Photographs

Frankonis Discusses His Work at the College Archives

Several weeks ago, Ed Frankonis ’19 delivered an excellent and fascinating talk on an internship that he did with the College Archives. This internship consisted of curating items (mainly photographs) associated with Aurel Stuart, a Manchester photographer who was active for over 60 years and worked extensively with the College. We asked Ed to give us a brief summary of his talk (he had to cut a great deal out since he referred to a large number of images on display), and he happily obliged.


Thank you for coming.

I’m Ed Frankonis, a senior History major at the College, and I began this internship as a 4-credit class at the beginning of the semester.

I want to start by defining what an archive is. An archive is a repository for public or historical documentation for preservation. It is, in effect, the permanent memory of a place, person, or thing. A library is information about the past and present, but an archive is information for the libraries of the future.

So, with that in mind, the archive I worked on contained a variety of objects; old books, manuscripts, diaries, and, of course, photographs. The goal of my internship was to take boxes like the ones before you and enter “metadata” into an Excel spreadsheet, that is, information about an artifact like a photograph (e.g. standard measurements, BW or COLOR, amount of copies), and determine if we needed to set it aside for any reason (e.g. poor condition or rips, emulation, crinkling, silvering, etc.). In effect, I was helping to preserve the College’s history. One such key player in the College’s history was a photographer named Aurel Stuart.

Stuart was a New Hampshire native who started his own photography business after serving as a bombardier over Europe during World War II. His love of photography during the war “kept him sane” as he lost colleagues to anti-aircraft fire. After working at a photographer’s studio for six months he opened up his own business, where (according to the job list he gave us) he wound up taking photos for a whole host of events that included many persons of interest. And he did so for 65 years. From the 1950’s into the 1960’s, he took photos of technical objects to train engineers, various shows, and the usual variety of weddings and graduations. Later, starting in the 1970s, he did fewer engineering photos and more insurance company photos as well as more pictures for Saint Anselm College.

Now I’d like to showcase and discuss some of his photos here. As you can see, Stuart shot photos of the College for a wide variety of reasons. Some images show the architecture, others portray social occasions, and still others depict ceremonies. As you can tell, some things at this school just don’t change. Others, however, move on rapidly (hairstyles, clothing, buildings, etc.)

So why focus on Stuart? The College employed more than one photographer to preserve our memory in Alumni magazines and archival collections (these photographs will influence how people remember things), so why this particular individual? Well, he is the reason I am in a HAZMAT suit. As you can see [Frankonis showed an images of a cluttered attic], when Stuart died, aged nearly 100, he left quite a collection behind, over which sat a large, asbestos filled death-trap.

So, at the behest of the College Archivist, Keith Chevalier, I journeyed down one early Tuesday morning, donned this suit, and put small boxes of photographs (which included images of Saint Anselm College basketball teams, army artillery drills, weddings, and so on) into larger boxes, separating the ones with College material from the rest (about 17 big boxes in total by the end). These photos, many of which will require a chemistry lab to clean (as the local fauna of the attic decided to use them as a latrine), are incredibly important. They help preserve the memory of the College.

And that’s what a history major can do; in fact, that’s often how history is made. Such mundane acts put viable material in archives, which shape memory, which shape how people tell the history of a place, which impacts how much change can occur, and which in turn impacts identity, and so on.

Toffs and Toughs: The Problem with Iconic Images

Toffs and Toughs

The word “iconic” is often overused, but this photograph, taken in 1937 and published in the News Chronicle with the caption, “Every picture tells a story,” definitely qualifies for that adjective. For years, this image symbolized the inequalities that long characterized British society. In an unmistakable way, the photo seemed to capture the differences not only between town and gown, but also poverty and privilege. Thanks to Facebook, Intelligent Life‘s most popular article right now is a 2010 piece about this very image:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ian-jack/5-boys

We at One Thing after Another will leave it to you to read the article because we don’t want to spoil it. However, this story warrants several general observations. We accept photographs as truthful, but a photographer, of course, can often manipulate the framing of the scene as well as its content so it sends a particular message. And of course, every photo has a backstory that is not immediately apparent.

This photo was partially posed. Peter Wagner and Thomas Dyson, the two “toffs” from Harrow, were indeed waiting outside Lord’s cricket ground (Eton was playing Harrow at the time) for the Wagners to pick them up. The “toughs,” George Salmon, Jack Catlin, and George Young were trying to collect tips by opening car doors and carrying luggage. The extent to which the photographer, Jimmy Sime (who worked for London’s Central Press agency), moved the boys about is unclear, but at one point, he did tell the “toughs” to come closer to the “toffs” so he could get his photo. Sime saw the potential for a picture that could tell  a powerful story; he manipulated the situation so we could see what he wanted us to see. Once the photo circulated among the British public, it became a kind of social fact, an “Exhibit A” in the indictment of British social inequality.

There is no disputing the fact of great social inequality in Britain during the 1930s, but it is worth investigating the relationship between this photo and that social inequality. We can look at this issue in a number of ways. For instance, we can charge Sime with “lying” by manipulating the scene in order to tell a greater truth about British society.  Or, looking at it from another angle, we could argue that as a sensitive, British interwar observer, Sime expected to see inequality. We usually find what we expect to see (while ignoring what we don’t expect to see), and Sime was no exception. He found this inequality and took a picture of it. That photograph only perpetuated others’ expectations of seeing inequality and sustained the tradition of representation that stressed certain ideas about British society.

In this case, as with many others, however, it is difficult for real, living, breathing people to serve as symbols. The fit is often imperfect. For Sime, the boys simply represented inequality; that is the point of his photo. The toffs were wealthy and had a lifetime of privilege before them. The toughs had no such advantages and would have to scrap for everything they got, or so the argument went. Yet, as the article in Intelligent Life points out, real life was not so simple. In many ways, the toughs got the better deal in life, a development that seems to undermine the message of Sime’s photo.

Why dwell on this point? In our classes, we often use iconic images because they seem to distill important messages in especially memorable ways. Unfortunately, many of the images that we use are problematic because, as with the case of the toffs and the toughs, they elide important details and facts that might contradict their obvious message. Take, for example, this famous photograph from the Vietnam War with which many of you are probably familiar:

Saigon Execution

In this particular case, Eddie Adams, the photographer, did not seek to manipulate the scene. He happened upon an acquaintance of his, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s chief of national police, shooting Nguyen Van Lem, a suspected member of the NLF, and took a photo without even stopping to think. Adams snapped this photo in the middle of the fierce street fighting that took place in Saigon during the second day of the Tet offensive. According to interviews, under these chaotic circumstances, he did not find the execution extraordinary. Moreover, he knew that Loan believed Lem had helped execute one of Loan’s aides along with that aide’s entire family. Although he won a Pulitzer Prize for this photo, Adams was later surprised and disappointed to learn that anti-war protesters had seized upon this image as encapsulating all that was wrong about the war in Vietnam. As an essay from NPR points out:

Adams, who considered himself a patriot and a Marine, never came to terms with the fact that the anti-war movement saw that photograph as proof that the Vietnam War was unjustified. In fact, he believed to the end of his life that the picture only told part of the truth. The untold story was that on the day of the execution, an aide to Loan was killed by insurgents. After Loan pulled the trigger, he walked by Adams and said, ‘They killed many of our people and many of yours.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102112403)

After the photo was published and widely distributed, Adams was horrified to find that he had destroyed Loan’s reputation. Years later, in a eulogy for Loan in Time magazine, Adams wrote:

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?” (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988783,00.html)

Like any other document, a photograph must be read in context. Otherwise, it can lie, even without manipulation. Errol Morris has dwelled on this idea in an interesting book that originated as a series of essays in the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/believing-is-seeing-by-errol-morris-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gwh=AE5D06E61574BB0241D0EB5E7698156D&gwt=regi

“Every picture tells a story,” but when we see these kinds of photographs, we need to remember that every story is crafted. Moreover, these photos depict real people who have to live in a messy real world that is far more complicated than the story world in which images place them. The foregoing is just another way of reminding us historians that as we teach, we need to sustain a balance between graphic generalization (which is indispensable to teaching) and attention to detail (which is indispensable to truth).