charles van schaick: a voice from the passion of nature
The journalist Michael Lesy, who was responsible for the re-discovery of photographer Charles Van Schaick in the early 1970s, wrote that the best art always spawns other art. Lesy’s first book utilized Van Schaick’s work as the visuals in a gloomy surrealist montage of text and image, a creative exploration of the madness, crime, and mania that struck central Wisconsin during the economic Depression of the 1890s. A “counter-cultural cult classic,” that book is often mistaken as a work of history. In fact, as Lesy writes, it is hardly a history at all, but a further artwork, a mental projection upon the past. “The book was called Wisconsin Death Trip, which is what some people who used drugs at the time called hallucinations of death and rebirth. Those who read the book couldn’t decide if it was poetry or history, a fabrication or a discourse, a hoax or a revelation.” Lesy was 28 when he published Death Trip in 1973. Juxtaposing scintillating crime articles from small-town papers with Van Schaick’s commercial studio work and landscapes, the author — inspired by German and French surrealists of the World War I era — intended the book to be a “sledgehammer.” As he remarked in an interview in 2003:
“Everyone felt at the time [in the late '60s] that the potential reader of any visual book was jaded and numbed by trash. Whatever was published then — Life and Look had just gone under — it was a world of visual garbage. So, I tried to create sequences that would be interrupted by rather heavy-handed interventions to say, ‘Think and look again.’ I’m not sure if I would do that again. I also think, in general, the book failed because people are just, in spite of everything, left-brained. They read text — and the text overwhelms what they see. The text had one message — but it was meant to be combined with the messages of the images. The right-brained stuff. The right-brained stuff in the book is a very, very complex combination of things. Of course, there are funereal images, but there are images of… horse genitalia… The stallion and the young man showing his muscles. Families and youth and marriage and happiness. And the intent was to hope that one could create through this complex layering of information or collage-making a kind of soup bowl in which information would be mixed inside the brain of the viewer, and it would all be combined and sucked on and enjoyed. But it didn’t work that way. So people remembered the horror stories. And only remembered the horror stories in their reading. And the intent was something different.”
(Album, Magazin für Fotografie. http://album-magazin.de/michael-lesy-wisconsin-death-trip)
Yet Lesy recalled that he himself had first been drawn to Van Schaick’s work and the gory newspaper clippings re-published in Wisconsin Death Trip because, combined, those investigations humanized the American Midwest, where he found himself adrift as a young graduate student. Probably the most misunderstood, even maligned, American region, the Midwest rarely makes it into literature or art except in extremes — either of nostalgia or terror or their emotional derivatives. Countless negative literary tropes, from the age of Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River, Illinois, have portrayed the region both as a bastion of the great subdued and repressed human passions and as a place of overwhelming public Puritanism and mental small-mindedness, with all the flaws of the South and New England and Old Europe writ large against a bigger and more oppressive landscape. Some human types find the Midwest a cultural gulag, home to a sort of enforced flatness rivaling that of the equally stereotyped horizon. The reverse image is equally ridiculous: the Midwest of apple pies in the windowsill, a happy dirt lane over the farm road to the blissful one-room schoolhouse on the prairie, the virtuous, felicitous university of the plains.
The truth is somewhere in between. Lesy’s Death Trip, of course, has reinforced the negative image. But as he writes in the preface to The Forbidden Zone, his remarkable journalistic account of people who “deal with death” (from meat-cutters and detectives to hospice workers and pathologists), Van Schaick’s work and the long hours spent reading small-town papers on microfilm at the Wisconsin Historical Society were actually what helped him connect with this location. The wild mix of pain, madness, humor and joy that are so alive both in this place and in the documentary material that he unearthed in archives — this is what made it all seem worth investigating.
Lesy describes that process. He had came to Madison from Columbia when the University of Wisconsin had the greatest history department in the U.S. Intending to study Weimar Germany, he grew so bored with his PhD advisor that he set out to find another dissertation topic, one “sufficiently bloody and dramatic.” Up to then, he had known only European history, but landed on the assassination of Lincoln and impeachment of Johnson as having the requisite dark overtones. On the shores of Lake Mendota, he recalled in an interview, “I was sitting reading the newspaper, the New York Times every day… thinking ‘What a boring place.'” Then “one afternoon, I decided to take a break and look at a collection of photographs made in a small town in Wisconsin at the very end of the nineteenth century.” As he looked, captivated, at these commercial studio photographs made at the edge of the North Woods eighty years earlier, “I asked the [archivist] the name of the little town where all the pictures had been made. ‘Black River Falls,’ he said. He turned out the lights and I went to dinner.” The photos were the work of Charles Van Schaick.
The story of his attraction to Van Schaick’s work and the journalistic accounts he set alongside it is one less about a “documentary” impulse than about personal narrative. Lesy was the son of European Jews. His father had fled a Polish village during World War I and trained as a doctor in Ireland before emigrating to Cleveland in the 1920s. The rest of his family was incinerated in the Holocaust and the author grew up with his father’s stories of pain, death, separation, starvation, in Poland and even in London and Dublin, stories about “a little boy six years old, left alone to go out before dawn in the winter to say prayers for his father’s soul,” then trapped in a snowdrift, “crying and freezing,” while Polish village boys shouted “Kill the Kike!” Van Schaick’s work, Lesy recalled, where he saw an “amazed and fearful glance”, also reminded him of the extraordinary portraits made by August Sander in Germany between the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of Nazism. Sander had documented the “types” of German laborers, eventually falling afoul of the Nazis, “who had their own ideas about social types [and] found his to be subversive.”
Looking to gild Van Schaick’s pictures with surrealist meaning, Lesy delved into the Black River Falls newspapers — beginning with 1885, moving forward to 1890. This was the same nervous world of the European fin-de-siecle: no one reading Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, for instance, which appeared in 1916 but was set a generation earlier, could doubt that the impending mental breakdown of Vienna and Berlin, Stockholm and Paris, had sent out its rays to the North American Middle West. (Wisconsin, after all, was settled largely by Germans, Scandinavians, and French. Norwegian was the dominant language of many of its small towns into the 1950s, with English taking second place even on the eve of the Vietnam War. For almost a century, this state, more than any other, was virtually a displaced European country.) “Without knowing it,” Lesy exclaimed, “I had just stepped into the center of a conjunction of history, photography, and my own inheritance… Epidemic disease, suicide and insanity, interrupted by ghosts, arson, armed troops, murder, exhaustion, window breaking, and lake monsters… What I’d done was to discover a massive amount of pain, suffering, and death in the middle of America. In fact, what I’d described [in Wisconsin Death Trip] was a holocaust without Jews… Every day, I walked out of the light and into the cold, dark, quiet room where the microfilm machines were kept… I’d like to say that I was filled with sorrow and pity. But the truth is, I went mad. Six months later, when I woke up, I was changed, as changed as my father had been when he’d risen up out of his bed after nearly dying of rheumatic fever. My father had decided to be a doctor. I decided to be a writer.”
Since Death Trip’s publication in 1973, Lesy has unearthed other troves of under-appreciated or forgotten American photos, from the immense archives of Caufield & Shook in Kentucky (which led to Lesy’s book on Louisville in the 1920s, Real Life) to those of the prolific Manhattan street photographer Angelo Rizzuto, discovered in 2001. Though sometimes called a historian of photography, Lesy is a literary journalist, and remains perhaps as much of an artist as he was in Madison, Wisconsin, back in 1971. (His other books have also pursued the morbid but oddly quickening fascination with crime that began when he dug into rural Wisconsin papers of the supposedly “Gay Nineties.”)
Yet if it is difficult to look back to a time when Charles Van Schaick’s remarkable images could be appreciated “pre-Death Trip” (and before the opera, play, hard rock band, and “fiction documentary” that Lesy’s book spawned), some of that man should be resurrected and the photography put on more solid feet than the “dark” emotions with which it is commonly associated. Van Schaick died in 1942 in his old age, having no idea that his work would be transformed into a gothic chamber of mirrors for the coming LSD generation. In fact, remarkably little of his work is morbid, though it undoubtedly documents a dying world.
A surface reading of his commercial work combined with apparently more personal images show that Van Schaick was a light-hearted man with a healthy recognition of the dark side of life where it emerged — though since most of his work was for paying clients, it is difficult to read. He certainly deserves credit for not presenting the chest-thumping view of small-town life, the kind of photographs the adulatory Goodspeed county historians might have made had they been behind a lens. As literary movements often dove-tail with developments in photography, Van Schaick can perhaps be called a realist or populist, somewhat in the vein of his contemporary Carl Sandburg. Like the poet, the photographer is deeply human, romantic at times, but perhaps also skeptical of “the people” and an idolized version of “progress”. (“The people, yes…”, Sandburg says, who “go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds”, “hero and hoodlum, phantom and gorilla.”)
So little has been published on Van Schaick (even Lesy’s Death Trip is hardly “about” him) that few readers of the surrealist book where his work came back to life know what the man even looks like. Yet he appears in several of his own photographs, perhaps (I argue) even in his most famous and haunting portrait of death.
At least five definite portraits of “Charlie” Van Schaick survive. The earliest is a “Self-Portrait of a Man,” made in his Black River Falls studio the year he opened it in 1879. (He shared the building with a dentist’s shop.) He looks like a somewhat stern 30-something photographer, wearing a long Shaker coat. There is also a photo of him with his wife and sons in the family dining room, probably taken in the early 1880s. All later photos show a much less stern-looking figure.
(Van Schaick family. WHi-46087.)
(Studio portrait of Charles Van Schaick and son. WHi-56741.)
The more interesting early portrait of Van Schaick is also a self-portrait. On the surface, this is merely another “precious” commercial photo, one of many thousands made at the time, a generic studio image of two people “playing” for the camera, acting out some domestic scene. Even during the first infant decades of photography, before the Civil War, such images were already being churned out, perhaps as a response to the very nature of the new art form itself, which involved tremendously slow exposures that required a “grave” look — though perhaps also in rebellion to pre-photographic standards of portraiture in paint and charcoal.
(Portrait of Charles Van Schaick and boy. WHi-57003.)
The significance of the photo is hardly visual at all, though. The boy Van Schaick is hugging is not his son, but a Ho-Chunk boy. With the Menominee, Ojibwa, and other tribes, the Ho-Chunk (historically called the Winnebago) were the Europeans’ predecessors in the North Woods and on the prairies of southern Wisconsin. They were also the builders of the fascinating animal-shaped effigy mounds that still dot the watersheds they hold sacred, earthen artistic representations of the spirit animals (bears, lizards, turtles, and Thunderbirds) that have animated their beliefs, stories, and understandings of the landscape. Like most of the Midwestern and Eastern tribes, the majority of the Ho-Chunk were forced west to the Great Plains after European settlers came to Wisconsin in the 1830s. Though plagued by smallpox and dispossessed of most of their land, a few remained in the vicinity of Black River Falls, where many have returned and where they maintain their tribal headquarters today.
While much of Van Schaick’s commercial work with his white neighbors is predictable, his extensive work with the Ho-Chunk is extraordinary despite the fact that, compositionally, it is identical. In the Van Schaick collection in Madison, nearly half the surviving 3,000 images are of his Native American neighbors — often taken with a portable camera outdoors, but just as frequently in his studio with the finest camera he had. And unlike other photographers who claim to have “documented” American Indians, Charles Van Schaick did not exoticize them or “set the scene.” Edward Curtis’ studio work, the most famous body of pictures ever taken of them (Curtis became a photographic George Catlin), were set up to give the impression that they had been taken “in the wild.” Even those that were actually taken there were very much inventions designed to give an impression of spontaneity and authenticity. Van Schaick’s images, by contrast, are honest representations of the way the Ho-Chunk lived in Black River Falls at the turn of the century, not imaginary or romantic projections. As early as 1880 and as late as the mid-1930s, he was making portraits of them in his studio (perhaps for free, perhaps for the same rate he charged his other sitters). Though these individuals, too, display an “astonished gaze” before the mysterious camera — also a sadness and gravity even deeper than that of the artist’s white clients — they are not “dressed up” by him. In a sixty year career as remarkable as Mike Disfarmer’s in Heber Springs, Arkansas, Van Schaick portrayed the Ho-Chunk as they wished to be portrayed, not as noble savages or a “lost race”, but as neighbors still very much “here”, even as thoroughly modern Americans, sometimes sporting the same bobbed haircuts and clothing as their white neighbors.
(Grace Decorra Clay Whitegull, circa 1910. WHi-63243.)
(Kate Eagle and Minnie Eagle, circa 1910. WHi-60665.)
(Studio portrait of Edward Funmaker and Frank Washington Lincoln, circa 1900. WHi-61269.)
It is intriguing to ask whether his best-known image of death, known even to the most unimpressionable reader of Wisconsin Death Trip, presents a mystery in the search for the “true face” of Van Schaick. The image in question is so powerful, so strange and deeply personal, so “unprofessional” and uncommercial, so unlike the standard memorial photographs his clients commissioned him to make, that it seems unlikely to me that this picture was made for anyone but Van Schaick himself.
As reproduced in Lesy’s book, the face of the man in the doorway is invisible, yet the original negative makes it clear that this is potentially Van Schaick’s. I do not know if he lost a daughter around 1890. If this is not his daughter in the coffin, he appears to have made the image in his studio, not the private home where the girl probably died. Visible in the corner is a pile of tapestries, the ones he spread over couches and chairs for customers to lounge on during portrait sessions. Is this even an “anti-photo,” a radical inversion of the orthodox genre of the memorial photo? Other signs indicate yes. As photographers often do in self-portraits, someone has taken this man’s measurements wrong, as if the doorway or the negative were a coffin too short for its occupant. Working with a glass-plate negative in a low-light setting, Van Shaick’s exposure had to have been over a minute, giving him (if this is the man we see) sufficient time to open the shutter and walk into his portrait. Moreover, a moving, vibrant, impatient child could never have been the subject of a long-exposure experimental still-life. And had he wanted to make an unsettling and strange image of this type with a client’s deceased child, I doubt his customers would give him that chance.
(Small girl in coffin. WHi-11995.)
Franz Kafka, a skeptic of photography, remarked once to his friend Gustav Janouch: “Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling… This automatic camera doesn’t multiply men’s eyes but only gives a fantastically simplified fly’s eye view.” It is, perhaps, by reading an auto-biographical or emotional narrative into such images as this one of a dead girl that one can rise above Kafka’s correct observation that the camera does not, really, “capture” reality. Rather, intelligently, “archaeologically” read, the camera and the photo can point toward the direction of reality. Reality, to me, seems exterior to many of Van Schaick’s images, yet seen as a whole, as a mixture of comedy and tragedy, of loss and gain, they are guide-posts toward significant truths. As Robinson Jeffers expressed it, talking about a “harder mysticism” than the one we think we have expressed in art or philosophy: Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only / The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s; / The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality.
Moreover, as Bruce Davidson said of his own work — he could have said it of Van Schaick’s — “Most of my photographs are compassionate, gentle, and personal. They tend to let the viewer see himself. They tend not to preach. And they tend not to pose as art.” Better still that the artist remained (and remains) poorly known. Like Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Franz Kakfa, like Mike Disfarmer and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Charles Van Schaick was an obscure, little-known figure to his contemporaries, working in a place the art world labeled a remote backwater, seldom traveling beyond the town he called home. Black River Falls was Concord, Amherst, a back alley of Prague en route to the castle, Heber Springs, or the abandoned buildings of Lexington, Kentucky, that Meatyard found to be inspirational to his own practice of Zen.
In introducing a small gallery of this photographer’s work, it strikes me that there is a deep and literally ecological interest to Van Schaick’s photographs that is seldom addressed. What Michael Lesy called “a holocaust without Jews… [site of] a massive amount pain, suffering, and death in middle America” was, in a very definite sense, just that: what happened in the North Woods of Wisconsin in the late 1800s was nothing short of an environmental and cultural holocaust.
This great event was not restricted to Wisconsin — it was a global, centuries-long tragedy. But the once-phenomenally wild American Midwest bore a tremendous, agonizing burden during this huge environmental collapse, the demolition of the old wildernesses that humans had known since the beginning of the species. In fifty years, farmers, loggers, and industrialists utterly changed this place. Northern Wisconsin, in particular, was all but completely logged-off by World War I, so much so that it was practically ruined for human economic purposes afterwards and was called a “cut-over district”. It is one place environmental historians always study. (Today, the Cut-Over has been largely coaxed back into forest, though it will never be farmed again and most of the old wildness has been sapped out of it. How of much of that wildness is gone is essentially erased from our collective memory.) Moreover, the human population of the North Woods, like most of the rural Upper Midwest, peaked in the 1920s and will never return. Those days are done. But these pictures were taken there, at the edge of the Cut-Over.
Van Schaick’s landscape images captured some of the climax of this forest “economy” (if wholesale ravage and industrialism can be called “economy”). No doubt, like many bad things, the pillage of nature was nevertheless full of many beautiful human moments, lived in direct encounter with the “wild” and in the shadow of its “passion”, to employ a religious phrase really meaning a destruction where love is present. In truth, if there is only one thing, simple but true, that must be said of Charles Van Schaick’s images, it is this: they are photographs of humans living in the shadow of nature while nature is on the way to its own cross. Like the Christian hero, however, Nature does not die outright. As we see in the work of this photographer, the citizens of Black River Falls — natives and newcomers alike — are wrapped in a world of wood and earth, from birth to death, from cradle to coffin, informed in large measure by that passing, that passion of nature, and the subtle weave of its vanishing but ever-present life into the material of their own lives. Nature, here, is something of a relic, yet a relic, we know, is a powerful object, seized up again to quicken things that are, themselves, dying.
There is, perhaps, also a very specific “dark memory” underlying some of Van Schaick’s work. His relatives, originally millers in upstate New York, were directly involved in the lumber business along Green Bay and other parts of northern Wisconsin and Michigan. (Eventually they expanded their business out of Ludington, Michigan, to another Ludington, a lumber town in the virgin pine forests of southwestern Louisiana near Lake Charles. Today it is a ghost town, abandoned since the 1940s.)
Yet even without this family connection to the logging industry, doubtless Van Schaick was aware of the massive fires and real ecological terror that were routine occurrences in the Great Lakes states at the end of the nineteenth century. During the same week of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, three other huge burns engulfed millions of acres of northern forest land. In Michigan, the Manistee and Huron fires destroyed about a quarter of the state. Rebuilding Chicago, at that time a wooden city, led to the almost complete deforestation of northern Indiana and much of Michigan. Lumbering operations, coal- and wood-burning trains, and the draining of wetlands for agriculture led to further conflagrations as nature was ripped open and the scattered debris caught fire.
Nature was not the only victim of this violence. In Peshtigo, Wisconsin, close to the shores of Green Bay, and in parts of the Door Peninsula adjacent to it, as many as 3,000 people died during the same mega-event that spawned the Chicago Fire. Some said the death of Biela’s Comet, breaking up in the atmosphere, was the cause. Others blamed the Irish. But of course it was dry tinder and wind and carelessness that caused these disasters. In the tragic Peshtigo firestorm, that October of 1871, a literal hurricane of flames consumed an entire corner of Wisconsin. True reports were sent in of parents killing their children before the wall of fire arrived, sparing them an even worse agony. A French priest, Father Perrin, wrote of victims drowning or dying of hypothermia as they took refuge in the Peshtigo River. A tornado of fire threw houses and train cars into the air. Two of the most amazing and terrifying stories were reported in a newspaper article in 1921, fifty years after the event. Lesy skipped it, but it could have been a centerpiece of his book. Amid the roaring flames, this happened:
“A woman in the Sugar Bush started for the village with her children in a wagon. On the way she found the road blocked by a fallen tree. She immediately cut one horse loose, got upon it with her children, and succeeded in saving them all. On the river bank she gave birth to another child. A sadder case was that of a Norwegian woman who reached the riverbank in a fearful burned condition, succeeded in crossing the river, and there gave birth to a child and died. The sight is said to have been agonizing in the extreme.”
Michael Lesy was interested in human psychological responses to a farm crisis, but he could have written a similar book about the psychological toll of environmental destruction. And perhaps he did. After all, there have been four great economic depressions in American history (we are living in one of them as I write this), all of them brought on in part by a contempt for nature’s limits and a worship of power and wealth. The real danger of living on the edge of the North Woods in, say, 1890, was analogous to living in the presence of a mad, dying creature, a world we very much still live in. Some of this must have woven itself into Van Schaick’s images. As nature walks to its Golgotha, it will ultimately survive, but as we inevitably walk with it, surely our feelings of loneliness, exhaustion, stress, grief, and homesickness (the same that sometimes pervade these portraits and landscapes) are assuredly not sprung from our own agonies alone. The sadness in the faces of the Ho-Chunk, who lost so much of what they knew and loved as home, will gradually become ours.
VAN SCHAICK: A GALLERY
Woman diving from a rowboat. WHi-60306.
Girl looking down river. WHi-55717.
Couple in cutter sleigh. WHi-54138.
Woman and infant. WHi-54176.
Horse with a long mane. WHi-24682.
Two men in a wagon pulled by a white horse. WHi-43281.
Three girls in field. WHi-47448.
Tree sections at sawmill. WHi-91811.
Burning building. WHi-42622.
Medical students playing with equipment. WHi-56265.
Open casket with body of European American man. WHi-62685.
Man on sunken boat. WHi-48441.
Julia Ormsby bathing baby. WHi-28604.
Women in garden. WHi-54173.
Crowd in country. WHi-44143.
Women holding snakes. WHi-56245.
Men boxing. WHi-55991.
Lutie Franz in nude flexing back. WHi-28706.
Studio portrait of two women. WHi-46127.
Two women dressed alike. WHi-57000.
Portrait of Clara St. Cyr and Lucy Davis, circa 1900. WHi-10151.
Studio shenanigans. WHi-10308.
A corpse on her deathbed. WHi-64109.
Deceased man. WHi-64110.
Twin infants in coffins, circa 1886. WHi-4996.
Infant in coffin. WHi-60109.
Kate Thunder and mother, circa 1891. WHi-63043.
Emma Mary White Greencloud-Redcloud Thunder and Sally Dora Redbird Goodvillage Whitewater, circa 1905. WHi-63400.
Three workmen. WHi-43076.
Ice harvesting on the Black River. WHi-89312.
Log cabin and corn crib. WHi-53563.
Man chopping wood in yard. WHi-54145.
Men working on building. WHi-43261.
Men working on powerhouse. WHi-43253.
Loggers pose on railroad tracks, circa 1896. WHi-1964.
Log jam, circa 1895. WHi-10206.
Portrait of children in costumes. WHi-58172.
Werner Drugstore. WHi-90305.
Team of horses with winch. WHi-43096.
York Iron Works. WHi-91830.
Team of horses with winch. WHi-43089.
Jen Parson Kelly on sidewalk. WHi-28597.
Girl posing in greenery. WHi-53365.
Man in boat by York Iron Works. WHi-91845.
Men near brick kiln. WHi-43104.
Relaxing on a hillside. WHi-54532.
Studio portrait of a woman. WHi-94382.
Portrait of a nun. WHi-57481.
Green Grass with pistol and dog, circa 1880. WHi-63532.
Henry Greencrow, circa 1900. WHi-62834.
Nellie Winneshiek Twocrow Redcloud and Kate Winneshiek Lonetree, circa 1901. WHi-63048.
Ho-Chunk girl and boy with smallpox. WHi-63929.
Ho-Chunk woman walking across snow. WHi-64093.
Ho-Chunk woman with child, circa 1887. WHi-60605.
Portrait of two unidentified Ho-Chunk boys, circa 1900.
Studio portrait of Ho-Chunk women. WHi-61642.
Albert Thunderking Lowe and Edward Funmaker, circa 1905. WHi-61271.
Henry Rice Hill (SanJanMonEKah), circa 1900. WHi-060910.
Nancy Davis Funmaker Whitedog, circa 1930. WHi-60646.
Marie Big Hawk Whitewater holding her baby Clyde White, circa 1936. WHi-60567.
Three people on a ladder, circa 1899. WHi-29251.
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- July 25, 2013 / 8:43 pm