March 29, 2012
“Kipper und Wipper”: Rogue Traders, Rogue Princes, Rogue Bishops and the German Financial Meltdown of 1621-23
The great German hyperinflation of 1923 is passing out of living memory now, but it has not been entirely forgotten. Indeed, you don’t have to go too far to hear it cited as a terrible example of what can happen when a government lets the economy spin out of control. At its peak in the autumn of that year, inflation in the Weimar Republic hit 325,000,000 percent, while the exchange rate plummeted from 9 marks to 4.2 billion marks to the dollar; when thieves robbed one worker who had used a wheelbarrow to cart off the billions of marks that were his week’s wages, they stole the wheelbarrow but left the useless wads of cash piled on the curb. A famous photo taken in this period shows a German housewife firing her boiler with an imposing pile of worthless notes.
Easy though it is to think of 1923 as a uniquely terrible episode, though, the truth is that it was not. It was not even the worst of the 20th century; during its Hungarian equivalent, in 1945-46, prices doubled every 15 hours, and at the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning–so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses—and issue the largest-denomination bank note ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. Nor was 1923 even the first time that Germany had experienced an uncontrollable rise in prices. It had also happened long before, in the early years of the 17th century. And that hyperinflation (which is generally known by its evocative German name, the kipper- und wipperzeit) was a lot stranger than what happened in 1923. In fact, it remains arguably the most bizarre episode in all of economic history.
March 28, 2012
In the decades after Reconstruction, sporting men came to New Orleans from across the country, drawn to horse racing during the day and to the city’s rampant vice by night. In saloons and honky tonks around Vieux Carre (French Quarter), the liquor flowed as men stumbled out onto streets pulsing with Afro-Caribbean styled music played by street urchins and lit by a system of electric flares. Brothels and gaming houses became so prevalent they were said to occupy nearly all of the city, and in the waning years of the 19th century, a reform movement had begun to gain momentum under the stewardship of an alderman named Sidney Story, a respected businessman and sworn enemy of the sin and depravity that he felt was plaguing the Crescent City.
To pen in the brothels and sporting houses so the police might gain some measure of control over the raging lawlessness, Story crafted legislation in 1897 that designated 16 square blocks just off the French Quarter where vice would be legal. Once the law was passed, hundreds of prostitutes celebrated by staging a parade down Canal Street, marching or riding nude or arrayed in elaborate Egyptian costumes. In self-proclaimed victory, they drank liquor and put on a bawdy display that brought hoots from the men on the streets who followed them into New Orleans’ new playground. Sidney Story saw it as a victory, too, but only until he learned that the district’s happy denizens had named it after him.
Storyville was born on January 1, 1898, and its bordellos, saloons and jazz would flourish for 25 years, giving New Orleans its reputation for celebratory living. Storyville has been almost completely demolished, and there is strangely little visual evidence it ever existed—except for Ernest J. Bellocq’s otherwordly photographs of Storyville’s prostitutes. Hidden away for decades, Bellocq’s enigmatic images from what appeared to be his secret life would inspire poets, novelists and filmmakers. But the fame he gained would be posthumous.
E.J. Bellocq was born in New Orleans in August 1873 to an aristocratic white Creole family with, like many the city, roots in France. By all accounts, he was oddly shaped and dwarf-like in appearance; as one New Orleans resident put it, he had very narrow shoulders but “his sitdown place was wide.”
Reminiscent of the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose misshapen form was believed to be the result of inbreeding, Bellocq was believed to be hydrocephalic. His condition, commonly referred to as “water on the brain,” enlarges the head and often causes convulsions and mental disability. Bellocq’s forehead, one man who knew him said, was very high and “came to a point, and he was somewhat bald.” Bellocq masked it by wearing a hat constantly. He made his living as a commercial photographer, taking pictures of boats in a shipyard, city landmarks and industrial machinery. He was viewed as having no great talent.
Dan Leyrer, another photographer in New Orleans, knew Bellocq from seeing him around a burlesque house on Dauphine Street. He later recalled that people called him “Pap” and that he “had a terrific accent and he spoke in a high-pitched voice, staccato-like, and when he got excited he sounded like an angry squirrel.” Leyrer also noted that Bellocq often talked to himself, and “would go walking around with little mincing steps…he waddled a little bit like a duck.”
But E. J. Bellocq wasn’t just photographing ships and machines. What he kept mostly to himself was his countless trips to Storyville, where he made portraits of prostitutes at their homes or places of work with his 8-by-10-inch view camera. Some of the women are photographed dressed in Sunday clothes, leaning against walls or lying across an ironing board, playing with a small dog. Others are completely or partially nude, reclining on sofas or lounges, or seated in chairs.
The images are remarkable for their modest settings and informality. Bellocq managed to capture many of Storyville’s sex workers in their own dwellings, simply being themselves in front of his camera—not as sexualized pinups for postcards. If his images of ships and landmark buildings were not noteworthy, the pictures he took in Storyville are instantly recognizable today as Bellocq portraits—time capsules of humanity, even innocence, amid the shabby red-light settings of New Orleans. Somehow, perhaps as one of society’s outcasts himself, Bellocq gained the trust of his subjects, who seem completely at ease before his camera.
Bellocq continued to earn his living as a photographer, but never very successfully. In 1949, at the age of 76, he fell down some stairs in the French Quarter and hit his head; he died a week later in Charity Hospital. His brother Leo, a Jesuit priest, was summoned to the hospital, and when he returned to his brother’s apartment, he discovered the negatives of the portraits. They ended up stored in a junk shop—a run-down bathroom in an old slave quarters.
In 1958, 89 glass negatives were discovered in a chest, and nine years later the American photographer Lee Friedlander acquired the collection, much of which had been damaged because of poor storage. None of Bellocq’s prints were found with the negatives, but Friedlander made his own prints from them, taking great care to capture the character of Bellocq’s work. It is believed that Bellocq may have purposely scratched the negatives of some of the nudes, perhaps to protect the identity of his subjects.
Bellocq was also known to have taken his camera into the opium dens in New Orleans’ Chinatown, but none of those images have been found. His nudes and portraits have influenced the work of countless photographers over the years, and his mysterious life devoted to a secret calling has inspired characters in many novels, as well as a portrayal by Keith Carradine in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby.
Storyville was shut down at the start of World War I and razed to make way for the Iberville Housing Projects in the early 1940s. A few buildings remain from the storied vice district of New Orleans, but they show nothing of the humanity and the spirit of a Bellocq photograph from that bygone experiment in urban reform.
Books: Lee Friedlander and John Szarkowski, E.J. Bellocq Storyville Portraits, Little Brown & Co., 1970. Richard Zacks, An Underground Education: Anchor Books, 1999. Al Rose, Storyville, New Orleans, University of Alabama Press, 1978. Richard and Marina Campanella, New Orleans Then and Now, Pelican Publishing, 1999.
Articles: “Sinful Flesh,” by Susan Sontag, The Independent, June 1, 1996. ”Bellocq’s Storyville: New Orleans at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Weatherspoon Art Museum, http://weatherspoon.uncg.edu/blog/tag/e-j-bellocq/.”E.J. Bellocq,” Photography Now, http://www.photography-now.net/listings/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=438&Itemid=334. ”Hooker Heroes: The Models of Storyville,:” by Blake Linton Wilfong, http://wondersmith.com/heroes/models.htm. 19th Century New Orleans Brothels Revisited in New Book, by Susan Larson, Missourian, April 26, 2009. “The Whores of Storyville,” by David Steinberg, Spectator Magazine. “Storyville: The Red-Light District in New Orleans: Of Red Lights and Blue Books. http://www.southernmusic.net/STORYVILLE.htm http://www.freedomusa.org/coyotela/reviews.html “The Last Days of Ernest J. Bellocq,” by Rex Rose, Exquisite Corpse, http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_10/gallery/bellocq/index.htm. ”An Interview with David Fulmer,” by Luan Gaines, Curled Up With a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/intfulm.htm. ”Storyville New Orleans” http://www.storyvilledistrictnola.com/ “E.J. Bellocq 1873-1949) Profotos.com Photography Masters. http://www.profotos.com/education/referencedesk/masters/masters/ejbellocq/ejbellocq.shtml
March 22, 2012
The executioners of the Ottoman Empire were never noted for their mercy; just ask the teenage Sultan Osman II, who in May 1622 suffered an excruciating death by “compression of the testicles”–as contemporary chronicles put it–at the hands of an assassin known as Pehlivan the Oil Wrestler. There was reason for this ruthlessness, however; for much of its history (the most successful bit, in fact), the Ottoman dynasty flourished—ruling over modern Turkey, the Balkans and most of North Africa and the Middle East—thanks in part to the staggering violence it meted out to the highest and mightiest members of society.
Seen from this perspective, it might be argued that the Ottomans’ decline set in early in the 17th century, precisely at the point when they abandoned the policy of ritually murdering a significant proportion of the royal family whenever a sultan died, and substituted the Western notion of simply giving the job to the first-born son instead. Before then, Ottoman succession had been governed by the “law of fratricide” drawn up by Mehmed II in the middle of the 15th century. Under the terms of this remarkable piece of legislation, whichever member of the ruling dynasty succeeded in seizing the throne on the death of the old sultan was not merely permitted, but enjoined, to murder all his brothers (together with any inconvenient uncles and cousins) in order to reduce the risk of subsequent rebellion and civil war. Although it was not invariably applied, Mehmed’s law resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman over a period of 150 years. These victims included all 19 siblings of Sultan Mehmed III—some of whom were still infants at the breast, but all of whom were strangled with silk handkerchiefs immediately after their brother’s accession in 1595.
For all its deficiencies, the law of fratricide ensured that the most ruthless of the available princes generally ascended to the throne. That was more than could be said of its replacement, the policy of locking up unwanted siblings in the kafes (“cage”), a suite of rooms deep within the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. From around 1600, generations of Ottoman royals were kept imprisoned there until they were needed, sometimes several decades later, consoled in the meantime by barren concubines and permitted only a strictly limited range of recreations, the chief of which was macramé. This, the later history of the empire amply demonstrated, was not ideal preparation for the pressures of ruling one of the greatest states the world has ever known.
March 21, 2012
Year after year, he packed his camera and supplies—everything he’d need for months—and traveled by foot and by horse deep into the Indian territories. At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis worked in the belief that he was in a desperate race against time to document, with film, sound and scholarship, the North American Indian before white expansion and the federal government destroyed what remained of their natives’ way of life. For thirty years, with the backing of men like J. Pierpont Morgan and former president Theodore Roosevelt, but at great expense to his family life and his health, Curtis lived among dozens of native tribes, devoting his life to his calling until he produced a definitive and unparalleled work, The North American Indian. The New York Herald hailed as “the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible.”
Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Edward Sheriff Curtis took to photography at an early age. By age 17, he was an apprentice at a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his life seemed to be taking a familiar course for a young man with a marketable trade, until the Curtis family packed up and moved west, eventually settling in Seattle. There, Curtis married 18-year-old Clara Phillips, purchased his own camera and a share in a local photography studio, and in 1893, the young couple welcomed a son, Harold—the first of their four children.
The young family lived above the thriving Curtis Studio, which attracted society ladies who wanted their portraits taken by the handsome, athletic young man who made them look both glamorous and sophisticated. And it was in Seattle in 1895 where Curtis did his first portrait of a Native American—that of Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe. He paid her a dollar for each pose and noted, “This seemed to please her greatly, and with hands and jargon she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures made than in digging clams.”
Yet it was a chance meeting in 1898 that set Curtis on the path away from his studio and his family. He was photographing Mt. Rainier when he came upon a group of prominent scientists who’d become lost; among the group was the anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native American cultures. Curtis quickly befriended him, and the relationship led to the young photographer’s appointment as official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, led by the railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman and including included the naturalist John Muir and the zoologist C. Hart Merriam. For two months, Curtis accompanied two dozen scientists, photographing everything from glaciers to Eskimo settlements. When Grinnell asked him to come on a visit to the Piegan Blackfeet in Montana the following year, Curtis did not hesitate.
It was in Montana, under Grinnell’s tutelage, that Curtis became deeply moved by what he called the “primitive customs and traditions” of the Piegan people, including the “mystifying” Sun Dance he had witnessed. “It was at the start of my concerted effort to learn about the Plains Indians and to photograph their lives,” Curtis wrote, “and I was intensely affected.” When he returned to Seattle, he mounted popular exhibitions of his Native American work, publishing magazine articles and then lecturing across the country. His photographs became known for their sheer beauty. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Curtis to photograph his daughter’s wedding and to do some Roosevelt family portraits.
But Curtis was burning to return to the West and seek out more Native Americans to document. He found a photographer to manage his studio in Seattle, but more important, he found a financial backer with the funds for a project of the scale he had in mind. In 1906 he boldly approached J.P. Morgan, who quickly dismissed him with a note that read, “Mr. Curtis, there are many demands on me for financial assistance. I will be unable to help you.” But Curtis persisted, and Morgan was ultimately awed by the photographer’s work. “Mr. Curtis,” Morgan wrote after seeing his images, “I want to see these photographs in books—the most beautiful set of books ever published.”
March 19, 2012
No nation is short of monuments to its heroes. From the Lincoln Memorial and Nelson’s Column to the infamous gold-plated statue of Turkmenbashi—which until its recent demolition sat atop a 250-foot-high rotisserie in Turkmenistan and rotated throughout the day to face the sun—statesmen and military leaders can generally depend upon their grateful nations to immortalize them in stone.
Rarer by far are commemorations of everyday heroes, ordinary men and women who one day do something extraordinary, risk all and sometimes lose their lives to save the lives of others. A handful of neglected monuments of this sort exist; of these, few are more modest but more moving than a mostly forgotten little row of ceramic tiles erected in a tiny shard of British greenery known as Postman’s Park.
The park—so named because it once stood in the shadow of London’s long-gone General Post Office building—displays a total of 54 such plaques. They recall acts of individual bravery that date from the early 1860s and are grouped under a plain wooden awning in what is rather grandly known as the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Each commemorates the demise of a would-be rescuer who died in the act of saving someone else’s life.