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Thursday, March 18, 2004 10:33 pm

Finding beauty in everyday things

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From the Herbert Georg Collection: a window at Bressmer’s Department Store in downtown Springfield showed the well-dressed man what he should be wearing in September 1942.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

Just a few years ago, when our kids were still quite little, our family was watching an old black-and-white television program when my daughter allowed that she wasn't altogether enjoying the show. When we asked her why, she innocently asked whether the whole world was black and white "back then." She was disturbed by the existential fear of a shadowland reality, a world without color.

I know what she meant. I find that there is something about still-life photography, particularly black-and-white, that evokes in me an introspection that sometimes borders on melancholy. It is the same feeling I get when listening to certain music -- particularly music thematically related to the sea, such as Bernard Herrmann's score for the original The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Debussy's La Mer or Michel Legrand's score for Summer of '42. A more modern example is the ethereal 1989 Chris Isaak song (and video) "Wicked Game." The common thread is the very timelessness of earth, sea and sky and the immutable truth that what has always existed will always continue to exist, even after we are gone.

But for a brief notation that photographer Herbert Georg made identifying today's photograph, we would never know the who, when and where of the shop-window display. The photo caption reads simply "Bressmer's, September 21, 1942." That short memorandum makes a huge difference in the life of the image and gives the photograph, which contains not a single human form, a life. With that knowledge, the viewer is able to find an internal locus and ask himself or herself: Where do I fit into this image? Where do others fit into this image? In a way, it rescues the photograph from eternal timelessness and allows the viewer to impose his or her own reality (and meaning) on an otherwise meaningless picture.

Georg, whose career I sketched briefly in History Talk some months agp, was trained in the studio of his father here in Springfield [see "Georg captured a time when soda salesmen went door-to-door," Nov. 20]. Photography was his life's work and his passion. Mary Michals, the curator of the audiovisual collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library who assists in the selection of photographs for this column, says, "I don't think Herbert Georg ever took a bad photograph. He just knew what to look for. He was able to take anything and make it look appealing. He never had any professional training other than what he received from his father, but his is one of the best collections we have. None of it is bad. I don't think he can be beat."

Georg was primarily a commercial and portrait photographer, but he had the artist's eye. He found this display of Manhattan dress shirts in Bressmer's shop window and was able to take a prosaic, contrived subject and produce a simple image that is somehow charmingly uncontrived. His work is proof positive that commercial photography and art photography are not necessarily mutually exclusive disciplines.

Because Georg identified his subject, I was able to identify the other artist responsible for setting up the shot: Jack Wicks Sr., who trimmed the windows of Bressmer's from 1916 until 1961. He didn't just do the windows; he was responsible for decorating the entire store for every changing season and holiday. His daughter, Anita Wicks Marriott, of Springfield, recalls her father as "a good man and a hard worker. He was little but mighty," she laughs. "He loved his work and got along with everybody. He was well-liked."

She says that although her father, like Georg, wasn't professionally trained, "he had a gift, a real artistic side. He did beautiful work, and he took great pride in it. He won quite a few awards for some of his windows, and his work was highly regarded. He did not only the shop windows and store interior for Bressmer's but he also decorated Tobin's Jewelers at Christmastime. He also knew Charles Bressmer (whose father, John, founded the store in 1857) personally. I remember him taking me over to his house on Seventh Street a few times. My dad was awfully proud of my brother and me, and I think he just wanted to show us off."

Marriott says that her father was not a man to bring his work home with him. When it came to home interior design, she says, "He just let Mom do what she wanted to do. He worked until he was 78 years old. He was just a good man -- the nicest guy. I always loved my dad."

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