The Monster Behind the Door

On Michael Lesy's Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

A century ago, long before the digitized high-zoot gimmickry of today’s 360-degree virtual reality headgear, and long before smartphones, the Internet, television, radio, motion pictures, and even slick news magazines, Americans by the tens of thousands distracted, enlightened, and entertained themselves with stereographs: 3-D photographs viewed in specially-designed handheld devices. Far more than merely the View-Masters of the day, stereographs—which were sold in large, beautifully-packaged sets door-to-door, or could be picked up individually in dime stores—allowed people without the necessary resources to virtually visit foreign lands. They were widely used as educational tools in school systems across the country and, before being usurped by newsreels, radio and magazines. Stereographs acted as a news outlet and offered the general public what were sometimes horrifying first-hand images of the Boxer Rebellion and the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

On the surface, and with only a cursory glance, historian, researcher and author Michael Lesy’s new book Looking Backward (published by W.W. Norton) might seem to be little more than a quaint and nostalgic coffee table collection of turn-of-the-century photographs taken around the world. But Lesy’s accompanying text, as has been the case with most of his previous books, does far more than put these stereoscopic images into their immediate context. He’s never been content just to inform readers who took a particular photo, where it was taken, and what it illustrates. Over the past forty-five years, Lesy has forged his own niche, his own singular sub-genre of literary and journalistic social criticism via archival photographs.

Since his 1973 debut, Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy has had a knack for using photographs as a jumping-off point to weave together seemingly unconnected historical, cultural, scientific, philosophical, spiritual, literary, and personal threads. Lesy’s books make not only a coherent whole, but a whole that points toward an unexpected conclusion far beyond what lay in the pictures.

In Wisconsin Death Trip, for instance, with very little extraneous commentary, Lesy interwove a collection of news clips and photographs from local papers of the period to argue that in the waning decades of the 19th century, almost everyone who lived in Black River Falls, Wisconsin had been driven to the brink of insanity by poverty, disease, and the brutal realities of the rural Midwest. He later went on to release archival photo essays investigating everything from gangland violence in Prohibition-era Chicago to family portraits to the art of dining out in the early 20th century.

“The first book I did, which was Death Trip, came about because I was bored out of my mind,” admits Lesy, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013 and currently teaches literary journalism at Hampshire College. “I’d just graduated from Columbia and was at UW-Madison to do history. I had missed the student uprisings, and was working with a guy in history who was really very exasperating. I had Szarkowski’s book The Photographer’s Eye, I had nothing better to do, and I knew one of the pictures in there was from the Department of Iconography at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. I’d never heard of the Department of Iconography, but I found it. I met Paul Vanderbilt, and he became my mentor. Paul turned me on to this collection of pictures from Black River Falls. I’d never seen stuff like that. After that, I kept thinking, as an historian and also a photographer that looking at this stuff would not only change history, but also the history of photography.” As Lesy progressed from project to project after that, he says, he kept exploring larger and larger photo archives. “It’s like the old story about a long distance runner building up his wind.”

 “The Chinese executioner, proud of his commission. Manchuria.”

Ostensibly, Looking Backward traces the history of the two companies primarily responsible for selling stereographs and handheld viewers to the public. Underwood & Underwood, founded in 1881, concentrated on 3-D photographic travelogues, offering viewers a glimpse into what life was like in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Their primary competition, the Keystone View Company, bought out Underwood & Underwood in 1923, shifting the business model to focus on education and news. Given the subject matter, it may seem odd that Lesy opens Looking Backward with an anecdote about a Buddhist monk gently chiding a roomful of American college students and faculty members for their dependence on technology. But the anecdote perfectly sets the tone for Lesy’s more far-reaching agenda. Instead of experiencing the world directly, the monk said, people create machines like televisions and computers to experience life by proxy, using machines the same way a blind man would use a red and white cane.

Sure enough, Lesy explains in clear and direct prose, a century earlier stereographic images allowed armchair tourists to virtually step inside British churches, the German countryside, or a poor village in South America. The larger stereograph sets focused on specific countries or regions of the world, like Underwood & Underwood’s massive (and massively popular) set of photos from the Holy Land, came complete with maps and annotated guidebooks written by respected authorities.

 “An Easter hat. Atlantic City, New Jersey.”

Lesy’s tangents flow together so seamlessly and breathlessly you barely have a chance to stop and ask why he’s writing about an old professor of his, or 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, the Transcendentalists, educational policy, Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, the telegraph, Edison, a mean schoolteacher-turned-war-photographer, where to find the best bamboo, anarchists, or his father’s childhood in Poland. Much of the book’s second half concentrates on the life and adventures of James Ricalton, the fascinating and wholly unlikely above-mentioned mean schoolteacher-turned-war-photographer, who took many of the pictures collected in Looking Backward. Disconnected as much of it may seem, reach the end, and it all makes perfect sense.

Lesy says he knew what he was going to call the book early on, having read Edward Bellamy’s novel of the same name. The rest of the text evolved as he explored the enormous stereograph archive housed at UC-Riverside. “I researched it, like a squirrel frantically digging, I just kept digging and digging at it. A lot of this research is based upon a sensibility developed over years. If you go into a body of work, it becomes a portrait of yourself. You think you’re looking outward, but you’re really looking inward. You think you’re going to solve one problem, but a number of other possibilities open up. And you’re still carrying yourself along with you. You’re always scratching your own itch.”

It’s the gorgeously reproduced stereographs themselves that make up the heart of Looking Backward. As Lesy himself hints in the text, taken together, the stereographs play out like a kind of time travel dream, set in alien lands and populated by alien people, many of them with stony faces and piercing stares.

 “Dying in the Dying Field where discouraged poor are allowed to come to die. Canton, China.”

Divided into thematic sections (“Ten Years of War and Disaster,” “The New World and the Old”), Looking Backward, as the book’s subtitle promises, offers a sprawling and stunning snapshot of the world in the early years of the twentieth century. The collection ranges from shockingly brutal images of dead soldiers, executions and torture, to stiff portraits of aristocrats. Time travel and the notion of being in two places at once recur in the text, but running throughout the book are two primary, if understated, themes: the divide between the rich and the poor, and the Western perception of other races. Despite their seemingly genial educational intent, many of the guidebooks and the brief captions that accompanied the pictures were tools of propaganda, used to bolster the idea of, not only Western, but white American superiority. Guatemalan peasants are characterized as lazy and stupid, and the caption (likely written either by a clerk at Keystone View Company or Underwood & Underwood) that accompanies a shot of Black children in the Deep South reads: “All coons look alike.”

 “Russian beggars and priests.”

“The stiff and humorless portraits of assorted aristocrats, generals and other ‘prominent persons’ (as they’re labeled) were all carefully staged,” Lesy says. “These guys have their offices, and they’re all just a bunch of pricks. They believe they deserve to be photographed so they can be included in a set of cards about civics or government. I was looking at these and thinking, ‘You assholes!’”

Lesy continues, “I was looking at a set of images made in South America. There’s a picture in the book of a group of men standing in front of a stone wall built by the Incas, one of those great Peruvian super-civilizations, and they look like they’d been run over by a truck. The contrast between what you know had been there before and what you’re seeing in their suffering, it really upset me. I was looking at this geographical grouping of images, because that’s how they divided them. I looked at a picture of a woman in a sitting room in Ecuador, who looked like she had just got off a plane from Paris and unpacked her new wardrobe. This was right next to pictures of people who looked like they’d been beaten in the mud. At the same time I realized that nothing has fucking changed. It made me furious. The last picture in the book is of this steamer belching smoke with all these cows in the foreground. The people who made that picture and then published it thought it was charming and picturesque. You want to warn them what’s coming.”

“All the stuff that you can tweak out of those images and those captions is going to tell you much more than the people who made them and sold them ever wanted you to know,” Lesy says. “We are asking questions of the material it was never meant to think about or respond to. The entire era was completely worried about class. In the US it was the Great Strikes of 1877 that frightened the hell out of the ruling class. In Europe it was the entire underclass and the anarchists. People were obsessed with these disparities. We’ve never solved the question of race here in the United States. It’s probably insoluble. But those people thought they’d solved it!”

Of all the images here, from the beheadings to shots of turn-of-the century Manhattan, the one that stuck with me most involves a group of barefooted children sitting on a massive coal pile in a central Pennsylvania mining town. As bleak as the shot might seem initially, in the center of it all is one kid wearing a cap. Stitched across the front of the cap is the word “beautiful.”

 “Coal for the picking—culm dumps and the poor who pick them. Anthracite mines in Pennsylvania.”

“If you keep looking,” Lesy says, “attending to it, leaning into it, it all keeps telling you stuff. For example, I didn’t know what I’d do at the very beginning of the book until less than three weeks ago. It was something [book designer Laura Lindgren] and I both figured out. The cover photo has, on one side and in the distance, the Spreckles building. It was this monument to this guy who was part of the sugar trust. On the left of the frame is a pillar with a crowd around it. But if you look at it, you see it has a U.S. infantryman in bronze. The monument on the left was erected in honor of Admiral Dewey, who had wiped out the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, which was the beginning of U.S. imperialism. On the left side is a pillar, still standing, that’s symbol of America’s Manifest Destiny, and far off on the right, still standing, is a monument to Mr. Spreckles, who made a mega-fortune controlling the supply of sugar. Then I realized the first picture in the book was of a bunch of guys standing with rifles, about to embark for Cuba. The cover of the book and the first picture in the book create this harmony, and I had no idea I’d done that. If you’re an artist and you’re in the groove, you’re in the groove. You’re not like a tourist looking out the window of a train.”

Thanks to radio, movies and magazines like Life, Look, and Colliers, the market for stereographs all but completely dried up by the late thirties. Although they tried to adjust their business model to fit the times, Keystone finally folded in 1962. In 1978, their entire archive—some 300,000 images gathered over roughly seventy years—was donated to the California Museum of Photography at UC-Riverside, where they are presently stored in a massive underground vault.

“I was in love with the period, the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the twentieth. I saw the collection and thought, ‘Oh, wow—it’s the whole world!’ It was also the moment my father and mother were born, and the collection let me see that, the world they were born into. I knew it would be the biggest and hardest thing I’ve ever done, but if you do something creative, you don’t want to keep doing the same thing over again. You want to make a little trouble for yourself.”

The actual research began four or five years ago, when Lesy packed up and flew to California for a few months, admittedly uncertain what might come of it.

 “O-Koma San is very fond of chestnuts.”

“Here’s what happened,” Lesy explains. “I went in there in the morning and started looking. I wasn’t looking for anything. Some people go into an archive and they want a letter someone wrote to someone else. I wasn’t doing that. They showed me what was there and how it was grouped, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s do North America today—give me the first drawer.’ I looked at them really fast. I’m not looking at them in 3-D. I’m not thinking about anything.”

“The only thing going on at the moment is, ‘I can’t see that one at all—that picture’s a piece of shit. Bad picture.’ Then, as a former photographer, there are other things going on, ‘God, that’s a great frame.’  Or, ‘Wow, that’s really beautiful, or wonderful, or crazy.’ There’s an aesthetic judgment almost immediately. It’s an optical thing. The people in the archive treated me like a prince. I’d make a stack as I was doing it, and they’d make photocopies. That went on for weeks and months, until I had many, many stacks of these photocopies in my room. Then I’d say, of the sixty pictures of battleships I had, this was the best picture of a battleship. You’re always sifting with a finer and finer screen until finally you get down to, ‘Gosh, this is the best goddamn picture of a battleship in this whole goddamn collection.’”

“In the editing process you focus on the stuff you already know, which is those rich assholes and those poor human beings, or those black kids with captions that treat them like animals. Then you try to make it a story based on what you already know, and also what’s there in the collection. That editing process just goes on forever.”

 “Prominent person” [unidentified]

In many ways, Lesy’s book reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day. Although the sprawling novel interwove very different kinds of stories, both are set in the same distinct time period and both offer panoramic views of not only the state of America at that point in history, but the entire world during the slow buildup to World War I. Most importantly, in their own unique ways, both books reach the same conclusion in the end. The scenes, places, figures, and events captured in these stereographs, as distant and alien as they may seem now, reveal a world which unwittingly set the stage for everything that would follow over the ensuing century: the wars, the widening gulf between the rich and poor, the ongoing and intensifying racial and religious tensions around the globe, and the devastation we’ve wreaked on the environment. As Lesy puts it, looking at the stereographs collected here is a bit like watching a horror movie when you know exactly what kind of monster is waiting behind the closed door.

“You’re sitting in the present,” he says. “You’re reading the news and you wonder—always—how did we get here? whether it’s good or bad. And then you see this stuff and think, ‘A-ha!’ And they didn’t even know. The beauty is they thought they were doing one thing, when in fact, like the rest of us, they were doing something else. It’s the contrast between what their intentions were with what we now know they were doing. Everyone’s in the same position. When we think we’re doing good, we’re completely fucking something up. We think we’re fighting evil when, in fact, we’re just digging our own graves. It’s the same thing over and over and over again. Anyone with any sense—including you, me, whoever—will look at that cusp and think, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re walking right off the cliff.’”

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