August 2012

Posted by Ellen

In the archives of the old Harris & Ewing photo studio in Washington, D.C., is the glass negative for this picture, with no caption information whatsoever.

What think you? A posed shot to promote new lawnmowers with Ajax Ball Bearings? Political imagery to promote a candidate with hard-working American (grass)roots? Somebody's aunt?

1920s? 1940s?

Couple of thoughts: Years ago, we lived in a neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where most of our neighbors were older people. By then, lawnmowers had gasoline engines, but I recall that pushing them was considered women's work. More recently, when we lived in Maine, I often saw older couples out in the morning clearing their walks with gasoline-powered snowblowers. The division of labor for this task was that the man walked behind the snowblower while the woman worked alongside with a shovel.

What I like best about this picture: the pearls.

Posted by Ellen

Miss Tina pets the cow at a gourmet frozen-food store in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

Posted by Ellen

In 1881, this painting earned Thomas Anshutz an award from the local arts establishment, as embodied then by the Philadelphia Sketch Club. The Sketch Club honored Ironworkers' Noontime as the year's "best carefully finished study." According to the minutes from the meeting at which the award was presented, Sketch Club members talked at length about how well Anshutz had learned the style of painting taught by his teacher, club founder Thomas Eakins, and they also talked at length about the painting's extremely unusual subject matter.

It's the subject matter that distinguishes the painting today; it's believed to be the earliest American artwork depicting industrial life. Anshutz had been born and raised along the Ohio River near the foundries of Wheeling, West Virginia, where he did the sketches for the painting. He presented the ironworkers as individuals, each using his noon break for his own purposes, despite the overall grime and grit of the surroundings.

The artists in the Sketch Club thought this approach was "needlessly confrontational."

 

Wheeling's ironworks are now defunct, and the city has been in decline since the 1930s. The old foundry sites along the riverfront are currently promoted for "heritage tourism activities."

Posted by Ellen

This artwork is from the lid of a box of fireworks. USA! USA!

Posted by Ellen

Kaspar Maldre, looking wise beyond his weeks.

Posted by Ellen

The illustration above and the passage below, which together almost certainly constitute the final word on baobabs, come from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince (1943). The prince had found himself on a small, distant planet, about the size of an asteroid, which was infested with the seed of baobabs.

A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces . . .

"It is a question of discipline," the little prince said to me later on. "When you've finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care. You must see to it that you pull up regularly all the baobabs, at the very first moment when they can be distinguished from the rosebushes which they resemble so closely in their earliest youth. It is very tedious work," the little prince added, "but very easy."

And one day he said to me: "You ought to make a beautiful drawing, so that the children where you live can see exactly how all this is. That would be very useful to them if they were to travel some day. Sometimes," he added, "there is no harm in putting off a piece of work until another day. But when it is a matter of baobabs, that always means a catastrophe. I knew a planet that was inhabited by a lazy man. He neglected three little bushes . . ."

So, as the little prince described it to me, I have made a drawing of that planet. I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist. But the danger of the baobabs is so little understood, and such considerable risks would be run by anyone who might get lost on an asteroid, that for once I am breaking through my reserve. "Children," I say plainly, "watch out for the baobabs!"

My friends, like myself, have been skirting this danger for a long time, without ever knowing it; and so it is for them that I have worked so hard over this drawing. The lesson which I pass on by this means is worth all the trouble it has cost me.

Perhaps you will ask me, "Why are there no other drawing in this book as magnificent and impressive as this drawing of the baobabs?"

The reply is simple. I have tried. But with the others I have not been successful. When I made the drawing of the baobabs I was carried beyond myself by the inspiring force of urgent necessity.

Posted by Ellen

Among the finalists for this year's National Geographic photo competition is this shot of a baobab grove near the town of Morondava in western Madagascar. 

Baobabs are unusual trees, with swollen trunks that store water, allowing them to survive long periods of drought. Some species of baobab can grow without soil, drilling their roots directly into bare limestone, and some are so tolerant of salt water they can grow within a few feet of the ocean. 

The trees in this picture are believed to be many thousands of years old, but baobab wood does not produce annual growth rings, making age calculations rather speculative. 

Baobabs produce fruit with a flavor that is described as very tart and grapefruit-like. The fruit pulp is a common ingredient in many regional dishes and is being studied by international food companies as a possible additive to Western-style foods and beverages, such as fruit smoothies. "It brings an interesting and exotic flavor," said PhytoTrade spokesperson Lucy Welford. "Now that we've had a lot of interest in Europe, I think there might be a knock-on effect in the U.S."

Posted by Ellen

The only summer in American history drier than this summer of 2012 was 1936, the time of the Dust Bowl. In South Dakota, home to the family of Vernon Evans, pictured here, the drought was compounded by a grasshopper plague. The crop failed, the bank took the farm, and there were no jobs to be had. "You couldn't even buy a job," according to Evans.

They had $54, and no idea how they were going to get by, when they piled into their Model T and headed west. The first day they only made  six miles before breaking the crankshaft; fortunately, a nearby farmer had a yard full of dead Model Ts; he told the Evanses to find themselves a crankshaft and take it, no charge. 

They were on the road again a day later and made good time for the next few days, averaging about 200 miles a day till they reached the outskirts of Missoula, Montana, where they passed a car at the side of the road with a man sleeping in it. They honked at him, "just having a good time." The man woke up quickly, started his car, and chased them down, waving frantically for them to pull over. They thought he was a cop turning them away from Missoula; many communities had posted guards to try to keep the Dust Bowl migrants out of town.

"Well, here's where we go back home," the Evanses said to one another. They had $16 left. 

But the cop turned out to be Resettlement Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein, who introduced himself, explained that the sign on the back of their car had caught his eye, and asked if he could take a picture. They told him they were headed for Yakima, Washington, hoping to arrive in time to find work harvesting hops.

Rothstein snapped eight poses there on the road to Missoula, which the family recalled seeing in newspapers and magazines a few months later, when they were newly settled in Oregon, working for the railroad.