Sunday, June 30, 2013


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Some seasons ago, quite a few, really, the no. 6 red naugahyde-covered twirling stool at Tiny’s Spring Valley, N.Y., diner offered a fine view of the glass donut and sliced cake case, which, of course, was a most tempting time, even for a 19 year old usually seated for a grilled cheese right off the facing flat-top grill with fries cooked then and there not an hour before and kept under a heat lamp. 

Tiny was a big man, and as they say, with a large heart to match. He was jovial, and his diner was at the standard expected of highway stops before fast food sped up the gearing to assembly line quick-a-motion. My grandfather moseyed on west to Tiny’s for java on a Saturday morning, nursing it for a longish time with a sinker from the glass case.

What was in the case was not impressive by today’s expectations. There were no layer cakes piled high with two inches of genetically modified whip cream nor no “N.Y. cheese cakes” made in Sheboygan. No, just a few plain donuts, some chocolate, vanilla and butterscotch puddings and those wonderful slices of top-iced lemon pound cake.

I usually sat on red naugahyde stool no. 3, right opposite the grill cook, but one day  Tiny’s was too busy for the regulars -- a tourist bus had actually stopped in little Spring Valley -- and I ended up at no. 6. (I always avoided no. 4, which perhaps was Tiny’s favorite, for extra weight or something heavy had loosened it.)

Planted at no. 6, I was about to order the usual, but before the overly busy counter waitress got to me, the cake case’s magnetism kicked in, the fluorescent light behind the gleaming chrome and tempered sliding glass doors shining just right on a piece of iced lemon pound cake, freshly cut from a true, 16-ounce loaf, unlike today’s 12.5-ounce fakers. Like a stricken young pup in a school days’ crush, I mumbled in shyness that I just had to have that slice.

Tiny’s coffee, in a green cup on a green saucer. came along for the ride, and my date with that wonderful iced-top lemon cake was rather long and as sensuous as could be. I used a fork to parcel out 1-inch by 1-inch squares, starting at the bottom and moving ever so slowly toward the icing, which was the kiss that ended the night, and that date, you see.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, June 24, 2013


Public domain image of  an original 4x5-inch proof taken
for the Farm Security Administration, now in the collection
of the Library of Congress.

By Arthur H. Gunther III

   So many people have seen the iconic Great Depression-era image of “Migrant Mother,” the 32-year-old woman with seven children photographed by the famed Dorothea Lange at a California itinerant crop pickers camp.  As do the equally stirring New York City breadline images, “Migrant Mother” captures a nation down on its people’s luck but with the dignity of the individual intact.  Photographs of endurance in the economic calamity are in the history books and now online, and there are some private collections that travel about. The Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, N.Y., where I am a trustee, is currently hosting a Lange installation as well as “The Lange Sidebar -- The Documentary Continues: Women in Social Issues Photography.” The second exhibit is the work of seven contemporary women, from their teens into the retirement years.

    It matters not whether Lange’s now iconic images of Great Depression America, or Jacob Riis’ glass negatives of New York City tenement life or the contemporary and recent photographs of humanity taken by the seven women in The Lange Sidebar were captured in different decades, even centuries, by people of varied background, outlook and beliefs. Nor is the technology important, from large, slow tripod cameras to Speed Graphic press units to 35mm to today’s digital. All this social documentary work, no matter the time, place or equipment, has had one goal: to report with camera, to document as honestly as possible the who, what, when, where, why and how, those cardinal building blocks of journalism, of information. 

     As with Dorothea Lange and Jacob Riis, the Lange Sidebar photographers have tried not to put their beliefs and biases into the picture -- literally, no matter how strongly they feel, as surely Lange did in the Great Depression. Nor are they calling us, the viewer, to make judgments about their subjects. Certainly we are not to pity; empathize, yes, perhaps; take an image or two or three as a call to personal or government or societal action, maybe; understand, of course. But never to view social documentary subjects as in a museum. They are humanity, as are we, and all of us -- our faces, our homes, our circumstances -- tell stories or parts of them. The social documentary photographer tries to capture that.

     The Great Depression images Dorothea Lange took were “job” photos, on assignment from the Farm Security Administration. In 1942, she was under contract with the  War Relocation Authority, documenting the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry to camps. As a former newspaper photographer, I know how Lange felt and how she operated. All news photographers, and that includes documentary lens people since there is “news” in their work, don’t usually get too overwhelmed by the assignment as one shoot after another happens. Jobs become routine, even if exciting. Celebrities seem not that; people suffering move you, of course, as does tragedy, but the assignment must be completed, done as best as possible, and then you try to move on. Actually, you must move on, if you want to keep doing your job. The job is in the moment, and you are not thinking about commenting on anything or how your effort will be viewed and analyzed, perhaps years later.

Reporters observe and take notes, later writing their stories. Photographers look through the viewfinder and click away, refining the rawness of their effort in the darkroom -- the wet one of old, of film and prints and chemicals, and the new one of the computer. Both reporters and photographers capture the who, what, when, where, why and how, or try to. That is the job.

It is later, after the story appears or the photograph is half-toned and printed, that perspective is added, and not by the reporter or photog. The words are then out of the reporter’s hands, and the photographs are away from the lens person. Now, the reader, the viewer, the analyst, the commentator, and, ultimately, as decades pass, successive generations of ordinary people make up their minds and render opinion. That is to the good, as debate and perspective are necessary for society’s health. It is at this point that the reporter and social documentary photographer can be satisfied that they provided the raw fact-gathering. 

Yet, what of the subjects? Let’s look at “Migrant Mother,” who was for years unidentified. According to “Public Domain Images Online,” “Migrant Mother” was one of several images shot by Dorothea Lange in late winter, 1936, near Nipomo, California, where migrant workers (from Oklahoma and elsewhere) were in a dire situation since the crops they had come to harvest had been destroyed by freezing rains. On the following day,  according to Geoffrey Dunn’s essay for New Times: San Luis Obispo, ‘Photographic License,’  the San Francisco News published (the picture) ... that became known as ‘Migrant Mother.’ 

      “But who was this mother? Lange didn’t ask her name when she took the picture and some others. (However) in the 1970s (‘Migrant Mother’) identified herself in a letter to a local newspaper editor as Florence Thompson, and this is the name now associated with “Migrant Mother.” In fact, in 1936 she was Florence Owens. It wasn’t until after World War II that she remarried and became Florence Thompson. Florence Owens Thompson’s reason for writing her letter, which was picked up by the Associated Press, was distress at the picture’s fame.
     “In the AP story, Thompson declared that she felt ‘exploited’ by Lange’s portrait. ‘I wish she hadn’t taken my picture,’ she (said). ‘I can’t get a penny out of it. (Lange) didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.’ 
     “Likely Lange couldn’t sell the pictures (since they were U.S. government property), but Thompson must have assumed she did when several appeared in the papers, and certainly after Lange’s assignment with the FSA ended, her career was enhanced by the fame she gained with ‘Migrant Mother.’ ” Public Domain Images Online says that “Lange ... sent the photos to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, where (they) had an immediate impact on federal bureaucrats, who quickly rushed 20,000 pounds of food supplies to (a) pea-picker camp in Nipomo.” EyeWitnesstoHistory.Com reports that “After returning home, Lange alerted the editor of a San Francisco newspaper to the plight of the workers at the camp, presenting him with two of her photos. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included Lange's images. As a result, the government” dispatched food to the camp. 
     So, the social documentary effort of Dorothea Lange had an effect, as do other such photographs, after the fact. The photos' wider impact included influencing John Steinbeck in the writing of his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
It would take decades before Florence Owens Thompson received monetary benefit. In 1983,  sick with cancer, she had a stroke that left her in need of constant nursing attention. The $1,400-a-week care was unaffordable. It is reported that her son Troy asked a newspaperman from the San Jose Mercury News for help, and a subsequent story brought national attention and donations. And so did powerful words. Public Domain Images Online said that one woman from California wrote:  “The famous picture of your mother for years gave me great strength, pride and dignity – only because she exuded those qualities so.” It also notes that “the overwhelming response forced the Owens-Hill children to reconsider Lange’s portrait of their now 80-year-old mother in a new light,” how “deeply Mama’s photo affected people.” Lange herself would say years later, “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” ‘Migrant Mother’s’ tombstone reads: “Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”
     So, you can see how the powerful images taken by photographers in all the years since the medium was discovered and developed can later affect people and society. Indeed, in the case of “Migrant Mother,” Lange’s photograph, once identified, was given added reporting by the revealed fact she was a full-blooded Cherokee. Her forebears were forced to relocate to what was then Oklahoma Territory to land that became lost in the “Dutstbowl” -- from their homelands along what was known as the “Trail of Tears”.
     In any age there are keen eyes which observe humanity, and the tradition continues as we see here with the work of seven women in The Lange Sidebar, who are following in Lange’s footsteps but also following their own paths in social documentary photography.
     We must applaud these reporters with camera.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, June 17, 2013


By Arthur H. Gunther III

MANHATTAN -- The proverbial fly on the wall would, if it could, reveal many a story about the humans who move through any place or that. Perhaps the same can be said about something as inanimate as the well-worn banister rails on the Macy’s 34th Street escalators, in the department store’s 1902 New York City building.

Located off Broadway in Herald Square, with a Seventh Avenue building attached in 1927, Macy’s is recalled as the subject of the famous 1947 movie, “Miracle On 34th Street,” in which Santa Claus is made real for non-believing adults but who was scarcely doubted by little Natalie Wood. There are interior Macy’s location shots in that movie, but whether the escalator banisters were in one I do not recall. 

Most of the escalators in the original Macy’s building have wooden treads and rolling banisters, a marvel of engineering considering that they have been running for so many decades. Compare them to some of the modern, computer-assisted escalators you see in malls. One 1997 shopping plaza in West Nyack, N.Y., always has several that are not operating -- overheated, perhaps, and a dangerous climb or descent for customers.

I was in Gotham a while back, and that is always exciting, for the sounds and sights are “only in New York.” A short time in Manhattan is always an eye-opener on humanity -- you see so many, varied people. What really made the day was the walk to Macy’s through the canyon-like winds that New York offers, a brisk challenge that rewards you in its completion, sort of like climbing a mountain.

Macy’s, with its old-style woodwork, plaster effects and wooden escalators, is almost a national treasure, and visiting it is like seeing Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building. I was there in accompaniment, to observe people and things, to savor something old and true, a place where my parents took me as a little boy, where my father went as a child, too.

Perhaps a well-worn banister has my dad’s fingerprint under years of varnish; mine, too and maybe those of the less fortunate in the Great Depression who could only look at Macy’s goods in respite from despair. Maybe the bannisters carry the marks of soldiers and other military on leave before they shipped out for the theaters of World War II.

How many young children rode to see Santa Claus on these wooden escalators, nervously and in excitement as they held onto the banisters? How many brides-to-be rode up to try on gowns? How many ordinary people, off on a Saturday shopping tour, took the escalators to the coffee shop for reaffirming treat?

It is a tribute to Macy’s that the wooden escalators, so long in service, have not been scrapped, that no modern spectaculars have been installed, with plastic banisters and shiny aluminum treads. Yes, youngsters can take such moving stairs to see Santa and so can brides-to-be, but aluminum and plastic don’t show wear and tear with character, and so also the joys and hopes and millions of moments of small excitement. Varnished oak does. Every inch of those continuous loop wooden banisters at Macy’s has thousand stories to tell, at least

The writer is a retired newspaperman. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Novelists, short-story writers, even columnists are people observers. They see the nuances of ordinary life  and then explain to the reader, who may very well say, "I know that feeling.” Or, “I’ve done that.” But writers don’t own the franchise alone.
Salespeople are keen people watchers as well, sort of pre-med psychiatry students.

For example, I watched the other day as a couple bought an area rug in a local department store. The salesman, a young fellow, was ensconced in the corner at the usual elegant desk that never sold. He was surrounded by piles of colorful rugs and some hanging on the wall, with prices from $300 to the thousands. The salesman seemed bored, or maybe his job was idling at the moment, in neutral, a survival-must for work that requires stretches of time where not much happens.

He glanced up to see that the couple was moseying by and let them go into the lair without a pounce. It was only after they were in the rug chamber that the friendly fellow, quite polite and easy-mannered, appeared and offered the menu starter: “Anything I can help you with folks?”

The fellow with the lady looked like he could use a beer, but the woman wanted a rug, and this was serious business. In age-old, time-tested body psychology, the man moved ever so quickly and surely away from the lady, whistling to himself as the salesman took his place.

Now the woman and the clerk were the team, and the talk turned to rugs, colors, sizes, prices. It was a common language, this man the rug sales fellow and this woman the buyer. 

It was only after the rather nice lady had decided what she wanted that she looked up, almost without focusing, and laser-beamed on the man who turned out to be her husband and asked, “What do you think about this color?”

The guy knew nothing from rugs, still wanted a beer but did know his colors. So he answered, “It’s red. You wanted red, right?”

The salesman laughed, knowing a man when he saw one, being one himself.

The deal was sealed, with no help from the lady’s mate, thank you. He better never criticize the rug. 

Like I said, a salesperson knows how it works, this people observation business. 

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

Monday, June 3, 2013


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Upper Nyack, N.Y. -- Some 80 years ago, the triple-great-grandfather of a little fellow of today drove past the boy’s Van Houten Street home on the way to Hook Mountain where Friday night picnics were then a big thing for Rockland County residents. Not Saturday or Sunday when the crowds from New York City arrived at the Dayliner dock. Not during the work week because everyone was too exhausted.

Actually, two of the little fellow’s other distant great-grandfathers also passed the house, just off Broadway, the only road leading to the Hudson River state park. Whether any of these men glanced down at 25 Van Houten will never be known, and the young boy doesn’t yet know anything about any of his ancestors. Still, a family connection even as ships passing in the night. Time is relative, and who knows what influence a moment eight decades ago can have in present time? Or, perhaps, the other way around?

Today, walking along Broadway I almost never fail to recall trips made to the Hook by my family and by me with friends or by myself over the seasons. And until I had a grandson (Sam) and a granddaughter (Beatrice), the connection was warm enough -- stepping on sidewalks or riding on roads trod upon by others of my existence. Now, though, the roots of the tree, still growing, are very close by.

The little fellow’s kindergarten class is off Broadway, near his house and on the way to the Hook. On Mondays, I pick him up and walk him home, Gummy Bears the latest favorite treat and his deliberate jumping on and off the Village Hall porch at Castle Heights and Broadway and the across the street at Hartel’s grocery a ritual he will remember should he stare at those decades later.

Sam’s ritual has now been added to memories already accumulated in my family of Broadway to the Hook almost a century ago.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.