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In 2011 I posted a page from a photo album, with a series of booth images, of a woman named Esther. I love the photos in that post! In 2019, writer and blogger Elizabeth Gauffreau loved Esther so much, that she was inspired to write about her. Her story was first published on Open: Journal of Arts and Letters in July this year. It is a beautiful and poignant exploration of what Esther’s life might have been.

Please enjoy reading –

Esther on eBay

2018

Here we find Rodney trolling the antique shops of northern New England. Up and down the Granite State he goes in his shiny black pickup truck with chrome-plated dual exhaust. Rodney is not alone in what he seeks, and competition for buyers on eBay is fierce. Only the stunningly beautiful, the unbearably homely, the deranged, the demented, or the defective will get the attention of eBay buyers forced to be discriminating by indiscriminate sellers.

Today Rodney and his shiny black pickup truck are traveling east on Route 2 into Vermont. He drives right on past any place that looks the least bit upscale, the type of place featuring hulking French armoires that never should have emigrated and spindly chairs that eschew being sat upon. He is after the places that declare themselves antique shops in an effort to mislead, the true nature of their wares being all kinds of weird shit he can’t imagine any sane person ever thinking he could sell: empty Pez dispensers, jars of buttons, dirty crocheted doilies, dusty peacock feathers, dented tea kettles, souvenir shot glasses, stuffed animals with the mange who also have the misfortune to be missing their eyes.

Before long, Rodney comes upon a place that looks promising, a small building with a large overhang and plate glass windows. Annie’s Attic would have been a filling station in the days when Henry Ford offered any color the customer wanted, as long as it was black. Rodney maneuvers his shiny black pickup truck under the overhang and puts it in Park.

He hops down from his truck and goes for the door. When he pushes it open, a shop bell tinkles. He looks this way and that, spots the elderly proprietor seated behind a massive desk sorting receipts. When she looks up, Rodney gives her an upward nod in greeting, playing it cool. The elderly proprietor gives him a downward nod and goes back to her receipts.

Venturing into the shop proper, Rodney finds that the seas of crap he must navigate are heavy indeed: enough vintage bric-a-brac to overrun a small city, stacks of discarded books, cracked leather pocketbooks, antique coffee grinders, vintage egg beaters, misshapen ladies’ hats, rusted tools of no discernible function, and on and on with no horizon in sight.

However, Rodney is resolute. With the thoroughness of a tax auditor, he systematically examines one assemblage of crap and moves onto the next until at last he finds what he’s been looking for. On the bottom shelf of a bookcase next to a stack of Life magazines featuring outed Hollywood heartthrobs of yesteryear is a pile of antique photographs, each in its own protective sleeve with a wee price tag affixed to it.

Rodney begins his examination of the photographs, assessing each one for its eBay potential. He quickly sets aside the generic Victorian infants in fussy white dresses staring despondently at the camera and their equally despondent older selves. He also rejects the usual parade of portly Victorian gentlemen, some mustachioed, some bewhiskered, all smug. Unless one comes with a newspaper provenance as a serial killer of some kind, these gentlemen generate no interest. Into the “no” pile go the anonymous bridal parties and the great-great-grannies with no teeth slumped in front of derelict homesteads. Rodney holds back a few of the larger photographs, groups of defiant school children, multigenerational families with receding chins, but upon closer examination, these won’t fit the bill either. It’s time to move on.

As Rodney begins making his way back to the entrance of Annie’s Attic, he spies what looks like a slim black photograph album on a table piled with costume jewelry. When he opens the album, looking up at him coquettishly is a middle-aged woman in a veiled hat. She is unbearably homely. On the inside cover of the album in white ink is a name and a year: Esther Nusbaum, 1937. Rodney slowly turns the pages of the album. Centered on each page is a different photograph of the same woman. She is unbearably homely, she is making a damned fool of herself, and she has a name. Rodney will sell Esther on eBay.

 

1937

Esther shelves the last of the abandoned books: novels unfairly judged by their covers, a local history with print too fine for fading eyes, Encyclopedias Britannica scattered by careless school children. It is time to go home. She puts on her coat and hat, takes one last look around the reading room, and turns out the lights. She has a casserole to get to. She locks the front door and hurries down the broad granite steps to the street. She has a casserole to get to, a table to set, a dinner to eat in watchful, hopeful silence.

Esther doesn’t mind the long walk home from the library; in fact, she rather enjoys it. When she stops at the post office to collect the afternoon mail, the postmaster always speaks to her, calling out a personal comment about the family’s mail in a preview of coming attractions from behind the counter. Invariably, someone stops her on Main Street to ask if his interlibrary loan has arrived. Esther can walk home confident in the knowledge that anyone she meets on the sidewalk will greet her by name or, if out of earshot, wave a greeting instead.

She smells the casserole as soon as she enters the house. The boys have put it in the oven as instructed. She calls up the stairwell, “I’m home, boys!” but receives no response. After taking off her coat and hat, she calls up the stairwell once again, “I’m home, boys!” but again receives no response.

She goes into the dining room and takes a clean tablecloth from the buffet. The best part of setting a table has to be shaking out the folds of a clean tablecloth and floating it over the table. Suspended for the briefest of moments, will the tablecloth settle with a minimum of adjustment and fuss? Her best tablecloths are heavy enough to fall and settle of their own accord, but the everyday ones have a tendency to skitter and slide and not know when to stop. But Esther doesn’t mind. There is a hierarchy of tablecloths, and she respects it.

She leans over the tablecloth to smooth out the wrinkles, adjusting the low side higher and the high side lower. Jim will be home soon. She goes into the kitchen and takes the casserole out of the oven. On days she works at the library, she has to rely on casseroles, which does occasionally give her pause. Just as there is a hierarchy of tablecloths, there is a hierarchy of evening meals. A casserole ranks higher than a cold plate, but far below a roast or even cube steak. Esther knows this. She also knows that there is no vast recipe library extant to provide for an infinite variety of casseroles, so she relies on cheese, hot, bubbling, nicely-browned cheese, to get her through.

Esther is still setting the table when Jim’s car pulls into the drive. She hears him enter the house and drop his keys on the stand in the front hall. “I’m in the dining room, Jim!” she calls, but he doesn’t answer. He washes his hands at the kitchen sink, she calls the boys to come to the table, and they all sit down to eat.

No one speaks to Esther at the table, not even to direct the serving of his portion. Each takes his plate from her in turn, picks up his fork, and proceeds to set a steady rhythm of fork to plate to mouth to plate. When Jim looks up from his plate, she thinks he is going to ask about her day at the library, but he just wants the bread and butter passed to him.

Esther watches the faces of her sons as they eat. Oddly enough, they are growing into quite handsome young men, favoring neither Jim nor herself. She waits for one of them to make eye contact with her. When Freddy flicks his deep brown gaze in her direction, she takes it as her cue. “What did you read in school today, son?”

“As little as possible.”

“Don’t be rude to your mother,” Jim says from the head of the table.

Esther shakes her head and smiles, but not so much that Jim will notice. Freddy was not being rude, flippant, or facetious in responding that he read as little as possible. His response was a simple statement of fact.

After supper, Jim disappears into the living room to read the paper, while Freddy and Dwight disappear upstairs to attend to their homework, leaving Esther alone to clear the table, wash the dishes, and tidy the kitchen. When she is finished, she takes off her apron and goes into the living room to spend the rest of the evening with Jim.

As soon as she sits down, he lowers the paper and says, “Esther, we need to talk.”

“Yes, Jim?”

“You know you don’t need to work. I make a good living for you and the boys.”

“Yes, Jim.”

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a decent enough job. It’s not like you’re working in a factory or the five-and-dime. But you don’t need to work.”

“No, Jim.”

Esther waits, but when Jim doesn’t say anything further, she goes upstairs to get the novel she’s been reading. No sooner does she return to her chair and find her place in the book than Jim turns on the radio. She closes the novel and listens to the radio until it is time to go to bed.

Lying in bed next to Jim, knowing he is still awake, Esther plays over and over in her mind what she could tell him, what she would tell him, if given the chance. Jim, she would say as the cool night air from the open window traces the contours of her face, Jim, there is something reverential about a library, the light passing through the windows in visible, orderly shafts, the smell of books, of paper and glue, varnished wood, and secret cache of damp deep within the walls.  

In a library, voices are hushed, not out of fear of censure but to listen for the voices calling from all those books, beckoning you to the stacks, imploring your hand to tip the one book from its place, open it, read the first page, and become entranced. Cradling your selections in the crook of your arm, you approach the desk and whisper to me: I’d like to check these out, please, Esther.

How I love performing the ritual of the rubber stamp when you have chosen a book I have already read. Lay the book flat upon the desk, open the back cover, slide out the card, inscribe it with your name, stamp, stamp, close the back cover, look up, make eye contact, smile, our covenant complete. By the time we meet again across this desk, you and I, you, too, will have read Tender Is the Night, you, too, will have experienced love gone so terribly wrong, the mosaic of your life now scattered fragments.

The following day, Esther is on her way to the only photography studio in town, a small suite of rooms on the third floor of the Perley Block. Her hair is freshly marcelled, and she has covered it with a kerchief to protect it from the wind. She carries in a shopping bag a navy blue hat with a veil that matches the coat she is wearing, a brimmed hat she once bought on impulse and has never worn, the modest white hat she wears to church, and her fancy sweater with the dyed fur collar.

She enters the studio hesitantly, slips off her kerchief, looks this way and that. Mr. Atkinson enters the room with a smile and a pun: “Esther, my dear, you look a picture.”

“Do I?”

“You haven’t aged a day since my shutter snapped on your senior portrait.”

“Haven’t I?”

Mr. Atkinson gets right down to business, examining the contents of Esther’s shopping bag. He poses her with her coat on and adds the veiled hat, tilting it at a sophisticated angle. Let’s get you looking into the camera. Now off to the side, smile, very nice, very nice. Now, in front of the mountain backdrop. Hat off, straight ahead for me. Chin down, look up. Splendid, splendid! Let’s do the demure hat now, coat off, straight ahead for me. Hat off, tilt your head. We’ll do the last set with this lovely sweater and matching hat. Oh, don’t they match? No matter. Tilt it at a jaunty angle, more, just a little more. Perfect! Straight ahead, confident. Now off to the side, pensive. You’re doing beautifully, Esther! Now, turn for me, like this. Look over your shoulder, smile, magnificent!

“I’ll have the proofs done for you in a week, Esther. Would you like to pick them up, or shall I mail them?”

“Mail them, please, if you wouldn’t mind.”

A week later, the postmaster announces a manila envelope from Atkinson Studios. Esther takes it from his hand without comment and continues her walk home from the library as usual. She takes off her coat and hat, calls up the stairwell to the boys, and sits down at the dining room table to slide the contents from the manila envelope. She does indeed look a picture.

Included in the envelope from Atkinson Studios is a letter with instructions for ordering her prints. But Esther has no need of prints. She has her proof, spread out on the table before her, proof of the woman she was meant to be.

 

About the writer:
Elizabeth Gauffreau is the Director of Writing and Communication Programs at Granite State College in Concord, New Hampshire, where she is full-time faculty in English. Her first novel, Telling Sonny, has just been released by Adelaide Books.

USA Late 1950s

This young woman looks serious about her camera and to my twenty-first century eye, she looks like a professional photographer. Yet, despite its elaborate appearance, the camera is a budget, amateur model, called the Yashica-A. It was released in 1956 in various colour bodies and leatherette finishes. With its striking side flash-unit, perhaps for some, it also acted as a fashionable accessory, as much as a useful tool for a hobby?

This fresh faced girl is unremarkable in so many ways but there is something in her direct gaze at the camera and that half smile that makes me think she was quite formidable. I cannot see her aspiring to be a wife and mother, which most young ladies of the 1950s were taught to see as their life’s path. I would love to know what photos she took on the day she made this booth photo. Did she have her own darkroom? Are those photos floating about on an online auction site or being discussed in a photography forum? Perhaps they are still being loved and cared for by a family member?

Her crisp white shirt looks very smart in its simplicity and compliments her make-up free, jewellery-free and tousel-haired style. I’m almost positive she would have been wearing a neat pair of shorts with capacious pockets, perhaps to hold the light meter, some spare film and bulbs for the flash?

An interesting feature of the Yashica-A is that, like the much older box Brownie cameras, it features a waist level view finder. Many of you would know from long past family members, that you hold the camera down at tummy level to compose the shot, rather than holding it up to your eye. Both the photobooth image and the ones below, show the view finder open and ready to go.

She probably had the light meter in its leather case tucked into her pocket.

I bought this marvellous American photobooth image from Australian-American artist, writer, curator and publisher Damian Michaels. In some of his work, Damian uses vintage photographs as his canvas. In looking for images that resonate with him, he buys groups of photographs, possibly using only one or two for his pieces. I was recently the lucky recipient of a group of photobooth photos he could not use.

Showing how the camera was/is used.

The photo above is from the blog Zinc Moon.

1970s USA

Here we see two best friends in a photobooth having a fabulous time together. Their closeness is undeniable. In the second and third photos, the girl at the back cuddles her friend, who reacts with a spontaneous burst of dimpled joy.

The marker pen scrawlings of graffiti on the background curtain add something to the feeling of time and place of the strip. It suggests that this booth was in an unpatolled public area, somewhere like a railway, subway or bus station. Department store, bowling alley or night club booths never get this shoddy treatment.

Why, oh why, is this photo in my collection here in Australia? Why is it not being treasured by one of the girls or at the very least a member of their family?

Maybe there are some visible clues as to what happened? The strip was folded twice at the end of each photo, to make it easier to slip into a purse or handbag. That tells me that the photo was valued enough on the day it was made, for the owner to want to be sure it arrived home unscathed.

On the back, there are remnants of the sticky residue that is left from those dreadful, photo-destroying, self-stick albums of the 1970s. That suggests that the value of the images extended well beyond the day they were made.

There is a crease across the bottom of the strip. How could that have happened? If the girls had had a falling out, the owner of the strip would most likely have torn it up or thrown it out, not just randomly bent one edge. Could the crease be accidental and have happened when the album was being looked through? Those self-stick albums age in one of two ways. Either the photos are permanently fastened to the pages (oh, the horror!) or they slide out and end up all over the place. Some might fall on the floor or table. Others might be tucked carelessly back inside where they could easily be squashed and buckled.

Or could the strip have fallen on the floor and been used as a bookmark, until such time as it was replaced in the old album or a newer one? In that case it could so easily have been forgotten. Books tend to be given away or sold more often than other household items. I have been given some photobooth photos by a friend who found them while browsing in a charity shop, so that is my preferred theory. It consoles me to think that they were accidentally parted from the owner, not deliberately sold off due to apathy or avarice.

I’m sure you have heard such theories from me before. I hope anyone who reads this post, treasures their family memories and treats them with the love and respect they deserve. No more orphaned photos please!

I love this handsome, kind looking, older gentleman. He has a sanguine face and a gentle smile. There are some remnants of sadness in his eyes, as he has seen his fair share of trouble throughout his long life. However, he always pulled through it with a renewed sense of optimism and hope for the future.

This small photobooth photo comes from the USA and probably dates to the mid 1950s.

photoboothgiselesalvadordetail01

As some of you will know from reading my About Me page, I have a health condition that makes my life quite difficult. I struggle to sit up long enough to do a post on many days. On other days, I am just too fatigued to even try. Therefore, I really love it when someone enjoys something I have posted, enough to do some research on one of my photos. Brett Payne from Photo-Sleuth blog has done just that for one of my previous posts in the series The Actors’ Agency.

In Part 9 of the series, I introduced Gisele Salvador, an aspiring actress, or possibly model, from Paris. Brett found a Gisele M Salvador who married a Ronald E Kahn in Dade County, Florida in February 1959. His source was Ancestry.com. Could it be her?

My reply to his comment was, “I suppose it could be her, but remember she was living in and looking for work in Paris around that time.” Having assumed these photos were taken in the early 1960s, I stated that there was no reason she couldn’t have married an American in his home town and then moved with him back to France, or even had a very short marriage before returning to her country of birth. Of course there are many other possibilities, too, but I did think the likelihood of Brett’s Gisele and my Gisele being the same woman, unlikely.

Brett was undeterred and did some further research. In another comment he wrote, “There is a tree for this family on Ancestry.com, too. Ronald Elwin Kahn (1941-1977) married Gisele in 1959 at Alachua, Florida, and they had at least three children. The eldest son appears to have died there last year.” (2016) This was great information, but I still wasn’t convinced as there was no evident French connection.

Bravely, Brett worked on. He found an entry in the US Social Security and Claims Index which shows a Giselle/Gisele Marcelle Kahn, who was born 26 February, 1929 in Paris, France. She was the daughter of Jose Salvador and Marcelle F Perrin. “She must be the same person who married Ronald E Kahn in Florida in February 1959.”, he wrote. By this time, I had to agree.

“It appears she was married a few times, as the Social Security Index shows the following:
Oct 1959 – Name listed as GISELLE MARCELLE KAHN
Feb 1968 – Name listed as GISELLE MALLORY
31 Mar 1989 – Name listed as GISELE POLLACK”

So what we now know is that this beautiful, young woman married a very lucky American citizen, named Ronald Elwin Kahn, early in 1959. He was twelve years her junior. They were married in Florida and she apparently lived in the USA from then on, albeit with different husbands. It does strike me as odd that she was 30 at the time of her marriage and her husband only eighteen, but stranger things have happened. (That is of course assuming that his birthdate of 1941 is correct.) The date of her marriage suggests to me that the photo file-card, and these photos, date to a time prior to her knowing she was going to be leaving France, to live elsewhere. Assuming she was looking for work for some years before she met her future spouse, the photos must have been taken at some time in the mid 1950s and probably no later than 1958.

Brett also found out that Gisele became a naturalised US citizen on 9 January 1967 in New York and that she died on 8 May 2003 in Suffolk, New York at the age of 74. She was born in the same year as my mother. It is sad she has already passed on. My mum is alive and kicking, I’m very glad to say!

So a very big thank you to Brett for persisting with his research. I hope that someone from Gisele’s family will now be able to find this post and see these wonderful photos. Please thank Brett, too, by visiting his wonderful vintage and antique photo, history blog.

There are some other great photos in this series to come, and some previous posts you might enjoy browsing through.

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photoboothAboutABoy05

This is part five of a series of photobooth strips of the same American boy. For each year that there are photobooth pictures in this group, I have estimated his age. In these photos I think he would be 13 or 14 years old.

With an unusual hat and ill-fitting jacket, the young extrovert of earlier photos is still in evidence. He is still showing some joy at having his photo taken, but not nearly as much as in earlier photos. Rather than a lumberjack coat, this time he is wearing a lumberjack shirt.

Do you think his mother bought the jacket two sizes larger than needed, as mums do in the middle of these growth spurt years? Or could the jacket be his dad’s or a hand-me-down from an older brother? I imagine this boy to be an only child due to his appearing in so many photos without a sibling, so do not particularly like the hand-me-down hypothesis. And what type of hat is that? I have no clue!

To see the other photos of this young man, please click here. And while we are at it, you could click here to see another long series of photos of a girl called Becky or here to see another girl growing up in a photobooth, Donna.

photoboothAboutABoy04

This is part four of a series of photobooth strips of the same American boy. I estimate that he would be 12 or 13 in these photos.

There has been a gap of three and a half years from the time the last photos in this group were taken. Our young man is looking more grown up and acting that way. Gone are the crazy faces and comical poses. The photos suggest a growing maturity but happily his inner comedian is still there. You will see what I mean in the next post, as we continue to follow his progression from boyhood to young adulthood.

To see the other photos of this young man, please click here.

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