… A Thousand Words?

Hey all, the podcast episode I’m running this week is from the back catalog of blog posts – so I have new, blog only content this week. Today we’re going to look at a couple of famous photos – cartooned of course (cause it’s what I do). If I’ve yet to get back to part two of Xenophon (this post was written over my lunch breaks back in January- early February) I will get back to it as soon as I have a couple of evenings free to finish that tale. It’s one of those tales where the broad strokes are fine – but many tiny details need going over carefully to avoid turning the piece into a shambles… It was a bad choice of quick filler material. 

Anyway, back to today – Though not the first to say it, an ad man named Fred Barnard popularised the phrase ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – let’s see if I can’t shed a little light on the following with a few less than that. 

One: I’m Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train….

Granville is a seaside resort town in Normandy, France. Founded by a vassal of England’s newly minted king, William the Conqueror in the 11th Century – the town played host to Vikings, English invaders, privateers and more besides in it’s history. By the 19th century it had a burgeoning wellness industry, and a train line to Paris. A quick Google search tells me a modern train will do the near 400 kilometre journey in around three hours for 20 Euros. On 22nd October 1895, the Granville to Paris Montparnasse express was expected to do the trip in a little over seven. On the 22nd steam locomotive no. 721 departed ‘The Monaco of the North’ with this expectation. Leaving dead on time at 8.45 am with six passenger coaches, three luggage vans and a coach full of mail, the train lost a few minutes here and there till it was in danger of being seriously late. 

Concerned with the dire consequences of a late arrival, the driver, a 19 year veteran of the company named Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, really put his foot on the gas – so to speak. The furnace running red hot, the train reached speeds in excess of sixty kilometres an hour. Now the train was humming along, maybe – just maybe if they held off on the brakes a little they’d reach Paris Montparnasse station by the allotted 3.55pm. 

When Pellerin did attempt to hit the brakes – the air brakes failed. Albert Mariette, the conductor, had an emergency brake he was supposed to hit in cases like this – but he was in his office buried under a stack of paperwork – blissfully unaware of the runaway train. At 4pm the train and all 131 passengers came flying into the station. The train made short work of the buffers, derailing then cruising across a 30 metre concourse. It then crashed through a sixty centimetre thick stone wall before tumbling ten metres to the Place de Rennes below.

Luckily for the passengers, their carriages were at the far end of the train – and remained safely inside the building. They were jarred about however, five passengers receiving minor injuries. 

On the sidewalk below,  Marie-Augustine Aguilard was less lucky. She was guarding her husband’s newspaper stand at the time of the derailment. Hubby was off to collect the evening edition in preparation for rush hour. Marie, no doubt was expecting nothing spectacular to happen in the interim. She was struck by a falling chunk of masonry and was sadly killed by the debris. 

Conductor Mariette was fined 25 francs for his part in the disaster. Driver Pellerin charged fifty francs and given a two month jail term he never had to serve. 

The photos taken at the time are now well and truly in the public domain, and have appeared the cover of a book on error analysis, record covers for American band Mr Big and Dutch band The Ex. A theme park in Brazil has recreated the scene in one of their buildings. Martin Scorsese recreated the crash in his 2011 film Hugo. 

Two: Migrant Mother… 

In past blog posts I’ve written briefly on the Dust Bowl. The short version of the story is at around the same time as the US economy slumped into the Great Depression, Mother Nature hit the folk living on the prairies with a double whammy. Convinced to move there by a shyster named Charles Dana Wilber, then to tear up the long grasses which held the land together in drought because – in Wilber’s words “…Rain follows the plow” – the unusual wet spell of the past few decades suddenly stopped in 1930. As crops died in the scorching heat, everything holding the topsoil in wilted – and when the winds got up – 850 million tons of topsoil blew away. There are reports from naval vessels hundreds of miles offshore getting pelted by these dust storms. 3,500,000 people were left homeless. 

Herbert Hoover was president when both the Great Depression and Dust Bowl struck, and though he had made a name for himself as an expert in disaster relief – coordinating widespread aid to starving Belgians in World War One, keeping food on the tables of the American public following their entry to the war – and handling the disaster response following ‘The Great Mississippi Flood’ of 1927…

(too long a digression. 1.5 million people were displaced. Hoover was lauded as a hero – his path to the White House at the following election assured. Many, many African Americans were horrifically treated in refugee camps but the press were ordered to keep a lid on that)

…Hoover’s response to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl was catastrophic. ‘Hoover towns’ full of refugees looking for work and accommodation popped up on the roads to California. Luckily Franklin D Roosevelt soon replaced Hoover, and brought a large bag of tricks with him to fix the country. Owing to FDR’s practice of giving his plans acronyms (WPA, CCC, CAW, NIRA), Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was often referred to as ‘Alphabet Soup’. 

Roosevelt employed people in massive public works projects, building highways and other infrastructure. He created vast community education programmes providing work for teachers, and up-skilling for those left behind in the financial turmoil. He sent out sociologists tasked to work out who America was, and what they needed. He employed historians to capture oral history largely ignored – and in danger of being lost forever. People with recording devices captured the life experiences of the last of the former slaves, for one. 

Talented photographers like Dorothea Lange were sent out to chronicle the stories of the people displaced from the prairies in picture – among other arts projects. Before the Great Depression Ms Lange had been working as a portrait photographer, capturing formal, staged images of San Francisco’s rich and powerful. From 1933 she worked chronicling the lives of the Oakies, Arkies and other displaced souls for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Owing to her ability to keenly observe others unobtrusively, she essentially invented documentary photography in the process. 

The photo she is best known for is Migrant Mother – shot in March 1936 among a group of destitute pea pickers. In the photo, a 32 year old woman stares anxiously into the future as three of her seven children lean on her – the childrens’ faces averted from the camera. To me this is a very humanising photo. For one the lady has oodles of dignity – as much, if not more so than any patrician Lange formerly portrayed. For another her desperation reaches out and touches you. For me it is quite a visceral photograph, which challenges me to put myself in the migrant mother’s shoes and ask what would I do if faced with such crushing poverty. 

Dear readers, meet Florence Owens Thompson. 

Florence was born 1st September 1903 to Cherokee parents in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. She grew up on a farm outside of Tahlequah. When young her father abandoned the family. Having served a three year prison sentence, he simply never returned.

Aged 17 she married a young man named Cleo Owens. They tied the knot on Valentines Day 1921 and moved to California, where Cleo found work in a lumber mill. In 1931, while Florence was pregnant with their sixth child, Cleo died of tuberculosis. From here Florence, always a worker anyway, suddenly found herself taking whatever work she could find to keep their heads above water. She started a relationship with a man named Jim Hill. The couple struggled with the bills – it was the Great Depression and they now had seven mouths to feed. They were coming back from picking beets when Dorothea Lange shot her in Nopomo, California. 

Her anxiety, likely well founded, was not what one would expect. The family were on their way to another valley to pick lettuce when their car broke down. As Jim walked towards the closest town for a replacement timing chain, Florence and the kids took cover among a camp of pea pickers. Struggling as they were, at least Jim and Florence had work at the time. Jim would return later with the parts, and a meal for the family – all of which would be met with an angry glare from the camp. 

The camp formed when over 2,500 people had showed up expecting work – only to find a hard, extremely cold rainstorm had killed all the crops. Thousands of desperate workers were suddenly stranded in Nopomo without work or pay. Dorothea never asked if Florence was one of the pea pickers, cause why wouldn’t she be? She was taking shelter in the camp after all. Lange, for her part later stated she was exhausted from a long journey to the camp. She normally spoke at length with her subjects. 

Florence had ten children in total in her life – Six to Cleo, three to Jim. I couldn’t tell you what happened to Jim, but she married a hospital administrator called George Thompson in 1952. Her life post World War Two was financially easier. Her children bought her a house in Modesto, California in the 1970s, but Florence chose to stay in the motor home she owned since moving to Modesto instead. She died 16th September 1983. 

Three: Lunch Atop a Skyscraper… 

Ok just a quick one to round off this post. Ever seen a photo of eleven daring men just hanging out atop the world like it was nothing? Ever wonder where this was? When this was? Who were the eleven men so willing to risk life and limb to build what was then a futuristic new world of concrete and steel? 

This may leave you with more questions than answers. 

First off the photograph is real – those men are perched 260 meters above the streets of New York. Yes, the apparent lack of safety concerns is real inasmuch as these folk are sitting there, without so much as a net or a safety harness to save them should they fall. The image was staged however, all part of a publicity shoot. Other photos taken that day showed men throwing a football round and pretending to take a nap. All up five people died in the construction of the complex – I can’t help but think if this is how these guys normally had lunch, the death toll would have been much higher? 

The building is New York’s RCA building, part of the complex known as the Rockefeller Centre. The date 20th September 1932.

The building project had it’s origins in 1928, when John D Rockefeller jr announced his plans to rejuvenate midtown New York with a shiny new entertainment precinct. His original plan was to build a new, modern building for the Metropolitan Opera, on land formerly owned by Colombia University. The Met liked the idea of a new headquarters, but were wary of making the move. To do so they first had to sell their old building – and however they planned the move, the interim period of occupying both properties at once would bankrupt them. While they crunched the numbers, Rockefeller dreamt bigger – why not build a vast complex taking up much of Fifth and Sixth Avenue? Eight Art Deco styled skyscrapers would be constructed – the Metropolitan Opera building to be replaced with a 50 story office block. 

One tenant who could afford to move in was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It was a girder on their building the men were shot on. 

At the time of the photo shoot, the RCA building was months from completion. The Rockefeller centre arranged publicity shots to be taken of real construction workers to generate buzz around the upcoming opening. The photoshoot appeared in The New York Herald Tribune 2nd October 1932. 

It took several decades to even identify the photographer – a man called Charles C. Ebbets. Ebbets was an actor in the 1920s, who took up residence behind a camera, eventually finding work as a photographer. He was also a keen wrestler, hunter, racing car driver, pilot and occasional wing walker. For a while, he was also the official staff photographer for world heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey – if what little I could find on him is to be trusted? I can’t help but think his life is begging at the least a book, possibly a movie on his adventures? At the very least a man portraying Ebbets on a Dos Equus beer commercial stating ‘stay thirsty my friends’ is in order. He died in 1978, his estate claiming authorship of the photograph in 2003. Complicating matters, others have since claimed Ebbets was not the photographer after all, but a viable alternative has yet to be named. 

The eleven construction workers have been even harder to pin down.

First, there is a pub in Galway Ireland, with a copy of the photo hanging on a wall. On their copy a note from the alleged son of one of the men – who left Ireland for the USA in the 1920s. The note claims “This is my dad on the far left, and my uncle-in-law on the far right”. This lead was tracked back to a family in Boston USA in a 2012 documentary. The Boston lead stated the man with a bottle on the right was Sonny Glynn. On the far left was Matty O’Shaughnessy – both men were Irish immigrants. Since the documentary the third man from the left has been identified as Joseph Eckner. Joe Curtis is the man third from right. Gustav Popovic, a former lumberjack and carpenter from Slovakia is believed to be one of the men.  Late in 1932 Gustav sent a postcard to his wife Mariska with the photo on the front. He wrote “Don’t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti”. Gusti and Mariska’s gravestone in Slovakia bears a copy of the photo. Like the long held claim that the man in the centre is Peter Rice, of Mohawk descent (it has often been said Mohawk tribesmen built the New York skyline) these are all likely identities but none of these men’s identities have been incontrovertibly determined. 

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