John Weber, head of the Arts and Sciences Institute at UCSC, commented that Gail was clearly a serious amateur — none of his photos are snapshots. Many of them could even be considered an anthropological study, with the comments Gail wrote on the back. According to Weber, snapshots and amateur photos mainly focus on families and people going on vacation: we tend to photograph ourselves, the people we like, and the places we go. While Gail was technically photographing places he went, he was living and working there, not on vacation, and he was also studying the people and culture while he photographed — a significant distinction. It’s not often you get the the sense that an amateur photographer was truly looking at what he or she shot.
Weber drew parallels between Gail’s work and the photoessays and photojournalism made popular by magazines such as Look and Life. Ten years before World War II, the Farm Security Administration hired photographers such as Roy Stryker, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee in order to garner support for its efforts to improve the living conditions of Southern farmers. The widespread images brought national attention to the trials suffered by those living in rural poverty. It was just the beginning of the swift rise of exposé-style photography. In Weber’s opinion, Gail was “operating almost like a photojournalist without a job.” His work is reminiscent of notable mid-century photojournalists like W. Eugene Smith, who was most well-known for his photoessays documenting the effects of a severe epidemic of mercury poisoning due to industrial activity near Minamata, Japan, and Dorothea Lange, who is famous for her portraits of the victims of the Great Depression. Smith and Lange exemplified the tradition of crusading journalism, and though Gail wasn’t setting out to expose a wrong with his camera, there is still a strong sense that he was attempting to humanize a place that the vast majority of America still thought of as exotic.
During our interview, Weber called my attention to a photo (designated ms0470_pho_1-20-1.png) of an Okinawan boat seen from the rear, so that the plane of the narrow stern is perpendicular to the viewer’s line of sight. The stern’s triangular shape divides the photograph perfectly in half, with the sides of the boat curving symmetrically out from it. Weber pointed out that only the nearest plane — the stern — was in foes, but there was still a considerable amount of light in the image. Gail would have needed to use a fast shutter speed to avoid overexposure and a wide-open aperture to achieve the shallow depth of field. “It was a conscious decision,” Weber said. Gail was extremely aware of what he was doing. Weber opened another photo, designated ms0470_pho_1-40-2.png. “Look at this,” he said, indicating the uneven tones in the sky, which I hadn’t noticed when I’d looked through them earlier. The uneven tones indicated that the film had been unevenly covered in the photo chemistry during the development process, an error with which I could sympathize. Even the most skilled photographers make mistakes; the inconsistency somehow made it feel more as though a real person had created these images.
Did Gail have a camera club at his school? Weber wanted to know. I had to admit I wasn’t sure. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask Geri. Weber mentioned that Gail might have drawn inspiration from Magnum Photos, a photographic cooperative (essentially a club owned by its members) founded in 1947 by Robert Capa whose photographers are famous for covering many historic events throughout the twentieth century. Weber thought Gail also paid close attention to popular photography magazines such as Look (founded 1935) and Life (founded 1936), both of which were known for their political and social photojournalism coverage. Weber drew parallels between Gail’s landscapes and those of Edward Weston, and a photo of an old woman with marriage tattoos on her wrist (ms0470_pho_2-29a.png) and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. In the latter case, Weber thought the parallels were likely unintentional, but also thought that if Gail was as serious as he seemed, he most likely knew about Lange’s picture. As for the former, Weber was fairly certain that Gail was consciously drawing on Weston’s style in his own work.
Many of Gail’s portraits place the viewer so that they look up at the subject; Weber told me this was a common angle in the 1940s and -50s. He pointed out that the majority of the photographs aren’t cropped very much; Gail’s just using what’s there in the image. He inquired about Gail’s cameras, and I told him what Geri told me — a Leica in Okinawa, a Hasselblad later (she thought). “Those are both German cameras,” Weber said, sounding impressed. “They were really only used by serious photographers.”
Weber said Gail’s self-proclaimed “best photo” (ms0470_pho_2-40a.png) reminded him of Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings from southern France. Again, Gail may not have been conscious of this similarity, but this parallel shows a certain intuition for artistic concepts. By following established artistic precedents, however unwittingly, Gail repeatedly proved that he really did know what he was doing.
Gail was probably an avid reader of photo magazines, which is how he would know the good photos from the bad when looking through his prints with Geri. The fact that he was a medical officer meant that he could control his own time a lot more, and not have someone constantly looking over his shoulder.
Weber recapped by saying Gail followed a culture of photojournalism, and that he would call him a serious hobbyist — not a professional, but not a casual snapshooter either. He was knowledgeable about the tools of his trade. He may have even been a serious aspiring journalist or artist. American hobbyist culture was largely a male thing, Weber said, citing common mid-century hobbies such as electric trains and woodsheds. He mentioned the group Citizen Scientists, which I’d never heard of before. “They’re largely useless,” he said, “but there’s always that guy who always wanted to be an astronomer, got himself a lot of nice equipment, and now finally gets to help with a big astronomy project.” Gail was like that, a dedicated amateur. And analog photography is a significant investment; unlike digital, it costs money to press the button, advance the film, and print a sheet of paper. Things have changed a lot since Gail’s time, in more ways than one.
"Every day, more photos are taken than in the first one hundred years of photography, and three hundred million of them are uploaded to Facebook," he said, shaking his head. "There’s an incredible amount of photos. It’s unbelievable, just unbelievable."
So, how about those photo magazines? What sort of photographic world did Gail’s work reflect? A major part of what gave popular photography magazines such as Life, Look, and Time their widespread appeal was the idea that photography “enables us to analyze and re-conceptualize our experiences to better understand the layers of reality that lie in between the phenomenon and the idea. In short, photographic inquiry is a means of contemplating the world” (Quan, 9). These magazines could show their readers people, places, and events from all over the world on a regular basis, thus allowing everyday Americans to travel the globe without leaving their living room. The earliest and largest of these magazines, Life, quickly established itself as a dominant source of news mainly thanks to its revolutionary method of telling stories: “[I]ts innovative uses of photography, and its massive diffusion within the upper and middle classes placed it in a unique position to transform modes of vision within the more privileged sectors of the United States” (Vials, 76). Life took the idea that a picture or series of pictures could speak more than a thousand words and used it to transform the American journalism scene into a format that, today, many people can’t imagine living without.
Despite its dearth of words, Life commanded the attention and respect of the vast majority of the nation, which in turn inspired many ordinary photographers to start examining their surroundings more critically. The magazine “grounded its authority on the mimetic quality of the photograph. The credibility of a Life photo-essay resided not in its authors’ overt claims to objectivity, not in its flouting the expertise of its authors, but instead… in the constructed notion that the photograph had the power to transparently represent the real” (Vials, 86). The history of photography has seen two major controversies: whether or not it counted as an art form, and whether or not it qualified as a valid representation of reality, given that, even before digital, photos could be edited, posed, or otherwise faked in some manner. Photo magazines strove to show that photographers didn’t manipulate reality, only conveyed it to others who were unable to be present at that exact instant. “In a transparent photograph, the presence of the photographer is minimal … It strives to convey truth and validity to the viewer that what is depicted naturally happened without being staged by the cameraperson” (Quan, 8). In short, the idea was that what you saw in a photograph was what was really there and what had really happened. Gail’s photographs reflect this mentality, as seen through the captions on the back that mainly describe what he found and how he found it. His photographs could easily become a photoessay for one of the magazines of the time, which shows how avidly he consumed the photojournalistic culture of the day. It’s probably safe to say that he was indeed inspired by both new and established artistic traditions.
During the course of my investigations, I found this quote from Army Air Force soldier James P. Gallagher:
"[C]ameras and photographs were strictly prohibited at stateside Army Air Force operating fields in those days [during the war], and when troops embarked for service abroad the army impounded all cameras. Yet, surprisingly, they were returned to their owners upon arrival overseas, and the AAF made no further objections to an airman’s use of a camera. We even had the Army Photo Service at our disposal. Once a roll of film had been exposed, we got a small drawstring bag from the mail orderly, put in the film and return address slip, and added the equivalent of fifty or sixty cents. In about ten days the prints came back. We could snap almost anything except radar equipment or dead Americans" (Gallagher, xix-xx).
Gallagher was on active duty in the Southwest Pacific as a communications officer in 1943 and, according to the book, hoped one day to put together a scrapbook of his time overseas. Gail may have used the Army Photo Service (or something similar) to develop at least some of his film, but the most interesting part of this revealing quote is that there were very few restrictions on camera usage. It seems likely as well that the rules concerning photography would have been relaxed even further in the days after the war was over, which most likely confirms previously-stated theories that Gail was able to photograph as he pleased. The rarity of collections like Gail’s indicates that very few people took advantage of this liberty, but those that did left behind priceless insights into a frequently overlooked place and time using a medium that had only recently exploded into popularity.
Gallagher, James P. With the Fifth Army Air Force: Photos from the Pacific Theater. JHU Press, 2001.
Garner, Gretchen. “Photography and Society in the 20th Century,” The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, ed. Michael R. Peres, 2013.
Quan, Roy H. “Photography and the Creation of Meaning.” Art Education, National Art Education Association, 1979.
Vials, Chris. “The Popular Front in the American Century: Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, and Consumer Realism, 1936-1941.” American Periodicals, Ohio State University Press, 2006.