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Joseph Selle's Fox Movie FlashJoseph Selle was a commercial photographer in the Union Square area of San Francisco for forty years, from the 30s to the 70s. He took candid snapshots of pedestrians and then sold the portraits by mail for fifty cents each. When he retired his entire archive - totaling some one million images - went to Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York. Now, due to digital technology, a small selection of this vast body of work is available. It is an enormously moving experience of time travel to "walk" the streets along with Selle and see our parents and grandparents or younger selves on display. Curated with the cooperation of VSW archivist Andrew Eskind, this preliminary exhibition will include video projection of thousands of images.
Mid-Century Street Vendor Photography
Joseph Selle: Curatorial Reflections
I distinctly remember a tall older man haunting Union Square in the early 70s, offering to sell pedestrians their photographic portraits. After more than three decades I still remember him for some reason: perhaps it was his height, his odd outfit of a taxi driver’s hat and long duster. It is a supreme coincidence that after all this time I have come to work with Joseph Selle’s lifetime accumulated archive.
Viewing these images is an overwhelming emotional experience. After a session editing the photographs, one is unlikely to ever walk the city streets in quite the same way, because an awareness of the lives that once occupied these same sidewalks becomes unshakable. The Selle archive is as close as we will ever come to the experience of time travel, experiencing the streets of San Francisco half a century ago. Truly a memento mori, we encounter vibrantly alive people in the midst of their quotidian lives, people whom we infer are now long dead, while the children displayed are themselves entering late middle age. I don’t believe I have ever understood both the tragedy and dignity of life as viscerally as I have while immersed in this project.
It is fascinating and moving to see how people organize themselves, create structure, within such a simple act as walking down the street. Mothers and grandmothers hold children’s hands. Adult children support their aged parents. Women friends walk side by side, talking, touching. Couples and families align themselves with each other, to other pedestrians, and to the architecture. Vehicle traffic and crowding causes odd behavior and balletic moves.
This is to some extent an anthropological experience, as we see that a trip downtown to Union Square, even well into the 1960s, was an occasion for wearing one’s best clothing. Women inevitably wear white gloves and hats, and almost never wear slacks. Fox stoles and mink coats abound. Men wear suits and ties, and hats. Everyone smokes. Everyone shops. Everyone’s clean. Just blocks away on Market Street, we discover more people of color and more casually dressed people, especially as the 50s move along into the 60s. Taken at the end of the baby boom, the pictures include many more pregnant women than we are used to seeing on the streets today. Men smoke pipes.
People are faced with a behavioral choice if they see someone like Selle about to approach them on the street. Most ignore him if they notice him at all, but once they realize what he is up to, and that he’s harmless, often give themselves away by touching their hair or putting their best foot forward. Quite a few put their hands up to signal stop; many others laugh at being caught unaware.
History is lurking in the shadows of every photograph. In the 50s material one can detect the impact of Mamie Eisenhower’s conservative style on the women, and then suddenly just a few months later, Jackie Kennedy’s more chic approach is seen everywhere. We see an elderly man wearing a Kennedy straw hat during the election campaign. Then one evening on Market Street we see people carrying newspapers under their arms with the enormous banner headline: "….SLAIN!" and we can painfully infer that it marks the assassination of the President. Among the well-dressed people streaming by the photographer’s lens are a great number African American and Asian American people, and even a significant number of mixed-race couples; more occasionally we see Latinos, or a hipster in jeans or leather, or out gay people. San Francisco’s particular character was already apparently well on its way to being established.
Organizing the archive places the curator into several vexing dilemmas. These images have been captured for four decades like genies in a bottle, waiting to be released. Selecting a few of them for this catalogue feels like a betrayal to all the other lives glimpsed and not included that will now recede back into obscurity forever. Selecting a tiny number of these works to represent the whole is a daunting curatorial task. Arguably, to be most true to the archive one should allow chance to determine the selection: the richness of this work is the profound beauty of its ordinariness. As curator I am drawn to the most artfully or quirkily framed shots. I am tempted to disregard the great majority of the pictures that are out of focus. As historian one could cull the 18,000 images for important moments. As anthropologist there is the opportunity to represent the entire population: the wealthy, the middle class, the working class, all the racial backgrounds, the clothing, lifestyles and eccentricities of the culture. I have tried to represent all these approaches as best I can; a book many times the size of this catalogue is called for.
The territory of museums has widened over the past decade to include more and more consideration of visual materials made by non-artists that nonetheless reflect skill, style, meaning and power. The street vendor work of Joseph Selle is just at the brink of being appreciated in that same way and it is a thrill and a privilege to participate in that rediscovery. This project could not have happened without the energy and dedication of Andrew Eskind of Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York. Eskind has taken on the pursuit of information about Selle with the precision of a private eye and the dedicated professionalism of the historian he truly is. I offer my humble thanks to him for bringing this project to me, enabling the Nelson Gallery to share it with the UC Davis community.
© Renny Pritikin
How long does it take to look at a million photographs? Is it even possible? It‘s said that in today‘s media saturated society, we‘re each exposed to 1500 images daily. If that‘s an average (and not counting TV and movies), what are the high and low extremes? Can one look at, say, even 10,000 in a day and still make any sense out of them?
This conceptual conundrum is perhaps what delayed archivists and students from exploring and exhibiting the more than one million surviving negatives made between the 1950s and 1970s by the San Francisco street vendor photographic firm, Fox Movie Flash.
Fox Movie Flash was owned by Joseph Selle (1906-1988) and operated out of 942 Market Street from the 1930s until the 1970s. Selle ventured out onto Market Street often framing his photographs under the marquee of the neighboring Pix Theatre at 946 Market. He also worked all of the corners and side streets around Union Square during peak periods of pedestrian traffic. He and associate photographers wearing the Fox Movie Flash cap carried rather heavy, modified DeVry movie cameras (marketed by Burke & James, Inc as "Street Vending Cameras"). They were pre focused at 10 ft and loaded with sufficient film to snap up to 1500 images of shoppers and tourists with the hope of selling some percentage of them souvenir portraits of their visit to San Francisco‘s prime retail shopping district. Charlie Rester, the last living Fox Movie Flash associate photographer recalls that on good days photographers could earn $100/day - a respectable living at the time.
This photographic genre - street vendor photography - has yet to attract much attention from museums, collectors, or historians. Yet there is anecdotal evidence that similar cameras and the same business model were used in many other American cities as well as abroad. Selle and fellow practitioners were not at all interested in the esthetics of their photographs. In fact, it is unlikely they even looked at every frame among the 1500 on the 100-foot rolls of negatives. The one-out-of-10 (or more likely one-out-of-100) pedestrians who actually paid the 50 cents ($1 by the 1970s) for the postcard-size souvenirs made their purchase decisions sight-unseen. Neither creator nor purchaser was making decisions on the basis of visual interest, or qualitative judgment. Only those frames matched by ticket number to individual purchasers were even printed. Among the many permutations of the speculative commercial practice now called street vendor photography, this one has also been aptly referred to as ‘surprise photography‘. (cf Mapping Sitting: On Portraiture and Photography; Walid Raad, Karl Bassil, Zeina Maasri, Akram Zaatari; 2002)
The term "surprise" is fitting in more ways than one. The purchaser received the souvenir within a few weeks in the mail. Having no opportunity for a preview, the end-product may have been a pleasant surprise, or a dud. Not every frame is sharp, well composed, or properly exposed. San Franciscan Jack Tillmany recalls his mother making 2 purchases from Fox Movie Flash operators when he was a kid going downtown with her in the 1950s. The first is a cherished memento; the second a disappointment. The photographers, too, should have experienced surprises - both while on the streets encountering sailors, shoppers, tourists, lovers, families - as well as in the darkroom where surely they looked at, and, perhaps laughed at frames which hadn‘t sold as well as those which were printed for buyers. The best surprise of all, however, are the many reactions we can experience today whether selecting previously unseen images for publication, or viewing original shooting sequences as if they were movies - complete with bad frames, changing weather, newspaper headlines, movie theatre marquees, dress, kids, smokers, relationships.
US Davis American Studies professor Jay Mechling refers to the psychological term "intermittant reward" to explain why many viewers become so captivated watching the original unedited shooting sequences that they‘ll continue watching without knowing when - or if - there will soon be an end. If every once in a while, we‘re rewarded by a surprise - by an image striking to us for its accidental composition, for its recollection of someone we knew or loved, for its goofiness - we‘ll happily continue watching expecting a new surprise at any moment.
Thus, beyond the sheer logistical challenge of exploring over a million undifferentiated images, the archivist today needs to consider the multitude of potential unimagined points of interest represented in this vast documentary record. For curators, such as Renny Pritikin, there‘s the irresistible temptation to do what Selle and his co-hort photographers never found time or motivation to do. He has applied the criteria of visual interest we‘d otherwise associate with non-commercial street photographers such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, or even Weegee. His selections reproduced here from the 18,000 frames digitally scanned to date (only 1% of the extant total) could easily be matched by totally different sets selected from the perspective of social historians, movie buffs (theatre marquees are a recurring theme), architecture historians, urbanologists, or those of us who are plain and simple sentimental old picture junkies.
© Andrew Eskind
[These texts accompanied the exhibition Joseph Selle‘s Fox Movie Flash - Mid-Century Street Vendor Photography that was held at the Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, January 13th - March 13th, 2005. This exhibition used projected images.]