L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, March 28, 2021

An elegant, unexpected calm - two portraits of bashi-bazouks by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1868-69


The two men portrayed here are both arrayed in the picturesque garb of the bashi-bazouk. The term means, literally, "damaged head" signifying someone leaderless or without discipline. The bashi-bazouks were "irregulars" in the Ottoman army, recruited from lands across the Ottoman empire, from Egypt to the Balkans. The strain on the empire's feudal system caused by its wide expanse, required heavier reliance on these irregular soldiers, and during the height of their existence, they were feared as brutal, corrupt, merciless, and unpredictable; contemporary reports on their crimes and exploits even reached as far as the United States. By the time Gérôme encountered them in Cairo, though, many had become more of a colorful local attraction than active participants in the empire's violent "peacekeeping." Paul Lenoir, who accompanied Gérôme on two tours of Egypt, referred to bashi-basouks as “soldiers of ornament” and “opéra-comique sentinels” who had become nothing more than “indispensable furniture of the door of a mosque or of the entrance to a palace.” Nevertheless, the costume, unruly behavior, and romantic backstory of the bashi-bazouk proved irresistible to Gérôme and other Orientalist painters.

Bashi-Bazouk, circa 1869.
Bashi-Bazouk, 1868-69. (I'm hoping the Metropolitan Museum has undertaken some much needed restoration on this painting since this image was taken.)


Dancing Bashi-Bazouk, also by Gérôme, circa 1869.


A few examples of the genuine - somewhat less glamorous - article.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Els Majas i alguns altres - a selection of photographs by Josep Massana, circa 1925-35

Sense títol - Maja fumant.

Historically, the majos (masculine) and majas (feminine) - also manolo/manola - were people from the Spanish  lower classes, especially in Madrid, who distinguished themselves by their edgy stylishness and sometimes rowdy behavior; their costume an exaggeration of traditional Spanish dress, they were the Spanish "hipsters" of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They feature in many of Goya's paintings, and inspired artists well into the nineteenth century; the operatic character Carmen is usually dressed in some variation of  the maja costume. And as Spain became more of a tourist destination in the 1910s and 1920s, the image of the maja - fan in hand, a black lace mantilla studded with carnations - came to be seen as representative of the typical Spanish woman. The stereotype - the appearance of the maja now somewhat blended with that of the flamenco dancer - was particularly pervasive in advertising. And also, especially after the turn of the twentieth century, with Catholic Spain displaying slightly more liberal attitudes, the icon was now often frankly eroticized. Massana was Catalan but appears to have embraced the trend, and his work often features this updated vision of the "generic" Spanish woman.

Sense títol - Maja asseguda amb mantellina.
Sense títol - Maja somrient.
Sense títol.
Sense títol.
 Sense títol - Maja nua.
Tipo español.
Vorágine (vortex.)
 Nu amb una còpia de la «Venus de Milo».
Variant print of the above.
Sense títol - Estudi sobre la «Venus de Milo».
Maja española.
Sense títol - Estudi de nu amb escultura.
Sense títol - Maja fumant. Variant print of the first photograph in this post.


Josep Masana (16 May 1892, Granollers - 4 January 1979, Barcelona), Spanish photographer, specializing in portraiture, photojournalism, and advertising photography. He first worked in a pictorialist style, staging images of nudes and allegorical and mythological compositions. He received a gold medal at the International Exhibition of Barcelona in 1929. His work in advertising began the following year, and would constitute, almost exclusively, the remainder of his output; his work in that field - bold and imaginative - has come to be regarded as high art.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Something like the truth - early color portraits in Hollywood, circa 1931-42


Color photography - both motion picture film and still photography - has had a long and fascinating history. And some of the most important technical advancements happened during the 1930s. Though Hollywood had been toying with various versions of Technicolor motion picture film for almost twenty years, there really wasn't much in the way of color portraiture until the middle of the Thirties. And at least at first, most of it seems to have been produced for use on magazine covers and in advertisements. If I understand correctly, in the early and mid-Thirties most color photographs were taken using the Carbro process, Kodachrome only becoming commercially available in 1938. (In fact, I "understand" just about nothing of the history or technology of color photography, so I'll have to leave it at that one spare sentence.) Though black and white studio portraits remained the norm well into the Sixties, after the early Forties color portraiture would become quite common in Hollywood. The images I've shared here are examples of that early, transitional period.

This portrait of Dietrich is an example of something I've encountered more frequently in vintage Hollywood color photographs than in black and
white images of the same period: they're often reversed. This seems to be the most frequently seen version of the shot, but I believe it to be reversed.
If for no other reason than that her hats always leaned the other way. But both orientations were printed and she happily signed both versions.
Another portrait from the same sitting, but printed, I believe, in the correct orientation.
(And while the cover reads "Natural Color Photo", there's obviously nothing at all "natural" about the heavily retouched final image.)

When speaking of color portraiture from the golden age of Hollywood, one has to bring up the ugly topic of "colorization." The 1970s and '80s saw a wave of colorizing classic black and white films, an appalling development which brought on an immediate and righteous outcry against it. The arguments were aesthetic - the technology was crude, the resulting images looked really bad; the original design of the films was calculated for black and white and looked wrong with color overlaid - and ethical - no one has the right to make such sweeping "improvements" to someone else's work of art; it's like drawing eyebrows on the Mona Lisa. But now, with great advances in the technology, it's all started again. I haven't seen so much of a renewed attack on classic film, but one more directed at archival documentary footage. The argument made for these alterations is that it makes the old images more accessible to a modern audience; "it brings the past to life!" (Apparently, we modern folks possess a rather limited ability to imagine.) 

But much more frequently, because the software is now so readily available, it's still photography - both historical documents and Hollywood portraits - that has come under attack. Depending on the skills of the person wielding the software, the results vary from the very bad to the very adept. And I have more of an issue with the latter than the former; if the alteration has been done very skillfully, the viewer probably won't even know they're being lied to. Sites like Pinterest are awash with "authentic vintage color photographs" that are nothing of the sort. The internet is a great minefield of misinformation/disinformation, and images that are not what they seem - whether their misidentification is due to carelessness or to deliberate deception - do much more damage than we realize. In a world that is already shockingly dumb, they just make us all that much dumber.

I didn't crop this portrait of Freddie Bartholomew as the layers of color separation can be seen at the edges.

Considering the above paragraphs, my tirade against vile colorization, I must make assurances that I've tried - very - hard to only share photographs that I know to have been genuinely, originally shot in color. Including those where the color was "genuinely, originally" very much retouched, in the same way black and white studio portraits were always retouched at the time. But if I've been duped by any clever imposters, I sincerely hope someone will alert me to the fact.

This portrait of Ginger Rogers looks to be another example of a reversed image being printed - and signed anyway.
I'm fairly certain that this is the actual orientation of the photograph.


Since I've found it impossible to give attribution to all of the images here or definitively determine the dates they were taken, I'm resorting to a crude list. The photographers here include: James N. Doolittle, Paul Hesse, George Hurrell, Nickolas Muray, Harry Warnecke, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Anton Bruehl, Scotty Welbourne, Herbert Dorfman, Jack Shallit & Barker Davis, and (probably) others.