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Friday, 23 December 2011

Presence: Providence

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Snow in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Snow in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940


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Snow in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940


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Snow in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940


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Snow and slush in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940


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Snow and slush in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Waiting for a bus on a rainy day in Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Window shoppers watching toy display in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Window shoppers watching toy display in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Window shoppers watching toy display in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Window shoppers watching toy display in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Boys watching toy display in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Window shoppers watching toy display in downtown Providence, Rhode Island: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940

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Christmas window display in a 5 and 10, Providence, Rhode Island
: photo by Jack Delano, December 1940


And then we had presence


--Ted Berrigan, from Presence in The Paris Review #37, 1966


The Paris Review #37, 1966: cover by Derek Boshier


Photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress

11 comments:

ACravan said...

I have never seen Providence look so beautiful (or even beautiful at all), especially the top six photos. Velocipedes! A very nice tribute. Curtis

vazambam said...

Check out those faces (and the prices, too)!

TC said...

Some time back I posted an interview with Jack and Irene Delano which tells a lot about the FSA Photography Project and how it worked in practise: an endeavour on the part of the the documentary photographers of the Project to be "saying something decent about the dignity of mankind and the dignity of human beings".

"The detail and the deeper meaning of everything American": Remembering the FSA Photo Project

ACravan said...

Thank you for reposting/reminding me of the Delanos' interview. What's fascinating, especially about Roy Stryker, is how every single related detail and anecdote is extremely interesting, but the account could be boiled down to a few key sentences/observations about how an assigning editor best supports his staff in their work. I find this very, very inspiring in a dark, everyone for himself, season. Curtis

TC said...

Curtis,

Yes, Strykers had a marvelous instinct for picking the right people -- giving just enough clues to get them interested yet also keeping any and all "instructions" sufficiently vague to keep them wondering and open and curious and ready to be flexible -- and then letting them run.

"...very, very inspiring in a dark, everyone for himself, season."

It helps to keep in mind that all of these great documentary photographers were paid exactly the same daily stipend: $5.

The only one of them who seems to have chafed under that stringency of reward was Walker Evans. The other photographers have politely and subtly recalled the extended periods of Evans' mysterious "disappearances" -- times when, as some knew and many suspected, he was off on better-paying "private sector" work, e.g. the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men project.

Later, of course, Evans procured the one-of-a-kind job with Fortune magazine, which paid him a great deal of money to do (or not do, during some periods) exactly as he pleased.

We recognize that Carl Mydans (Time/Life), John Vachon (Look), Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Siegel and others went on from the FSA work to significant careers with substantially better salaries.

But I don't think any of them ever did better work than their government work, in that miraculous time when one-for-all, all-for-one actually did mean something.

Vassilis has mentioned the faces. In this post, the earnest, struggling, rapt, wondering, relatively innocent and open faces of middle-of-the road common American city people. Not one of them staring into the virtual navel of a cellphone or a texter, each one looking out through their own eyes as through windows to a world.

I am old enough to remember the delight, to an unmisgiving child's gaze, of those Christmas window displays. Each window as inviting and intriguing as a Joseph Cornell box.

But now -- "children's toys" all seem to be electronic gizmos, gameboys and gamegirls, Xboxes and Ygadgets, virtual warfares, little handheld prepackaged pushbutton sim-imperialisms. An enthralled group of children (and adults) standing in snow and cold, lost in wonderment before such instantly-disposable junk -- impossible to imagine.

The best toys, in that ancient time when I was but a larval thing, were mostly made of wood, not plastic and electronics.

Passing through the frenzied, rushing "holiday" night streets this year, I see no sweetness, no light, only busy, hurry, push, and get out of my face. A robot holiday for robots.

Those who are whooping it up over the big-box sales numbers this season are seeing the picture from within the false bubble they have created.

Outside the machine there are other views. The sullen, slumping body language of street people, waiting for the avenues to clear so they can fall out on cardboard pallets in shop doorways -- it's been below freezing at night here, this past week or so -- they see the whole charade for what it is. And see right through it to the Great Nothing which, for them, is all that lies beyond.

Another, meaner "outside" view of the holidaze shopathon is that focused through narrowed eyes by the urban gangster culture, which exists just below the bright empty lit-up surfaces.

A close family member came home from work on Tuesday, found the door ajar... and everything of value in the house, gone.

The police informed her that it was the fourth such invasion-and-cleanout job that had occurred in her neighbourhood, within a matter of hours.

Fred Rogers would not have been able to understand the depths to which this land has fallen.

(By the by, the first half of this post's title, and the isolated line at the bottom -- which was the last line of the poem quoted -- come from Ted Berrigan, who grew up in Providence, and would have just turned six at the time Jack Delano took these magical photographs.)

ACravan said...

I've been desolated since reading this thinking about the burglary. I am so sorry. We've had this experience and I've also had the follow-up encounter with passive police that make my blood boil. (Actually, my least favorite post-crime police interview occurred a few years ago when I parked my car on the streets of Manhattan -- at 85th between Third and Second. When I reported it stolen on a slow precinct Sunday morning, the officer on duty asked me what was I thinking of by parking on the street?) In NYC, at least, the police concentrate on the "easy stuff" and on homicides. That's just a horrible story. You're right about the toys, of course. For a while I worked on contracts for a big electronic gaming company. Some of their products defied belief in terms of the horrors developed, displayed, distributed and sold (i.e., the four stages of "product life", leaving out the final three -- returned, re-shrinkwrapped, reincarnated). Curtis

TC said...

Curtis, thanks for the commiseration. It was a pretty traumatizing experience for the victim, who took it bravely enough, but... now every little noise causes the nerves to jump. The new America, in which you fear your neighbors & look both ways as well as back & forward, before crossing your doorstep. The electronic game toys (if not shoot to kill, then just shoot for the sheer malevolent joy of shooting) are just learning manuals for the apprentice home invaders. This can't possibly be in any way Providential.

ACravan said...

The games, I'm afraid, are also used to "desensitize" soldiers (such as drone operators) fighting real-world electronics-managed battles. The first and only time I played such a game was several years ago. We were giving a half-birthday party for Jane on February 29 (yes, we have one of these every four years) at a local bowling alley. Because she has a summer birthday, it was a great excuse to have a party where we could entertain her classmates at her new school. It was an arcade-size version of a shooter game and its hypnotic, malevolent power was overwhelming. I'm not a prig and am fairly permissive as a parent, but I couldn't believe that merchants were permitted to let kids play these things. When I went to work for the gaming company (it was actually the company that created Grand Theft Auto), I was amazed to find the staff composed of pretty nice people (especially the game developers) who were so blase about the nature of their product. Then I realized that these were young people with good jobs in a bad economy working in a field they liked. Weirdsville. Hours of driving ahead today. Curtis

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Beautiful, Tom. It is striking that, when I first looked at these photos, I thought of how very much they look like Pittsburgh. There is quite a lot of great material to be seen here.

Don

PS The security code word was "mines."

TC said...

Don,

Thanks for the tip. I do love an historical archive.

And this one has many, many... mines.

Homestead & c. Oh, my.

The steel company collections (Gates acquisitions) are extremely interesting.

Jones & Laughlin always had that dirty little labour history secret.

And of course that's where New Directions Books came from.

(Your Land is My Land... sang Woody.)

I'm always a sucker for images like this one.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

I had a feeling that would be right up your street. Being a transplant (here just 20 years, so still considered new in town), I don't have the history ingrained, though I seem to take it in via the pores on my two mile walk in to work each day.

There is still so much to see here that would still be "at home" 50 years ago, especially architecturally.