back toward home, thinking “Thank goodness for good weather, an August (not December) birthday date, and the magic combination of little kids and really big bubbles.”  

Friday, September 4, 2015

About the Photo of the Dead Boy on the Beach


The photograph shows the body of a little boy, about three years old, cradled in the arms of a Turkish officer after his body was found face down in the sand near Bodrum, Turkey, one of 12 migrants who drowned while trying to flee from their town  of Kotani in northern Syria.

This photo is all over the internet, at the top of the trending list.  It’s also in yesterday’s New York Times, although in small size in black and white on an inside page—page  A11 in my edition-- with the caption “A Turkish gendarme on Wednesday carried the body of a child who drowned en route to the Greek Island of Kos.”

 First this photo became viral on the internet, shared everywhere, eliciting worldwide demands for aid to these families who are risking death and all their life’s savings to get out of Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, to reach Europe and safety. Seventy immigrants were found stuffed into a truck in Austria, suffocated by ruthless smugglers who abandoned the decomposing bodies and fled.  Days ago we read about that and were appalled, but it had only a fraction of the impact of the photo of one little boy found dead on a beach in Turkey.

The second wave of attention to the photo was an internet flood of protest—“Leave the dead their dignity!”  people wrote,  “Show some respect! Don’t show me this photo again!”

I found this outburst of protest to be heartless and stupid.  This is what photographs are for, people!  To put a face to suffering and injustice and to motivate us, the viewers, to do something about it.  Photographs, in their immediacy, have the ability to hit us in the gut far more than any collection of words, no matter how eloquent. That’s why, since the beginning of photography in 1839, photographs have been used to  touch people’s emotions and sway their opinions.  Even before the Civil War, Abolitionists were using photographs like “The Scourged Back” to raise anti-slavery emotion.  And the pro-slavery factions did the same; witness the notorious daguerreotypes of stripped and humiliated slaves ordered by the country’s leading scientist, Louis Agassiz, to promote his theory that blacks were a separate and inferior  species..

Think about the famous photograph by Nick Ut of the little girl running from the napalm during the massacre at My Lai.  The New York Times debated putting this photo on the front page—after all, the little girl was naked and screaming and on fire.  But the editors had the grit to put it prominently on page one.  I remember, in 1972 picking up the paper from the mat and saying to my husband, “This photograph is going to win the Pulitzer prize.”  And it did.

Sadly, The Times did not show the same courage with yesterday’s photo of the boy on the beach in Turkey.  After much debate, they decided to run it inside and to choose a less distressing photo with the child’s face obscured.  Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post put the more moving close-up of him face down on the sand on their front pages. (Today, Friday, The New York Times had a much larger photo in color of the boy lying in the sand, while a Turkish gendarme prepares to pick him up. Still on an inside page.)

When President Nixon saw the photo of the “Napalm girl” of My Lai, he wondered aloud if it had been faked.  But it was very real.  The little girl in the photo, Kim Phuc, lived to grow up, defected to become a Canadian citizen, and founded the Kim Phuc Foundation,  which offers medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war, including Ali Abbas, a boy who lost both arms in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The photo of the “Napalm girl” that The New York Times dared to put on its front page electrified the world to the reality of what happened at My Lai and ultimately did some good for humanity, leading to her humanitarian foundation.

There won’t be any happy ending for the little boy on the beach in Turkey.  His name was Aylan Kurdi.  He was three years old.  At least 12 people drowned when his boat capsized in the night while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos.  The bodies of his brother Galip, five, and his mother Rihan, 35,  were found farther up the beach.

The original photo I saw of the boy’s body being carried by the Turkish police officer did not show his face, but just now, on line, I saw a photo of the little body sprawled in the sand, in his red shirt and blue shorts and smart new shoes, as if dressed for the first day of pre-school. I could see his face.  That’s when I couldn’t hold back the tears.

“Leave the dead their dignity. Show some respect!” cry those who don’t want to see such images, but photos like these give the dead and the  abused back their dignity, especially if the reaction to such disturbing images can alleviate the conditions that caused these deaths.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Trying To Put the Fun Back in Boyhood

        Allen Johnson with his dog Co-Co in the early 1940's

         Allen Johnson Jr., 79, has lived a life filled with adventure, travel and success, but he insists, “My life peaked at nine.” He has written a memoir and books of poems and essays, often reflecting on the unfettered joy of growing up under the “benign neglect” of his parents and the loving guidance of black employees in his parents’ large Alabama home surrounded by forest in Mountain Brook, an affluent suburb of Birmingham.

         Johnson attended three universities, and sailed to Europe in the mid Fifties on the Ile de France when he met Ernest Hemingway on board. He has lived in a variety of places including Switzerland, Cuba, Florida and Vermont, where in 1971 he founded the Vermont State Craft Center.  He plays jazz guitar. He met and wrote about Albert Einstein and Nat King Cole and he served in the army in ’59 and ’60.  But he insists the best time of his life was his boyhood in the South.

         His memoir  “Fun! A Boyhood”, was written and published over twenty years ago, primarily “so that my descendants would be able to know what I was like as a boy. I also wanted to memorialize what was an extraordinarily joyful time in my life along with some of the people—and dogs—who gave me so much love and fun.”       

        In “Fun” Allen remembers the particular pleasures of a boyhood in the 30’s and 40’s--handmade slingshots, comic books, pocket knives , war-time Spam and margarine instead of butter, his Dick Tracy cap gun and the little comic strips that were wrapped around Double Bubble gum, radio shows like “Terry and the Pirates”, hoecake dripping with melted butter, BB guns and firecrackers, water pistols, yoyos, chemistry sets—most of which would never be permitted by careful parents today.  “Having a dollar in your pocket was money. Having six cardboard tubes of copper-coated BBs in your pocket dragging down your pants was wealth,” he wrote.

         Re-reading his memoir 20-some years later, Johnson reflected, “I found the seventy-three year-old me in complete accord with the fifty-two year-old me on the subject of the negativism in the modern world.  I continue to want to do my small part to turn this trend around.  It is essential that we start to pay more attention to the source of the joyful, fun things in life.”

         So he drew on his childhood memories for three books, known collectively as the Blackwater novels, and turned to his long-time friend George Schnitzer of Premium Press America, an independent publisher, to publish them.  The books, which are reminiscent of Mark Twains’ works about boyhood a century earlier, are targeted at forth and fifth graders but appeal just as much to adults and especially grandparents who want to share their childhood adventures with their grandchildren.  (Many of Johnson’s own adventures, bad and good, including blowing up the toilet with a cherry bomb, appear in the books.) They have won a number of awards including the INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award, and the IPPY 2015 Bronze Medal for Best Juvenile Fiction.

         In the first novel,  “My Brother’s Story”, identical twins Johnny and Will are orphaned and adopted by two families, Johnny by an abusive aunt in Tennessee and Will by a loving couple who live in the country near Birmingham. Johnny runs away and is sheltered deep in the Blackwater Swamp by Linc, a reclusive black man who is persecuted by Bobby Scagg, the son of the man who lynched Linc’s father.  In turn, Johnny is able to care for Linc when he becomes ill with malaria. “My Brother’s Story” is a record of the twins’ adventures as they search to find each other and then to win the right to live together.

         The second novel, “The Dead House,” continues the tale of the twins, and draws on author Johnson’s love of tree houses, riding on Pullman trains, dogs, and mysterious mansions. The third, “A Nest of Snakes” begins when the twins, up in their tree house, overhear a plot.  With their friend Rad Fox they decide to help Linc, who is in danger from the Ku Klux Klan.  One reviewer, Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center said, “Their story has an important childhood lesson at its heart: How good men and women, black and white, would stand up to violent, scheming racists in the era of Jim Crow.”

         Race relations and the inequities of the past play a part in each of the Blackwater novels.  As Johnson told me, “The point I try to make in these books is that a lot of love existed between the races, and in my entire boyhood I never saw one interaction that wasn’t based on love and respect.   When I was growing up, a lot of us were exposed to a black person who worked for the family.  I learned about honesty from our cook, Nettie.  They became part of the family and helped to raise us.”

          But as an adult, Johnson realized the poisonous injustices rampant in the South.  “As a child I didn’t understand.  But my college years at the University of Alabama also gave me first-hand experience of the good people coming together with love to help each other and to confront racial hatred.   I was in the audience when Nat King Cole was attacked.”  (In 1956 the entertainer was assaulted on stage during a concert in Birmingham, Alabama.)

          Beyond describing interactions between the races in the  1930’s and 40’s, the novels are a celebration of the joys of an unfettered, unscheduled boyhood.  “My hope is that grandparents will read the novels to their grandkids for fun and to help them understand how life was back in their day.”

        He laments that such an unregulated and independent childhood is not necessarily possible today. “The country is much more urban than when I was a child.  Roaming free in the woods is not possible for many kids.  Rough and ready fun, contact with nature, has been lost.  Also, the media have got parents so scared that they won’t let kids go off on their own.  Modern kids are over-structured and hooked on technology and there may not be much we can do about it.”

    But Johnson, who has three adult children but no grandchildren (yet), is hoping that he can help today’s kids rediscover the possibilities of childhood.  “I consider these books to be parables on how to live. They come from an earlier time when young people played outside as I did as a boy in Alabama.  Fun was my goal and the possibility of getting into trouble added spice.  When I went out the door in the morning, I knew I was going to have fun.  The only question was how much fun.”