Recording the Face of Daily Life

Alex Chis

Humble Work and Mad Wanderings, Street Life in the Machine Age by Ken Appollo (Carl Mautz Publishing, Nevada City, CA, 1997) 108 pages, 61 duotone images, $34.95. Order from Carl Mautz Publishing, 228 Commercial Street, Suite 522, Nevada City, CA, 95959. Shipping $3.50 first book, $1.00 each additional, CA residents add sales tax.

IN THE CHRISTMAS season we seem to be inundated by romanticized versions of both past and current times, from The Christmas Carol to “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and while they certainly have their place, a truer version of history and reality can be even more wonderful.

Humble Work and Mad Wanderings is the result of Ken Appollo’s twenty-five years of collecting “photographs of the working poor in transition—wandering, falling, ascending.” The photographs, dating from the 1850s to the early 1900s, concentrate on “the most basic varieties of employment . . . individuals who were able to drag, carry or push something onto the street that made them a living.”

While the unique images alone make Humble Work and Mad Wanderings essential for anyone interested in social history, photographic historian Ken Appollo illuminates the images with a text that draws on his own personal history in understanding the lives of those depicted.

From his early days tending his grandfather’s roadside vegetable stand, to a later life that included panhandling and an arrest in a demonstration in Paris in 1970, Apollo has been a participant in, and a witness of, street life in the later twentieth century.

The images themselves are endlessly fascinating. For one who has seen and read of chimney sweeps and tinkers, for example, in prints, movies, novels and histories, to have them actually stare out at you as they were in Victorian times is a precious moment.

What is also fascinating is that these images even exist. They are certainly not common. As one who has pored over many old photographs, seeing seemingly endless studio portraits, I can realize the work and dedication that has gone into this project. But the fact that these images were found, dating back in some instances almost 150 years, is very encouraging.

Photographic Records for Activists

Since this review is primarily intended for a labor and activist audience, rather than photo historians or academics, I’d just like to go over what photography can say for us. Photography dates from 1839, and by the 1850s there were photographers active in all but the most remote regions of the world, and even they were reached soon after.

Although the studio portrait of serious people (the seriousness enhanced by the long exposure times required and the necessity of keeping still, sometimes with one’s neck clamped in place) is the most common image in 19th century photography, the earlier photographers also documented important events of the day, traveling to wherever something was happening.

This means that it is likely that almost all the social movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were documented in photographs, from strikes and lockouts, to suffrage demonstrations. However, because of the ephemeral nature of many of the movements, as well as of the photograph itself, much of that history has been lost, while much more has been misplaced.

The other obvious fact is that this “humble work” of humble men and women hasn’t been the most valued by our society, and much of the history has just disappeared into trash bins.

For those who think that social movements of the past are important, both as part of our history and as resources for and teachers of future activists, finding and making available those documents becomes important. I’d like to try to illuminate the possibilities that exist now with two personal anecdotes.

What Can Be Found

A few years ago, while idly leafing through some magazines at an antique dealer’s in Berkeley, California, I ran across some typed and mimeographed papers. Looking at them, I discovered they were from the Colored Trainmen of America, from the twenties and thirties, mainly from Texas.

I bought them, took them home, sorted and read them. They were the records of a brakeman and union officer, his copies of grievance proceedings, records of gatherings, minutes of meetings, convention proceedings, etc. They were fascinating and I wondered whether any work had been done on this union. I of course knew of the Sleeping Car Porters and the work done on that union.

I took them to friends who run a radical bookstore and they searched their references. There was a reference in a footnote in Philip Foner’s Organized Labor and the Black Worker and the Cornell Labor Archives had two items. And that was it. I had found over 100 separate documents, with names and dates included, vastly increasing the possibility for real research to be done on this aspect of labor history. (The papers now reside in an academic archive.)

Then, just this past week, I found and bought five real photo postcards from December 19 and 20, 1934, in Shelbyville, Tennessee. They depict what was obviously some kind of clash in that town. The captions read “Mob scene on west side square—as Negro is rushed away,” “500 troops arrive” and “Court House Ruins.” A tantalizing glimpse! I still haven’t been able to find out exactly what happened just before Christmas sixty-three years ago in Shelbyville (if anyone knows, please tell me) but the photographs themselves tell a good story.

Locating What Has Been Found

About a year ago I ran across Eyewitness at Wounded Knee, a book by Richard E. Jensen, R. Eli Paul and John E. Carter, from the University of Nebraska Press. Here was another eye-opener, actual photographs of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Having read and heard of this for over twenty years, perhaps the most famous and common historical reference in the Native American rights movement from AIM on, to realize there were actual photographs was for a time even disorienting.

The images I had in mind, whether from my imagination, movies or others’ descriptions, were so different from the often horribly banal aspects of the slaughter that it took some time to integrate them. Two itinerant photographers had been at Wounded Knee, and their work had never before been published until this book came out in 1991.

Another image out of our history came to me courtesy of Photographers in Arizona, 1850-1920, A History & Directory by Jeremy Rowe (Carl Mautz Publishing). Paging through this book, filled with striking images, I came across an image of a long line of men, disappearing around a corner, being guarded by other men with rifles. The caption reads “Sheriff Wheeler’s Deputies marching IWW strikers from downtown to the baseball stadium where they were held before being forced out of town during the Bisbee Deportation. Real photo postcard by George Dix, July, 1916.” Once again history came to life.

I am sure there are many other images collected in different places. Universities, museums, state historical societies, the AFL-CIO, must have them. There are of course many more pictures of workers as workers, child laborers, etc., than of workers, African Americans, women, and others in struggle. Perhaps a directory of those already established archives could be gathered. If people know of archives, they could send the information to me, and I could make it available.

Humble Work and Wanderings

But there are many other images and documents in danger of disappearing. The antique dealer who had the Colored Trainmen papers said there were some photos of the men in the basement, but they’ve never turned up. These papers were from the union officer in twenties Texas, who had moved to the Bay Area. When he died, his effects were purchased, and luckily the dealer kept the folder of papers. Often when people die, the papers and photographs are just thrown away—paper is not thought to have much value, and no one can recognize anyone in the old photos, so what good are they?

I’ve seen (and occasionally managed to rescue) such documents, while the dealer is carefully saving chipped china. And of course it is true that much of the paper is relatively worthless.

But there can be treasure for the history of “humble work” there too. If our society doesn’t value this history, they won’t spend much time rescuing it. It’s up to those of us who care about labor and the social movements of today to help rescue what is left from the struggles of our predecessors. Who else will value the precious papers, saved for over seventy years by an old African-American man, who in his youth participated in organizing under the harshest of conditions a union in rail in the South of this country? What would his photographs have been like?

Ken Appollo, through his sensitivity to those in a life of Humble Work and Mad Wanderings and his eye for an image, has shown us what is possible. Photography has the ability to capture reality like nothing else, and his collection makes nineteenth-century street life come alive for us once again. When you look into the eyes of those in the photographs, the tinker, the hawker, the rag picker, the organ grinder, you see them as real people, no longer characters.

You see them as your neighbor, as yourself.

ATC 77, November-December 1998

1 comment

  1. 12/16/08

    Dear Ken,

    Was visiting in NYC this past week and my old friend Christine Twomey asked for you…I checked the WEB and discovered your book, which looks to be wonderful…bringing back to life those unknown and unsung. Although we’ve not been in touch these many years (since around ’82 or so?), I congratulate you and wish you well!


    PS Look forward to seeing a copy

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