Sunday, September 26, 2010

John Vachon, Marilyn: August, 1953; Tom Clark's Beyond The Pale; Newly Revealed Oscar Wilde Letters -- Two Nations Divided By A Common Language

From, 9-25-10:  "In another of the pictures, a comically frightened-looking Monroe is in the clutches of a taxidermy bear." 

The amusing photograph above appeared on the website yesterday as part of a publishers's announcement for the new Calla Editions book, Marilyn:  August 1953, released this week.

The photographs contained in the book were taken by LOOK magazine photographer John Vachon, on assignment in Alberta, Canada, where Monroe was filming "River of No Return" with Robert Mitchum. 

According to the article: "An injured ankle prevented Monroe from filming, allowing Vachon to have several days to shoot the Hollywood icon. Only three of photos from the sessions were published in an October 1953 LOOK story. The book will feature photos of Monroe and then fiance, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio snuggling."

I mention all this here for two reasons.  First, I would not wish to stand in the way of the Marilyn Monroe Business, which will apparently roll on forever, and I have no problem passively supporting their efforts.  Second, I only recently became consciously aware of the extraordinary photographic oeuvre and career of John Vachon.  (I say consciously because Vachon's photography career included long stints on staff at Life and LOOK.  No one who grew up in the era when those magazines were being published could not have seen many of Vachon's images.)

The source of my Vachon awareness is the "poetry-art blog" of the major American poet Tom Clark called Beyond The Pale.  Over the past several months on BTP, Clark has turned his attention to the photographs produced of United States life during the Great Depression by the team of master photographers working under the direction of Roy Stryker at the United States Farm Services Administration. Vachon, who began as a non-photographer staff assistant and found his eye and metier during the FSA project, became part of the remarkable FSA crew, which also included Dorthea Lange, Jack Delano, Arnold Rothstein, Russell Lee and others.  Some examples from Tom Clark's site featuring both Vachon's black and white and his extraordinary color photography are found here and here again.  Once you see Vachon's work, I think you will agree that it is impossible to overstate his talent.

I would recommend that anyone interested in photography, American history and how present day life is prefigured in past events, consult Tom Clark's blog and become familiar with his extraordinary historical recovery project, as well as the other materials posted there.  To date, only a small percentage of the negatives in the FSA photography archive have been published.  They were paid for and belong to the American people and we should all avail ourselves of this extraordinary resource.

I don't have Tom Clark's eye, but a couple of Vachon shots that don't appear on Beyond The Pale are posted below, as well as a charming portrait of Vachon himself.  I have also included a Joe Dimaggio and Marilyn shot from the new book and an extraordinary Vachon image, which Tom Clark did previously publish showing an up-close look at two peeling billboard advertising posters.  The American Pop artist James Rosenquist must have been aware of any influenced by Vachon's keen and knowing eye.

John Vachon:  Three photographs of Armistice Day Storm, November 11-12 1940 (top Lyman County, South Dakota; Center: Watkins, Minnesota; Bottom:  Draper, South Dakota).

John Vachon, May 1940 Farm Services Administration photograph of billboard with peeling posters.

John Vachon:  Mrs. Ballnger, Wife of an FSA borrower, March 1942, Flathead County, Montana

John Vachon

Oscar Wilde

Because of the ridiculous number of Google News Alerts I have signed up for over the years, very little of little importance gets by me and escapes my attention.  I can reliably report to you that the Parmenides front remains (and is likely, in my opinion, to remain) quiet and that all that ever occurs on the Heraclitus border are  frequent nearly identical-in-every-instance reminders that change is constant (pretty funny, I think).

Oscar Wilde, however, remains fertile daily news territory, almost on the order of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.  Not a day goes by without multiple Wilde mentions and citations.  Usually they take the form of witty ripostes or ironic observations.  Re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray recently, I was astonished to see that, like the Bible and Shakespeare, Wilde seems to be the source and author of most of the thoughts people try to express and claim as their own.

This week's Wilde story was a little different and involved a cache of five letters written by Wilde to a young London editor he apparently admired named Alsagar Vian in 1887, which were auctioned in England last week for about L34,000, exceeding the L10,000 pre-sale estimate.

The letters, which have been in the possession of Vian's heirs until now, are said to contain more documentary evidence than has heretofore been available about Wilde's homosexual leanings, which are alleged to be revealed in his repeated invitations for Vian to meet and dine with him to discuss literary and magazine editorial matters.

Not having read the letters in their entirety, I cannot comment reliably on the accuracy of this, but among the excerpts that have been published in the newspapers, I did notice this highly amusing interpretation by the Indian press agency ANI (which was widely picked up and republished in the Indian news) concerning the "key" fifth and final letter.

ANI reported yesterday that:

"In the final letter, he went at great lengths to encourage a naked meeting over a flask of wine"

However, what the text of the letter actually says is:

"Come and dine at Pagani's in Portland Street on Friday, 7:30 pm.  No dress, just ourselves and a flask of Italian wine."

Readers of Wilde's letters (and people generally familiar with the manners of Wilde's time) will already be aware that Wilde was extending a more or less casual invitation to Vian to dine in a public restaurant that did not require formal evening attire, rather than one where his companion would be asked to pose for an updated version of Manet's "Le Dejuener Sur L'herbe".

Funny, I think.

Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-3

Oscar Wilde letter to Alsagar Vian, 1887


  1. Curtis,

    I love the blizzard shot in which the fellow is taking giant steps in (vain) attempt to avoid stepping in snow higher than his shoetops.

    Reminded me a bit of some Vachon shots of a rainstorm in Indianapolis, the body language of pedestrians bespeaking the power of the weather.

    There is a good deal of Minnesota winter weather work in his FSA files, some of it with a "home movies" feel (he was of course a native).

  2. I love that shot also. It reminds me of my own "extreme" snow experiences from childhood through adulthood. Vachon is really something. I think I would have enjoyed speaking to him. Curtis