Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Grasshopper and the Gardner (Part 3)

Ralph and Laurie Cordero have been dear friends for well over a decade. Ralph is a talented photographer, and the two have appreciated the art of E. O. Goldbeck for even longer than myself, so I thought it would be of interest to interview Laurie about her experience of meeting the man and about his art.

Laurie, I've been exploring some of the uniqueness of Goldbeck's art here on the Revealing Light Photography blog . You actually met Goldbeck many years ago– what were the circumstances of your first contact with him?

Around 1985 I was at an art and photography shop near downtown San Antonio, Texas. While I was there this spry old man in his 70s (turns out it was Goldbeck) came into the shop and the owner tells him he needs to sign a pile of photographs. When he was done she told him "Here's another one.." and then "here's another one..." and "here's another one." She kept putting them in front of him and he kept signing them. I don't think either one of them was keeping track of how many he was signing. I don't think she was even paying him for signing them. It was obvious to me that he was really interested in the photography itself, and he wasn't really interested in the money.

When he was finally finished signing the photographs he left the shop and got into his little blue Dodge Dart (or whatever it was) that was parallel-parked in front of the shop. It was obvious that the cars in front and in back of him were way too close for him to get out– but that wasn't a problem for him. He just banged! into the car in front of him and then banged! into the car in back and then banged! into the car in front again, until he had enough space and then he just pulled out and drove off– just as happy-go-lucky as he could be!

You mentioned that this took place about 1985- since he was born in 1891 or '92 that would have made Goldbeck about 93 or 94 years old at the time.

Are you serious?! He sure didn't look it...I would have guessed he was in his 70s! That's amazing! He was the fastest moving "grasshopper" you ever saw!

So how did you end up meeting him a second time?

Well, it just made me mad that the shop didn't seem to be paying him for his signature, so I thought I'd try to call his studio and buy some photographs directly from him. I looked the phone number up for his studio and called him up. I said I was interested in getting some of his work and he said: "Well just come on over to my house!"

He lived down in the "King William district" (of San Antonio). His house was a big old colonial style place, built pretty high off the ground with a flight of steps going up to the front door. I knocked on the door and he came to the door and said: "Yeah...come on back to my studio and I'll show you a bunch of pictures."

He was just so happy and personable– he was just the sweetest thing! But once he took off from that front door through his house, he was running! I'm telling you what– it was everything I could do just to keep up with him! His studio was behind the house, so he ran down the flight of stairs in back of the house, and then ran up two flights of stairs to the upstairs studio. He was taking those steps two and three at a time, and never slowed down-- he was flying! After the first flight of stairs going up, I was huffin' and puffin,' but he was just all chipper and talking a mile a minute. I've never seen anything like it. He was so full of life!

Goldbeck just loved photography and loved life. He wasn't in it for the money, he was just in it for the photography. He just loved it!

We got up to his studio, which was plain and simple, and it was absolutely filled with piles and piles of photographs. He showed me photos of this and that– he' d been all over the world– you'd think he might have been kind of prideful of all that he'd done, but he was just as personable as you could imagine. He just wanted to take me around the world by showing me his pictures. He was just full of life.

So, did you end up buying some of his work?

Yes, I bought a "bathing beauty" shot for my Dad, one of the Alamo for Ralph, and one of the Big Bend area.

ALAMO PLAZA, 1916, San Antonio, Texas, © E. O. Goldbeck, 1916, all rights reserved
(green rectangle highlights detail of gardner shown below)
Didn't you once mention to me that Goldbeck told you an interesting story about the Alamo photograph you have?

detail of Goldbeck's ALAMO PLAZA, 1916,
showing gardner in hat tending landscaping
© E. O. Goldbeck, 1916, all rights reserved
Yes he did. He said that he took numerous shots of Alamo Plaza from the building across the street, about once every ten years to record how the Alamo and things around it were changing. But he said that although these photographs spanned several decades, he got to noticing that a gardner, wearing a hat, showed up in every one of them, tending the flower beds and such. He showed me every one of them and there was the gardner in each one. In one of them he was kind of working and moving– and kind of blurred due to his activity. In another one he was down in a corner of the photo. But in each one, there he was!

Was this always the same gardner?

That's what he implied.

What do you appreciate about Goldbeck's work in general?

It's all about life. And he was all about life– he had a fullness of life, he had a love of life, and it came out in his photography. He loved people, he loved landscape, he loved architecture. He loved the changing scene around the Alamo– he loved the new and the old. He wasn't stuck in one era or one thing. He loved all of it. And he had definitely discovered the "Fountain of Youth!"

Monday, January 23, 2012

Men At Work (Part 2)

E. O. Goldbeck assembled thousands of human subjects to paint truly monumental insignias upon the Texas landscape. This was a unique achievement but it wasn't the only enduring mark Goldbeck left on the history of the photographic arts. He has probably been most known for his singular and signature capture of American men and women at work.

Goldbeck cut his panoramic teeth in his recording of the extent of the WWI American military. He developed his techniques while capturing their personal and corporate portraits as they were surrounded by and immersed in their considerable tools and hardware: tents, buildings, trucks, tanks, and planes. Goldbeck's underlying motif in this corporate portraiture was to use the work environment itself as the setting– even the canvas– on which he would "paint."
"Goldbeck," curated by Bolognesi and Bernado

In 1998 The University of Texas (the final repository of Goldbeck's extensive catalogue of photographs) collaborated with Bolognesi and Bernado to curate a large retrospective exhibition of Goldbeck's work for Actar in Barcelona. An extensive selection of photos from the exhibition was ultimately published as a book, titled simply: "Goldbeck."

The book is not only a wonderful introduction to Goldbeck's work, but it is a unique view into the lives of American workers of the early twentieth century. Though for decades scores of very talented photographers have attempted to capture the working man and his worth to society, Goldbeck is one of the very few that has been able to properly and completely place his subject within the workplace itself. Only his unusual method of panoramic photography has a wide enough field of view to capture the full scope of the working ambience.

These explorations of the workingman's world that especially fascinated me were Goldbeck's images of the Holsum Bread delivery men, the U.S. Army Quartermaster shoe shop, the Postal Union Messengers, and the preachers baptizing believers in the San Pedro springs before thousands of onlookers.

MESSENGER FORCE, © E. O. Goldbeck, 1929
Though not recorded in this book (or the other two that have been compiled), one of the most unusual instances of Goldbeck's portraits of working men was actually a fortuitous accident. Or I should say a string of fortuitous accidents. The story was related by Goldbeck himself to a long time friend of mine. My interview with her concerning this previously untold Goldbeck story will appear in my next post.


A bibliography of books on Goldbeck's life and images:

  • "Goldbeck," curated by Kitti Bolognesi and Jordi Bernado, 1999, ACTAR, Barcelona.
  • "The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck," Clyde Burleson and Jessica Hickman, 1986, Texas University Press, Austin. 
  • "The Unpretentious Pose. The Work of E. O. Goldbeck," Marguerite Davenport, 1981, Trinity University Press, San Antonio. 

This past year I was fortunate enough to locate a pristine, numbered and signed (3 of 100) special edition of Burleson and Hickman's work published by Texas University Press. These books are Goldbeck's very last signed work, as he died shortly before the book had reached the public. It is a wonderful book delving into the details of Goldbeck's extensive life (he lived to a few years short of a century) and contains many of his most iconic panoramic photographs, most of which are reproduced in nearly the original size. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

No Fear of Heights (Part 1)

One of Goldbeck's temporary towers
(Photo authorship unknown)
He stood in a large military parade field in the unrelenting sunlight of south Texas. Over two hundred feet above him he could barely make out the small platform to which he would climb. Grabbing the rails of the scaffold's ladder and placing his left foot firmly on the first rung, he began his trip skyward. Thousands of uniformed men around the base of the scaffold murmured and pointed as they watched him deftly make his way  into the blue summer sky. As he reached the peak of the scaffold and stood atop it a thunderous cheer went up from the throng of soldiers far below.

Eugene Omar Goldbeck was not a man of ordinary thoughts or pursuits. He was baptized into the fellowship of serious photography at the tender age of about nine, having taken his first auspicious photograph– a candid shot of President William McKinley on the streets of San Antonio. Even as a professional photographer his sights were not set on the commonplace. He was not content to capture the small, the usual, or the mundane. Gene was always on the lookout for the larger picture.

Gene was born into the waning years of the nineteenth century and came of age in the brand-new twentieth century. This was a period of incredible development and ferment in the arts and sciences of photography– not unlike the photographic climate of today. Gene's inventive nature and adventurous spirit were perfectly suited to this vibrant photographic milieu.

E. O. Goldbeck (as he became known professionally) entered the day-to-day life of a working photographer in the U. S. Army during the years of WWI. He distinguished himself as an archivist of the preparations for war– training camps, the gathering of equipment, and the graduation of trained troops. The graduating classes of men who had completed basic training were large, and Goldbeck realized that the use of panoramic equipment would allow him to capture an entire class in a single pose and photograph. His use of this unusual photographic format would serve him well, not only to simply capture large groups of men, but as a whole new medium, quite distinct from conventional photography. This would be a new canvas, his canvas, to paint images never before dreamed by other men.

Air Training Command, Lackland Air Base,
© E.O. Goldbeck, 1947
Although Goldbeck would accomplish enduring images of incredible scope with his Cirkut cameras over several decades, his most unique addition to the pantheon of great photographs was his singular invention of composing images built of living men. Having an almost unlimited pallet of tens of thousands of soldiers waiting to obey his orders, he developed an exacting mathematical and logistical process that painted immense military logos and insignias across the open landscape of south Texas. These insignias were so large– composed of thousands of individual men (over 21,000 men in the photo to the left)– they could only be appreciated and recorded by cameras a hundred or more feet in the sky. This day, he would climb the highest scaffold of his career (212 feet) and record the greatest artistic assemblage of men ever composed.


The family of E. O. Goldbeck still operates the same panoramic-based photographic business that he began in San Antonio, Texas so many years ago. To this day, students and faculty in San Antonio schools still look forward to having their corporate image recorded by the rotating Goldbeck cameras.