Louis Seaman and his friend, Joseph Polacek, Perth Amboy, NJ.

Louis Seaman and his friend, Joseph Polacek, Perth Amboy, NJ.
I took this photo of my uncle Joe and his friend Louie with a Holga.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Josef Polacek, Roselle Park, NJ, 1969

I could write at great length about the genius of applied geometry that went into the composition of this picture, which I believe was taken by my Uncle Joe. But it is even more interesting to know that on this fine September afternoon my grandfather, painting calmly at the top of the forty foot extension ladder, was 78 years old.

Lookin for the highway

What is it about a car that makes a man strike a macho pose? Like most Americans, cars have always had a significant place in my life. My mother took both of these pictures, and I remember each time choosing exactly where I wanted to stand. The white car is a 1964 Studebaker Lark, one sweet, safe, modest middle class car, which I remember having tons of room inside and a pretty noisy ride. How I wish now that she had kept it for me to drive instead of trading it in for a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Trading it in, however, was the only logical thing to do since I would not be old enough to drive for several more years, and the second picture shows where my mind was headed by then.

The 1977 Camaro, whose color was described in the catalog as “Firethorn Red,” had a small-block 305 and an automatic transmission on the column, proving I was not a hardcore motorhead. I had just finished washing it this summer evening and probably had beer on my mind. Equally important, I had recently discovered Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and was to read it several times in short order over the following months.

On an April evening a year later, two days after they got the reactor at Three Mile Island under control, I started out from this very spot and drove 1100 miles straight through to West Bend, Iowa. After a night’s rest, I drove 1100 more miles straight through to Logan, Utah. When I say “straight through” I mean stopping only for gas, bathroom and food, not sleep. Unlike Neal Cassady, who along with Kerouac was my hero at the time, I used only legal substances to stay awake. It’s amazing what a combination of youth, coffee, and inspiration can accomplish. Of course in another sense, I accomplished nothing, but that’s pretty much what youth is about. From Logan, it was a mere 800 more miles to San Francisco, and I would have knocked that off in one final session, save for a snowfall in the high Sierras that forced me to take refuge. Not being very socially adept at that age, I walked all over San Francisco alone for four or five days, hopped in the car and headed back East.

The Women and the Men, Roselle Park, NJ, 1967

That’s my aunt Anne and my mom in the top picture and my uncle John and my dad in the bottom one. I doubt they planned for the Polacheks to stand on the left and the Lowenburgs to stand on the right in each picture, but that’s just the way it worked out. Also interesting is that when I think of these family gatherings, I always remember my mom talking with my aunt Annie and my Dad drinking beer, smoking, and talking with my uncle John. The spouses rarely conversed, and when they did it was things like, “Did you remember to bring the pickles?”

I prefer the vertical shot to the horizontal one, because it shows more of the house in the background. I like the way the men are framed against it, the vertical corner line between the two upstairs windows running down between the two buddies, their suits contrasted against the strongly defined white aluminum siding with its horizontal slats.

Both guys were World War II veterans and had served in Europe. My dad landed in France shortly after D-Day, got frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge, and afterwards rolled all the way into Germany on the heels of Patton's army. I still have a piece of stained glass from the bombed out Cologne cathedral he sent home to my mom. Dad was on a ship headed for Japan when they dropped the A-bomb, which allowed him to return home to Jersey City. My uncle John was with the infantry in Italy and his unit liberated the town Anne’s parent’s lived in. Can you imagine the reception he got?

Sometimes after they’d had a few beers around the dining room table, my Uncle John would start to talk about army life and my dad would say, “Tell us how you won the war John.” Everyone would laugh and that would be the end of that. My dad never spoke about his war experiences except in the most general terms or about day to day Army life. He was in the medical supply corps and spent a lot of time around battlefields after the fact, so he probably saw some grisly things. Here, on this sunny spring day twenty years after they did win the war, things looked pretty good.

Bill Lowenburg and Joe Polacek, Roselle Park, NJ, 1956

I’m the guy with the round head and ten toes in the swing. My Uncle Joe, whose profile is so nicely framed in the dark rectangle on the side of the porch, is trying to get my attention while my mom snaps the picture. What a wonderful contrast of textures is presented in this image, between the horizontal slats of the porch siding and the shrubbery behind my smooth baldie. Uncle Joe, however, doesn’t know that I’m already looking directly into the lens as revealed by zooming in on the image with my computer. Even then, with less than two years served on the planet, I seemed to be interested in the process of picture-taking. One of my first memories, sometime around when this image was made, took place upstairs, on the floor above where my grandmother was standing on the porch: I’m fooling around on the kitchen floor with my mother’s camera, the one that took this picture. I’m looking through the viewfinder, trying to figure out why when I look down through the top I can see out through the front of the camera. “Of course, silly,” I say to myself, “it’s a twin lens reflex with an F 3.5 anastigmatic coated 60mm lens and a waist-level viewfinder!” Thirty five years later I buy a Mamiya with similar specs and use it to shoot my first book. Tonight, forty-nine years after this picture was taken, my mom’s camera is here next to me on the shelf in the studio as I write.

Josef Polacek, Jersey City, NJ, 1937

During the Depression my grandfather ran a bar and pool room at the Sokol Hall on Pine Street in Jersey City. The family of five lived upstairs. My grandfather was a gregarious fellow, not above spotting a countryman a drink, and allowing others down on their luck to run a tab. Naturally, this led to financial distress, and it was around this time that he sold the business to a friend. More than thirty years later I had the opportunity to watch my grandfather shoot a game of eight-ball, and he still handled the cue stick with authority.

This picture was probably taken by my mother and it immediately makes me think of the photographs of Andre Kertesz, the great Hungarian photographer, and Josef Sudek, my grandfather’s countryman, who became known as “The Poet of Prague” for his lyrical photographs of the city. While Kertesz and Sudek both served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, my grandfather escaped to the United States several years prior to the war. Sudek, incidentally, lost an arm in the war, but afterwards continued his photographic work undaunted, living until 1976. My grandfather survived him by five years, and Kertesz, in turn, outlived him by another five. I only wish my grandfather could have met the other two, especially Kertesz, because from what I know of his character I think they would have gotten along famously. Both men had warm, gentle, and for the most part, optimistic personalities. I also believe my grandfather might have cultivated his interest in photography if he had had the opportunity to study it. It is because of his humble but meticulous efforts stretching over six decades that the album containing this image survived.

The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the brightly lit area on the wall. Given the opportunity to reprint this image, many photographers might darken, or “burn,” this section slightly so as to focus attention on the subject. To my mind, it still works pretty well, to say the least. The Rembrandt-style light streaming in diagonally through the window creates a palpable texture on his shirt sleeves while also contributing to the mood. A shadow line falls just above his Josef’s brow, while his face is bathed in a softer light, which in many ways is the key to the success of this image. Also of interest are the parallel lines formed by the diagonal edges of the shadows on the wall, echoed by his left arm across his torso.

In addition to the handling of the subject within the space, which probably could not be improved upon, the dynamic tension of many different lines works greatly to this picture’s advantage. The line of his cuff extending up into the line of his vest serves to return the viewer’s eye to the subject’s face, rather than the “hot spot” up on the wall. Even there, the gods of geometry and photography graced the photographer, with the Josef’s head lining up near the point, just under the hypotenuse of the right triangle in the bright area. The top rail on the wainscoting behind him is also perfectly placed, serving as the backdrop for Josef’s chin while the lighter wall above provides contrast for the outline of his head.

Josef’s solemn glance up and out the window could be assigned to any number of fanciful imaginings, but let’s just say he is shown as the thoughtful individual he was. The ability of a great portrait to describe the subject’s character is evident in this work, which was snapped by a nineteen year-old girl with a box camera. Such images give all the weight necessary to the position that it is not the camera that matters, but who is in front of it and, more importantly, who is behind it.

Susan Polacek, Jersey City, NJ, 1913

My grandmother is on the right, photographed in a studio with an unknown friend. The matching outfits are probably Sokol uniforms, the Sokols being a social organization for Slovaks which revolved around gymnastics, dance, and camaraderie. I love the way the photographer placed them so that the fake window in the backdrop is on the right edge of the frame, the diagonal line of the curtain continuing down into my grandmother’s right leg and foot. Though stiff and somewhat contrived, he girls’ pose is still graceful and resolute, made all the more poignant by the debris scattered on the studio carpet. The horizontal line made by my grandmother’s left arm combined with the perpendicular white sash running down her leg serve to anchor the duo perfectly in the space. The other girl’s stance, by comparison, is less resolute. Her eyes show just the slightest tinge of doubt, and her grip on my grandmother’s raised hand seems somewhat tentative. Likewise her body seems a bit more frail, having not quite the presence of Susan’s stocky peasant build.

Susan Polacek arrived in the United States at age 14, penniless and with no relatives to meet her. She cleaned houses for “rich people,” later taking the ferry across the Hudson each day to clean offices in Rockefeller Center. She claimed the bathroom fixtures in “the big boss’s office” were made out of gold.

Consequent to these experiences, Susan was a resourceful individual, and could be tough when she felt it necessary. My mother tells the story of when one day, sixty or more years after this picture was taken, Susan ambled out of the kitchen to find my grandfather sitting at his desk, staring out the window, tears streaming down his face. Though we’ll never know the exact reason, my mother believes my grandfather was pining for the old country.
“Whatsamatta with you Pop?,” she said. “Come in de kitchen I just made nice coffee. Forget about it.”

A few years after this photo was made, my grandmother gave birth to my mother in 1918, my Uncle Joe in 1921 and my Uncle John in 1923. By the time she was twenty one, she had three children and her Sokol career had ended. Unlike my grandfather, who loved his homeland and had emigrated reluctantly, Susan had been cast out by her family and never expressed any interest in visiting the old country. She believed the United States was the greatest country on earth.

Josef Polacek, Jersey City, New Jersey, 1913

My grandfather, Josef Polacek, not long after he arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1912. Actually there was no Czechoslovakia yet, and his mountainside village, Miloshova, was on land under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a boy my Grandfather was made to learn Hungarian and to speak it in school. Faced with conscription into Franz Josef’s Imperial Army, he emigrated to the USA.

Though he only attended school for four or five years, he was regarded as the smartest boy in the village. This was confirmed by other family members when I visited his village in the 1960’s. Even then, the only access to Miloshova was a muddy mile-long footpath from the road. There was no running water or indoor plumbing in the houses. He once proudly told me how on the last day of school the teacher gave out apples to all of the students, and he was the only one who was given two. It is no wonder that a man with such humble origins would stand so proudly in his finery for the solemn occasion of having his portrait taken. What a prize to send back to the old country.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “an album full of photographs” was first referred to in an 1859 publication, thirty-some years after the invention of photography. It is assumed that prior to 1859 pictures were being stuffed into shoe boxes, envelopes and dresser drawers, as they are today. Refrigerators had not yet been invented, so their doors were unavailable for display purposes. Actually, for most people in the nineteenth century, photographs were regarded as singular objects. The average citizen neither made nor accumulated photographs. It was not until 1888 that George Eastman brought photography to the common man when he introduced the Kodak camera. The term Kodak became so synonymous with photography that Mark Twain, in his letters and travel books such as Along the Equator, wrote of “getting Kodak’d.”

Today it is estimated that 80 billion new digital photographs are taken around the world each year. Most of these images are not making their way onto refrigerators or into shoe boxes, but remain in digital form on computers. In many cases, the images never leave the memory card on which they were recorded. Apparently, for many people the act of posing for a photograph, taking a photograph, and then glancing at it briefly on the camera view screen is more important than possessing a print. Of course, billions of images are alive on what has become the world’s electronic refrigerator door: Flickr, PhotoBucket, Google Albums, MySpace, Facebook and the like. Prior to the Internet era, snapshot and family photography was much more of a private affair. Today, a significant portion of online snapshot images are viewed by complete strangers. It will be interesting in the coming years to see what type of social structure and ritual behavior evolves from this very new juxtaposition of private and public interaction.

The photographs in this brief series were sampled from photo albums kept by my grandfather, Josef Polacek, who immigrated to the United States from Slovakia in 1911. Over the next sixty years he took and cataloged his pictures into two thick albums which were kept in the book case in the front room of the house on 358 East Westfield Avenue in Roselle Park, New Jersey. He lived there with my grandmother, Susan, and my uncle Joe, both of whom you will see in the photos.

My grandfather took the vast majority of the pictures gathered in his albums, all with a Kodak Brownie box camera, which used 620 film. Many of his shots are just a tad soft in focus, probably because of camera shake and the fixed shutter speed of around 1/60th of a second on that particular model. A few of the photographs, including several genuinely excellent compositions, were taken by my mother, Margaret Lowenburg, using at least two different cameras. Another image, the one of my grandfather on the ladder, demonstrates an extraordinary innate sense of geometry and composition on the part of the photographer, and may have been taken by my Uncle Joe, who had remarkable artistic abilities as a self-taught musician.

The inspiration to write about these family photographs comes from John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs (Museum of Modern Art 1973). Szarkowski was for many years the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Through his efforts the works of photographers like Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and my mentor, Larry Fink, came to the public eye. Szarkowski, through his writing, and Fink, through his workshops and conversations over the past twenty years, have taught me the language of photography and I'm grateful.