Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Sentimental Tug of Two Icons

     ...from a photographer's notebook

I just had to do this one. Call me sentimental. Oh, you already have …

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, I suspect you’ve called me that, more times than you have fingers and toes. That’s all right. I carry that particular ID card proudly.

In fact as I write this, I think of Henry Fonda in “Advise and Consent.” He plays Robert A. Leffingwell, the President’s choice for Secretary of State and has been accused by a senator who opposes the nomination of being too much of an intellectual, an “egghead.” To which Fonda replies, I'm not only an egghead, Senator, I'm a premeditated egghead. I set out to become an egghead and at this moment I'm in full flower of eggheadedness, and I hope to shed pollen wherever I go.” 

There, consider yourself warned, for at this moment I am in full flower of sentimentality…

I’ve often written how a certain photograph just called out to be made…or could not not get made. This is one that just kinda…made itself.

In a previous post, I wrote about purchasing a re-conditioned and modified Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera, the magical little machine that got me into photography as a kid in the mid-fifties.

I did a broadcast piece on this sentimental journey. The idea was to describe what “point-and-shoot” photography was all about long before digital, auto-everything, and phones that “double” as cameras, as well as the shooting I planned to do with my “new” Brownie.

As the feature would also appear on the web site of my broadcast organization, I set out to illustrate it with some photos of my little Brownie with its iconic mid-20th century lines and big round flash reflector.

I shot “still lifes” of it, surrounded by rolls of film I set out on my desk. Even took some “selfies” with me holding my little black Bakelite time traveler.

But as to that photo up top making itself…

On my desk there is a photo I took many years ago of the mighty and magnificent Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 electric locomotive blazing down a mainline in the railroad’s namesake state. This was a very special afternoon, as the mighty “G’s” which ushered in the age of high speed trains along the Northeast Corridor, back when the “Pennsy” was known as The Standard Railroad of the World, were soon to be retired. Amtrak and the Penn Central (successor to the Pennsy) truly uglified the GG-1s they inherited, painted them drab black, let ‘em get all scabby and rusty. Of course, there is only so much the Philistines of this world can do to the timeless Art Deco design Raymond Loewy gave the mighty “G.” But trust me, most of the remaining fleet looked rather forlorn.

Ah, but No. 4935 remained a proud example of the breed. She wore her original Pennsy livery, gold pin stripes on that dark Brunswick Green, and she ran like a jaguar.

Now, that livery – and indeed the GG-1 itself – exert quite a sentimental attraction on me. Many a fifties afternoon was spent at and around Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station with my Dad and – I know, you’ve already guessed it – my (original) Brownie Hawkeye, loaded with Kodak Verichrome Pan black and white film, capturing the mighty GG-1s pulling the “Congressionals” and other express trains that sped between Washington and New York.

And even more magical were the times when Mom and Dad would take me to New York. We were loyal to both the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s superb “Royal Blue” trains and the speedier “Afternoon Congressional” on the Pennsy, which was pulled by a big muscular GG-1. Actually the “Congressionals” were pulled by Tuscan Red G’s to match the Pennsy red stripe that ran along the sleek consist of stainless steel coaches, Pullmans, and dining cars with real linen and silverware. But they all had those pin stripes running along their flanks…and it’s of course a moot point in black and white!

The G’s actually came along in the nineteen thirties, but the Pennsy built them to last, the truth of that being forty- and fifty-year old “G’s” still running when the end finally came. And, as mentioned Loewy’s design was genuinely timeless. So, the fact was, the GG-1 was very much an icon of the Fifties.

And that photo of No. 4935 on my desk in such close proximity to the still lifes I was shooting of the Brownie certainly got the old sentimentality going in, as a GG-1 driver might say, Notch-22.

And that’s the story of “The Sentimental Tug of Two Icons."

Ah, I think I’m feeling another tug in the direction of my music library. I just might return with Nelson Riddle’s “Lisbon Antigua.” Or the Platters singing “Twilight Time.” Or anything by Gogi Grant…

©2013 Steve Ember

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