The birch grove

Figure 1 – Birches, Westborough, MA. Iphone photograph. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

The image of Figure 1 fulfills my fantasy of a birch grove. There is an opening in the woods that even sports a covering of grass.  The bone white birches stand proudly, bathed in the warm yellow light of sunset. They bear scares and are broken not just by the ravages of this winter but the last several winters. You can read the seasons in them. Nearby, out of the picture, is an ancient stonewall, put there by a long forgotten farmer. By the size of the stones we may judge that this was not to grow crops but rather to herd in sheep – most probably in the early nineteenth century. Such stones sprout each spring, compelled and driven by geology and the glacial history of Massachusetts.The scene is every appealing and ever bucolic. But the reality is that I found this little coven of trees beneath a roaring highway. The sound was so loud that it was hard to think about how to compose the image. And the scene was in many places spoiled by litter blown off the road.

Such is the context of our lives and the ambiguity of the modern world, which so often forgets its trees.  But these little birches were quick to bring to mind Robert Frost’s wonderful poem – a poem from my youth – and named aptly “Birches.” The birches call us back to something simpler. In Frost’s own words:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

In your face

Figure 1 – You are so in my space. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

I thought that it was high time to capture another “in your face” animal portrait with my IPhone, trying to grab a moment of intense anthropomorphic expression. I love how close you can get with the cellphone and how easy the whole process of picture taking is. Here it is my cat. And the questions are complex. Why are you in my face? What is that thing you are always shoving in my face? Can I sniff it? And, of course, there is: rub my ears and I love you.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Soap dish with faucet

Figure 1 – Soap dish and Faucet, IPhone photograph. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

I thought that I would do a quirky IPhone photograph today. Figure 1 is of a bar of soap in a soap dish with a faucet. Bars of soap can be very intriguing especially if they are at a sink that is seldom used. In that case the soap goes through a kind of wetting and drying cycle, which causes it to develop cracks and crevices. It becomes very reminiscent of satellite flybys of the mysterious moons of the outer planets, whose surfaces are ever intriguing. In that regard the innocuous bar of diminishing soap becomes essentially unworldly.

Posted in Personal Photographic Wanderings

Why was I not made of stone like thee?

Figure 1 – Charles Ogle as Frankenstein in Thomas Edison’s kinetogram by that name, 1910. From the Wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

The other night I watched the Mel Brooks’ movie “Young Frankenstein.” It got me wondering about early horror movies and early monsters. This in turn raised the inevitable question of what or who was the earliest monster movies. Monsters come in many flavors and one of these is the “man monster,” like Frankenstein. One of the earliest “man monsters” was indeed Frankenstein, brought to life in 1910 by Thomas Edison in his kinetogram “Frankenstein.”  The historic photograph of Figure 1 shows Charles Ogle portraying Frankenstein’s monster in this feature. You can, in fact see the whole film on YouTube.

Now what are we looking at? Is the photograph scary? Do we want to scream and run? Probably not. Still i find my eye drawn to the monster’s left hand, a symbol of death, decay, and corruption.What we see, perhaps, is the transition from a heavily emotive stage presence of the nineteenth century to first, the heavily emotive screen presence of the silent movie era and then to the more realistic and subtle emotions of modern films.The image captures the transition.

But there is something more profound in this image. It refers back to a definition of the term monster, which is now politically incorrect. Medically the term monster used to refer to the highly deformed, the miscreated. Remember the late nineteenth century was the time when the great circuses had  “freak side shows,” where people gawked at the deformed.

To those times, “man monsters” flew in the face of the belief that man was created in the image of God. In London at the Royal College of Surgeons is the famous Hunterian Museum with its collection of “man monsters.” This is significant because in its library Darwin did some of his research on the Origin of Species. If species were immutable, never changing, how could one explain the strange variations that surrounded him in glass jars? What did it all mean?

Equally important was the point that these “man monsters” challenged our humanity in other ways. The very “man monster” Frankenstein, is such an important example. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly gave her novel the title “Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.” Prometheus, significantly in mythology gave the human race fire. The novel was published in 1818 when the world was at the dawn of the scientific era. This would prove a time that challenged conventional views and even brought into question the deity’s role as the sole arbiter of life and death.

In the novel, the “monster” is very much the victim of the story. He is a victim that challenges his creator. In many ways he is the hero of the story.

This brings us to another “man monster” of fiction and early twentieth century film. This is Quasimodo, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Who can forget the great moment in Charles Laughton’s 1939 film version, when Quasimodo resumes his place beside the Gargoyles atop the cathedral and watches his beloved Esmeralda depart with Gringoire. He leans against one of these silent stone monsters and sadly says, “Why was I not made of stone like thee?

Posted in History of Photography

Passover circa 1960

Figure 1 – Passover with my grandparents, circa 1960. (c) DE Wolf 2017.

This year we have one of those rare holiday confluences, where Easter and Passover fall in historic synch. So let me begin by wishing all of my Christian friends and readers a Happy Easter and all my Jewish friends and readers a Happy Passover, Hag Sameah. And let me share in this time when the world is run by fools, the sentiment of all my friends, “To all of you the blessings of family and peace.” As a scientist I can assure you that the ability of men to due evil is surpassed only by our ability to do good.

This morning I was sorting through old papers. I have always regretted how few photographs I saved. I always wish that I had saved more. So I was delighted this morning to find this photograph of my grandfather, Louis, and my grandmother, Mary, taken at their Passover Seder over half a century ago. The picture was probably taken around 1960 and it was either taken by me, using a curiously tan Kodak Brownie, which was my first camera or by my father using his twin-lens Ciroflex. I have very lovingly scanned and restored this image as I have precious few photographs particularly of my grandfather. Nice three-piece, Zaide!

We have spoken many times about the magic way that subjects stare back at us from old photographs. We relate to them and we should always remember that the initial life of the photograph was one of fond recognition. It is when that recognition fades that the role of the photograph becomes one of undefined anonymity and historical record. Just as Shakespeare promised eternal life to his beloved in Sonnet 18 “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,  So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” I am hopeful that as long as this blog is cached somewhere on the internet and at some level my grandparents will be remembered, as I remember them.

Yesterday my wife, a friend, and I were talking about the Ashkenazi specialty called “flanken,” a kind of stewed beef. It was one of my mother’s specialties, and I am wondering what grandma Mary was serving for that particular Seder. You can see in the lower right that it was beef. I can still smell and taste it. For my grandparents I wish to say:

 מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

Numbers 24:5

Posted in Essays on Photography, Personal Photographic Wanderings

Technological dreams

Figure 1 – British Post Office engineers inspect Marconi’s radio equipment during demonstration on Flat Holm Island, 13 May 1897. The transmitter is at center, the coherer receiver below it, the pole supporting the wire antenna is visible at top. From the Wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States

Yesterday’s post of German soldiers in World War I spooling out telephone wire is a bit comic. But it is  comic much in the same way that Jules Verne stories or early science fiction movies where prosaic and comic. But on a much more serious note they indicate humans’ drive and belief that technology holds the answer and the key. That is the dream in the case of yesterdays’ image that we could have telephones without wires, that we could communicate across the ocean without having to lay down underwater cables, that we could broadcast music or even video across the oceans, or that we would have digital film-free camera with images ready to transmit across a paperless worldwide web.

All of this is , of course, exactly what we saw, And how rapidly it all evolved and unfolded. What are our dreams today? Wireless charging, interplanetary even interstellar space travel. Do we dare to dream of time travel or teleportation?  While we must be cautious about our dreams, while we must concede to physical law and limits, it is so much fun to exercise our imaginations to dream and to imagine. I am reminded of the time traveler in HG Wells’ “The Time Machine,” who is driven to dream of the end of the end of the world.

‘A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.’

And there is also a curious bifurcation. We do not always dream within the confines of technological reality. Sometimes it works the other way, where we dream and dream becomes reality.So we should not be too quick to draw lines.

So as a photograph to illustrate this wonderful story I have chosen Figure 1. On 13 May 1897, Guglielmo Marconi sent the world’s first wireless communication over open sea. The experiment involved transmission from Flat Holm in Wales transversed over the Bristol Channel to Lavernock Point in Penarth, a distance of 6 kilometers (3.7 mi). The message sent was appropriate then, and still appropriate for us dreamers today. It said simply:

Are you ready?”

Posted in Essays on Photography, History of Photography

Cellphone 1917

Figure 1 – German soldiers using a field telephone during World War I. From NARA and in the public domain in the United States.

As a follow-up to my post of yesterday commemorating the US entry into World War I, I was perusing on the web today field photographs of the conflict. One sequence contained images of the technology of the day. This was a hybrid. The world was rapidly moving out of a mechanical to an electrical and electronic age. Hence, we have the image of Figure 1 that contrasts so profoundly with modern times that it looks like something out of a Flintstones cartoon. Here a German soldier speaks on a portable telephone as the soldiers with him slowly unwind the cable that presumably connects them back to base. While it may seem prosaic and archaic it truly connects us with cellphones and the internet of today. After all, fifty years previous, during the Crimean and American Civil Wars none of this was possible.

Posted in History of Photography

The Yanks are coming over there

Figure 1 – Halftone color print from a photograph of President asking congress for a Declaration of War on April 2, 1917. From the Wikipedia, original in the US LOC and in the public domain in the United States.

We cannot let the date go unrecognized. One hundred years ago today, April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and entered the terrible war. It is worth noting that in those days war was war and US presidents asked congress for a declaration. To remember the day there is this wonderful color halftone print from the collection of the United States Library of Congress showing President Wilson addressing congress to ask for the Declaration on April 2, 1917.

The simple text is:

“WHEREAS, The Imperial German Government has committed repeated acts of war against the people of the United States of America; therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared; and that the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”

Posted in History of Photography

Harry Houdini

Figure 1 – Harry Houdini vanishing Jennie the Elephant, 1918. Photograph by White Studio. From the Wikipedia and the US Library of Congress., Item in McManus-Young Collection, LC-USZ62-112421 DLC (b&w film copy neg.). In the public domain in the United States.

I was reading today that Friday, March 24 marks the 143rd anniversary of the great illusionist and escape artist, Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926). His exploits have survived the century. At one point he was nicknamed Harry “Handcuff” Houdini or “The Handcuff King” because he would challenge local police to bind him in such a way that he could not escape.Even today his great escapes, which included the “Chinese water torture escape, the suspended straight jacket escape, the overboard box escape, and the buried alive escape fascinate and tillilate. Don’t try any of that at home!

There are many great photographs of Houdini that capture not only the essence of the man but also the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century. It was a time when people liked heroes and people liked drama. Figure 1 shows Harry at the Hippodrome, in New York City vanishing an elephant named “Jennie.” Other magicians were content to make a rabbit disappear, but in 1918 the great showman took to a well-lit stage fired a gun and a five ton elephant disappeared.

Houdini is arguably most famous today for his dogged crusade to expose fraudulent spiritualists. It is here that he brushes with photography. Figure 2 is an image that Houdini took to illustrate just how easy it was to conjure up a ghost.  It shows the master reading a book to the very attentive “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln.

Figure 2 – Harry Houdini illustrating how one can create fake ghost images. Here he is seen in a self portrait reading a book to Abraham Lincoln c 1920. Image from the Wikipedia and in the collection of the US Library of Congress. In the public domain in the United States.

Posted in History of Photography

Edward S. Curtis and the Moses connection

Figure 1 – Scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Photographs of the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, PC-RM-Curtis, courtesy, California Historical Society, PC-RM-Curtis_391.

We have spoken in the past about American photographer Edward S. Curtis, who so brilliantly chronicled the decimation of the native peoples of America. We remain perpetually haunted by these beautiful images and the stories they tell.

America today has become barraged lately with challenges to the meaning of truth. As a result, last night I was thinking about the story of Moses and the ten commandments, especially the one that states:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

This in turn led to my search for early photographs that depict Moses. Well, two points: first that I recognize that this is not a normal activity for a Saturday night (as in get a life, Wolf), and second that despite that we are told that “when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him,” there are no actual photographs of Moses extant. I emphasize the second point because delusion has become a theme of the day.

What I found,  in my little web search, amazed me. There were a set of beautiful cold-tone images by Edward S. Curtis of the filming of Cecille B. DeMille’s 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments.” It seems that Curtis was employed as a black and white photographer on the movie crew. These images are in the California Historical Society on The Commons and can also be seen on Flickr. I have reproduced two of them here. You see immediately the same passion of face that are in Curtis’ native American images. This mas a master of dramatic portraiture.  It is as if we are transported back to the time of the Exodus. The choice of blue-tone gives these images an other worldliness. They seem, as the commandments themselves, written in stone.

This first telling of the Exodus story by DeMille is bifurcated. It tells first the story of Moses leading the Israelites from bondage to the promised land and then it tells a modern day story of two brothers, one who follows the way of good and righteousness, the way of a loving and forgiving God, and the other who is taught by his mother to fear a vengeful God and who falls into evil ways. The evil brother becomes “a corrupt contractor who builds a church with shoddy concrete, pocketing the money saved and becoming very rich. One day, his mother comes to visit him at his work site, but the walls are becoming unstable due to the shaking of heavy trucks on nearby roads. One of the walls collapses on top of the mother, killing her. In her dying breath, she tells Danny that it is her fault for teaching him to fear God, when she should have taught him love.

All very moralistic to be sure. For his 1956 block-buster version, DeMille abandoned the split aspect of the film in favor of what became one of the truly great epic movies of the twentieth century. This later version also featured a truly incredible cast that included Charleton Heston as Moses and Yul Brenner as the Pharoah. “Etc, etc, etc…”

Figure 2 – Scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Theodore Roberts as Moses,Photographs of the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, PC-RM-Curtis, courtesy, California Historical Society, PC-RM-Curtis_082.

Posted in History of Photography