Archive for March, 2006

FOUND photos in Laporte, Indiana

Friday, March 24th, 2006

Jason Bitner is the co-creator of Found, the on and offline show-and-tell project of lost and tossed items. He also edits Dirty Found, the X-rated version of the project.

Click here to go straight to the photos.
Click here to buy the book.

“The collection reads like an incredibly beautiful census, with expertly lit faces replacing biographical data.”

The highway from my home in Chicago to LaPorte, Indiana, hugs the southeastern edge of Lake Michigan. Heading away from Chicago’s landmark skyscrapers, you soon pass the rundown high-rises of the South Side, bypass the smokestacks and casinos of Hammond and Gary, Indiana, and exit near the scenic Michigan City, Indiana.


The roads become smaller and more affected by the quiet rolls of pastureland and the out-of-place vineyard. You’ll pass a small airport, some garage sales and cigarette stores, and a few horses. You’ll cross the train tracks, which supplied this former vacation destination with visitors from Chicago. And before long, Lake Michigan and her surrounding sandy dunes will be left in the rearview mirror, and a smallish Midwestern town will appear near the edge of South Pine Lake.

A few years back, I got wind of the LaPorte County Fair and its legendary demolition derby. Legendary like your ears will ring until Monday and you might get lucky and see a super-sized man booty-dancing on the roof of his broke-down station wagon. Not to mention this very fair has brought people together each year since 1836-before radio, before my grandparents were born, and even before the California Gold Rush. With this in mind, a friend and I drove out toward the fairgrounds early on a beautiful Saturday morning to guarantee some tickets for the evening’s show.

When heading to LaPorte, you use the monstrous overpass (built to ensure that 18 wheelers would have an efficient in-and-out of the city), and drive by the monumental courthouse designed by Chicago’s acclaimed city planner, Daniel Burnham, in 1894. If you stop by the local historical society situated behind the courthouse, you might learn about the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant, the local munitions factory, which produced a huge number of shells for World War II. You might come across early farming equipment and the re-creation of a settler’s parlor room, and you might learn that LaPorte, “the door,” was so named because its prairie land allowed an easy passage to the new frontier, the West.

Traveling into town on the sleepy thoroughfare, we decided to stop for a quick bite at B & J’s American Café, a classic old diner complete with an enormous counter, local gossip and friendly teens taking orders. Checking the menu, I noticed the cinnamon roll requires an extra fifteen minutes, and if a menu item asks for additional time, it must be a specialty. We ordered three and spent a few minutes watching people come and go.

As we sipped coffee at the counter and reviewed the LaPorte Herald-Argus, I noticed a couple of beautiful 5″ x 7″ black and white photos taped to the pie case. The paper was slightly yellowed and showing a few signs of wear, but these amazing portraits were from an entirely different era.

A couple years back, I helped create a show-and-tell project of discovered notes and photographs called Found Magazine. People from around the world sent us their discoveries, from lost and forgotten love letters to extensive and exhausting lists, from Polaroids to classroom notes-anything that gives a peek into another person’s life.

Sometimes a find comes as a loaded 20-word missive and other times we’ll receive an entire journal detailing an extended family’s history. Our intention is to see how people’s worlds are often very different in specifics-race and class and ability to spell-but also how we share similar emotions and difficulties and joys. Oftentimes all we know is our own world, and we can easily forget about lives that don’t directly impact our own.

After tens of thousands of submissions, I’ve grown accustomed to receiving these wonderful and unexpected finds in my mailbox, and every once in a while there’s a treasure in the alley behind my apartment. As the project brings dozens of to-do lists, missives from angry neighbors, and break-up notes to us each week, I’ve learned where to look for the prized keepers.

Nothing I’ve seen since the project began, however, could match the scale of what I was about to happen upon in the diner.

I asked the waitress about the photos and she pointed toward a door leading to an unused dining area. The near side of the room was reserved for rolling silverware into paper napkins, while the back of the room housed two large metal shelving units holding 22 cardboard boxes. These boxes were stuffed with stacks and stacks of photos, all with remarkably similar characteristics. Initially, I guessed we were looking at 2000-3,000 photos, though I’d later hand count nearly 18,000 of these beauties.

“Find a family member! Photos $.50 each-or-$5.00 for a packet,” stated a small sign to the right of the shelves. Before us stood a nearly complete archive documenting the townspeople of mid-century LaPorte for sale-cheap!-in a quiet room of a local eatery. We rifled through an entire town’s population, as if it were a card catalog, a huge visual archive of Midwestern faces that were being unloaded two-for-a-dollar.

Diner owner John Pappas grew up in the building; he and his wife Billie passed along the details.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, the building’s second floor was home to Muralcraft Studios. Frank and Gladys Pease made their living by crafting kid’s photos, anniversary shots, senior portraits, engagement announcement pictures, and portraits for any event that called for a formal sitting. Frank photographed, while Gladys took care of the administrative end of the business and helped clients look their best for this special occasion.

A typical client would climb a long set of stairs, enter a small waiting area and be greeted by Gladys. After taking their coats, she would lead the subjects to either the men’s or women’s dressing room, and sit them before a mirror. Makeup might be applied, hair combed, ties adjusted, teeth checked for spinach. When everything looked satisfactory, they would head down a short hallway to greet Frank.

The back half of the space housed the studio, darkroom, and a storage area for props and the especially large lighting equipment. Pease shot with a medium-format camera (a few of the negatives still exist) and once he established his technique, he never wavered from the look; sitters’ hair and clothing styles changed over time, though the art direction never budged. This was not ego-driven work-Pease simply offered himself as a skilled photographer for hire and put clients’ needs before his own. Clearly he viewed his photography as a trade or a craft instead of an art form.

The photos that follow were never intended as final prints; rather these are proofs that were shipped to clients so they could determine which shot was most becoming, would look best on the mantle, or would be the most flattering to send to loved ones across the country. As clients were offered black and white or hand-colored final images, handwritten notes detailing the color of eyes, hair, and clothing mark the backs of these proofs to ensure eyes weren’t mistakenly tinted blue rather than hazel.

After running Muralcraft for decades, Frank Pease passed away in the early 1970s. Prior to his death, Pease kindly donated his photo equipment to the local high school (and it’s likely that some of the younger subjects honed their darkroom skills on the very enlarger of their first portrait) and the proofs were all left in the studio. These photos sat in storage for over 20 years, until Billie and John opened their restaurant in the early nineties. For the past decade, these photos have been quietly sitting for sale in their back room, along with a few remainders of the lighting setup, while the Muralcraft studio has been renovated into a spacious apartment.

So we hunkered down on the floor, picked up a few stacks of photos and were instantly transfixed. Flipping through the pictures, we discovered an enormous visual survey of the Midwest a generation back. These faces staring back conjured family members, close friends, distant acquaintances-even Hollywood glamour shots. The collection reads like an incredibly beautiful census, with expertly lit faces replacing biographical data. By carrying on with his commercial photo business practice, Pease unwittingly created an enormous and compelling historical document. He became an accidental historian.

We ordered our second meal and kept digging. Halfway through the first box, I’d already committed to somehow taking in each of the 18,000 photos. It’s addicting, and overwhelming, and you don’t just come across something this incredible and soon forget about it. Three boxes into the process, I decided to spend a week straight in the back room of B & J’s, sipping coffee, reading the local paper, and selecting a couple hundred of my favorites to share.

I discovered it’s real easy to become image-fatigued when handling hundreds of photos each day; this kind of repetition leads to excitement for oddballs and more peculiar photos. I tried to steer clear of this kind of sensationalism when choosing photos for this book. The pictures that follow are organized and ordered, though the themes may not always be obvious.

Pease became a stenographer of LaPorte. He surely didn’t intend on a life as a cultural secretary, but his career and his work have gained an importance beyond that of each individual image. For a single anniversary photo holds a little historical value, but a collection this vast, spanning over a generation will certainly hold greater cultural value.

And that the collection should come from LaPorte-the door, the entryway-well, the metaphor is almost embarrassingly obvious. Come take a peek at the Midwest in the 1950s and 60s.

Reprinted with permission from LaPorte, Indiana (Princeton Architectural Press).

Kathy and Hugh Tonagel posing for their engagement photo. Photographer Frank Pease reminded the young couple that the portrait would visually represent their engagement, which may account for their intense eye-lock. He tried to impress up them the gravity of the situation-and take the moment seriously. The Tonagels are still married and have four children, great basketball players, we hear. Hugh works at the 4-H, while Kathy works at the local hospital and is a great cook.

This one’s such sweet and intimate portrait, and one of the few truly candid moments found in the Pease archive. I love the distant gaze coupled with the bad toupee. We’ve heard rumors that the man on the left headed off to join the circus-no kidding-but we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of this one.

Patty Sallwasser still lives in LaPorte and works as a mortgage officer When she saw her photo, she exclaimed, “That’s my purple polka-dot dress, that’s me! My mom cut my hair; she made the dress. I remember that I chose the fabric.”

Garry Lenard lives and works in LaPorte as a dental supply salesman. His signature buzzcut earned him the nickname “Burrhead,” which he still answers to around town. “I’ve always had short hair. Maybe in college [it was longer]. I think all of us went through a phase with the Beatles. That was the big thing. And now if you look at the Beatles, they never even really had long hair.” He is now married with three kids.

David VanSchoyck’s brother Dewayne tells us David died at age 9. “We used to have our photos taken every year,” Dewayne said.

Matching outfits sometimes aren’t a great idea, but these twins pull off the look in a warm and charming fashion. There’s something so sweet about older twins who still match. This is Lily (Ahlgrim) Baker and Rose (Ahlgrim) Scherer-twin sisters who lived on Weller Avenue; Lily had one son, Billy, and Rose had one daughter, Jeanette.

Robert Charles Ewald graduated LaPorte High in 1952, where he was a member of the band; he later formed the Bobby Charles Band, and now lives in Minnesota.

Pease captures this LaPortean’s cosmopolitan style, somewhere between a flight attendant and a Bond Girl. This is Dale (Horne) Lehner who graduated LaPorte High in 1971; Her father managed the local JC Penny, and is remembered as a “a very good student and a very happy, kind, friendly classmate.” She now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What’s this big guy’s story? No one knows. But each week I hear from more and more folks from LaPorte, Indiana who see themselves in the pages of this book, get in touch, and fill in the blanks of the past 50 years. And when that happens this story of LaPorte, Indiana-a story I so randomly stumbled upon a few years ago-becomes just a little be better told.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Friday, March 24th, 2006

The current issue of New Scientist (18 March) has a fascinating piece about an Amazonian people known as the Pirahã. Anthropologists who have lived among them report that the Pirahã have no creation myth, no sense of time as we know it, no extended oral history, and no tradition of storytelling. Needless to say, it’s unlikely there will ever be a Pirahã edition of SMITH.

In theory, Pirahã is a simple language. With only seven consonants and three vowels, the Pirahã women’s dialect has the smallest number of speech sounds, or “phonemic inventory”, of any language. The men, who speak a slightly different dialect, use an eighth consonant, making their inventory the next smallest–tied with Hawaiian and Rotokas, which is spoken in Papua New Guinea. Each sentence refers to just one event, and the language has the simplest known set of pronouns, with no plurals, not even a distinction between “I” and “we”.

Pirahã lacks words for abstract concepts such as numbers and colours, so that speakers cannot talk about things that are beyond their immediate experience. The language lacks quantification terms such as “all’, “each”, “every”, “most” and “some”. And there is no perfect tense–no way of saying “I have eaten”, for example.

Despite the seeming simplicity of Pirahã, it is fiendishly difficult to learn. The patterns of stress and intonation are highly complex, allowing speakers to express the same syllable in five different ways. Many words have a variety of meanings depending on the inflection–which can be extremely difficult for an outsider to tune in to. Linguist Dan Everett, who has spent years learning the language, also describes how the Pirahã people convert everyday speech into song, using a characteristic exaggeration of the tones in their language, together with a transformation of some of the consonant sounds into others. “The Pirahã people communicate almost as much by singing, whistling, and humming as they do using consonants and vowels,” he notes.

New Scientist, which always has great stuff like this, is worth hunting for on the newsstand. And if you do check out the site, don’t miss the podcasts.

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

Via SMITH editor Rebecca Paoletti, news of a new social networking site for a more mature crowd - (It’s even got connections to NPR — my dad will be so excited.) Worth reading is this interview of the site’s CEO, Tom Gerace, from Behavioral Insider. It’s a little wonky, but the discussion of how social networking sites can be attractive to advertisers, and why, is pretty illuminating for anyone interested in this growing field. An excerpt:

BI: It seems that social networks would allow marketers to track and target a whole new layer of user behaviors, like their level of interactivity, standing in a community, rate of content creation, etc.

Gerace: The way we look at it is more akin to having key influencers in a group that are impacting the behavior of others. Advertisers are already catching on to that, using buzz generation mechanisms by hitting key influencers. One of the things Gather will be able to do is identify the most powerful networkers, the most respected authorities in a social network on a given topic, and create a specialized advertising product that allows advertisers to reach these folks. It allows them to leverage word of mouth, which is far more credible than media-based advertising. It is something we are spending a lot of time on.

A Blog is Born (or, How to Get Good Duck)

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

There’s something like a new blog created every second, according to our friends at the blog tracking site Technorati. So, you know, it’s kind of tough to keep up. No surprise that when I get a note in my in-box from a pal who’s just launched a blog it means a little something more than the usual way most of us find out about blogs (even though, typically, that friend is not a professional blogger). I woke up this morning to the news that my friend Anders—a man who I continue to call the funniest man in America even though he’s lived in Sweden for years—has unleashed How to Get Good Duck upon the world. The delightful birth story of the site involves some damn good Peking duck in London, and how that duck
changed this blogger’s life. As a bonus, you can also enjoy links to Anders’ writings on pornography.

We’re still in our own birth/beta/figuring out how this is going to work exactly stage at SMITH, and we’re growing slowly but surely. SMITH remains small enough that the system is set up such that every time someone posts to SMITH, I get a little alert in my in-box. (more…)

The Dead Beat: When obits make the news

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

My mom always makes fun of dad because he loves to read the obituaries. Or maybe love isn’t actually what he does to them, but he certainly can’t help himself from reading them, every day, like some people read their horoscopes. I don’t think his is a singular phenomenon–in fact, one of my aunts does this, too. My mom thinks it’s morbid, but Dad isn’t a creepy guy. He’s just always wanted to know what’s going on in various communities. But is there more to it than that? Well, it turns out there must be, because Marilyn Johnson, who’s written a few obits herself, but mostly is addicted to reading them, has now written a book about it. This I learned this morning, while nearly hitting snooze for the seventh time, until NPR’s interview with the author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries instantly held my attention. (more…)

Alice, from Calvin Trillin

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

As the deadline poet for The Nation, Calvin Trillin is reliably tart and funny. But his sad and lovely remembrance of his late wife, Alice, in the March 27 issue of The New Yorker (on newsstands but not, unfortunately, online) is personal narrative at its best.

“A year before Alice died, I read an obituary in the Times of Mary Francis, who had been married to the English mystery novelist Dick Francis for fifty-three years. ‘I don’t think I shall write again other than letters now,’ Dick Francis was quoted as saying. ‘So much of my work was her.’ Apparently, Mary Francis had been such an active participant in her husband’s work, particularly in the matter of research, that he considered the novels a joint effort. She had been well educated, and Dick Francis was conscious of being a novelist who had left school at fifteen to become a jockey. The article implied that he might not be able to produce a book without her help. But I read his reluctance to write novels without her another way. As I understood what he was saying, she was the one he’d been trying to impress.”

(Is this kind of stuff why some people have it in for TNY?)

In Camera

Monday, March 20th, 2006

Back when I was a kid, my father and I turned a small cold cellar in the basement into a darkroom, and I retreated inside for much of my early adolescence. (That may have been his plan all along.) Anyway, we subscribed to a lot of photo magazines — this was the heyday of the consumer SLR and the amateur 35mm-photography craze — and one of my favorite photographers was Jerry Uelsmann, who long before Photoshop was practicing a kind of dreamy surrealism that looked sideways at Duane Michaels and forward to Matt Mahurin. Check it out.

Saturday Afternoon Post

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

Jonathan Coulton channels George Plimpton on how to lead a life. And while you’re at it, if you haven’t heard Coulton’s cover of Baby Got Back, do yourself a favor.

St. Patrick’s Day Remainders

Friday, March 17th, 2006

Everyone at my office started drinking a couple hours ago, but I thought I’d share a couple interesting things before joining them (though, admittedly, I do have a gin and tonic on my desk as I write this).

First — there’s been quite a bit of controversy lately about a new feature on New York media gossip blog Gawker that uses Google Maps to pinpoint the locations of celebrity sightings sent in by readers; you can see one of those articles here. There’s an interesting new development today: Andrew Krucoff, a sometime Gawker source and guest editor that Gawker inadvertently got fired from a job at Conde Nast (it’s a long story) put up a post on his own blog apparently attempting to defuse some of the controversy (or maybe he just hates them, I can’t really tell). Anyway, turns out he’s been sending in fake sightings all week. Here’s his explanation.

And the second thing: I generally find the Huffington Post to be the kind of place that suffers from valuing quantity over quality, but when they do get a good post up, and they often do, it can be really good. I particularly like RJ Eskow’s post today about his Attention Deficit Disorder, a look inside his mind, and let me assure you, he gets the twists and turns of an ADD mind perfectly. Knowing exactly where he’s coming from, it had me laughing pretty hard - when I was paying attention, of course.

Once Upon a Time …

Friday, March 17th, 2006

“The mental processes underlying our sense of self — feelings, thoughts, memories — are scattered through different zones of the brain. There is no special point of convergence. No cockpit of the soul. No soul-pilot. They come together as a work of fiction. A human being is a story-telling machine. The self is a story.”

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology,

by Paul Broks

SMITH Magazine

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