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Posed And Candid

May 2024
1min read

This picture of a famous trio is very clearly posed —with all parties in their Sunday best, on chairs moved out on the lawn—but is matchless. Alexander Graham Bell, who spent much of his life working for the deaf, took on Helen Keller, both deaf and mute, and blind besides, and found her a great teacher, Annie Sullivan, the “miracle worker.” Here, in 1894, Bell is “talking” with his hand into Miss Keller’s right palm, while with the fingers of the other she “listens” to the lips of Miss Sullivan. It is a “conversation” that no one would have thought possible, among three brilliant people. It is only the beginning of their achievements, and it would melt a heart of stone.

Cameras followed this inventive man throughout his life, snapping away candidly as well as formally after photography became easier. Here he is again with young Helen Keller in 1901, jabbering away with her in hand signals to get her to feel the vibration of the wire to an experimental kite. She must feel it soar in the wind. The wire, alas, is too thin to register in this slightly blurred photograph. The great Bell collection is in the Library of Congress, beautifully organized.

Candid is a weak word for this picture; it is a double, even triple, stroke of luck for the photographer from George Grantham Bain’s news service, once the main source for news photographs in New York, now in the Library of Congress. The surprised celebrities in an open streetcar are matronly Emma Goldman, the avowed anarchist and former editor of that unsettling movement’s paper, The Blast , and her protégé Alexander Berkman, who is sitting in the background, wearing a straw hat and glasses. It is 1917, America has entered World War I, and Berkman and Goldman are on trial for advocating pacifism. The man in between them might be a court officer as escort (the police used ordinary transportation to move people about in that day). Both had done time before, Berkman for a failed attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the steel magnate, Goldman for inciting to riot (1893) and advocating birth control (1916). For their antiwar efforts they were jailed from 1917 to 1919, when a rising young official of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover, got them deported to their native Russia. It remained throughout his life one of the FBI chief’s favorite accomplishments. The deportees, quickly disenchanted with bolshevism, moved out as soon as they could, Berkman to France, Goldman to England, France, and Canada. She published several books, among them My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924). But I have strayed from the photograph and its extra stroke of luck: if you will look at the advertising car card above our two pacifists, you will see one of James Montgomery (“Uncle Sam Wants You ”) Flagg’s recruiting posters.

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