Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
L/rain
60°
L/rain
Hi 62° | Lo 53°

Hampshire College professor Michael Lesy receives Guggenheim Fellowship for photo book

  • What's particulalry fascinating about the material Michael Lesy has collected, he says, is the way it reflects the mores, preconceptions and prejudices of the time.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    What's particulalry fascinating about the material Michael Lesy has collected, he says, is the way it reflects the mores, preconceptions and prejudices of the time.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Michael Lesy in his office at his home in Amherst Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Michael Lesy in his office at his home in Amherst Tuesday, May 28.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Michael Lesy holds a stereo photograph viewer from 1901 at his home in Amherst Tuesday, May 28. In front of him are paper copies of photos for his project.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Michael Lesy holds a stereo photograph viewer from 1901 at his home in Amherst Tuesday, May 28. In front of him are paper copies of photos for his project.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • What's particulalry fascinating about the material Michael Lesy has collected, he says, is the way it reflects the mores, preconceptions and prejudices of the time.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Michael Lesy in his office at his home in Amherst Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A stereo photograph viewer from 1901 rests on a table at the home of Michael Lesy Tuesday, May 28.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Michael Lesy holds a stereo photograph viewer from 1901 at his home in Amherst Tuesday, May 28. In front of him are paper copies of photos for his project.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

In the early 1970s, Michael Lesy published a photographic and narrative study of the Wisconsin town of Black River Falls in the late 19th century in which the world appeared to have been wrenched off its axis. Plumbing an archive of glass plate negatives, newspaper articles and other historical artifacts, Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip” documented a town that was beset with violence, poverty, disease and even madness — a dark contrast to the generally optimistic storyline of turn-of-the-century America.

“Wisconsin Death Trip” has since gone become something of a cult classic and the subject of a 1999 movie. But for Lesy, a professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, the book was just the beginning of his interest in using old photographs and period written works — journalism, novels, advertisements — to tell stories.

“Sometimes a picture is just a picture, but sometimes it’s much more than that,” he said in a recent interview in his Amherst home. “It can be a window to the past ... you’re looking at photographs that weren’t made for art — they were made to document a moment in time.”

Lesy, who has taught at Hampshire since 1990, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship this spring to research his newest book project: “Looking Backward: Images of the World, 1900-1910” will examine 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 and other common locations.

Lesy has begun sifting through some 300,000 glass negatives, kept in a seismically protected underground vault in the California Museum of Photography in Riverside, east of Los Angeles. The images offer a panorama of North America, Europe, Asia and other parts of the world 100 to 120 years ago: natural disasters, the growing industrial energy of America, peasant villages in Russia, opium dens in China.

“If you wanted to see what was happening in the world, the news, this was how you did it,” Lesy said. The images “would be sold door-to-door by college students in summer, the way you might sell encyclopedias. They were sold to public schools as educational materials.”

Middle-class families typically had the kind of stereo viewer that Lesy has in his home — a vintage model from 1901 — for looking at the double-image photographs, mounted on paperboard with a caption on the front and a short explanatory narrative on the back.

For his book, Lesy plans to cull 300 images from the thousands he’ll look at and add a narrative and descriptive text. His selected images will also be the basis for exhibitions at the International Center for Photography in New York City and the California Museum for Photography.

A changing nation

Lesy, who has published 11 books of history and narrative non-fiction, has based several of them on old photographs, and he’s particularly taken by the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of his most recent books is “Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century,” a collection of 200 photographs that Lesy culled from a Detroit postcard company. The Atlanta Constitution called the volume “a stunning statement about life in the early 1900s.”

It was an exciting time in the United States and in other parts of the world, he notes, an era of advances in science and inventions, such as the automobile and the telephone; of growing social movements; and optimism that the new century would usher in a better life for many.

Yet it was also a time of terrible inequities in society, of injustices both large and small. In the United States, workers trying to form unions were beaten and killed by company thugs and police; blacks were regularly lynched in the South and other parts of the country; the Gilded Age rich were filthy rich, and the poor were desperately poor.

And in the Philippines, seized by the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1899, American troops would fight a pitched, bloody battle in the early 1900s with Filipino guerillas who wanted independence, not new U.S. rulers who were pursuing a colonial empire to rival those of the European powers.

“It was America at the beginning of empire,” Lesy said. “A hundred years later, we’re at the end of our empire. We see some of the same issues still at play — the economic crises, the overseas wars, the disparity in wealth.”

But this was also a golden age of photography, Lesy says, and much of the vast amount of material that’s been archived is just beginning to be examined by historians, such as himself. He’ll be on sabbatical in the fall, and so for the next several months he plans to make regular trips to the California archives, spending a week at a time reviewing glass negatives.

What’s particularly fascinating about the material, he says, is the way it reflects the mores, preconceptions and prejudices of the time. Some of the captions — often handwritten — on the photos are demeaning or unapologetically racist, like references to Filipinos as “our little brown brothers,” while photos from China tend to depict people either as exotically beautiful or hopeless opium addicts.

“There’s no in-between,” Lesy said.

‘Patriarchy in the flesh’

At his home, he has piles of printouts of some of the first pictures he’s examined, organized by topics. One shot is of a monstrous industrial landscape, with an enormous smokestack and a coal tramway from an early Ford Motor Company factory. Another shows a worker, with the help of a winch and chain, lowering an engine into an early automobile, perhaps a Model T.

“One one hand, you have this preview of the scary face of industrial America that dwarfs the human scale, and on the other you have a guy doing a job that’s long since been replaced by a machine,” Lesy said. “It’s a great contrast.”

He also has a stack of images of white men in stiff business clothes, all looking very serious, well-fed, prosperous — and a bit smug. He’s labeled this batch “Patriarchy.”

Given that many women’s studies courses have used that same term as a shorthand for male domination of society, Lesy says, these 1900-era tycoons might make for an interesting exhibit just by themselves.

“Here it is, the patriarchy, in the flesh,” he said with a wry laugh. “Not a woman in sight.”

Once his project is complete, Lesy also hopes to work with one of his Hampshire colleagues, digital animation professor Chris Perry, and Perry’s students to make his images viewable in 3D, without the aid of special glasses.

“It would be great if everyone could see these images the way they were first presented,” he said.

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

Comments
Legacy Comments0
There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.