Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bottle Trees

One of the most arresting sights in a garden or landscape is the bottle tree. All are alike, but no two are the same. Some consist solely of blue bottles; some have great variety in the size, shape and color. It's rare for me to see one, since I don't get out into the countryside too much. But there's no telling where they'll show up - in fact, the one shown here was located in a dense urban neighborhood. The strand of Christmas lights is an unusual embellishment.

The story is that bad spirits are irresistibly drawn into them, become trapped and can't enter the house to do harm. Most people, including some scholars, believe them to be an African survival, first employed by slaves. The great American writer Eudora Welty, while working for the W.P.A. in the 1930s, took the black and white photo in Simpson County, Mississippi. She also wrote about bottle trees in her short story "Livvie."

The boldly painted Clorox bottle in the last picture was done by Mary T. Smith, a well-known African American folk artist from Mississippi. She made several of these spirit traps. It was given to me by a friend during a rough time in my life. I never put it outside.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hale County Alabama

Hale County Alabama is in the west central part of the state. It is largely rural and has a population of less than 20,000. I claim no special knowledge of the place. In fact, what I know most about it is that it is the setting for three significant bodies of work in American arts.

Walker Evans, working with James Agee and on assignment for Fortune magazine, spent several weeks there in 1936, documenting the life of sharecroppers in the cotton belt. One result was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a seminal photo essay and probably one of the more important books of the 20th century. Evans' images from there continue to represent some of the collective American imagery of poverty and the Depression. The Library of Congress owns a number of these images. The first two photos above are his.

William Christenberry is a photographer, painter and sculptor. I have a particular weakness for his photographs. As a child he spent time in Hale County on his grandparents' farms. Later, as an artist, he used a Brownie camera to take snapshots in Hale County as references for his paintings. After discovering Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1960, he sought out Walker Evans in New York. Evans encouraged him to use the Brownie camera seriously and got him a job at Time-Life. They were friends until Evans' death in 1975. Christenberry has had a long and prolific career as artist and teacher. The third and fourth images are his.

The Rural Studio is a project of Auburn University's school of architecture. It was founded in 1993 by Sam Mockbee and D. K. Ruth, with the aim of teaching students about the social responsibilities of the profession of architecture and building well-constructed and inspiring homes and facilities for the people of western Alabama. They have utilized bales of hay, tires and other recycled materials in their innovative designs. It is based in Newbern, in Hale County, and has many exemplary projects in the area. You can see some of them and learn more here. The fifth image above is an animal shelter they created for Hale County.

The Hale County Road 51 sign, blasted by gunfire, is an artifact we enjoy in our house.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shake It, Baby

I present this object as a sculpture, but it probably has more meaning as a cultural artifact.

This is a quintessentially American object, a device that "harnessed technology" and promised self-improvement without effort. You pry open the powerful jaws to clamp the contraption around your midsection, turn it on and enjoy a vigorous shaking action. Lose weight and tone muscles without breaking a sweat!

Well, maybe not so much with the weight loss, except in the wallet region.

It's covered with the same stuff as old diner restaurant booths and dinette chairs, attached with upholstery tacks.

The entrepreneurial woman who owned the little cottage industry that made it also produced a device for reducing facial wrinkles by electric shock. Not surprisingly, she was very successful and retired wealthy.

It's a big hit at parties, and when not in use looks great with a spotlight on it .

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mrs. C. C. Beasley, Artist

Dan was a fireman in the county where we grew up. My friend since childhood, he knows something of my interests, and called me after being summoned to put out a small kitchen fire. He gave me directions to a rural house and promised the trip would be worth my time.

That's how I came to meet Mrs. C. C. Beasley, artist. She lived alone in a small wooden house with a tin roof and a dirt yard she swept with a homemade broom.

Quiet and soft-spoken, she was obviously pleased by my interest in the way she had enhanced her environment. It was not yet spring, so nothing was growing, but that she was a gardener was apparent by all the planters on her porch and around the yard. Each planter, whether terracotta, a cast iron washpot, a galvanized metal tub or black plastic containers from the nursery, was individually dotted, dabbed or striped with paint. Colored Christmas lights were strung along the top edge of her porch, and on the floor below them was an arrangement of animal figurines, a doll in a basket and a plastic Santa Claus - what some might call an installation. Even a large quartz rock at the base of her shade oak was done in dots and drips.

When I asked if I could take her picture, she chose to hold an iron tine from an old piece of farm equipment, which she had also decorated with a declaration: "Painted by Mrs. C. C. Beasley Born Apr. 1909." Artist.

Monday, March 23, 2009

3 Fates in 2 Words

One of the most poignant headstones ever written: three names, one date, two words.

Tybee Island, Georgia, near Savannah.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Raw Power

Yesterday's post of the photographer's self-portrait brought to mind one of more evocative images I own. It too is a real photo postcard, and shows a man with a very young child dressed in white on his knee. The expression on his face, which I read as pure shell-shocked grief, just begs the story. I imagine that his wife. the child's mother, has died, and now he faces a frightening future without her, the daunting prospect of being a father alone and poor. Note the patch on his pants at the knee. It's remarkable that he chose to have this portrait made. I think of it as a sort of post-post-mortem. The condition of the card, stained and stepped on, just amplifies the effect. I put it right up there with Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother portrait.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Keeping a blog, and reading those of others, is interesting both for what is revealed and what is concealed. I suppose that we're all practicing some form of self-portraiture. Thinking about that today reminded me of a real photo postcard in my collection that has a single scrawled word on it, "Me." I bought it for two reasons: first, for that lonely, concise and assertive inscription, and second, because it's a portrait of the photographer himself, who, for once, has stepped around in front of the camera. Leaning against his leg is a large case, and against it, a film holder with the word Exposed clearly visible.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Brief Biography

An illustrated biography titled My MaMa, by Venus B. I assume this was a school assignment, with a teacher's suggested topic for each page, and a blank area to be filled in by the author, and room for the illustration. Venus does a great job of portraying her mother in six pages, wouldn't you agree?

Page 1

My MaMa's name is Narona.

She is very pretty.

Page 2

She likes to shop.

Page 3

This summer she plans to shop also.

Page 4

Mama also likes to fix her hair.

Page 5

My Mama likes to wear shoes.

Page 6

Sometimes she gets too many clothes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

American Beauty

There's an entire era of color photographs that over time have color-shifted toward red and purple. Some error in the chemical formulas at Kodak means that most memories of that era have a magenta cast. But that's just one aspect of this picture, which intrigues me as a portrait of adolescent girls, in tiaras and tutus and theatrical makeup, still dreaming of princes, and the folk art quality of the too-bright light, the not quite graceful poses, the girl at upper left who can't control her joy - the whole unknown backstory of ballet class at Miss Patsy's School of Dance and the spring recital. For all its artifice, it's an honest American portrait.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Femme Fatale

Yes, she has no head, and yes, an extra vestigial arm, but she is beautiful to me, and that is all that matters. Perhaps she is a bit zaftig, and too freely displays her charms, but her appeal has never dimmed.

Sweetie met a tragic end some 15 years ago, scarfed down by a ravenous Great Dane named Spot, while innocently lounging on her Naugahyde divan.

True story.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Camera Records the Truth, Accidentally

I don't know what happened to cause the effect shown in this snapshot.

But the back is inscribed "C.O.D. Bar, Nuevo Laredo. Frank & Ginny. Guess the liquid had more effect than I realized."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


A found photograph.

A sign.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


There's enough bad news out there to send me in search of something funny.

I found these three Polaroid photos in a box at an estate sale, in the order you see them here.

When I got to the third one, all I could think was "Run, kid!"

Monday, March 9, 2009


In 1977 a book titled Evidence was published by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. They had searched through the photographic archives of industrial laboratories, police departments, government agencies and institutions, looking for photographs made as pure documentation - as evidence. When the selected images were taken out of context, exhibited and published as an art photography project, it had an important effect on the field of photography. It also had an important effect on me, because it confirmed that other people were finding meaning in odd, inexplicable found photographs. I bought a copy of the book and got a nice handwritten note of thanks from Mr. Mandel. (That first edition now sells in the $3000 range if you can find one.) Anyway, since then I've had the good fortune to find a few orphaned pictures that just beg for explanation, which ain't gonna happen, but somehow still yield something of the mysterious internal effect that art has. Sometimes they're beautiful; sometimes it's the deranged Dada-like weirdness, like this one, an 8 x 10 glossy photo of the underside of a standard institutional table. You tell me.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Style 85 $1

This photo was found among the files of a long-closed manufacturer of ladies' undergarments. As primitive as it is, I like the over-the-top visual effect. Much of the process is revealed on close examination. The woman's image was cut out, pasted over the radiant black and white burst, then rephotographed. Then all of the white lines and the model's abdomen were hand-painted with white before being photographed again. There's a thumbtack hole in each corner and remnants of glue on the surface. This was a hard-working picture.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

B & W

Last night I was looking for a recipe to liven up some black beans and white rice, so I Googled "moros" and discovered that in Cuba the full title of this dish is Moros y Christianos, or Moors and Christians to an anglophone like me. A little improvisation made for a delicious dinner. And that's just to segue into yet another of the mysteries of black and white.

The cabinet card shown above was taken by J. H. Peters & Co. at the New York Gallery in San Francisco, CA. The gallery was in business between 1869 and 1887.

Not given is any clue as to who these two ladies are, or why they were so innovatively attired. I welcome your speculation.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Personal Security

Ruby defiantly protects what is hers with this folky burglar bar system. There are no fewer than three deadbolts on the security door, and the glass panel is protected by a patterned metal screen, overlaid with this custom wrought iron identity. The name is emphasized with white paint. I have the feeling that Ruby was not someone to be trifled with.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More Moon Shots

A few more photos from the first moon landing, as photographed from the TV in someone's living room. The blue tube floats on a black field, carrying the vague, low-definition images.

If you have a little time to kill, Google "moon landing hoax" and read some of the doubters' rationale for why this event never happened. Not that that has anything to do with collecting these snapshots, except for proving how information breaks down as it is removed from the source, just like these images.