A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Pulp Photography

Viewfinder, 2006

"The subjects are bit players who, for a brief time, found fame
printed on the glassy surface of dime novels.  My mitts and an 
a xacto knife work together to persuade skirts and skinflints
to return to the stage for one final performance in a slightly
different production.  The spotlight is aimed at guns and gams 
long enough to immortalize them on yet another flat, glossy 
surface - film."                                                Thomas Allen

Thomas Allen cuts, crimps, and creases the figures from vintage paperbacks and folds them up and out of their covers to create "tableau vivants", French for "living pictures".  The lascivious images are a homage to the golden age of pulp fiction, cult westerns, and film noir.

Stranger, 2006

Influenced by pop-up books and the classic View-Master stereoscopic toy, figures and images are re-imagined and made into dioramas.  He creates new stories from old books, by rearranging them into 3D scenes, carefully stages and lights them, then photographs the new scene.  Thus he takes 2D objects, renders them into 3D ones, then reverts them back into 2D ones, albeit with a new tale to tell.

Tangle, 2008

He purposely uses depth of field and a shallow focus when he photographs.  This makes them seem like the audience is looking through a View-Master.

Bookend, 2004

Allen got his BFA from Wayne State University in Detroit.  He then went to the University of Minnesota to get his MFA in 1996.  He's received a number of grants and fellowships, including the prestigious McKnight Artist Fellowship for photographers in 1997.

Thomas Allen at work.

His idea for his photography came from a fellowship he received for works that used anatomy books to tell myths.  He realized that by cutting up a book and pulling the cut-out up he could make something similar to a pop-up book.

Wish, 2006

At first he started using Photoshop and making figures he would print onto card stock.  He'd then cut out the figures and place them over books, using light to hide some of his "tricks".  He then realized he could just cut the book directly and light the resulting "image".

Stacked, 2004

Allen soon started using more than one book, blending story elements.  He uses pulp covers because of their illustrations.  Newer ones are too stylistic, so he prefers using the older ones.

Spring, 2004

Since many covers have nothing to do with the words inside, but are made to sell books, he sticks to just "reading" the covers.  He never reads the books, which he often finds funny, but he wants to keep his initial reactions to the covers intact.

Tale, 2004

Since his work is not about the stories inside the books he uses, the books covers are just mined for the visual effects he seeks.  Sometimes he has an idea in mind and searches for images, but a lot of the time his work is spontaneous.

Topple, 2005

Allen used to dig through used bookstores to find the books.  He tried eBay, but the bidding got too high.  He finally found a website, which he won't disclose, that lists available pulp covers.  He checks that site, then goes to Alibris and Bookfinder.com to buy them.

Knockout, 2006

His works have one word titles.  He feels if he has to explain his photos, then they are not working.  He doesn't like the term "untitled".  People are left to their own interpretations.

Distraction, 2006

Thomas Allen has found a new way to satisfy his interests in pop-up books and pulp fiction.  His creativity allows the rest of us to re-experience the thrill of a good pulp cover.  This clever and successful photographer offers us a taste of the past with a fresh flavor.

Images courtesy of the artist's site.
For a look at more of his work check this out.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Poster by Kees Kelfkens, 1958, for CPNB.

Each year the CPNB or Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek (the Collective Promotion for the Dutch Book) organizes a book week to promote Dutch literature. The CPNB was founded by professional publishing and bookselling groups, the Nederlandse Boekverkoperbond and the Groep Algemene Uitgevers (Dutch Booksellers Federation and Trade Publishing Group) respectively. The entire country observes this week, and activities such as literary festivals, debates, and book signings are held all over.

Boekenweek, or book week, is an annual event lasting ten days dedicated to Dutch literature.  The event always begins on a Wednesday and it is traditionally held in March.  Bookstores and libraries are able to order campaign materials, which include posters, window displays, and magazines. Orders are placed once and the appropriate number of materials are printed to keep costs down.

Its precursor was Dag van het Boek (Day of the Book) which was held on November 15, 1930, in the interest of protecting the integrity of books from the new media of radio and films.  No event was scheduled in 1931, but in 1932 the first Boekenweek was held.  Due to German occupation during WWII, Boekenweek was not held from 1942 to 1945.

Boekenweek has a new theme each year.  The beginning is celebrated with the Boekenbal (book ball) that is attended by writers and publishers.  The Boekenbal has met with some controversy.  It is an invitational event whose guest list is decided by the CPNB.  In opposition to this a separate event has been held since 2002.  The Bal der Geweigerden (ball of the refused) admits anyone, and is held near the location of the Boekenbal.

The Boekenweekgeschenk (book week gift) is a wonderful tradition.  Each year a prominent author is asked to write a book, commonly a novella, to be given by bookstores upon the purchase of a set amount of books in the Dutch language. Since 2001 libraries also participate and give the Boekenweekgeschenk to new members.  In 2001 another first occurred, the Boekenweekgeschenk was written in English by Salman Rushdie and was later translated into Dutch.

For several decades, the 1940s through the 1960s, the Boekenweekgeschenk was sometimes published anonymously.  As part of a contest, there was a list of possible authors inside the book, and readers could mail-in their guesses.  The curriculum vitae of the author, called the Boekenweek-cv, is available through public libraries to their members.

Since 2002 the Boekenweekgeschenk can function as a ticket to travel free by train on that Sunday throughout the Netherlands.  The Boekenweekgeschenk has grown so much in popularity that last year, which was the 75th anniversary of Boekenweek, there were 958,000 copies printed.  This year's Boekenweekgeschenk is The Crow by Kader Abdolah, the pseudonym of Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani. Curiously, it is also available as an e-book with the purchase of 12.5 euros worth of e-books.

Kader Abdolah, 2008.

In 2010, an additional promotional item was added.  The Boekenweek stamp was offered for 2 euros and 20 cents, and could be used to mail items up to just over 17.5 ounces.  Measuring just over 1 inch by 1.5 inches, it is in the form of a small book with a story inside.  The book can be detached from the envelope or package and read by the recipient.  The story was Wat is erger (What is worse) and was an appendix to the Boekenweekgeschenk of that year, which was Duel by Joost Zwagerman.
Joost Zwagerman on the special stamp, 2010.

The current Boekenweek ends this Saturday.  This year's posters were part of a campaign designed by Van Wanter Etcetera, and the artwork was created by Souverein.  The concept this year is Geschreven Portretten (Written Portraits), which are autobiographies.  Original book pages were used for the text within the portraits.

Kader Abdolah
Anne Frank
Louis van Gaal
Vincent van Gogh

For so many decades everyone in the book trade - publishers, book sellers, libraries, etc. - all get on the same page (pun intended) and promote books.  What an outstanding concept!  It would be nice to see the U.S. and other countries follow the Dutch lead.  However, the organizing, planning, and cooperation to pull this off would be phenomenal.  Kudos to the Dutch for managing it!

Images courtesy of the CPNB.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Introducing America to Americans"

A worker at a carbon black plant, Sunray, Texas, 1942.
Photo by John Vachon.

Part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States was to create the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 to deal with rural poverty.  Two years later this became the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  The initial goal was to move 650,000 people onto 100 million acres of land, mostly sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and very poor but landowning farmers.

Allie Mae Burroughs photographed in 1935 or 1936 by Walker Evans.

This was very unpopular with Congress because of its socialist overtones, unpopular with big farmers as it depleted their tenant workforce (and these successful farmers were very influential), and it ultimately failed since farmers wanted ownership of the land they were farming.  Under the FSA plan, farmers were to be brought together to work on large government-owned farms using "modern" techniques, supervised by "experts".

"American Gothic" portrait of cleaning woman Ella Watson
taken in 1942 by Gordon Parks.

Only a few thousand people or so were relocated.  Several greenbelt cities were built as models for a cooperative future that never came about.  The main focus became the building of relief camps for migratory workers, mostly from the drought-striken Dust Bowl of the Southwest, in California.  Ninety-five camps with clean quarters that had running water and other amenities were built.  They could only handle 750,000 people, so stays were temporary.

Migratory workers outside of a "juke joint" during the slack season in
Belle Glade, Florida, 1944, by Marion Post Wolcott.

The FSA's mission was not to aid farm production or prices, as there were already too many farmers and production was being discouraged by the government in order to increase prices.  The real agenda was to "modernize" rural America.  I'm thinking the really real agenda was to influence agricultural practices.

"Scenes of the northern Shenandoah Valley, including the RA's Shenandoah
Homesteads" by Ben Shahn, 1941.

"Modernization" is a concept dependent on pretty specific ideas which make anything else "wrong".  In this case, it was believed that certain practices led to economic success.  To this end, the poor farmers that this program attempted to help were supervised by "experts".  By buying into this, I wonder if it was a significant gain in organizing agriculture that lead to our current practices of GMO crops and the reliance on heavy chemicals.

Roundhouse wipers (women who cleaned locomotive engines) having
lunch in their rest room at the Chicago & North Western Railroad
in Clinton, Iowa, 1943.  Photo by Jack Delano.

After the war there wasn't a need for FSA, as there were so many factory jobs in the cities.  Housing programs were moved to the National Housing Agency by FDR in 1942.  In 1946 the FSA was replaced by a new agency, the Farmers Home Administration.  This agency's goal was to help finance farm purchases, especially by war veterans, with no personal oversight by "experts".  This was also part of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty in the 60s.

San Francisco, 1942 by Dorothea Lange.  The "I Am An American" sign was
placed in the window of a store at 13th and Franklin streets on Dec. 8th, the
day after Pearl Harbor, by the owner, a UC graduate of Japanese descent.  The
store was closed and the owner was housed in a War Relocation Authority
center for the duration of the war.

The best part of the FSA was the photography program.  The Information Division of the FSA, led by Roy Stryker, was to support the position that poverty could be controlled by "changing land practices".  Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the plight of the poor.

A fair at Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940, photo by Russell Lee.

250,000 images of rural poverty were taken.  Less than half of these have survived, and are housed in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.  These are available for viewing online, including negatives and some photographs that were not printed at that time.

The Ohio River floods Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.  Photo by Carl Mydans.

The LOC collection includes photos from other sources, both governmental and non-governmental, including the News Bureau at the Offices of Emergency Management (OEM), military branches, and industrial corporations.

A farmer and his two sons in a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma.
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

This photography program ran from 1935 - 1944, and was very influential.  These images appeared in popular magazines and are responsible for both documenting and creating our image of the times.  The three most famous photographers are probably Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks.

A market in the southwest waterfront area of Washingon, D.C.,
photographed by Louise Rosskam in 1941 or 1942.

The RA also funded two documentary films by Pare Lorentz:  The Plow That Broke the Plains deals with the creation of the Dust Bowl; and The River shows the importance of the Mississippi River.  Both films were selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the LOC, as they are considered "culturally significant".

African-American boy in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1942 or 1943, by John Vachon.

Today, everyone is a photographer especially with the advent of built-in cameras in cell phones.  This group of photographers was outstanding in the medium. What a unique time and place to be given free rein, and assignments (although with an agenda) that weren't just to take "pretty" pictures.  Their "voices" still tell a story, proving, once again, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

All photographs courtesy of the LOC.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"Mad as a March Hare"

The March Hare from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by
Lewis Carroll.  Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.  The Hare
wears straw on its head, a sign of madness in Victorian times.

The saying "mad as a march hare" is an old one, and refers to the "madness" exhibited by hares as their breeding season commences, which in Europe is February or March.  Their season actually lasts until September or so, but apparently the first signs of their mating behavior struck an impression.  The saying has been expanded to refer to anyone who exhibits excitable or unpredictable behavior.

This "mad" behavior in hares includes "boxing", leaping over each other, jumping vertically (we call that "bunny bowling" at our house) and other rather frivolous behavior.  It was thought that the "boxing" with their forelegs was a sign of males competing for supremacy (the old testosterone flaring up), but scientists now know that it's the females repelling the males unwanted attentions.

A European hare.

The saying was a common one in Carroll's time.  An early poem referred to it that was written around 1500 - Blowbol's Test (author unknown) - which was first printed by W. C. Hazlitt in 1864 in his book Remains of Early Popular Poetry of England:

Thanne they begyn to swere and to stare, 
And be as braynles as a Marshe hare

(Then they begin to swerve and to stare,
And be as brainless as a March hare)

In 1528 John Skelton in his Replycacion wrote "Aiii, I saye, thou madde Marche Hare".  The book Magnyfycence in 1529 has "As mery as a marche hare".  The phrase also appears in John Heywood's collection of proverbs which was published in 1546.

The phrase has been in continuous use since the 16th century, but Carroll made it even more popular by naming one of his main characters the "March Hare".  This character is wacky, and always behaves as if it is tea time.  Subsequent interpretations of the Wonderland story always features a crazy rabbit - be it movies, cartoons, anime, or new books.

Thackery Earwicket, the March Hare from Tim Burton's film version of
Alice in Wonderland.

There is a similar tradition about the "myth of the moon gazing hare", which is the pagan belief that seeing a moon gazing hare will bring abundance, growth, and good fortune.  In pagan times the hare was sacred to the goddess Eostre and eventually evolved into the Easter bunny, yet another translation of pagan beliefs.

One can be "mad as a hatter" as well.  Mercury salts once were used in curing pelts from which hats were made.  Hatters and mill workers often inhaled the fumes and suffered from mercury poisoning, which resulted in neurological damage including vision and speech problems.  This phrase was also common in Carroll's time, occurring in print in 1937 in Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker.

The Mad Hatter by Sir John Tenniel.

There are several alternate theories as to the origin of the phrase, including pertaining to an "adder" - whose venom is poisonous.  "Atter" was the Anglo-Saxon word for adder.  Therefore "mad hatter" has been said to mean as angry as an adder.  It's unclear what Carroll believed, however in Through the Looking Glass, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter were friends.

This March has certainly been mad, from crazy weather to natural disasters.  If I see a hare with a hat on I'm running as far away as I possibly can!

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Monday, March 21, 2011

St. Norbert's Monastery

Saint Norbert. 

When I think of a monastery I picture a very austere place, bare, somewhat dank, with tiny little rooms with cots for the monks, a large church, and gardens, a brewery and a winery, and bees.  If I'm in a romantic mood and thinking back in time there is a scriptorium, where monks copy books.  Closer to the present time there is a library, but it is sparse, severely decorated, and without a copious amount of books.

Possibly my connotations come from growing up near the San Fernando Mission, where my little friends and I often went to beg for oranges and creep down into the cellars when the padres weren't looking.  Actually the padres were very kind, but insisted we stay in the public areas, and let us have all the oranges we could eat from the fields that then bordered the mission.  There was evidence of winemaking, although I really didn't know much about it, but no brewery.  I must have gotten that from movies.

Years ago I became curious about St. Norbert.  In learning about him I came across a beautiful monastery that quite exceeded my conceptions.  It is the Strahov monastery in Prague.  It is the second oldest monastery in the city, and quite extraordinary.


Saint Norbert of Xanten, born in 1080, was the son of a count and related to the imperial house of Germany and the House of Lorraine.  As was custom at the time (and I'm sure still is), the wealthy and connected controlled the Church and its politics.  Until he had a horseback riding accident, he had no interest in the Church but found his faith, and his place within the Church was bought and he moved up the ranks quickly.

St. Norbert of Xanten.

His ideas caused some ruckus, so he quit and became an itinerant preacher and travelled in northern France where he is said to have performed a number of miracles. Eventually Pope Calixtus II asked Norbert at the Council of Reims in 1119 to found a religious order, which he did in 1120 at Prémontré, France.  Later on several assassination attempts were made on him, and he was a player in the "Great Schism" which formally divided the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

When he died in 1134, his body was claimed by two parties.  For centuries the Monastery of Strahov tried to get his body, and finally on May 2, 1627, he was brought to Prague and interred in the monastery where he still lies today.  He was canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in the year 1582.

The order he founded was called the Premonstratensians, after Prémontré near Laon in northeastern France.  They are also known as the Norbertines, or in Britain and Ireland as the White Canons.  Canons differ from monks.  Monks are essentially lay people who live a contemplative and cloistered life.  Canons are clerics who engage in public ministry.  It is, of course, much more involved than that, but that's the basic gist.  Canons live according to precedents set by Saint Augustine.

St. Augustine (left) handing the Augustine Rule to
Norbert (right).  From the 12th century manuscript
Vita Sancti Norberti.  

Six years after St. Norbert died, King Vladislav II built a monastery on the road to Prague Castle.  It wasn't successful until 1143, three years later, when a group of Premonstratensians moved in.  The monastery began to prosper and became a center of spiritual and intellectual life.  The original wooden buildings were rebuilt with stone, but it was redone entirely in gothic style after a fire destroyed it in 1258.

It continued to prosper until it was sacked by Hussites in 1420.  It began to decline until the end of the 16th century and was plundered and sacked again during the 30 Years War (1618-1648).  Suffering one more time in 1742 from being bombarded by the French army, most of the gothic buildings were replaced with ones in baroque style.

In 1950, monastic orders were forbidden in Czechoslovakia.  Their members were interned, imprisoned and/or executed.  Their property, including the Strahov library, was made part of the new Museum of National Literature.  The archives, music collection, picture collection and other exhibits were dispersed to other state institutions.  With the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the confiscated property, including its library was returned.  
It is now an active pilgrimage destination, a museum, and an incredible library.

Bible of Jan de Selmberk from 1440.

The Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady is dedicated to St. Norbert.  It is decorated with frescoes painted in 1774 featuring motifs of the Virgin Mary and scenes from Norbert's life.  It also features an organ that Mozart played when he visited in 1787.  In a chapel once devoted to St. Ursula but now to St. Norbert lies buried an ebony coffin within a gilded brass sarcophagus.  This contains the remains of St. Norbert. 

The apse of the basilica.
The sarcophagus of St. Norbert.

But the Stahov's most astonishing feature is its library.  Divided into two halls, the Theological Hall contains religious texts and the Philosophical Hall contains philosophical texts.  There about 18,000 religious texts and 42,000 philosophical ones, many of them rare.  The library has been plundered repeatedly, but was rebuilt after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  The Theological Hall was constructed in 1679.  The acquisitions were so plentiful that by the end of the 18th century more room was required and the Philosophical Hall was built.

Above the texts in the Theological Hall are carved and gilded wooden decorations with cartouches.  The pictures in the cartouches and their titles tell what type of books are contained on the shelves below them.  The hall also contains a collection of 17th century globes.

The Theological Hall.

In the Theological Hall there is a compilation wheel which is a device used by 17th century scribes to compile texts.  The various texts that were to be copied were placed on a shelves.  The books were always displayed at the same angle, even when spun, thanks to a mechanism inside.

In addition to the two halls, some of the 200,000 books are in adjacent depositories.  Many are old works printed between 1501 and 1800.  There are over 1,500 incunabula and 3,000 manuscripts stored in a special treasury room.

The Philosophical Hall.
The ceiling fresco was done by Anton Maulbertsch, the
Viennese painter, over six months.  It depicts the "Intellectual
Progress of Mankind", showing the mutual impact of science
and religion on each other.

The monastery has cabinets of curiosities - those fabulous precursors to museums - taken from the estate of Karl Jan Erben in 1798.  The cabinets include parts of a dodo bird, specimens of insects, minerals, ocean specimens, and a large electrostatic device.

There is a dendrology library that consists of 68 volumes made around 1825, each one documenting a different wood.  Similar to the wooden books at the University of Padua, the panels are made from the wood of the featured tree.  The spines are titled in both Latin and German and made of bark with lichen.  Inside the books are the corresponding roots, leaves, flowers, fruits, pieces of branches, and pests.

One of the dendrology books.

The entire complex of the Strahov Monastery is still being reconstructed.  Today it bears little resemblance to the original cluster of wooden buildings.  A monument to a religious order and its perseverance through the travails of history, it once again strives for greatness.

Images from the Stravosky Klaster website.