Saturday, August 27, 2016

Remembering Charlie Harbutt and “Natural Light” Photography


Recently I watched the fascinating documentary, “Finding Vivien Meier,” about an eccentric photographer who left behind some 100,000 negatives, many of the images extraordinary.  That night I had trouble sleeping and while dozing was carried back some sixty years to the Journalism College at Marquette University and a fellow student named Charlie Harbutt who espoused a philosophy of “natural light” photography.  He is shown below as a student.
Charlie, who died in July last year,  went on to be one of America’s most noted photographers, former president of Magnum Photos and co-founder of Archive Pictures.  In obituaries he has been hailed as a teacher and mentor to generations of younger photographers.  I am sure of that accolade because at Marquette he influenced his fellow students, including me, with his passionate insistence that to be truly “honest” a photograph should be taken in the light naturally falling on the scene, whether sunshine or lamp light, but without a flash.

Technological changes in camera equipment and film had made that possible in the 1950s.  From the 1930s into the 1960s, the Speed Graphic was the quintessential professional and press camera.  Shown here, the Speed Graphic weighed in five pounds.   One writer has called the camera “…bewilderingly complex, with a Rube Goldberg-esque assortment of features.”   The photographer had a choice of using one of three viewfinders, one of three focusing mechanisms, and one of two shutters. It had a flashgun anchored to one side. Truthfully, I never mastered the beast.

By the time Charlie and I got to college, that did not matter. The twin lens reflex (TLR) had gained popularity in newsrooms and elsewhere where it had become the camera of choice.  TLRs had been around since the 1870s but had evolved by the 1950s into the mechanism shown right, the Rolllei as we called it, standing for Rolliefex or Rolliecord.  Because it used a reflecting mirror to allow viewing from above, the camera could be held very steady and thus allowed slower shutter speeds.  

At the same time Kodak was developing faster and faster film for use in the TLRs.  In 1954 the company released its first high-speed black-and-white film, called Tri-X.  Now usually sold as 400 ASA, I believe that at that time it was 300 ASA.  The combination of higher speed film with slower shutter speeds meant that indoor natural light photography not only was possible, it was practical.  Thus was born the gospel according to Harbutt.
Charlie practiced what he preached.  Above is a photo that he took in the Marquette student union about 1956.  It shows my friend, John Leonard, obviously entranced by a pretty young coed who seems more absorbed in her cup of coffee than with John.  Charlie used the brightness of the reasonably well-lighted cafeteria to capture in natural light this engaging portrait of the two.
After graduation, for the first 20 years of his career, Charlie contributed to major magazines in the United States, Europe and Japan.  He quickly was recognized for the political and social commentary his photographs conveyed.  One of my favorite early Harbutt shots is of a bride waiting to go onto the altar in a church basement where the wedding reception apparently will be held.  Unattended and pensive, she stand on a white cloth so as not to soil the bottom of her gown.  With many others I have found this photo particularly poignant.  Note that it was shot in natural light.

For the first twenty years of his career Charlie contributed to major publications in the United States, Europe and Japan. His work was often deeply political, reflecting his social and economic concerns.  Whether it was Black Power protesters demonstrating in New York City or a impressionistic scheme, he knew how to transmit ideas via black-and-white firm.

Charlie Habutt’s pictures have been widely collected and exhibited at, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney and at the Beaubourg, Bibliotheque Nationale and the Maison Europeene de la Photographie in Paris.  In 1997, his negatives, master prints and archives were acquired for the collection of the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Ariz.

It is perhaps fitting that Charlie died while giving a photography seminar in Tennessee.  He was well known as a teacher and mentor in the world of photography.  An associate, Jeff Jacobson, said this of him:  “Charlie was one of the first people teaching workshops and he became very influential.  He…took photojournalism and pushed it in a direction away from literalism or classicism…to something very, very different, very involved with metaphor. That was hugely influential.”

Decades earlier he had profoundly influenced the wanna-be photographers in Copus Hall, the journalism school.  Charlie’s passion for authenticity, linked to using natural light, was powerful.  About that time Kodak issued an experimental firm beyond Tri-X that could be pushed to a very high ASA.  Stiff as cardboard in the darkroom, I used it for a series of indoor natural light photos for Marquette yearbooks that were notable for being very, very grainy.  Sometimes the technique worked better, as in personal shots of a museum cloister and my grandfather’s shed.
I saw Charlie Harbutt only once after he graduated when our career paths diverged widely.  But his ideas about photography have stayed with me ever since.  I particularly ponder a statement he made in his 1974 book, “Travelog.”  Entitled, “I Don’t Take Pictures, Pictures Take Me,”  Charlie said:  “That magic little box enables one to leave, in a small way and for a short while, one’s own time and space and to occupy, maybe only superficially, another time and space:  a then and there that really existed as a here and now.”  And, obviously, existed in natural light.
















Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Valley Tan” — The Utah Mormon Whiskey

 Whether it is fair to call “Valley Tan” a Mormon whiskey may be open to question.  The facts are these:  1) It was produced in Mormon Utah, 2) it was prominently associated with Mormon Utah, and 3) the Mormon leader, Brigham Young, for several years had exclusive control over liquor distilling and sales in the state.  A bottle of Valley Tan is shown right.

The term, “Valley Tan” was associated with a range of goods produced by Mormons in Utah.  One of the first industries introduced in Salt Lake Valley by the Mormons was leather tanning.  Because the tanning process often was done crudely, the term became associated with any article of Utah home manufacture done in a rough-hewn way, including making whiskey.
Prominent witnesses have attested to the raw-boned nature of this liquor.  Among them was Mark Twain.  In 1871 he visited Mormon Utah and was given a taste of Valley Tan.  No stranger to strong drink, Twain found it potent.  His subsequent book, “Roughing It,” contained a story about a fellow traveling with Twain named Bemis who came into his Salt Lake City hotel room about 11 P.M., “…Talking loosely, disjointedly and indiscriminately, and every now and then tugging out a ragged word that had more hiccups than syllables in it.”   Twain then describes how Bemis threw off some of his clothing, pronounced it “too many for him,” and went to bed with his boots on.

At first, Twain wrote, his companions thought it was something he had eaten. “But we knew afterward that it was something he had been drinking.  It was the exclusively Mormon refresher, ‘Valley Tan.’”  The author then explained: “Valley Tan is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; it is of Mormon invention and  manufactured only in Utah.  Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone.”

Another encounter with Valley Tan was narrated by the famed explorer and adventurer, Sir Richard Burton, shown right, who in 1860 stopped to explore Salt Lake City and its environs.   Among the people Burton was eager to meet was Orrin Porter Rockwell, a notorious figure with a reputation as a ”mountain man,” Mormon enforcer, and accused killer, wanted in Missouri.  At this point Rockwell had been appointed deputy marshall of Salt Lake City.  His violent reputation had preceded him, however, and Burton was anxious to meet Rockwell.

Their encounter occurred over dinner one night at the home of a mutual friend just outside town.  The notorious Mormon the Englishman encountered was “…a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his large spurs, and the saw handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse.”  Rockwell and Burton apparently hit it off from the beginning:  Rockwell pulled out a dollar Burton later wrote, and sent to “the neighboring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan.

“We were asked to join him in a ‘squar’ drink, which means spirits without water.  Of these we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell’s nerving, and he sent out for more, meanwhile telling us of his last adventure.”
Burton apparently stayed with him, drink for drink, as the mountain man gave him advice about Burton’s plans to travel overland to California.  Sir Richard later sent Rockwell a bottle of brandy as thanks, never remarking on the quality of Valley Tan.
Another link from the Church of the Latter Day Saints to Valley Tan was its sale in the department-like store established by Brigham Young to provide necessities to Mormons in Salt Lake City.  Called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the store, shown above, sold Valley Tan.   That could never have occurred without the leader’s blessing.  Young is shown here pictured on a Pabst beer issued mug issued in 1897 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Mormons in Utah.

As for Brigham Young himself, he seems to have been of two minds on the subject of alcohol.  He claimed never to have tasted whiskey, and his son-in-law William Hooper said, “Brigham Young hates intemperance and its evils, and who, if he could have, would never have made a drop or permitted a drop to enter Utah. He wishes that all the whiskey that the Gentiles brought had been so filled with poison as to have killed all who drank it.”  The Mormon leader himself has been quoted saying:  “If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”

That said, in 1873, the territorial legislature granted Brigham Young the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other spiritous liquors in Utah.  He did not have to “blow out the brains” of the whiskey makers, just usurp their activities.   Among the products of this Mormon monopoly was Valley Tan. As one writer has explained:  “…Young generated a large amount of revenue for his new territory by taxing and controlling the very liquor he manufactured, yet despised.”

Because Young died in 1877, it is questionable how long this monopoly over alcoholic drink lasted.  Certainly as the 19th Century wore on, other Utah residents were active in the whiskey trade.  Among them was Fred Kiesel who established a liquor house in Ogden, Utah, in 1887.  Kiesel was a “Gentile” who enjoyed tweaking the Mormon establishment.   Certainly among his jabs was issuing his own Valley Tan whiskey and advertising it with a picture of the Brigham Young monument that stood in downtown Salt Lake City.  Shown here is a celluloid match safe with an ad touting Valley Tan as “Pioneer of Whiskies.”  The other side has advertises “Brigham Young Tonic Bitters” with a picture of the Mormon leader.
With the coming of statewide prohibition in Utah in 1917 and National Prohibition in 1920, Valley Tan disappeared from the national scene and seemingly was not revived after Repeal in 1934.   In recent years, however, Valley Tan brand whiskey has made a re-appearance.  In 2007 a Colorado native named David Perkins opened Utah’s first distillery since the 1870s in a village called Wanship, about 37 miles from Salt Lake City.  Perkins claims it was from Burton’s writings that he found the recipe for Valley Tan.  Apparently originally it was made from wheat and potatoes.  Perkins uses just wheat for his whiskey and claims that his “Valley Tan is lighter and more delicate than other whiskeys — perfect for sipping.”   Certainly this is a far cry from Mark Twain’s “fire and brimstone” Valley Tan, the Mormon whiskey.