Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Coal Miners

Bill Brandt, Lewis Hine, D. H. Lawrence
Bill Brandt, Miners a generation later than D. H. Lawrence's father.
Once again, works of art (photographs in this case) have brought me to re-read a novel that made a huge impression on me while I was still in high school, so probably not more than 18 years old: I was still doing my browsing and reading from the Berkeley Public Library, the one in Egyptianising style on Shattuck Avenue, and my ideas about photography were still derived from the camera club work of my father and grandfather.  As for literature, not only did I very quickly become impatient with D. H. Lawrence, so that I never did read (still haven't) Lady Chatterly's Lover, even though it would soon become publishable, but I acquired friends who would have discouraged my admiring him.  I mean, by the time I had taken a course in ancient art I judged Etruscan Places of, at best, negligible value. You will see that I had not yet learned to judge things for myself, but several decades later I thought no better of it.  From Taos I had gotten, besides, strong prejudices regarding the art colony clusters there and, rightly or wrongly, for half of my life would not take seriously writers, painters, photographers, et al., who took to it.

Anyway, what about Sons and Lovers?  I'm afraid that barely after graduating from re-reading Louisa May Alcott, I was smitten by an early (though not the earliest, except for its subject) novel by D. H. Lawrence.  It shares most of the flaws of Miss Alcott's Jo's Boys.  The descriptions of the mines, of their dangers, of the black coal dust, are still worth reading; more recent collieries are bright and clean, though, as we know from West Virginia, nothing seems to be able to make them safe.  The old ones, with old flash lighting, remain among the most photogenic of inhumane work places.  The greatest improvement is the elimination, in most regions at least, of child workers who ought to have been in school.  That was not only in coal: Has anyone read, for example,  The Five Little Peppers, and How they Grew, just to mention one piece of formula fiction that present-day octogenarians avidly consumed?  Yet coal was the grimmest, perhaps.  The first chapters, dealing with the pits, are the best things in Sons and Lovers.  Evidently, autobiography brought out the worst in D. H. L. (they say that he was remembering how he felt and dealt with Lady Chatterly).  One learns that 'gin' with regard to cotton as well as coal is short for [en]gin[e], and dozens of other words, with the dictionary on the desktop, are no longer just skipped over as vernacular jargon.  When D. H. L. must characterize persons and their relationships, he just repeatedly gives us their eye color and their clothing and the like.  Only from the wiki did I learn that he just added the setting and the social study to Paul Morel (himself) and published the result.  Adding in his boyhood memories of his mother is the coup de grace.  Yet this is the novel of his that for me remains, on the whole, memorable.

Memorable as Bill Brandt's photos from the 1930s are, it is Lewis Hine that remains the greatest of the pre-WW II documentary photographers.  He records early 20th century labor so that we cannot forget the weary and hopeless ten-year-old girl, the crowded bench of breaker boys, and eventually his last work, the men in high steel building the Empire State Building.

It was not to belittle Lawrence that I couldn't praise him any more than I could some 30 years ago.  Go ahead and read him (though I don't think I'd have liked him as a lover, either: you might).  But as I pulled out the picture books I found that I wanted to study them—and Paul Strand, too—all over again.  I took over teaching History of Photography just because we lost our specialist, and at least I had some grounding in it.  It was with great profit and pleasure that in that last decade of my career in teaching I could learn more and more of it.

A few references:
  • Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography.  Page and figure numbers differ from one edition to the next, but there is a whole "album" for Lewis Hine.
  • The Google sources are almost inexhaustible, but see Coal Photography, et sim., and svv. Horace Nicholls, Lewis Hine, Bill Brandt (early work), and of course D. H. Lawrence, though his is not Wikipedia's best article.
  • A note: as with all the other illustrious Lawrences, I am not related to D. H.
"Coming Home".  One of Bill Brandt's most famous photos of working men.