Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Johnny Puleo on the Wall

Yesterday I bought a corned-beef sandwich from Wagshal's Delicatessen, a high- priced pseudo- deli here in Washington DC. Whew! That's a lot of hyphenated words, even for me!

This deli is the type to put celebrity photos all over the walls, and since it's in DC, most of the celebs are politicians, or Art Buchwald. So there's pictures of the Bushes (both), Nixon, Ford, etc. It's very republican. Wedged between faded color portraits of Nixon and Ford is, amazingly, a faded B&W photograph of DC native Johnny Puleo.

Johnny Puleo (October 7, 1907- May 3, 1983) was born and died in Washington DC. To be more accurate, he died in Holy Cross Hospital, here in Silver Spring MD, where I sit writing this blog.

He was technically a dwarf, as opposed to midget, and was familiar to audiences first as a member of Borrah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals, then as the frontman of his own group, the Harmonica Gang. As a kid I used to see him on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Hollywood Palace.
Here's a great clip with Milton Berle:

He usually wore a strange cowboy- like costume, with chaps and little holsters sans firearms. He also wore a little hat that could have been a child's cowboy hat at one time. Very curious.

<-- Mr. and Mrs. Puleo

Like many diminuitive people, he was able to evoke both comedy and pathos in the course of his act, which involved a lot of pretty cruel slapstick, especially during his association with the Fagin- like Minevitch, and an equal amount of virtuoso chromatic harmonica playing. Here's another clip from Springtime in the Rockies with John Payne and Sonja Henie:

Puleo, who joined Minevitch (I've seen it spelled with one "n" or two) as a teenager, signed a contract that Minevitch interpreted as virtually lifetime. Every time Johnny tried to break away and start his own group, Minevitch would hunt him down and bring him back into the fold.

Johnny was underpaid and ill- treated from several accounts. When Minevitch died in Europe in 1955, either of a heart attack or from being deliberately pushed down a set of stairs, Puleo was finally able to start his own group, which he called the Harmonica Gang.

He went on to work prominently in Las Vegas, and other resort towns and on television.

Johnny with Mitzi Gaynor

He pretty much duplicated the Minevitch act, slapstick and all. He also set a precedent for many harmonica acts, that of the use of a little person. Minevitch employed another little person in the alternate "Rascals" (there were several touring "Harmonica Rascals" at the time of his death) and a British harmonica group, Morton Frazer's Harmonica Gang featured "Tiny" Ross, and evidently influenced the Beatles, mostly John Lennon.

So how did Johnny Puleo end up on the wall of a Spring Valley deli? I'd like to think that perhaps Sam Wagshal was a harmonica afficiado and offered Johnny free latkas for life, but that's most likely not the case. The place is no longer owned by the Wagshal family, so we'll probably never know.

Monday, July 27, 2009

What a Show!

Junior Wells and James Cotton in their prime at Theresa's- wish I'd been there.

More Orson (or Morson)

Why Orson Welles IS a genius, pt. 2: this screen capture from Lady From Shanghai showing Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth in the famous "House of Mirrors" sequence.

Life During Wartime

From the Shorpy Collection:
April 1943. Washington, D.C. "Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill waiting for a pickup. 'I come in here pretty often, sometimes alone, mostly with another girl, we drink beer, and talk, and of course we keep our eyes open -- you'd be surprised at how often nice lonesome soldiers ask Sue, the waitress, to introduce them to us.' " Medium-format nitrate negative by Esther Bubley for the OWI.

Even as we witness the disappearance of well- lit, well- composed and well- intentioned photography from our daily lives, we can be reminded how beautiful and profound an impression a great picture can make.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Henry Louis Gates and the Unwritten Laws

photo by Justin Ide

I'm stunned and overwhelmed by what I've read about Professor Gates' arrest. It seems so outrageous that it's hard to give the stories as published complete credence. Are we really still so racially bereft in this country? Apparently, if we're to judge from the television coverage and Professor Gates' interview in his blog The Root, he acted rationally and correctly, and the white policeman acted viciously and in a racist manner. Naturally, the Cambridge police claim pretty much the opposite: Gates was vociferous, uncooperative and unruly, and the police acted within correct legal guidelines.

No need to rehash the incident here as you can read it anywhere on the interweb or watch it on the TV.

What is alarming is that in all likelihood, both camps are probably correct, within legal limits. There are probably more parts to this than could ever be published, and there are probably unwritten laws broken here that can't be acknowledged by either party.

Certainly one of these is the black- man- in- a- white- world law. This is the law that says most black people are poor, undereducated, and generally live in very poor conditions, therefore the odds of one of them living in Cambridge near Harvard Square are extremely long. (Another part of this law is the now out- dated Hippie statute: if you have long hair, you probably take drugs and are probably guilty of something, so we're pulling you over. This law was apparently repealed sometime in the late '70's, around the time that hippies disappeared and construction workers began growing their hair.)

Because of the numerous times that I violated the Hippie law back in the '60's and early '70's, I'm also familiar with the Asshole statute: cops can arrest you for being an asshole. Usually they are able to provoke one into violating this law. Here's an example: when I was 17, I was visiting colleges and had a standby ticket to Pittsburgh, PA. This was in 1968. My mother and my sister had come to the airport to see me off. I had packed my wallet in my suitcase and had checked my bags. When I showed the ticket taker my ticket, he demanded identification. I told him about the wallet in the bag, and then I said, "How come you're asking me? You didn't ask anyone else."

He said that I fit the "Hijacker's profile." Apparently, long- haired white private school boys in courderoy jackets accompanied by their mothers had hijacked a rash of flights, I guess. (This has been completely suppressed by the government, because I've still never heard anything about it.)

Then a "sky- marshall" grabbed me from behind, pinned my arms back and began to haul me off to airport jail. I yelled and screamed and generally behaved like a complete asshole, thereby violating the Asshole statute.

Fortunately, my mother called her boyfriend the lawyer, and asked the sky marshall to speak with him on the payphone. The lawyer calmly invoked the Boys- Will- Be- Boys defence and I was released and allowed to board the plane.

But enough about me.

There are many defences that can evoked against the above unwritten laws. The best is, of course, innocence. Evidently, this was Professor Gates' first defence. No matter what happened, everyone agrees that Professor Gates did not break into his own home. Even if he had, that's not against the law.

When obvious innocence is evident, the police have two choices: they can apologise or they can try to provoke the innocent party into breaking some law, thereby rendering them no longer innocent. Every day (I'm guessing), the police make the first choice. They might not actually say, "I'm sorry," but they'll usually acknowledge the innocence and leave. To actually apologise takes a certain amount of sensitivity and forethought. These are not necessarily qualifications we demand in policemen in this country. Maybe in Great Britain where the police aren't allowed to carry firearms, but not here.

Most people, when provoked, fight back. Professor Gates is provoked, he fights back by provoking Officer Crowley. Officer Crowley is provoked, he fights back by invoking the Asshole law. Professor Gates is arrested. He goes to jail. Crowley gets blamed, his career is (most likely) over. Officer Crowley has made the same mistake that the policeman in Dallas made when he pulled over Houston, Texas running back Ryan Moats. Here's the mistake: important people do not get their civil rights violated.

Yup- another unwritten law: if you are in any kind of well- placed position, be it athlete, entertainer, Harvard professor, etc. and you are innocent or at least haven't done anything actually outrageously wrong (Moats didn't try to get out of his ticket, he just asked to see his dying mother- in- law) then you will receive correct treatment. The Asshole statute simply will not stick. Neither does the Black man/ white world law. Most cops know this. Crowley's mistake is that he either a) forgot or b) is an incredible racist or c) is really, really stupid. Maybe it's some combination, I don't know.

Clearly racism plays a role in this. A huge role. I can't imagine how a white burglar could be identified by a passer-by in Cambridge ("He's sticking dynamite in the mail slot, officer!"), but all this woman had to see was two black men shouldering a door.

Unfortunately for Officer Crowley, he didn't quit when he saw Professor Gates' ID. If he had just let in the obvious thought: "I'm just a policeman and this guy is a rich, entitled Harvard professor, I'd better tip my hat and back out like I would if this were Henry Kissinger."

Instead he seems to have have thought, "What an asshole. Black, too!"

And, of course, if Professor Gates had said, "You see, Officer, I do live here. It's just a terrible misunderstanding. I do appreciate that the Cambridge police keep an eye out for break-ins, though. Thanks, and goodbye," then we wouldn't have even heard about this incident. Everyone saves face. Instead, he seems to have thought, "You can't do this to me!" Which is true.

One thing I'm certain of is that we have not heard the last of this.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Storyville, pt.1

According to Jazz historian and New Orleans polymath Al Rose, this picture was taken by a Times- Picayune photographer from a balloon around 1914, which would make it a technological marvel, since it's shot on a glass plate. The date on the glass plate is 1922, although Rose claims that the smokestack at the bottom came down prior to that date.

It doesn't matter- there's Storyville. St. Louis Cemetary no. 1 is at the bottom right and St. Louis Cemetary no. 2, is at the top. Except for a storefront that I've never found, those cemetaries are all that's physically left of the grandest legal social experiment in the history of the United States of America.

The actual buildings came down in the 1940's, were replaced by a housing project for the poor, neglected now more than ever since Katrina.

This image is from the Louisiana Digital Library and is crdited to Charles L. Franck.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Weegee the Famous

On a cold night in early February, 1942, a short, rumpled man in a stained overcoat bustles through a cordon of police. He carries a 4X5 Speed Graphic Press camera with a flash attachment. He is puffing on a freshly lit cheap cigar- a stogie. The police make way for him, they all know him, think he's a character. He speaks their language. "Whaddaya got, boys?" he asks in heavily accented English. "Burglar," says one of the cops. "Dead," says another. "Is that the gun?" asks the photographer. "Yeah," says the first cop. "Guy here was off- duty, caught him robbing the Spring Arrow Club."

The photographer, whose name is Weegee, moves to the other side of the corpse, away from the cops. From this angle he can show the body and the gun which has slid about eight feet from the dead robber.

He makes sure his camera is set and that the flashbulb is screwed in. It's too dark to focus, so he adjusts his aperture to f16 and syncs the flashbulb. He doesn't bother with a tripod and he can't see directly through the lens with this type of camera. He composes in the dark, making sure that all the information he needs is there: the gun, the stark texture of the sidewalk, the victim, face-down, blood under his flattened face.

The flash bulb detonates. Weegee pulls out a handkerchief and unscrews the hot bulb, then screws in another. One more shot and he says, "Okay- it's in there somewhere. Get warm, boys." Then he's off.

Usher Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, born in Poland June 12th 1899, died in New York City the day after Christmas, 1968. Crime photographer, pioneer street photographer, inadvertant art photographer, photojournalist and connoisseur of the demi-monde.

Thanks to a police scanner, he was usually the first photographer on the scene, and kept supplies for a darkroom in the trunk of his car where he could develop and contact print his detail- laden 4" X 5" negatives. He worked for newspapers with early morning deadlines, like the left- leaning PM, and usually began his patrols after dark, armed with an abundant supply of bulky film holders and blue flashbulbs.

Weegee's beat was crime, human interest, the sordid, the twisted, the eye-catching, the pathetic, the noble. Every once in a while, even the beautiful.

He photographed with a slumming eye, like a film- noir character. His use of straight-on flash gave a direct, unflattering and unrelenting quality to his street work that actually became the look of New York City.

He lived in the Village, by Broome and Market Streets over a gun shop, in a singularly decorated one- room flat. That is, he slept there. He really lived in the night-time streets of a desolate city, made more so in his photographs.

His work was noticed by the artistic society of New York that he had earlier scorned, and prints appeared in exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, and subsequently he shot for Vogue and Life, among others. But this was not his metier, and his last years, though commercially successful, are full of Weegee the character, the cigar-chomping eccentric with the heavy hand and the distorted lens.

He was the still photographer for Dr. Strangelove, and reportedly gave Peter Sellers his accent for the title character. A photograph of Weegee and Kubrick depicts them as contemporaries, mentor and pupil almost (Kubrick was a Look Magazine staff photographer at 19, the youngest ever), and displays none of Kubrick's legendary stand-offishness. Just a couple of New Yorkers gabbing about photography.

By the way, just what kind of weird hybrid is that camera anyway?

the pre- art Weegee that lives on: those unblinking images, a harbinger of photographers to come, like Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, William Klein, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, whose early street images owe a debt to Weegee's ironic eye.

In Harlem

Top Hats

Summer (w/ it's Balthus- like composition)

Coney Island

The Critic (uncropped)

Transvestite in a Paddy Wagon (Weegee asked him to pull up his skirt)

Photography has become a difficult way of making a living. It's hard to find assignments, hard to find motivation for personal work. It seems as if the easier it has become to actually take a picture, the harder it has become to find a setting for that picture, like PM or even Life. The interweb is still no substitution for a great shot on a printed page.

Weegee is an inspiration. Prowling an amazing city at night, showing us an uncompromised vision, a whole way of seeing peculiarly appropriate for THAT city at THAT time, like Bellocq's Storyville photographs. What a gift.

And if he couldn't keep at it forever, well... so what? After awhile, even Chuck Berry stopped wrtitng songs. Genius is easily demurred- it's a fragile construct at best.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Benjamin Button

I had the incredible opportunity to go to New Orleans in December of 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. It was clear to me then that America's Greatest City would rebuild, and it was clear to me that it would never be quite the same.

I made a series of hopeful pictures for a website that faltered in development, and took time off to tour the devastated ares as well. The term Nuclear Winter came to mind when I saw the damage around the canals and failed levies. I won't attempt to describe it. Better writers than I have done that better than I ever could.

I went back a few months later and and things were a little better. There was no denying the optimistic spirit of the New Orleanians. It seemed as if everyone was pulling together the way I imagine the British did during and right after WWII. Most of the raffic signals had been fixed. All of the trashed refridgerators had been disposed of. The area under the I-10 was still filled with useless cars tattooed with white waterlines. But life was definitely going on, as they say. I saw a second- line and JazzFest was right around the coner.

The city had also been taken over by the film crew making The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Brad Pitt was gone when I got there, his scenes having been filmed, but the crew's prescence was felt strongly in the French Quarter and the Garden District.

My friends, the Freeland- Archers (not their real names) live in the Garden District. One night gourmet pizza from Reginellis arrived at their front door, courtesy of Paramount. Another time, fresh dirt was dumped onto their street as vintage autos drove (or were pushed) slowly past their house. The house featured in the movie was a block away, and sometimes I had to walk way around to get to where I was staying.

No matter, though. It was fascinating. The production assistants assigned to keep foot traffic away from the house were courteous and gentle. Once I actually walked into a shot, and it had to be redone. They couldn't have been nicer about it. I apologised profusely. No problem.

Years earlier I blundered onto a night shoot of a Batman movie in Chicago. I guess Chicago is Gotham City and Metropolis is New York. After being told that I couldn't register in the hotel where I had reservations, I was also threatened with arrest by a Chicago policewoman who told me I was disturbing the peace. All this as helicopters whirled in the air overhead. I kept saying, "What?" with my hand cupped around my ear. "Disturbing the peace," she said. "The PEACE!!"

The Button set was obviously completely different. It was representative of a sensitive director making a lyrical film in a ravaged city. The finished movie is a valentine to an all- era New Orleans. New Orleans is interesting in that everything that ever happened there is happening right now, even if you can't find it. You've probably only missed it by seconds.

Let me give you an example: one night, pre-Katrina, I woke up at around 3AM to do some night pictures. I had just done a long exposure of the Cafe DuMonde and was walking back to the car. Behind shuttered doors I heard Louis Armstrong playing the famous opening cadenza of West End Blues. Now, was this a recording of the Hot Five, made in Chicago, or was Louis actually standing behind the door of the French Quarter flat, blowing some midnight blues? All I heard was unacompanied trumpet. As I was pondering this, bubbles came floating down from a balcony. Maybe a hundred bubbles. I stepped back and looked up. There was no one there. Aside from Louis and me, the whole street was deserted.

Benjamin Button evokes this perfectly. It's really sweet movie. I recommend it.

A note on the pic above: I shot it, and it's made from three different shots, which is why you can see the make-up woman twice in the frame. The actor who plays Button's father, Jason Fleming is on the right just outside the fence. Taraji P. Henson is inside the fence to the left of center, with her hands on her hips. I think they're shooting the party scene, where Benjamin meets Daisy for the first time.