Nature Photograph “Fuji Mums” by William Plante

Just posted this amazing print for sale. It’s a warm buttercup-golden color. Lately I’ve been posting a lot of botanical photos and prints. And I’m a person who has never managed to keep a plant alive.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/107263157/fuji-mums-fascinating-vintage-photo

Photo in thingbox: MexicanTehuantepec Market Woman

In my last post I lauded the way that vintage objects are full of shadows,  hidden meanings, and relationships to other objects. A recent conversation further reinforced my point.

After posting the vintage photo, which I know nothing about, in Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/listing/106281106/vintage-black-and-white-photograph-of), I sent an attachment to an old friend who has a particular interest in the life and ethnography of Mexico. He did a bit of internet rummaging and sent me a link to a Project Gutenberg ebook by an explorer and ethnographer named Frederick Starr, who wrote of his travels and investigations of indigenous culture that he undertook previous to 1908 (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16183/16183-h/16183-h.htm#CHAPTER_XIII).  From the narrative, I’m not sure how, said friend used the book to identify my woman as a Tehuantepec woman.

The photo is most probably post-war, most probably from the 60’s. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that the garb or culture changed much from the time when Starr wrote about them in 1899. Our lady is a hammock seller, and from the confidence she projects, she’s likely a good one. The author is charged with measuring women and men in the region and confines himself mostly to describing troubles he had with the local authorities. However, he does devote a paragraph to the mythology of the tribe:

“The name Tehuantepec means the mountain of man-eaters. These man-eaters were not   men, but tigers, or ocelots. The story runs that long ago this mountain was infested with wild   beasts who destroyed the people of the neighboring villages. Fearing extermination,  the people of the town decided to consult the Juaves, who were famous for their naguales, or witches. The oldest and most skilled naguál of the tribe was employed. Having performed his incantations, he told them they might expect  immediate deliverance; that he had conjured a deliverer from the sea. Soon there came  forth from the water a gigantic turtle, who made his way slowly inland, until he reached the bottom of the hill, which was the home of the tigers. The dangerous  animals were just descending from the mountain in a double line, but the moment they caught sight of the mammoth sea-monster, their bodies froze with terror and they were turned to stone. Terrified at the power of the creature he had conjured, the old  naguál quickly made use of his most powerful incantation, with the result that the turtle also was transformed into stone. The proof of the truth of the story we saw in the lines of stone tigers on the mountain side and the stone turtle at the foot of the hill, as we rode by.”

Needless to say that, after reading this story, the woman has morphed into much more than a two-dimensional curiousity. The story is fantastic and even slightly preposterous, but it’s a part of the seller’s history in much the same way that textbook wars and treaties are to us.   She’s probably long dead, but the market woman is no longer just an exotic exhibit A. Reading about her myth gives us an inkling of what’s going on in the eyes of the person looking out of the paper.

The Wine of the Ragpicker

High on the list of forgotten professions is the ragpicking trade. But looking back to the 19th-century we see that he or she was a figure of import, a kind of urban seer whose daily toil paid  off in inestimable wisdom. In The Ragpicker’s Wine, Baudelaire describes the nobility of this silent ghostlike presence:

One sees a ragpicker knocking against the walls,
Paying no heed to the spies of the cops, his thralls,
But stumbling like a poet lost in dreams;
He pours his heart out in stupendous schemes.
He takes great oaths and dictates sublime laws,
Casts down the wicked, aids the victims’ cause;
Beneath the sky, like a vast canopy,
He is drunken of his splendid qualities.
Ay, but it’s a hard life of suffering and exhaustion:
Yes, these people, plagued by household cares,
Bruised by hard work, tormented by their years,
Each bent double by the junk he carries,
The jumbled vomit of enormous Paris,
And the only real solace lies in drink:
To lull these wretches’ sloth and drown the hate
Of all who mutely die, compassionate,
God has created sleep’s oblivion;
Man added Wine, divine child of the Sun.
The 21st century thinks differently about the collection of cast-offs.  But it’s no doubt true that today’s ragpicker sees hidden meaning in almost every piece of stuff that appears.  How frustrating that every piece “means” something rather than just does what it is sold to do.  But  I doubt one could say that the contemporary thing collector is suffering from emotional and perceptual overload.  And to describe the search as heroic seems a bit hysterical.   Nonetheless, I’ve never met a collector who formed shallow attachments to the finds. An average mall consumer of merchandise doesn’t buy for the backstory.  There’s no poetry to be found there. It’s all front-story. The meaning of merchandise is  always imposed on the buyer. An idly-purchased product says what society says it’s supposed to say.

“Up-” or rather “Downcycling” in the Ancien Regime

Wearing vintage is hardly a modern hipster eccentricity.  Hand-me-downs have always dominated in the pre-Walmart era. But in certain eras the custom had a greater effect on the social fabric of the poor. In ancien regime France,  the Parisian poor distinguised themselves from the desperate looks of ragged peasants outside the city.  In his blog, Jefferson in Paris, Harlan Lewin, cites a contemporary commentator, the Marquis de Paulmy, in his “Précis de la Vie privée des Français” (1779). http://jeffersoninparis.com/fashioninjeffsparis.html. The Marquis notes that peasants in the far reaches of the countryside consider a leather shoe a nearly unfathomable luxury. They make do with clogs or even ropes wrapped around their feet.  However, the fashion divide was absent in Paris and the larger cities, where inhabitants could purchase the used clothing of the rich for a fraction of the original cost. And most used the custom well to their advantage:

“Everybody is well clad there, and seems as if he could afford to change his linen and coat twice a day.” Most Of the artizans (sic) dressed in imitation of their betters when they were not at work, and it was no uncommon thing to meet in the streets a lot of dandies, fashionably dressed and girt with a sword, who turned out to be barbers, printers, tailors, or shopmen. The females of the lower classes were always neatly dressed, sometimes with remarkably good taste, and the Paris grisette was renowned throughout the whole of the 18th century for her neatness of attire.”

So let’s compare:

The peasant dress is no doubt an accurate rendering, except that it would be ragged and dirty as a general rule. The aristocratic toilette would be carefully scented and maintained by an army of laundresses and lady’s maids.

If clothes make the man, what kinds of attitudes would result from this trading up? Inferiors were supposed to look that way, but by these accounts the urban proletariat failed to convey the deference required in both style and word.  Smelly rags might convey anger well but repurposing the clothes of the oppressor would send a much clearer message, “What’s yours should be mine, and it is and will be.”