Monday, January 14, 2008

The Forgotten Village by Alexander Hackensmid

There are many books that I own and enjoy immensely but have trouble finding something interesting to write about besides giving simple praise and a recommendation. Sometimes, with a little digging and research, I come up with an angle that sparks waves of inspiration to write and other times, I give up and save you some pocket money. Recently I was just about to give up on one such title when I uncovered a whole host of interesting little facts that connect the dots with some history and unexpectedly provides a view of photography within the larger canopy of another artistic medium.

This unexpected treasure is a small book called The Forgotten Village published by the Viking Press in May of 1941. Originally a film of the same name directed by Herbert Kline and written by John Steinbeck, The Forgotten Village book is 136 film stills accompanied by Steinbeck’s text narration.

The story is rather simple: in a small Mexican village named Santiago, children are getting ill from contaminated well water and a young man, named Juan Diego, ventures to Mexico City to seek help from doctors and scientists. Upon testing the well water, the doctors discover parasites are the cause of the illnesses and a struggle between the traditional healing beliefs of the village elders and modern science takes place. Siding with the scientists, Juan Diego is subsequently banished from the village where he then he makes his way back to the Mexico City to study medicine and help modernize traditional thinking. “The change will come, is coming, as surely as there are thousands of Juan Diegos in the villages of Mexico.” And the boy said, “I am Juan Diego.” Cue dramatic music. The End.

The film was apparently made in semi-documentary style using real villagers as characters that “act out” the filmmaker’s message about a real problem afflicting many rural villages. Although I have not seen the film, I imagine it being comparable to Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico shot in the early 1930’s with a similar semi-documentary approach.

What makes the book for The Forgotten Village so interesting for me is the quality of the photography. The book is comprised of “stills” from the film (I do not know if they are individual frames taken directly from the movie film stock or, as is common with set photographers, the photos are made in the approximate sightline of the movie camera) but there are many images that stand so strongly on their own they transcend being a part of the greater film.

That quality of the images made me look to who the director of photography was on the picture and it turns out to have been Alexander Hackensmid. Hackensmid, whose name has many different spellings, was one of the leading avant-garde photographers and filmmakers in Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s. He later changed his last name to Hammid and for five years he was married to the legendary filmmaker Maya Deren. He also won an academy award for Best Documentary Short in 1964 for a film called To Be Alive! which was made to be projected on three separate screens at the same time. His earliest film, Bezucelna Protozoa (Aimless Walk) can be seen on YouTube.

As if that wasn’t enough, I looked into the director of The Forgotten Village Herbert Kline’s background and that opened up a few other noteworthy associations. In the 1930’s, Kline was a part of the New York Film and Photo League which in 1936 divided to form the Photo League that we normally associate with the likes of Weegee, Aaron Siskind, Sid Grossman, Morris Engel, Dan Weiner among many others.

He was one of the first Americans to go to Spain during the Spanish Civil War where he made a couple of documentaries, one called Heart of Spain in 1936 and one a year later called Return to Life which he co-directed with none other than Henri Cartier-Bresson. Oh…and almost forgot, Heart of Spain was edited by Paul Strand.

And one last tidbit to bring things into the modern age for all of us youngsters, in 1940, Kline directed a documentary about World War II called Lights out in Europe and a young twenty-seven year old Douglas Slocombe worked as a second but unaccredited photographer. Slocombe would later be responsible for the cinematography on all three of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films from the 1980’s. (He is also known for not once using a light meter in the shooting those films.)

Winding my way back to the actual subject at hand, besides the photography, The Forgotten Village book is constructed in an interesting way with continuous pairings of photographs across the page spreads. Many of these pairings have their own wonderful dynamics in their design and narrative flow. That, and the fact that the book is printed in gravure on a thick paper stock that has a nice tooth to it, giving it a slightly speckled flavor.

It is interesting to me how I process the images in this book as well. Knowing that they are individual photos pulled from continuous flow of 24 frames per second, it is often difficult to see them as still photos - as incomprehensible as that may sound - yet it is that stillness that is the seduction. It does take a certain mindset to fully detach this book from its projected counterpart.

The Forgotten Village is available cheap from several sources. Personally I wouldn’t spend more than $15-20 dollars but it is very well worth taking a look. For those interested in folks like Pierre Verger, whom I have written about before, will probably not be disappointed.

There is one other book that I own called M, La Maudit which is currently in cold storage (so I cannot share it with you right now) in the 5B4 Whiskets Center for the Understanding of Compulsive Behavior Research Library Storage Facility in Medford, New Jersey. M, La Maudit is a collection of film stills from Fritz Lang’s masterwork M. I bought this book in Paris on the strength of the individual “stills” as distinctive photographs separable from the film. Of course, that strength laid in the hands (or eye) of Fritz Arno Wagner who was responsible for the photography on not only M but Testament of Dr. Mabuse and G.W. Pabst’s Three Penny Opera and Kameradshaft and…

goddamn the internet…

Book Available Here (The Forgotten Village)