Thursday, January 31, 2013

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Today we have our latest installment of Charlene Dodds's postcard rephotography project (previous editions of which can be found here, here, here, here, and here). Here's Charlene:

Heading northwest from Bedford, Pennsylvania, I went looking for the famous Horseshoe Curve just to the west of Altoona. The curve is shown on a postcard I found with my great aunt’s college-era postcards [see above]. It was never mailed and is blank on the back, but I suspect she and her chums took an adventure to see this engineering marvel, purchased a postcard as a souvenir, and decided they didn't want to part with it, especially since cameras were not commonly owned back then. The postcard was probably their only visual record of their visit to the curve.

I eventually located Horseshoe Curve, which is part of a rail line that was constructed to shorten the distance between Harrisburg and Pittsburg and eliminate the need for another line. The 220-degree curve was incorporated to lessen the steep grade and allow safe passage of trains. Even so, before the invention of modern braking systems, the rails were regularly pulled up and switched around to give equal wear to both sides, doubling their lifespan. So many troops were moved along this line during World War II that the Germans hatched a plot to blow up the tracks and even landed men on our shores to do just that. (The FBI ended their plans.) The curve is so ingrained into the local culture that Altoona's minor league baseball team is called the Curve.

Horseshoe Curve looks much the same today as it did back then. But trespassing on the rail tracks is illegal and dangerous, so I couldn't take a proper photo and had to settle for a contemporary postcard:


Next: I was intrigued by the postcard of Bickford Fire Brick Co. ("Largest Fire Brick Plant in the World Under One Roof"), which was sent to my grandmother from “Fritz & Foster” in 1924 (click to enlarge):

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First, what is a fire brick? I discovered it is a ceramic brick made to withstand high temperatures inside a fireplace, furnace, or iron smelter -- and of course there were lots of those in nearby Pittsburgh. Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, is known for the high quality of clay used in manufacturing these bricks, and Bickford Fire Brick Co was “what is probably the finest, best equipped and one of the largest fire-brick plants in this country," at least according to in a state review in the 1930s. Alas, there is no trace of this plant left in town, so I wasn't able to photograph it.

Continuing farther west, I searched for Conneaut Lake Park, which was shown on a postcard received by my grandparents in 1948. The day I arrived was picture perfect, just as depicted in the postcard (click to enlarge):

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While I was taking photos, there was a great influx of motorcycles and many vans, from which emerged various tattooed folks. Then a loudspeaker announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we appreciate your patience. Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath will be here any minute. Their plane has finally landed and they are on their way. The show will be well worth the wait.” My grandparents would roll in their graves if they knew this idyllic site was about to be overrun by the heavy metal hordes.

My continued thanks to Charlene for sharing her stories and family postcards with us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I wear a lot of vintage clothing, and I'm always wondering about the people who owned the clothing before I did. Who were they? What were they doing and experiencing when they wore this sweater (or shirt, or pair of jeans, or whatever)? If the clothing could talk, what stories would it tell? Occasionally I'm able to find out the answers to those questions, as in the case of that vintage skating jacket that I was recently able to trace back to its original owner, but that's pretty rare. Most of the time I'm just left to wonder.

The folks at Racked -- a shopping web site that I just became aware of, although I gather it's fairly popular -- apparently wonder the same thing, and they've taken a novel approach toward addressing it. They recently hired a psychic and turned her loose in a Manhattan vintage store so she could tell the stories behind the clothing. The resulting video -- called, simply enough, "Vintage Store Psychic" -- can be seen above.

Frankly, it's a little disappointing. The psychic mainly comes across as a ditz, and the "revelations" she comes up with aren't particularly interesting or illuminating. But the basic concept of trying to find the stories behind old objects is a good one. And the concept isn't just limited to clothing, of course -- every old object has a history, a story to tell. That's the essence of Permanent Record.

Do you know the stories behind any of your second-hand objects? If so, post them in the comments, or feel free to e-mail them to me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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The items shown above were recovered from the person of a Guatemalan man whose dead, decomposing body was found in the Sonoran Desert in July of 2010. The man had presumably traveled to Mexico and tried to cross into the United States. Like many people who attempt this border crossing, he died along the way. The few personal effects were not enough to identify him (the I.D. card is fake), and his remains have never been positively identified.

I learned all this in a fascinating article written by Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropologist who's part of a forensics team that tries to identify migrants' bodies found in the Sonoran Desert. The desert heat renders the bodies unrecognizable within a few days, so personal effects are often the only viable clues to the migrants' identities. It's a very powerful example of the Permanent Record ethos of tracking down the stories behind found objects.

The photos accompanying that article were taken by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Turns out he recently published a whole book of similar photos, all showing personal effects from deceased migrants. I haven't gotten a copy yet, but it's on my list.

(Special thanks to Kirsten Hively for letting me know about this one.)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

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What you see above is a book of "rules to live by," filled out by a child. As you can see, some of the rules are rather endearingly worded: "If there's no space between one person you want to sit by, don't cry or wine [sic] because there is no room," for example, and "Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to."

The book, which contains 157 numbered guidelines, was found in the parking lot of a California Walmart by a 20-year-old employee named Raymond Flores. He thought the book was too special to be consigned to the trash, so he contacted local media outlets in an attempt to find its author/owner. It turned out to be the work of two cousins: Isabelle Busath, 10, and Isabella Thordsen, 8. Flores was able to meet with them and return the book to them earlier this week.

Here's a short video clip about the story:

(Special thanks to Sue Kendall for pointing me toward this one.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

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We often encounter stories about found photographs. Sometimes we'll even see a story involving found negatives. But this is a story involving a much less common phenomenon: a found memory card.

Here's the deal: A man named David Nieland was recently hiking in the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina when he spotted a memory card near a stream. He picked it up, took it home, and accessed the photos on the card, a few of which offered enough visual clues to help him track down the family that had taken the photos.

The family was particularly appreciative to have the photographs because they included a few shots of a family member who had since died of cancer. This angle made the story irresistible for the Today show, which recently produced an extremely hokey (but nonetheless informative) segment about the memory card:

As noted toward the end of the Today segment, one of the most interesting aspects of the story is that Nieland -- the guy who found the memory card -- was recently reconnected with a lost object from his own past. His grandfather's high school diploma had somehow ended up in a garbage truck, where it was found and ultimately returned to him.

(Special thanks to Jennifer Hayden for pointing me toward this one.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013


The gentleman shown above is 92-year-old William Kadar of Merrillville, Indiana. He's holding the U.S. Army-issued duffel bag that he used during World War II to tote his gear around France. The bag became separated from him in November of 1944, and Kadar was captured by the Germans and marched to a POW camp soon after that. But he survived the ordeal, and his duffel bag did as well. It was found and kept for several generations by a French family, which recently decided to find the bag's owner and return it to him. You can read more about the story here.

As it turns out, the past week or so has been a busy time for PermaRec-ish stories involving war artifacts:

• In Italy, a man has found a wristwatch that probably belonged to an American World War II military transport pilot. He hopes to return it to the pilot's family.

• In California, a photography enthusiast purchased an antique camera and was surprised to find that it contained eight glass negatives showing images taken in France during World War I. Fascinating stuff.

(Special thanks to Matthew Algeo for pointing me toward two of these stories.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

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The photo on the left shows a young Joe Jackson; on the right, Suzi Quatro. The photos were recently shared with me by PermaRec reader Tom Common, who describes himself as "an antiques dealer specializing in postcards, paper, and photographs." He won't tell me where he's located, but his story, and the story of these photographs, is an intriguing one. I'll let him tell it in his own words:

Around the year 2000, I went to a local flea market. One of the dealers had a large box full of photographs. There were hundreds of folders of color and black-and-white photographs, most of them accompanied by negatives. Most of the photos were of rock musicians (mostly bar bands, but the photos looked very professional, like the photographer had been hired to do publicity shots), plus there was a little bit of personal family stuff and another large group of train pictures.

I quickly negotiated a price, paid, and asked the seller where he had acquired the photos. He told me that he had gone to a garage sale in a suburb and that a woman had sold them to him.

When I got home, I sorted through the photos and I was amazed. There were photos of bands that I remembered from the 1970s, interior shots of famous local bars with the employees, and shots of musicians practicing and relaxing backstage. In addition to photographing local bands, the person had seen shows by big-name acts like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Todd Rundgren, etc. The photographer had also attended some of the huge stadium concerts. He did not have as much access to those shows, but they are pretty good shots considering the equipment he had.

The train photos were also interesting, as this person traveled all over the state documenting trains and stations. The family photos were the smallest part of the collection, and there were no family names or other identification.

I organized the photos as best I could (some had been removed from their folders and mixed up). And I attempted to identify the bands, using what little info was included on the envelopes. Then I put the collection on the back shelf for a while, always wondering who, what, and why.

Fast forward about five years. I was listening to a local college radio show, and a guy from a band was being interviewed live. He was in one of the bands that had been photographed. I called the show and spoke with the guy, explained the situation, and arranged to meet with him at a coffee shop.

On the scheduled date, two guys showed up to meet me. They introduced themselves, and it turned out that one of them was a photographer. I had brought along some of the photos I'd purchased at the flea market, and I showed the photos to them. The photographer guy said there were only three people doing this kind of work at the time, and he said he was pretty certain it was "John Doe." I asked about John Doe, and the guy said that he believed Doe had ended up in prison.

After the meeting I went home and did a bit of internet research. Sure enough, John Doe had been incarcerated, but he was out on probation.

Doe had been in prison at the time I bought the photos, My best guess is that his wife sold the photos. I think the reason there were so few family photos is that the wife kept most of those.

In any event, the photos of the bands are an important document of a specific time when rock music was the life blood of my hometown. I know they could be crafted into a fine book. I also know I would have to get in touch with all the people in the bands and find out stuff about the fans and behind-the-scenes people. But I am unskilled at the business of book publishing, and I have concerns about John Doe's role in all of this. I have not yet attempted to contact him.

I have talked to a few people and their reaction has been mixed. I honestly do not know how to proceed. Can you offer me any advice?

As I explained to Tom, I'm no attorney, but my layman's understanding of copyright law is that the original photographer -- whether it's John Doe or someone else -- still holds the copyright to the photographs, and that the photos therefore can't be published without his permission or compensation. But Tom should really consult a legal professional on that point.

What I do feel qualified to comment on is the question of whether Tom should contact John Doe. Tom hasn't shared John Doe's real identity with me, or the details of his criminal record, so I can't offer fully informed advice here, but my general feeling is that Tom should go ahead and contact him. Just because someone's an ex-con, that doesn't make him a bad or dangerous person. If he's out on parole, then he's supposedly paid his debt to society. And he may have an emotional connection to those photos, which he's probably assumed are gone forever.

As I've said before, I'm a storyteller, so my instinct is always to connect the dots and follow where they lead, even if they lead in some potentially uncomfortable directions. I hope that's what Tom ends up doing. If you have other advice for him, feel free to post it below, and/or contact him directly. He's eager to hear feedback (and not just of the squealing electric guitar variety).