Padlock the Pump Handle : Clarence A. Bach and the Habits of Photojournalism

<b>Caption from LIFE.</b> "Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna."

“Three dead Americans on the beach at Buna.” A famous and an important picture by George Strock. Often cited as the first picture to show American dead after Pearl Harbor, it was taken either in late December 1942 or in early January 1943, but not published until September 1943, after LIFE had exercised considerable effort in overcoming censorship. In an editorial accompanying publication, LIFE described the three bodies on the beach (in New Guinea) as “three units of freedom”.

 

I was doing a little research (of the familiar Google-drifting kind) on something else when I came across a remarkable man of whom no British reader of these lines will ever have heard. So allow me to introduce you to Clarence A. Bach, founder and principal teacher of what seems to have been the first vocational course in photography in any American high school, the idiosyncratic — and wildly successful — course at John C. Fremont High School, Los Angeles.

“Clarence Bach was a short asthmatic man who sent his graduates out to photograph the world and everything in it as no group of kids from one high school has ever done before – or since. Almost every newspaper in the West has Bach’s boys. All the big screen and movie magazines of the heyday ’30s and ’40s had them. Now they are in TV and motion pictures. Major magazines throughout the country staff [sic] Fremont graduates – LIFE has had eight staff photographers from Bach.”   Those are the words of Mark Kauffman (himself a photographer for LIFE and then a distinguished picture editor at Sports Illustrated), from a generous tribute to Bach [i].

“When Bach, then a second cameraman at Twentieth Century Fox, first went to the Los Angeles Board of Education with his idea for a photography course, the Board was completely skeptical. “Photography is expensive,” they said, “and there’s no assurance in the world that a single student will learn enough to get a job by it….”

“Finally, after going the rounds of all the high schools, Bach went to see William L. Richer, the principal at Fremont High. In 1925, Bach was allowed to start his course on a part-time basis, with a caution that ‘it hadn’t better cost too much money.’ Bach installed a tiny lab in an old dressing room off the high school auditorium, and his first class began rambling up and down the iron staircase with cameras and exposed negatives. [ii]

It took a while, but the first graduate got a job in 1933: Eddie Stone, hired that year at International News. By the end of the war, there were 146 Bach graduates working either as photographers or as lab men in the various armed forces, and many more working in studios or on papers up and down the West Coast.

christie-brinkley-sports-illustrated-cover-1981-jgz

John G. Zimmerman, Christie Brinkley on the cover of Sports Illustrated, 1981. It is something of a professional honour to be asked to do the cover of the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and Zimmerman made several. But it is hard to admire this sort of thing, beyond a grudging admission that it is well enough done – for lighting, in particular. It would be very interesting to know what Clarence Bach would have made of pictures like this.

These are striking figures: it’s an astonishing record. That figure : eight photographer-disciples on the staff of LIFE, we’re told. Here are more than eight :

John Dominis;

John Florea;

Mark Kauffman;

Bob Landry;

Dick Pollard;

George Strock;

Harold Trudeau;

Hank Walker;

Jack Wilkes;

John G. Zimmerman

Not all of these are specially well-known today, but many are. They are still a formidably distinguished crew, to say the least. As LIFE Magazine once quite officially put it, “they learnt their trade from Clarence A. Bach, whose photography course is a curricular adornment of Fremont High [iii].

There is not much doubt that Bach’s course was trusted and admired.   As John Morris, himself a picture editor at LIFE, among a host of other distinguished roles in photojournalism, remembered it:

“This Los Angeles public school, whose alumni I took to calling “Group FHS” as an echo of San Francisco’s Group f/64, owed its success to the inspiration of one devoted schoolteacher, Clarence A. Bach. I have no idea how he taught, but his results were impressive. Our association with FHS began when Dick Pollard, needing an extra photographer for a sudden LIFE assignment, remembered a talented Los Angeles Times photographer whom he had seen covering a Pomona College track meet. It was George Strock, a recent Fremont graduate. Not only did Strock begin getting Life assignments he introduced a second Fremonter, Bob Landry, who introduced a third, Johnny Florea, who introduced a fourth, Mark Kauffman, who introduced a fifth, John Dominis, who introduced a sixth, Jack Wilkes, who introduced a seventh. Hank Walker. A few Fremont alumni got away to other magazines, but I have the same high regard for the members of the Fremont High Society that I do for the members of the Royal Photographic Society. [iv]

That networking seems to have been a deliberate part of the Bach recipe. “Our graduates have gone out and done well for themselves, and by their success have bred jobs for countless other kids. It’s not a union…but a lot better than a union. Our boys have mushroomed all over the field of photography by reaching down and helping another guy up. [v]

Another element in Bach’s system was a solid grounding in the physics, mechanics, and chemistry of the camera and the darkroom, including lighting. “Bach considers lab work rightly as important a part of a photographer’s training as correct exposure and focus, and each student must know the basic formulas of every developer that he might encounter on a job before he goes into the advanced class[vi] .”

There was a constant flow of assignments, in which the student-mock seems to have overlapped constantly with the professional. “The most exciting part was a Bach ‘assignment’ to cover a big game. Friday afternoon would find us fanning out in the damnedest assortment of jalopies ­— Essexes, Marmons, Moons, Pierce Arrows — anything with wheels and a couple of gallons of gas. Ah, the sweet glory of seeing our labors on the printed page ! Not only that, but you made five bucks. [vii]

ginger-rogers-landry

Ginger Rogers by Bob Landry. Cover of LIFE, March 1942. Is this a portrait of a successful and self-confident woman at ease, or is it sophisticated cheesecake?

The final element seems to have been a constant habit of critique. Bach himself reviewed portfolios, even when much of the teaching was delegated to his assistant Holger Wilkstrom. Students were expected to edit assignments down to a realistic number of usable pictures, and usable they had to be. “While working on a project, Bach gives close attention to each individual photographer’s idea after he or she has chosen his approach to the subject. Clear, well-composed shots are a must. [viii]

dominis-steve-mcqueen-and-his-wife-neile-take-a-sulphur-bath-at-big-sur-1963

John Dominis. Steve McQueen and his wife Neile take a sulphur bath at Big Sur, 1963. Clear, well-composed shots are a must. But it certainly also helps if you can persuade famous actors to let you follow them into the bathroom.

“Bach was soft on discipline but very hard on idlers. ‘Either get out and take pictures, ‘ he would shout,’ or get in the darkroom and work.’ We used to play tricks on him, like putting flashbulbs in his desklamp. I think he secretly enjoyed the resulting bedlam. Every day, after one hour in photography class, we had three full hours in which to shoot pictures or work in the darkroom. Bach put tremendous emphasis on our shooting on the playing fields. We sharpened our reflexes covering the action and also had to work our imaginations to do still lifes of sporting equipment, outdoor portraits and set up publicity-type pictures. We practiced composition and architectural photography on the buildings. Never has one school been so worked over by the camera.

California Angels Nolan Ryan

Characteristically adventurous technical study by John G. Zimmerman. Nolan Ryan of the California Angels, photographed on the day he threw his fourth career no-hitter during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Anaheim Stadium in 1975.

The slightest whiff of smoke set us scrambling for our homemade wooden cases containing old Speed Graphic cameras, and created mass exodus. In those days in L.A., we could get the police car radio reports on our own radios. This was our greatest source for news tips. In my junior year at Fremont, Bach’s students had over 500 pictures published in the four major Los Angeles newspapers. There was even a cover on LIFE…. We really loved photography with a passion, and though we had strange ways of showing it, we loved and respected C.A. Bach. There was a feeling that every day would bring something new and exciting and Bach was leading us to greater and greater things in and through photography. [ix]

bach-from-a-retirement-tribute-in-si-june-1959

Clarence A. Bach, photographed by Bill Bridges. From a retirement tribute in Sports Illustrated, 1959. The stars behind him do not represent the states of the Union. They represent the photographers he had placed at the service of the nation in the course of the war.

 

So there you have some kind of a sketch of a great teacher. It’s no surprise that sport became one of the great fields of American photography, and that Bach students like John G. Zimmerman did so very well at Sports Illustrated, for example. Bach was clearly a man of vast charisma, a believer in solid technical grounding, and fiercely loyal to his network. Much of his system is still the norm in photography courses today. When he retired in 1959, Sports Illustrated ran a column in his honour in which he was called “chatty and ceaselessly curious. [x]

It makes me wonder quite how one can trace the influence of that one man on one of the most famous picture magazines in the world. I haven’t done it, and it may be too late to do it as thoroughly as might have been – because a lot of his pupils no longer survive — but somebody should. Right there is major research project. That he had influence is clear enough from the passages I’ve cited here. But we need to know a great deal more. What sort of taste Bach had, what he thought about photography, his politics, his attitude to women, to abroad, to America, his intended legacy…. Because I expect we would find something quite exciting.

It used to be that people talked and wrote more about the zeitgeist than they do now. Zeitgeist has fallen a bit from fashion, and high time, too. It was always a suspect notion, I felt, replacing the clear tracing of influences from person to person (or person to institution) with a sloppier assumption that ideas just existed in the air. They rarely do. People may not always be scholars, and they may not always accurately track their own ideas back to their sources. Some people, it’s true, hold a lot of the ideas of their time with no thought of critiquing those ideas. But I don’t think professional people in the pursuit of their professions do that. Or at least, they do — and should be called out when they do.

Many years ago the architectural historian Mark Girouard wrote a book[xi] on a group of Elizabethan country houses, Longleat, Wollaton, Hardwick and so on.   Before Girouard, these had been more-or-less presumed to be anonymous, and assumed to demonstrate the ‘spirit of the age’. They shared a number of characteristics such as the relatively vast areas of glass they used, their high compact design around light-wells and courtyards, and the turning of the hall through ninety degrees compared to what had gone before. Girouard in effect rejected the idea that the zeitgeist alone could have designed those wonderful houses: there must be a person involved. And there was. He found that although the term architect was not yet in general use, a particular craftsman, Robert Smythson, was always associated with these houses, although referred to sometimes as mason, sometimes as contractor and so on. Girouard built the case that Smythson had designed the great houses, and actually found the papers relating to Smythson which proved it; not only the surviving designs (called platts at the time) but the account books and so on showing the payments Smythson had received. It’s a fine reminder that sometimes we don’t even recognize our woolly thinking as woolly. It’s just … in the air.

We used to think that the cholera was spread by the miasma until in 1854 a doctor called John Snow, not satisfied by that, carefully mapped the incidence of one outbreak of the disease and put a padlock on a pump handle in Soho [xii].

In photography, for a number of reasons, we have a shortage of really good scholarship and consequently a higher proportion than is justified of airy (or miasmic) assumptions; as well as the persistent survival of numbers of untruths. Research goes on all the time, and some of it scratches away sometimes quite effectively at age-old assumptions. In that context, I admire the single-minded way the critic A.D. Coleman goes after his subjects. He has spent a good deal of energy pursuing the untruths told (and the assumptions made) about Robert Capa’s D-Day pictures [xiii]. One of his targets in that affair has been the same John Morris mentioned earlier.

But an awful lot more goes by unchallenged.

There is a passage in Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty [xiv] in which she discusses the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib. “It isn’t that this photograph played no role in the unfolding of human events — clearly, it did. But after nearly 200 years of photography, it may be that we are closer than ever to understanding that an image — be it circulated in a newspaper, on You Tube, or in an art gallery — is an exceptionally poor platform on which to place the unending, arduous, multifaceted and circuitous process of ‘changing the world’ “.

I am pretty certain that Henry Luce and his various employees at LIFE would have had grave difficulty understanding that sentiment.

We need continually to padlock some pump handles and actually map the effects of what goes on, rather than simply making assumptions. We need to ‘do a Girouard’ on the photojournalism that became so central to American public discourse. I don’t know that I think that any great deliberate untruths have been told about the kind of imagery that LIFE and the other picture magazines fostered. I just suspect that a number of assumptions about that imagery — and as a result of its central place in the US canon, about photojournalism more generally — can be traced, if only we knew, to the habits, prejudices, abilities, friendships or early reading of Mr. Clarence A. Bach.

 

 

[i] Kauffman quoted at length above the signature of George P. Hunt, Managing Editor, on the opening ‘Editors’ Note’ page of LIFE on January 3rd, 1967

[ii] Photo Teacher. Tribute to Clarence Bach, by Tom Carlile. Popular Photography, March 1947.

[iii] LIFE, vol 22 No. 1, January 6th 1947, p.11

[iv] Morris, John G., Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 55.

[v] Carlile, Popular Photography, op.cit

[vi] Carlile, Popular Photography, op.cit

[vii] Kauffman tribute, op cit.

[viii] Carlile, Popular Photography, op cit. in a picture caption.

[ix] Kauffman tribute, op cit.

[x] Sports Illustrated, A Pat on the Back, June 15th 1959, p. 88

[xi] Girouard, M., Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House, Yale University Press, revised 1983.

[xii] Cf. for example, Johnson, Steven, The Ghost Map – The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic, Penguin, 2008 A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks.

[xiii] For the main list of his endeavours in this matter, cf. Coleman’s blog at http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/major-stories/major-series-2014/robert-capa-on-d-day/ ( accessed in September 2016)

[xiv] Nelson, M., The Art of Cruelty, WW. Norton, 2012 ( paperback) p. 40

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