June 21, 2012

postcards: "Was taken last Sun.," c.1909

I had never made a real photo postcard before, not until that summer when Joe came to stay with us at our country home near Lake Geneva. He brought his newfangled camera with him - obviously his most prized possession. The Eastman Kodak 3A Folding Pocket Camera seemed like a false advertisement, when it came to the matter of pockets, but Joe did not mind at all. He carried the slim black box with him everywhere he went, never letting it out of his sight. And he beamed with pride anytime he could set up the camera to take a photograph or offer a demonstration to a new, interested party. He flushed as bright a red as the accordion-style apparatus which held the camera’s lens, as concentrated entirely on the magic workings of his camera. 
Front: "Was taken last Sun."

Joe had photographic aspirations; he wanted to really figure that camera out, and was tireless in asking us girls to pose for him. Not a difficult crowd to convince: six girls in total, between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two, all here the whole summer long. Always scouting, he coaxed us to all manner of locations. We sat out back on our pair of adirondack chairs on the lawn, posed with one girl on each seat and one on each arm. (The chairs were a new thing, then, still called “Westport chairs,” and a rarity in the Midwest, even among wealthy city families.) Six girls giggling to keep their balance and make sure not to move, in order to show off the architectural features of the chairs: this was a typical photography sitting with Joe. We grouped around the grand walnut double-pedestal dining table in the formal dining room, dressed in our very fanciest attire, to recreate the scene of an important social gathering. There was theater in this art of his - a desire to insinuate something more than what was actually occurring. I wonder now if people knew, as they received their cards in the mail from this sister or that, how much of that was put on. 
Sure, there were plenty of social occasions at our home that summer, but Joe wouldn’t dare pull out the camera on those nights. My father was skeptical of the whole business, and never willing to pose himself, let alone subject his guests to such behavior. Joe came from the same social circles as us to begin with, but his father’s printing company had taken a turn for the worse as he grew, and over the years he had fallen out with most of his well-to-do friends. Momma always had a soft spot for his impish grin: his freckles and golden blonde hair reminded her of the Karl and Fritz cartoon strips in the city newspaper comics. She still kept up with Joe's mother - unwilling to let go of a friendship on the principle of money alone - and had gotten permission from Father to invite him to stay the summer. Just a year older than Joe, I had watched the changes occur in his family's social standing, and seen how his grin grew a little slower coming with each passing year. I was happy to have him with us this summer, to have it all back to normal and just like old times. 
As the summer went on, the rest of the girls grew less interested in Joe’s camera adventures. I became the only one he could coax to travel here and there, the only one to keep him company as he tirelessly worked with his negatives and plotted out what he would like to photograph next. I did not have the heart to turn him down. One hot Sunday in July, he devised a whole new plan. Though Joe always behaved respectfully toward my father, he felt the judgment implied by Father's rules and sense of propriety, which always reminded him of the gap in things, and the question of belonging. He got this gleam in his eye when he wanted to dispute an idea or notion of my father’s, and we might spend the whole day comprehensively discussing one of his old-fashioned ideas. It bothered Joe to no end. So once he got this plan in his head, there was no turning back. We would get my father in a real photo postcard after all. 
Out back, behind our grand, white, two-story country home with its green painted shutters and wraparound porch, the wide, rolling lawn led down to the dock on the Lake. They had cleared the trees and stumps long ago in order to create such a magnificent lawn, but they had left a small patch of woods off to one side. On especially hot summer days, you could find shade there, and my sisters and I loved the chance to play with the leaves, berries, twigs and needles that blanketed the floor of these woods. My father had found his own respite in the patch of woods: the crude double-swing set made by a rural woodworker further upstate. The backwoods man hand-crafted patio pieces from all his own lumber, and while the furniture did not compare with our Adirondack chairs, it became a different sort of collector’s piece. Several neighbors had taken a drive up to the man’s farm 30 miles north of Lake Geneva, to pick out just the right pieces for their summer entertaining. We had most everything you could want already, but Father just had to see it for himself. He came back that day with this double-swing contraption, in two pieces, and set about securing its four long poles deep into the ground beneath the towering trees. 
Every day, in the heat of the afternoon, around two or three o’clock, you could find my father here, always in his long shirtsleeves and proper slacks, resting in the shade of these trees. He leaned heavily into the flat, planked back of the swing, choosing the seat where he could still see the sun sparkling on the Lake beneath the tree branches. He never admitted it, but he always dozed off a bit. He never invited anyone to join him, lest they find him out. But I had snuck by enough times to catch him as his head softly fell to one side or the other, and heard his breath as it caught in just a hint of a snore. On our initial tour of the place, when Joe first came to visit, I had let him in on this small secret, which I knew he, particularly, would appreciate. Apparently, he had not forgotten.
Joe’s plan was to set up his camera behind my watercolor easel, to rig the camera so my father would not notice, if he were, by chance, to wake up. We waited until half-past two, when he would likely be asleep, and tip-toed gently across the lawn. I set up the easel as if for Joe’s benefit, with all manner of brushes and my fancy German ceramic palette, just in case Father were to come upon us and interrupt our plan. I took my place as subject, positioning myself according to Joe’s wild gestures, first this way and then that, until I was exactly where he wanted me. I sat and waited, squinting into the blinding afternoon sunlight, while he fumbled behind the easel to get the camera set in place. My thoughts drifted off, like they do. Before I knew it, he was hissing my name under his breath, gesturing wildly once again - it was done! 
I am not sure anyone ever noticed my father in the background of that real photo postcard; the light is all on me, sitting on the lawn in my long, dark skirt and high-necked blouse with the sleeves pushed up my arms, holding a bit of a leaf or flower, and gazing vaguely into Joe's direction. And I am not sure if he meant to achieve what he did in that photo: the most honest portrait of myself I have ever seen, no smile or set gaze, but a head lost in thoughts and daydreams, too many to capture.

Back: “Dear Friend Arnold, I had this ready to send to New York, but changed my mind so will send to you. Was taken on the lawn at my home in the country. We are having very warm weather here. -Clara” (Addressed to Mr. Arnold Casey, no address, dated July 19th, 1909)

(Click here for more about my postcard prompts series.)

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