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A not-so-distant mirror: A photographic portrait of life in the early 20th century

  • Michael Lesy, Hampshire College professor of literary journalism, has published over a dozen books of history, biography and narrative nonfiction. His newest work, "Looking Backward," is a photographic portrait of the U.S. and other parts of the world at the beginning of the 20th century. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A photograph from “Looking Backward” contrasts the beauty of a Norwegian fjord with a steamer spewing coal smoke, and cows leaving their imprint on the shore. “Our ancestors thought the picture of the steamer in the fjord was charming,” Lesy writes. “We know better.”

  • Michael Lesy, shown here in his Amherst home, did months of research in a California photo archive to produce his new book, "Looking Backward." The Hampshire College professor of literary journal has published over a dozen works of history, biography and narrative nonfiction. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Michael Lesy, Hampshire College professor of literary journalism, says he found uncanny echoes of contemporary issues, such as racial and class divisions, in the photographs he examined for his newest book, “Looking Backward,” a visual portrait of the world in the early 20th century. Gazette Staff/Sarah Crosby

  • Michael Lesy, Hampshire College professor of literary journalism, says he found uncanny echoes of contemporary issues, such as racial and class divisions, in the photographs he examined for his newest book, "Looking Backward," a visual portrait of the world in the early 20th century. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A Japanese soldier prepares to execute a Chinese prisoner during the Boxer Rebellion in China, circa 1900. — Image courtesy of The California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

  • Stockyards, packing houses and billowing smokestacks in Chicago; the photo’s caption reads “Greatest source of food products in the world.”

  • The Eiffel Tower, Paris, when nearby factories and smokestacks were not considered a drawback to tourism. — Image courtesy of The California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

  • The caption to this photo simply reads “Russians.” Many images from this era seem designed to promote the idea of Russia as a primitive, even barbarous nation.

  • The caption to this photo reads “The Jews’ wailing place, Jerusalem, Palestine.” — Image courtesy of The California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

  • In Berlin circa 1900, a statue of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was one of several grandiose monuments to the country’s military and imperial leaders. — Image courtesy of The California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

  • Children in the U.S. South. The photo’s caption used racist language to describe them.

  • The caption to this photo is “Cozy homes of steel workers. Homestead, Pennsylvania.” Image courtesy of The California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside

  • Workers are dwarfed by monstrous-looking machinery in a “great paper mill” in Maine. — Image courtesy of The California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

  • A Chinese “high caste lady” with severely deformed feet from foot binding — wearing tiny shoes.

  • The cover of Michael Lesy’s “Looking Backward” shows a scene following the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco. 



Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2017

War. Natural disasters. Grotesque contrasts between fabulous wealth and crippling poverty. Industrial settings in which people are dwarfed by menacing machinery and walls and pillars of stone and brick.

Topics from today’s headlines? They could be — but they’re actually some of the themes Michael Lesy explores in his newest book, “Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century.”

Lesy, a longtime professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College, has been plumbing photographic archives for years to examine the darker side of American life. In books like “Wisconsin Death Trip” and “Murder City,” he has used old photographs, period journalism and other time pieces to fashion snapshots of U.S. history at odds with the nation’s typically optimistic, forward-looking narrative.

His new book, by W.W. Norton & Company, includes almost 250 black-and-white photographs, taken between about 1899 and 1910, that span the globe — from the U.S. to Asia, Europe and South America, and from sumptuous urban parlors and clubs to the muddy squalor of peasant villages.

The images are culled from 300,000 glass negatives housed at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, outside Los Angeles. A few years ago, Lesy won a Guggenheim Fellowship to examine those archives; it was akin, he said during a recent interview at his Amherst home, “to being in a time warp.”

“I’ve been kind of hung up on the early 20th century for awhile,” Lesy added, noting that both his parents were born around the turn of the century (his father in Poland, his mother in the U.S.). “When I look at pictures from this era, it’s like I’m seeing the world through their eyes.”

The photos in his new book have a very specific pedigree. They’re drawn from mass-marketed, 3D stereo views that were immensely popular in their day, taken by documentary photographers from around the world and sold in drug stores, photo shops and door to door.

Middle-class families, Lesy notes, typically had a stereo viewer for looking at the double-image photographs, mounted on paperboard with a caption on the front and explanatory text on the back. The vast majority of the American photos were produced by two U.S. companies.

In an era before TV, movies, radio, and picture-heavy magazines like Life, these images were the only portal to the world for most people, Lesy said.

“It really was the golden age of photography,” he said.

A recognizable blueprint

As a historian, Lesy finds a particular fascination in these photographs and how the scenes they depict highlight many of the same issues society grapples with today — from war and racism to environmental destruction and gross disparities in wealth.

In one of his accompanying essays in the book, he writes, “As I worked my way through the collection, I began to feel like I was watching a horror movie — a scene in which an actress opens her front door to discover what the audience already knows: a lunatic with a knife, ready to pounce.

“‘Wait! Stop! Don’t open the door!’ I wanted to shout at the nice people as they complacently watched the world through their stereoscopes. I wanted to warn them how the inequities they witnessed became savage, how the stereotypes they saw became genocidal, how the factories they’d built would poison the earth.”

The industrial images from “Looking Backward” are grim indeed. A row of trim houses for steelworkers in a Pennsylvania town has a line of belching smokestacks immediately behind it. In another photo, ragged, barefoot children scavenge lumps of coal from a slag heap the size of a small hill.

A picture of the the sprawling stockyards and packing plants of Chicago — “Greatest source of food products in the world” reads the caption — is most notable for over a dozen smokestacks spewing soot into the gray, murky air.

War was a constant at this time — the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion in China — and photographers captured much of it, from the corpses of Filipino guerillas killed in battles against U.S. troops after the Spanish-American War, to a Japanese soldier with a sword, poised to decapitate a blindfolded Chinese prisoner in the Boxer Rebellion.

And in Germany, itching for a fight that would finally arrive in 1914, troops parade through the streets of Berlin; grandiose monuments to pugnacious leaders like Chancellor Otto von Bismarck are shown in other parts of the city.

Images from what were advertised as “exotic” parts of the world include Jewish and Palestinian holy men, sacred temples in India and a scene from Jerusalem’s famous Wailing Wall, where Jewish women and men prayed at the same time — evidently without any of the controversy that swirls around that issue today.

Ugly stereotypes

Lesy notes that these stereographic photos were also widely sold to American schools, in part because some educators felt children needed to become more visual learners; photographs, they believed, were a stronger tool than books for understanding some issues.

But students also absorbed rank prejudice from the explanatory text and captions of many of those photos, which were riddled with racist and ethnic categorizations, Lesy added.

“It’s pretty much in your face,” he said.

In the photo “Eskimo Girls in the Frigid Arctic,” for instance, the accompanying text explains how the girls dress and live, then adds this gem: “In person the Eskimos are filthy and seldom if ever wash. They rub their bodies with grease.”

Another photograph, of Chinese men in an open-air restaurant in Peking (Beijing), reads in part: “Here is a crowd of yellow people. They are coolies, Chinese of the lowest class. You can tell by their faces that they are not a thinking lot.”

And a picture of African-American adults and children in a Texas cotton field tells viewers that when the harvest has to come in, “all hands are called on for picking, from Uncle Remus to the pickaninnies.”

As much as he’s taken by these photographs, both as an historian and a storyteller, Lesy says the images provide a sobering reminder of how many problems persist in the world from ingrained prejudice, greed, lust for power and lack of vision.

“You feel like a ghost looking at [these pictures],” he said. “You know the fate of the country, of these people, of this class. It’s like they planted all these land mines for us to step on.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.