portrait

Posted by Ellen

One of the first professional assignments undertaken by Gordon Parks was a 1942 photo essay featuring Mrs. Ella Watson, a "government charwoman" who cleaned federal office buildings at night, after the clerks went home, and supported her family, including an adopted daughter and three grandchildren, on her annual salary of $1,080.

Parks's other photos of Mrs. Watson and her family, along with explanatory captions, can be viewed online, via the Library of Congress Farm Security Administration archive.

Posted by Ellen

In 1930, when Allen Frederick Larsen of Muscatine, Iowa, was four years old, he sat for his portrait up on the rooftop, his bare feet dangling over the overhang. His own father took this photo, we're told, along with many others showing young Allen in precarious poses–often on rooftops, sometimes on railroad bridges. "It's a wonder he grew up to meet Mom," notes his daughter. "Grandfather took a lot of pictures."

Posted by Ellen

In this photograph, taken in 1929, the visions of two men come together.

The subject of the portrait is Clayhorn Martin, a Harlem street preacher who had gone barefoot ever since the day in his youth when God told him to shed his shoes and walk on holy ground. Till the day he died, he walked the streets with his tambourine, shouting to the world that God dwells in every single person, not in church buildings or special dignitaries. 

Martin was a homeless man, a neighborhood character. In this formal studio portrait, photographer James Van Der Zee focused not so much on his outward condition as on his internal seriousness and faith. In other words, the scene he set for his camera aimed to take Preacher Martin at his word, seeking to show the higher purpose within him.

Martin had been born a slave in Virginia in 1851; he died homeless on the street in 1937. Van Der Zee and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance raised money to give him a proper sendoff, a funeral attended by five hundred or more of his neighbors, his flock.

Posted by Ellen

Portrait de la la Repasseuse, by Laura Corrado, from the 2015 Royal Photographic Society International Biennial. 

Posted by Ellen

From the Lockridge community near Durham, North Carolina, comes this photo and note from Carol Stack: "My first selfie, with birthday flowers."

This time of year also marks the birthday of our boy John, a.k.a. J.J. Good cheer to both,  many happy returns, and let's hear it for one-eyed floral birthday selfies!

Posted by Ellen

Lila Mae Helmke was 23 years old in 1936 when she appeared in this family portrait with her husband Bill, their son Allen, and her husband's brother, whose name was not recorded.

The photographer, Russell Lee, noted that the family all lived "in a one-room shack on a ninety-acre farm near Dickens, Iowa, owned by a lawyer."

We don't know how long Lila Mae and her family lived in that shack. But she and her husband had been born into farming families in Palo Alto County, Iowa, in the early years of the twentieth century, and they had been educated in country schools there. When they married in 1934, in the depths of the Depression, prospects for American farmers were nightmarish, even in places like northern Iowa, where the topsoil was three feet thick.

We have no record that the Helmkes ever owned any farmland. But they were farmers, and they stuck it out, trying to make a go of it somehow or other, for the first seventeen years of their married life, till Lila Mae was 38 and Bill was in his mid-forties.

In 1951, they gave it up and moved to town. They settled in Ruthven, Iowa, about seven miles east of the farmland near Dickens, where they had been born and raised.

By 1951, they had two nearly grown children, Allen and his younger brother Elton, known as Butch. Both boys would grow up, marry, and raise their own families in Ruthven, and they were still living there in January 2006, almost seventy years after the photo was taken, when their mother's death at the age of 92 was reported in the the Graettinger Times newspaper. Husband Bill–William August Helmke–had died in 1976, when he was 69.

Once the family had moved to town, Lila worked as a substitute cook at the Ruthven Community School and cleaned houses and the Ruthven State Bank.

She enjoyed sewing, gardening, and cooking, according to the obituary writer, and loved Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and The Price is Right.

The cat in the photo may have loomed large in her life: "She always had a family pet," wrote the obituary writer.

The smiling young man who is holding the cat in his lap, however, is lost to time. The photographer noted only that he was Bill Helmke's brother; we don't know his name, and Lila Mae's obituarist did not mention him at all, not in the list of survivors and not in the list of the predeceased. He looks of an age in 1936 to be called off to war just a few years after sitting for the family portrait, but even that detail is beyond our knowing.

Posted by Ellen

Lots of weather delays Sunday at the Birmingham airport.

Posted by Ellen

When the photographer snagged this zebra, he was shooting from the open window of the car that had caught the zebra's eye.

Posted by Ellen