29 July 2011

Charles Zoller: Autochromes From The House Of Kodak

Each spring  the gardens of the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York are bright with red and yellow  tulips, the colors of  Kodak, the company George Eastman (1854-1932) founded.  Eastman  invented roll film in 1885 and introduced the Kodak camera three years later. 

It seems that Rochester was destined to be the perfect city for amateur photographers.  Early in the 19th century he western New York city was known as the 'Flour City' for its grain mills and waterways but by the time Eastman came to town, the nickanme had morphed into 'Flower City'  for its numerous  commercial nurseries.   

 So successful was Eastman Kodak that as this advertising wagon in 1922 bragged that its hometown had become the Kodak City.  You'll notice that the photographs in display are in black and white.   Eastman Kodak  did not introduce its fabulously successful  Kodachrome color film until 1935.  George Eastman died in 1932, but the man who liked bold colors and bold ideas probably would have liked the song that Paul Simon wrote about his most successful product.

"When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's
a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together
for one night
I know they'd never match
my sweet imagination
Everything looks worse
in black and white."
 - Kodachrome by Paul Simon, 1973, from There Goes Rhymin' Simon, Columbia Records.

But there's more to the development of color photography than American triumphalism.  There's the autochrome, introduced in 1907 by the Lumiere Brothers of France.  Although unstable and not easy to work with, it produced evocative color images that exist in relation to kodachrome as analog does to digital recording.   

American Pictorialist photographers, notably Edward Steichen who was born in Luxembourg and lived in France off and on, took up the new technique.  But professional photographers in the United States lost interest rapidly after their initial enthusiasm.   A  plausible explanation is that Alfred Stieglitz, in developing a rationale for photography as art,  made no place for color.  There is very little of it in his enormously influential journal Camera Work.

Enter Charles Zoller.   Zoller (1856-1934) was a successful furniture dealer from Rochester,  who happened to be in Paris in 1907, hust as the new process was unveiled.   Already interested in photography, he took up the autochrome immediately and may have been the first American amateur to use it.

Over the ensuing decades,  Zoller documented life in the Flower City with autochrome while his contemporaries stuck with black and white.  Once dubbed America's first boomtoom, Rochester is a city with neighborhoods full of gracious houses in a potpourri of styles surrounded by the upstate wine country of the Finger Lakes.  There was no shortage of appealing subjects for Zoller to turn his camera to.

The man who often rode around Rochester on his high-wheel bicycle had a sense of fun.  There are pictures by Zoller that make me smile, even as I wish he had left some written explanation for what was going on.  Whose horse was watching those cultivated roses?  Whose birthday was the occasion for a giant outdoor cake delivered by a dancing fairy godmother? 

And what enterprising farmer/gardener devoted a large field to  this floral American flag?  I want to know what kind of fruit was on those trees - apples, cherries, plums, peaches?

Although one town (Aurora)  in the Finger Lakes tried  advertising itself as "the Miami of the north",  the upstate region could just as well be dubbed 'East Alaska' for the unpredictability and harshness of its winters. 

 In pursuit of his avocation., Zoller toured the country several times,   down the coast to Florida and then  across the southwest to California.  He  met - and photographed -  actor Charlie Chaplin in 1918. 

Around Hollywood and Los Angeles Zoller photographed garden court houses and imitations of Japanese architecture, as well as new flora like the rows of giant cone-shaped Honey Plant lining a street in Beverly Hills.

When Zoller began visits to Florida around 1920, it was just about to become a popular vacation spot.  With the smallest population of any southern state and cheap real estate, you could buy fresh oranges directly from farmers at their roadside stands and there was no one to stop you from driving your car onto the beach.
 It's difficult now to retrieve the wonder that Zoller's friends and acquaintances probably felt when they looked at his albums.  We're jaded now, with our disposable cameras and fingertip media, we take the power and beauty of images for granted.

Zoller photographed this Arizona rock formation in 1909.  I think it was the eye hole, the aperture if you will, that attracted him.  To see, to document, to share was his avocation.  From grains of starch, lampblack and silver emulsion these images were fixed, except that sometimes, like the snows of upstate New York, they drift.

George Eastman House  presented the exhibition Rochester In Color: The Autochromes of Charles Zoller in 1988.

Images: Approximately 4,000 autochromes by Charles Zoller  are in the collection of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY
The majority are  dated c.1907-1932, the years during which Zoller photographed..

21 July 2011

Rediscovering Theodor Fontane

"Die Winde, die Wogen alle
Lagen in tiefer Ruh,
Einem Klagelied aus der Halle
Hört ich mit Tränen zu..."
(The winds and the waves all lay in deep peace.  In tears I listened to a song of mourning from the hall.)

You could almost think of the sea and the cemetery as characters in Theodor Fontane's novel Irretrievable, so pervasive is their presence.  Helmut Holk builds his dream home, Holkmas Castle, on a dune overlooking the Baltic Sea.  From its pleasant Mediterranean-style roof garden, invisible to  passersby, he can savor the sea as a personal possession.

Although Helmut revels in their new home,  his wife Christine, an extremely conscientious mother, is stricken at moving away from the home where their youngest child is buried.  The move underlines Christine's suspicion that her husband is too carefree, too easily healed from the family tragedy.   For Helmut, happy playing gentleman farmer, deferring to Christine's moral and religious scruples is a comfortable habit that sometimes irritates.   Helmut’s lightness has the virtue of  life-affirming optimism.  Christine’s seriousness contains the flaw of inflexibility.  Viewed as a plot device this could be too schematic;  but in a novel of character as Irretrievable is, it is revelatory.

As the waves erode the the shoreline, events shape a marriage.   In this case, even self-knowledge and mutual understanding cannot contain the unseen erosion.    Helmut tells his wife:  "I see that I’ve failed to put you in a better temper or prevent you from brooding and being so serious all the time.  I wonder if it’s my fault or yours.”  Christine who is wryly aware of her lack of humor,  replies  “We are both to blame and I perhaps more than anybody else.  You are easygoing and indecisive and changeable and I am sad and take life too seriously, even when it would be better to take it less seriously. You’ve been unlucky in your choice, you need a wife who is better able to laugh.”  Nevertheless they love each other and share a life with their two remaining children, a boy and a girl.

Where Christine's other life is the interior world of memory, Helmut has another existence as a sometime courtier to the Danish princess in Copenhagen.   (Late 19th century  Schleswig-Holstein owed its allegiance to the Danish crown.)  Helmut reveres royalty  but the Princess takes a  more farsighted view: “”We poor princesses have very little left in any case and we have almost been pushed out of the world of reality already,  so that if we lose our place in ballads and fairy-tales, I hardly know where we shall be able to go.”  Helmut wants to be the rescuer of damsels in distress but it doesn’t work out as he imagines.

Where once separations in the marriage refreshed their mutual fondness, we watch as Helmut makes invidious comparisons with other women while  Christine is preoccupied with building a new burial vault for their dead child and arranging the emotionally fraught departure of the other children to boarding school.

Modern readers will be less surprised by their divorce than by their reunion.  Fontane had an uncommon empathy for his female characters, the best-known being Effie Briest.  The narrator in Irretrievable tells us: “Holk, though a kind and excellent husband, was none the less a man of rather ordinary gifts and in any case markedly inferior to his wife, who was a far more talented woman.”  Remarkable then, still remarkable now.

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) came from a French Huguenot family in Prussia.    His father was a pharmacist whose gambling led to the family's decline.  Unable to afford a university education, Fontane became an apprentice pharmacist and a job brought him to Berlin. There he met  Theodor Storm (Lake of the Bees) and other writers.  Fontane began to write, publishing his first book in 1850 and his first novel in 1878.  Fontane's place in  German literature as the link between Goethe and Thomas Mann was celebrated  by Mann  in his Essays of Three Decades

Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane was first published in 1892 and has been translated from the German by Douglas Parmee,  published by New York Review Books: 2011.

I. Lovis Corinth -  The Fishermen's Cemetery, 1893, Bayerisches Neue Staatsgemaldesammlungen. Munich.
2. Lotte Zangermeister - Barque avec en tete de mat de Nida (Lithuania) , Berlin Photographic Archives.

18 July 2011

May Gearhart: A Pasadena Printer

Like Jane Welsh Carlyle before her, if May Gearhart could speak now, she might say, “I too am here.”  Here was Pasadena, California where the Gearhart family moved from Sagetown, Illinois in the late 1880s.  The younger sister of the better-known Frances Gearhart, it was May who had the rigorous education, attending the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and studying for a year with Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia.  Later, she studied with Hans Hofmann at U.C. Berkeley in 1930.  The youngest sister, Edna, taught art in the Los Angeles schools and all three sisters collaborated on an illustrated verse book for children Let's Play (1929, not published during their lifetimes.)

A perverse fate has relegated May to second place.  Frances, who began as a water colorist,  turned to the color woodcut after May.   Like many converts, Frances was an energetic proselytizer and this earned her a place in the annals of the woodblock print in America.   May first learned etching from a neighbor, Benjamin Chambers Brown,  who helped establish the Print Makers of Los Angeles.   In her woodcuts, May Gearhart rarely employed the heavy black stained-glass style outlines that Frances did; May’s favorite outline color was blue.  She handled detailing and shading judiciously, avoiding fussiness.

Unlike Frances, whose works are repetitive, May Gearhart’s woodcuts are records of individual places and persons.  A miner’s cabin, a fisherman’s cove, a cottage in rural San Gabriel, all these images confront us with the freshness and delight of discovery in ordinary things.  It is easy to believe that these carefully composed and colored images retain the artist’s original thrill of recognition.

Ventura Valley and Matiljia, two landscapes, show May Gearhart using the same palette of yellows and blues to great effect for different times of day.  In Ventura Valley, the sun comes over the mountains, focusing like a spotlight on the ripening fields, as daylight recedes.   By contrast, in Matilijia the sun is everywhere, the sky is yellow and it is the brilliance of the day that we take away.
The Panamanian Girl immediately charms us, but more than that, it too captures the steady seriousness of a young working girl.  The artist’s vantage point is that of her subject: seated on the ground.  The girl has stopped to rest in the shade of a palm tree, a plate of fruit in her hands and a basket of fruit beside her.  Behind her, the outlines of a small town in the background suggest her destination.
What finally makes May Gearhart's work so satisfying is her ability to make the viewer see the isolated cabin and the sagging red roof as the equals in interest to picture postcard vistas. 

 Images by May Gearhart (1872-1951) from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts:
1. Fisherman's Cove, undated.
2. In San Gabriel, early 20th century.
3. Miner's Cabin, undated.
4. Ventura Valley, undated.
5. Panamanian Girl, undated.
6. Matilija, undated.