In using the
LaSalle at Amsterdam, New York, 1946
photo I hope to engage students who will be fresh from summer vacation. I have no doubt that this photo will be successful. In the photograph a group of children are holding hands and dancing around a spray of water that is cooling them off from the summer heat. In looking closely at the photo we realized that the source of the water was not a fire hydrant but a series of pipes that were rigged up to ascend into the air like a flag pole from which the water sprayed out. My students had various remarks about the pipe and spray. Some thought the pipe resembled a Fourth of July rocket that was about to take off. The spray of water shot high up into the air above the heads of the children. It almost seemed like actual rain falling from the sky. The shape formed by the cascading water was like an umbrella spreading out like a canopy over the children. Above the water and in the background stood the tenement apartments and my students could imagine how they were still in the heat. The water made the street look darker and cooler where it had fallen. Some of the children have on bathing suits while a few of the girls are in dresses.
We spoke about circles and why we often get ourselves into a circle. Students remarked that playing in a circle gave them a chance to see everybody. I asked them what was friendlier -- being in a circle or being in a straight line. They found that it was easier to talk in a circle while in a straight line your vision was sometimes blocked and you couldn't speak to your friends. So the photo suggested the children were getting along. The people in the circle seemed to glow while the area around the circle was darker and the people most of them adults seemed to look longingly at the circle. The lightness emanating from the cascading water made the source of the water like the sun. In fact some of the children questioned if the picture were taken in full daylight or closer to sunset because they could not see the sky and the brightest light came from the water pipe.
I then told them a bit about the photo. Todd Webb was a photographer who took pictures during World War II and after took photos of life after the war.
When he took this picture the war was over. They were able to understand that this picture showed children having fun and people being together. There is another Todd Webb photo of the same event -- three African American girls off to the left of the picture still being hit by the spray of water. The number of children around the ascending pipe is less and they are holding on and circling it almost like a May Pole. The picture seems to be split into two subject areas and one can see that the girls seem to be in mid air as their feet look like they do not touch the ground. In the back a group of boys is seen who have also left the water. Again the shading of light to dark is apparent with the water having a white shining affect and almost blotting out any notion of the sun facing toward the camera with the circle of children behind them. As the girls grab the pole it is reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty holding up its light of freedom and progress. It is not necessarily important that students have the historical background and many times it may not expand their understanding of the picture but that is something that can be decided by the teacher.
After talking about the pictures my students agreed that they liked the circle photo the best. They thought it had a clear focus and they could connect with the action. I would have them write about being one of the children in the circle and what it feels like to have the cool water hitting you on a hot day. Slowing down the action of that circle would make students see how you could take something so very simple and make it into an interesting and enjoyable narrative.
A good follow-up is
The Artist Lives Dangerously
by John Gutmann. I had included this photo among those I might use when I began randomly searching for photographs to include in the unit. Personally, I had initially thought it was a good possibility. In the photo a young boy is making a chalk drawing of a Native American on the shoulder of the street while further out in the middle of the road a car is going by. My students on seeing the photo commented about the boy taking chances by doing his drawing near the traffic. They thought that the boy had probably found a good place to draw and wasn't thinking when he began. We spoke about drawing on the sidewalks (graffiti) and other unusual places. Students suggested that they often wonder more about how the artist was able to get to the place they drew rather than the drawing itself. What I hadn't thought of too much was the boy's drawing. I knew that westerns were a popular subject of films in the thirties and forties and saw nothing special there. However, a colleague suggested that the symbolism of the boy's drawing grew as one thought about the treatment of the Native Americans. What Gutmann caught in his photograph was not only the car possibly running over the boy, but also the Native American in the drawing and reality who was subject to being run over by society. My students missed this and so I wasn't sure that unless I went into a lot of background this photo would fit in. While I had eliminated the photo I do think that if coupled with the Webb photo it offers another view of childhood for students to consider. As part of a discussion about Native Americans it can also be quite powerful.
In reading about John Gutmann I was interested to learn that like many other early photographers he was originally trained as an artist. Gutmann was born in Poland in1905 and had studied with the Expressionist artist Otto Muller. From his studies Gutmann became interested in the exotic. When he had to leave Berlin because he was forbidden as a Jew to teach or exhibit his artwork, he came to America. He went to San Francisco and took up photojournalism as a way to earn a living. He never regarded photography as a pure art form. Gutmann settled in San Francisco where he liked to photograph what he saw as the strange and exotic culture of America. He was intrigued by popular culture and especially the proliferation of cars.