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 (, 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 (  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.

My Counterfeit Nadar

My favorite found object caused me a lot of speculation and confusion, but I still love it to this day.  While writing a dissertation on the “flaneur” or urban stroller, I was well-immersed in the art and literature of the picturesque landscape-you know, the bucolic painter or writer who gazes in the distance and freeze-frames the scene.  There was a long tradition that became even more fervent as industry started to encroach on the countryside.  For example, while Rousseau waxes ecstatic about the pleasures of botanization, he interrupts his poetic speech when he  hears a recurrent clicking sound. This turns out to be a stocking factory humming busily in a clearing. Oh well.

At any rate, these stories had been on my mind although I embarqued on the more Surrealist quest to find baffling found objects in the flea market, on this day, Vanves.  I was near finished, a bit discouraged because most of the vendors that day were flogging overpriced trash and there were few cheap thrills to be found.  But then I spotted a large 19th-century print in ragged condition on a ragged blanket. The landscape artist was priced even less than I would hope.

I feigned boredom and quickly paid up. Then, after moving further away to examine the loot, I saw the signature-NADAR-and near swooned. This was a providential piece of luck. I imagined the worth of my prized found object, but could also scarcely imagine parting with it.
I’m also hardly a sucker for this things. I was skeptical, sure. But it didn’t look like a cheap poster, even a vintage one. The backing was old and slighly moldy. It had been made well and preserved competently, at least for a while in its history.

When I set out to verify I got acquainted with the commercial antique world and consulted a number of experts. Most hemmed and hawed. The signature was exact. Nadar’s writing was notable for even a few laymen. He had been such a showman that his flourish in everything he did was legendary.

Finally, however, I found a photography expert in the Marais who delivered the blow with a fair degree of admiration for what it was. It was not real. But the counterfitter had gone through a large amount of trouble and expense to photograph the photograph with the best equipment of his time. The image was blurred in the places that pointed to picture of a picture.  And it was backed and blown up with care. The signature forgery was expert, perhaps a bit too dark and the ink too thick.  But still a masterpiece.

I was not overly disillusioned at my loss of the great lifetime find. In fact, the reversal made my object all the more worth cherishing.

Nadar was obsessed with all kinds of technical derring do in photography-aerial shots, portraits of difficult divas, you name it. He was an afficionado of urbanism yet made his country painter a significant subject. An anachronism that was appealing enough to counterfeit for a city customer.

The moral of the story has something to do with the counterfeit nature of nostalgia.

A handsome, brooding, tortured soul

Full view

Great short bio of Joseph Cornell

Every retail establishment needs a theme, doesn’t it? And “thingbox” and “thinghotel” find inspiration in the work of Joseph Cornell, a man whose life is proof that scavenging for joyful objects is not an utter waste of time.

My favorite part of this brief bio, written by the dealer Joseph Feigen of E. 69th St. NYC:

“Like the French Surrealists, Cornell’s work relied on the concept of irrational juxtaposition as it forayed into the realm of both Pop and installation/ conceptual art. His varied series of boxes centered around succinct, albeit vague titles from “Bird” to “Observatory,” and “Hotel.” Cornell, despite or because of his shyness, maintained endearing infatuations with Hollywood starlets including Lauren Bacall, even going to far as to send boxes dedicated to them. Other influences included Stéphane Mallarmé and Gérard de Nerval as well as dancers Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.”

Irrational juxtaposition is a great practice to strive for. I often imagine the creative impulse to be an act of pouring the kids’ sorry toy baskets on the floor and figuring out what to build with all that junk. This is where the cheap and broken McDonald’s jewjaw begs for kinship with the exquisite educational toy.  The boy often joins forces with his friend to oblige the yearning objects and I am usually pleased with the results. For awhile.

Another visionary part of Cornell’s psyche is also apparent from the list of his admirees-Anyone who idolizes Lauren Bacall plus Stephan Mallarme and Nerval is genius. No doubt about it.

Here is the bio in its entirety: