the great escape
listen, he said, you ever seen a bunch of crabs in a bucket?
no, I told him.
well, what happens is that now and then one crab will climb up on top of the others
and begin to climb toward the top of the bucket,
then, just as he’s about to escape
another crab grabs him and pulls him back down.
really? I asked.
really, he said, and this job is just like that, none of the others want anybody to get out of here. that’s just the way it is
in the postal service!
I believe you, I said.
just then the supervisor walked up and said,
you fellows were talking.
there is no talking allowed on this
I had been there eleven and one-half years.
I got up off my stool and climbed right up the supervisor
and I reached up and pulled myself out of there.
it was so easy it was unbelievable.
but none of the others followed me.
and after that, whenever I had crab legs
I thought about that place.
I must have thought about that place
maybe 5 or 6 times
before I switched to lobster."
— Charles Bukowski
Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way
I recently came across an article that discussed the idea of smiling in photographs, hypothesizing as to why people always looked so serious in old photos. The seemingly most obvious reason is a technical one: the long exposure times rendering it impossible to hold a forced expression or pose. However, I would assume that this would have already been a solvable issue by the turn of the century.
The more interesting points revolve around the social implications of a smile. The article observes that in pre-20th century art, smiles were typically reserved for drunks, peasants, children, miscreants and various other characters that perpetuate a lack of sophistication. Photographic portraits were a luxury that was generally only available to a privileged minority and the same cultural rules applied as did in painted portraiture. It makes sense that one would have to seriously consider the way they would like to be immortalized, knowing that there would be opportunity for only a few photographs at best to be taken of them through the course of a lifetime.
It wasn’t until well into the 20th century, when technology brought photography into the hands of the layperson, that attitudes relaxed and the taboo of the smile dissipated. Not to mention a clever marketing strategy by Kodak.
Now for the seamless segue… Not too long ago I was gifted a book about my old friend, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the articles about smiles in old photos immediately recalled a few images from this book to memory. Lautrec spent a relatively short career in the Parisian spotlight until his death in 1901, during which time he successfully navigated within “The Human Comedy” of high society while simultaneously immersed in Paris’ debaucherous bohemian underbelly.
We have been left with a glimpse into the world of the man not only through the work he produced, but through photographic portraits, a few of which are featured in my book. Lautrec embraced humor and buffoonery while mocking convention with his genius. He examined himself with the same ironic wink that he did his artistic subjects and never wavered in his sometimes abrasive honesty. One can’t help but love this tragic character who saw no reason to suppress a smile.
Lautrec in drag…
Check out the smiling article here, which also contains links to other related articles.