The Traveling Studios of B. & B. Real Photo Postcards, 1911-1914
Ben inspected the tripod’s mended telescopic leg, making sure it was secure. He reassembled his gear and himself after having been found, more sodden than sober, on a tote road outside the logging camp. This was due to some late day mishap he didn’t quite remember when the road turned to a corduroy of logs for a stretch. His motorcycle was scraped but operational, stowed under a tarp near the office that doubled as a company store—where he’d purchased a new shirt, his own ruined by the great muddy and rocky skid-out. His bedroll had dried out thanks to the heat from the cookhouse oven, where dozens of loaves of bread were slowly baking; his saddle bags were intact, and his camera gear—crated in its traveling box and wrapped in canvas and bracketed to the bike—had survived yet another jolting adventure, even if the bracketing itself needed banging back into shape. His shoulder hurt and his face was scraped, the embedded dirt looking like an unshaven patch of beard until the cook sponged it out with a clean rag. He couldn’t put weight on his ankle at first, but the consensus between the foreman, Robertson, and the cook and the boss teamster who was the closest thing they had to a vet and therefore the closest thing they had to a doctor was that the ankle probably wasn’t broken. The traveling postcard photographer was laid up, but apparently still in business.
Propped up on the cot in the office, he had discovered himself their interim clerk, the usual occupant of these quarters having met with a small accident that kept him in town getting a mangled toe amputated. Ben’s new duties included selling tobacco and sorting the mail and writing up the cook’s additions—condensed milk, raisins, flour—to the next order for provisions.
He’d traveled advance for a circus or two—putting up posters and arranging provisions while on the road—and had talents for calculating and ledgering. He could convert barrels of flour into numbers of buckets of flour paste and buckets of paste into numbers of sheets of circus posters plastered on barns and sheds and fences. He and the cook had just filled out an order that included enough flour to paste lithographed posters across the whole region, posters of parades and elephants and high wire acts and clowns and horses galloping with flying manes and spangled riders balanced on their backs. The camp’s cook saw in him an appreciative listener and—over the weeks he was there—the occasional helper. Ben had a certain felicity with biscuit making and the rhythms of mass production and a willingness to rise early if help were needed. He could also juggle—eggs, mugs, plates, and to the delight of Robertson’s terrier, Ratty—biscuits. Ratty knew a biscuit would fly his way and he’d leap to catch it mid-air. They were a whole lumber camp act.
Ben felt lucky to have landed in this deep-woods circus of horses and wagons and tall trees scaled by men with saws while he gave it all—the hangover, the ankle, his temporary clerkship, his inability to picture the future—a little time, still able to take photographs of the camp for postcards as he had originally planned. All in all, the traveling postcard photographer—a novice to taking photographs, but no newcomer to the road—was a little bruised. Nevertheless, he considered himself fortunate to be allowed the chance to sober up from a binge of missing Goldie by finding himself in a stand of pine instead of in jail for riding his motorcycle into some hotel lobby or for taking a swing at someone for a verbal offense he no longer remembered.
A cold rain had begun to fall in the woods during dinner the night before, its steady drumming eventually replaced by silence. It was a silence that meant not the end of the rain but the beginning of the snow that steadily accumulated inch by inch until the first lights came on in the barn, the tracks of the teamsters through the deepening snow welling up with mud. The middle of October. The belt of chilly air that had lasted two weeks had finally cinched down in a snow that felt like December, settling over ground as soft as spring mire. Snow accumulated on trees still half in leaf; young birch along the logging roads were hooped over entirely by its weight and pines boughs laden to sagging. The footing, disguised by snow, treacherous.
“Gotta be a record,” said the cook to Ben.
“Going to tell the men what they already know,” said Robertson, “We’re not going out in it. Don’t want to lose any horses.” Not even the swampers who cleared the brush would make it out in spite of the urgency to get the road ready for the sleigh haul.
“I’ll take my photographs then,” Ben said, “instead of waiting for Sunday.” This might be a freak snowstorm, but winter was coming. So much for being the motorcycle photographer. He’d have to figure some other mode of transport out if he were to continue this postcard venture. He had arranged with livery stables to get circus billposters around the countryside when they arrived in small towns by train—he’d patch together his plans as he went.
He was determined to make this new plan work—so many of them hadn’t. After his three-year stint with the Barnum & Bailey Show overseas, Ben had come back to the States and tried running a hotel bar simply because he was so familiar with them, but soon discovered that he wasn’t as talented at it as he thought he would be. Goldie had come back the year after he had, she and Eddie, her husband, and he was keeping to their deal—for him to just stay away. He tried his hand at the newspaper business, selling advertising. And then the realization dawned on him then that perhaps he was ruined for staying in one place. Stumbling around was a time-consuming business and foundering took work but, it seemed, he was dedicated. He was done with circuses and started thinking about working for the railroad.
He won his first camera—red Russian leather bellows, a shoulder-strapped carry case, all but brand new—in a card game and started taking photographs, beginning with pictures of a tattoo artist’s handiwork. Those first photos included a trio of roses, a jack of diamonds, a banner with the name Maria—on chests and arms and backs—thirty pictures in all. The artist pinned them to his wall. You made me a fortune, he said to Ben over drinks. Can I give you one? Goldie written out in a banner?
Apparently he had talked a little about Goldie when they were drinking. He wondered what he had said—the part about how her hair was gold, like her name, or the part about punching Eddie the night the advance crew were all drinking and playing cards somewhere in a soggy stretch of their British tour. They were renegade from circus strictures against drink and gambling, miserable with days of rain and mud, looking for a little solace. They got into a little storytelling and the conversation took a turn towards women—lost loves, old wounds, current desires for some forbidden performer—when Eddie came out with it, said how he had never really loved Goldie. He thought she was pretty enough but he never loved her. Wished now they’d never married. And Ben, unable to think of much but Goldie by then, took a swing. Everyone ascribed the punch that Ben landed to the general inebriation of the gathering. All of that was long before Ben and Goldie had ever stood close together, her hand between his shirt and his chest, sewing a button onto his shirt as he wore it, their breathing falling into close synchrony. Long before he ever told Goldie he loved her.
Or maybe Ben had just told the ink artist about her tattoo. Goldie had a tattoo—just one rose—below her clavicle, on the right side. I wanted something pretty I could keep, was what she said about getting it. Someone in the first circus she was with had picked up tattooing from her husband, and she had kept his tools after he left her. Goldie—he hadn’t seen her rose tattoo in three years. He passed on getting one himself.
After that, Ben had stumbled back to Bridgeport—winter quarters of Barnum & Bailey and as good a place to consider home base as any. He stayed once again in a boarding house inhabited mostly by circus performers and trainers and carpenters from Barnum & Bailey’s workshop; it was run by Jules, a former circus cook and an old friend. His parents—long since swallowed by their travels—had once had a dog-and-monkey stage act and they had all stayed with Jules when they were on the road. In Bridgeport, J. L. Jimson’s, a stationery store and photography studio, was looking for a postcard photographer. Ben made a few bigger-than-accurate claims about his photography skills initially, but he was a quick study and was soon as good as he said he was; Jimson was fast to leave the fieldwork to him. He took to it, buying a new Graflex—its negatives all postcard size—as soon as he could manage it.
And then came the train wreck.
Before the sixty-mile-an-hour derailment of the Federal Express train in Bridgeport, July ’11 was memorable for its heat. For how hot the 4th was, that first day of the real scorch. Horse-dead-in-the street hot within the week. A cart horse died on the 9th, overcome by heat stroke while hauling ice. The ice disappeared chunk by chunk within the hour, the ice man giving up, turning over the great cold block to the neighborhood. The woman next door walked and carried her baby at night, afraid to lay it down to sleep on its own after several babies were said to have died in their cribs from the heat. Sometimes the baby bawled its distress.
That baby speaks for us all, Jules said. He’s performing a public service.
Ben remembered all of those things sometimes.
But what he could not forget was when he fell asleep for the first time in two hot nights sometime after the baby stopped crying. It was a sticky sleep, unwilling to release him, even to the sounds of alarms, even when Jules and the kid who worked at Horan’s greenhouses nearby tried to wake him. Through the muffle of sleep, he heard train wreck.
He struggled against a conspiracy of dream and memory to awaken. In his half-sleep he was back with Barnum & Bailey’s Old World Tour in a train yard beyond Budapest, beyond Prague in a city called Beuthen. In his flash of memory-dream, it is nearly the break of day and the double-decker pony car is once again smithereens on the track. In it, he hears the horses shriek. In it, he is scanning the scene, trying to locate Goldie to make sure she is all right.
Goldie, Goldie, Goldie, he heard himself call aloud. Goldie had been fine that morning in Beuthen, though her car had been the one right behind the pony car. He had pulled her to him when he found her. In spite of the chaos, the predawn darkness, the steam, the smoke—they had been seen. Not by Eddie, but by his friend Bruno, the secretary to the general agent who oversaw advance agents in the field. One of you will have to go, he said to Ben later. You choose. And that’s how Ben found himself back in the States. At first he had thought they would both go. Goldie Goldie Goldie.
And then he woke. The train had crashed nearly in the greenhouse owners’ front yard. Rescuers were already laying out bodies on the lawn, the kid was saying. The locomotive had hurtled off the viaduct—open throttle, airborne and plunging twenty feet or more, crashing into a massive stone abutment. Crushing more than a dozen souls in the day coach. In the spliced reels of memory that would sputter through Ben’s mind for a lifetime, there would be the image of plumes of scalding steam as he and the kid raced his motorcycle up to the edge of the field of shattered glass and hot embers strewn from the firebox, letting the bike fall to its side upon arrival.
Ben didn’t remember joining the effort to free people still trapped in the sleepers, though he did. He didn’t remember helping carry the body of a woman to the Horan family’s front yard, though he did, with the help of an outfielder on the St. Louis Cardinals team whose car was the only one to stay on the track. He did remember the silver bodies of thousands of fishery trout spread across the crash scene, trout that were supposed to have been put off at Bridgeport, the scheduled stop the engineer didn’t make.
Picked your camera up at the boarding house, Jimson said when he arrived on the scene around sunrise said. Take a few pictures. It was already over eighty degrees.
By seven, the train that was to take dozens of survivors through to Boston had left. He didn’t take a photo of that. By eight, the St. Louis Cardinals had left. He took a picture of them, most of them, lined up in front of a wrecked sleeper. By then, the scene was thick not with volunteers but with onlookers. He took a photograph of the overturned engine and of the crane from the railroad that had arrived. Then he shouldered his gear and wandered down the track—the debris spread for more than a hundred yards.
He walked toward the switch tower and took a picture of that. The man who was on duty when the train wrecked—who had telegraphed ahead to stop the next train from careening into the first wreck and jumped out of the signal box when it looked like the train was going to explode the tower to matchsticks—was just returning to the tower from helping survivors.
I hear the roar of the train, he said to Ben as the two of them stood together, looking toward the wreck. I expect him to slow down, shut off. He was talking like the whole thing was happening now, right now. And that’s how it felt to Ben, too. Like it kept happening. There’s no time to switch it back to a straight track, he said. I can’t never manage it. And then he said, I just came back for my hat. Ben took the man’s picture at the Burr Road tower. In the photo he’s holding the hat he retrieved. With the full swelter of the day on them, it was too hot to put it on.
A week later, the set of train wreck postcards was up for sale, the captions all lettered on the negatives and showing clean white across the bottom of the images on the postcards in Ben’s distinctive neat hand. A TERRIBLE WRECK AT DAYBREAK. J. L. Jimson sold out of the postcards in the revolving display rack by the stationer’s cash register made twice over. Ben went in to tell Jimson that he didn’t think the photo postcard business was going to be his line of work anymore. The heat had subsided a bit with a string of thunderstorms, but Ben seemed to carry it with him, like a low-grade fever. He wasn’t sleeping well.
And then a young woman came in to the store and grabbed one of the postcards of a crushed Pullman and said, I was in there, right there, and inked the spot on the front with an X with Jimson’s pen before she even paid for the card. I was in an upper berth, end of the car. It closed up and nearly crushed me. I could only move one hand. Took nearly two hours to cut me out. Ben had been near there, but had seen none of that. I thought it was all over with me, she said. I was right there, right there. She ended up buying six, one for herself. And Ben thought then that maybe he wouldn’t stay in Bridgeport, but he might stay at the postcard enterprise—sometimes everyone needed to show someone else where right there had been for them.
Before ten days had passed, Ben was gone from Bridgeport.
Where next? asked Jules the night before he left. They were both in the kitchen. Ben had made arrangements with Jimson to be his printer and outfitted his motorcycle with a sidecar for his gear. Jules knew a lot about restlessness, had found lots of rooms empty, lots of notes on the dining room table—cash or promises left behind for what was owed.
Remember Sweet Louis? he asked. Sweet Louis had been a candy butcher, ticket-taker, jack-of-small-trades with a couple of wagon shows. He’s got a tavern, rents a few rooms, small town below Albany. Going to stay there a bit, set up an on-the-road postcard operation. See what I learn. I remember a lot of those little towns from when I was on the advance with J. J. Mooney’s Show. Pretty through there. Maybe picture-take my way north a little. Have Jimson print the postcards up for me.
Any plans to look Goldie up?
That’s not how we left it.
Then I’d avoid taking pictures of any opera houses or theatres near Schenectady.
So Eddie had followed through with what he talked about after all, found a theatre to manage. Every stage act in the northeast trouping through—singing and dancing and riding unicycles and playing accordions and performing magic. Goldie, the long-time wardrobe assistant, a miracle with a needle, mending costumes last minute, was likely with him. By now, she had probably inherited three animals from disbanded acts. All this time of wanting to know where she was. Now he nearly did.
There’s a son, you know.
A boy, then. The baby was a boy.
I’m sure, Ben, I’m sure there’s a baby on the way, Goldie had said that day in Beuthen. He thought then that she would come away with him. They’d sail back to the States, run a small hotel together, like they’d talked about. Solve their traveling urges with other people’s travels. Teach their kids to juggle. Have dogs. Be together always. That’s what they had said. But he sailed home to Bridgeport without her.
I’d risk it all, Ben—but you wouldn’t be able to stay sober, would you? Not for me, not for the baby. I will have to make sure he believes it’s his. And you will have to stay away.
He had wanted to say he doesn’t love you, but he couldn’t seem like he was lashing out when all he wanted to do was hold her. He had wanted to say I’ll stay sober, anything for you—he never drank around her, or drank much—but he wasn’t sure.
And now the word baby had become the word son.
Ben left Jules and the boarding house and Bridgeport the next morning, still a little drunk, having learned by the third bar that saying Schenectady was something that could only be accomplished sober.
Ben had put his old knowledge of circus routes to use in creating a photo-taking itinerary; he picked towns where a mud show might still appear, the kind of town a circus on rails might skip. He felt like the advance man again. He drank his way through the first few stops and but then sputtered into gear-taking photos of a lift bridge on a canal and a train crossing a trestle and the striped canvas awnings on main streets. None of it felt to him like he was there, not really, even when he set up his Graflex and looked down through its focusing hood.
In a town called Lunette he got roaring drunk with the employees of the Lunette Broom Co. after taking a commissioned group photo of them under the company’s broom-shaped sign. Too drunk to remember which hotel he was staying in, he found a livery with a loft to sleep in. It was there that he met a former circus cook, Henry, also a little drunk but determined to find a new life where he could stay in one place a little while. Lumber camp cook, Henry said, I’m a good volume cook. I’m going to try lumber camps. And that’s where it began, the postcard photographer’s decision to take to the woods. He was on the rutted road north by the time the sky was starting to leak light at the edges—done with the whole statue-park-main-street enterprise. His first stop was a sawmill, but after a few pictures of sawblades the size of wagon wheels and sheds of stacked lumber, Ben moved on. He didn’t bother to sober up.
Not until the logging camp. Not until now when he was nearly up to his knees in snow and discovering that in the cold his nightmares of the train wreck disappeared. On the day of the unexpected snow, the men and one woman who worked at N. & J. Starr Lumber Camp No. 3 arranged themselves for a photograph under the gable of the low-roofed cookhouse, a pair of them sitting on the gable peak itself, legs dangling, holding an immense crosscut saw between them. The cook was at the right of the frame, along with a few helpers, one of them leaning on a bread paddle the size of an oar. Ratty presided over events from the back of the cook’s ropey-tailed mule. And Ben felt as though he could X a spot just beside the cook and say I was there, right there. The postcard with Ratty sitting on the cook’s mule—FIRST SNOW AT N. & J. STARR LUMBER CAMP NO.3—sold in dry goods stores and at the train station and was eventually pirated by other postcard entrepreneurs to be a favorite postcard in the area for a few years. Around them a landscape of evergreen.
Ben had landed in the biggest Christmas tree market of all and he now wanted to stand with Goldie in the cold again, enveloped by the scent of fresh-cut boughs. In Vienna—Barnum & Bailey’s Austrian show cancelled for a string of days over Christmas with furnaces refusing to pump heat, Goldie’s husband traveling ahead of the show making provisions for horses in Budapest—he and Goldie had found their times together. Vienna’s linden trees were encased in ice and Hoher Market was all lit up, a new-sprung forest of dark fir trees in garlands of colored ribbons, their branches ornamented with gilt acorns. There had been then, like now, the deep scent of cold and cut fir and pine.
In the weeks and months to come, in other logging camps, when the cold promised by the early snow of October descended and took up residence and sharpened the air and drew smoke from the cookhouse in straight columns toward the sky, Ben would spend evenings in the horse barns, helping the teamsters inspect and mend harness. He would tell stories about taking photographs of Bridgeport’s firemen and their rigs and the teams trained not to bolt when flames leaped. About Barnum & Bailey’s winter quarters where he sometimes joined old Mannie the harness maker and his crew mending the leather for all the baggage horses. He didn’t tell anyone in the logging camp about Goldie—who sewed for wardrobe and could stitch anything, whose father had been a harness maker—joining them in late afternoons. She would weave a long canvas apron and would the stitching, drawing the straps through her hands, inspecting the loops and swivels and buckles and rivets and clips and splicing. After, she would work a lotion of rosewater and glycerin into her hands—a scent that was as indelible in memory as the snort and nicker of the horses.
The story swap was his ticket to remaining snowed-in, too far from Goldie to wreck her life by showing up. All through the winter—a momentum of ice and frigid temperatures that made the season seem a locomotive of cold wind and deepening snow plunging straight through until ice-out in spring—teamsters were willing to give Ben his photos. Loggers would parade a serpentine line-up of horse teams in full gear that reminded him of the most impressive of circus parades—the horses stamping in the cold, their regalia the tall plumes of their breath in the frigid air and the crystalline frost on their coats. And, Ben calmed by cold and energized by frost, disappeared into the lens and found himself in photograph after photograph, there, right there, part of the ice-and-log circus. Camp policy strictly prohibited spirits, but in the cold Ben didn’t often miss it with much acuteness when he spent a few days there.
Later, the men at a lumber camp in Quebec hitched a team for the sake of the photographs and he took pictures of two of the teamsters who stood on their harnessed teams’ backs. They had placed a booted foot on each of the pair of lead horses—and driven them, reins in hand, down a logging road, posing for a postcard photo in the last light of a short winter afternoon. The horses did not gallop, but that’s how Ben would recall it later, like a circus poster blazoned in his mind, two teams with their young teamsters standing on the wide backs of their horses, flying an icy road. In Barnum & Bailey there had been acts like that—equestrians riding two horses at once. He felt like that sometimes, like he was riding two horses at once—one kept heading toward wherever Goldie might be, the other toward any place but there. Only luck kept him from falling between them.
That first spring, he thought to follow the loggers’ rodeo of river drives, but didn’t. He had had enough of muddying roads in the circus. Instead, he drifted into a summer itinerancy that lead to taking photographs of Adirondack wilderness hotels and inns, of steamers on small lakes, carrying tourists headed for some secluded retreat, finding himself in places that lumbering operations and sawmills and pulp mills had not left as stretches of stubble. He bought a delivery truck and rigged it for his equipment, set it up to be able to sleep in if need be—and had the side panel lettered with B. & B. Photography Studios—the name coming from a suggestion by his friend Jimson. Ben’s last name was Brenan and Jimson thought that inserting the ampersand would make it look like a bigger operation. The plural of Studios was a gesture toward all the appropriated spots—logging camps, hotels, sawmills, train stations—that became his studios.
Two winters after N. & J. Starr, during his last winter photographing lumber camps and logging operations, he rode a train to a lumber siding with a peddler named Eli Falk—a slight man who wore an immense fur hat. A long-legged, big-footed mostly black dog with a soft, sagging face—the size of a small pony—pulled Eli’s wares and sometimes Eli, too, on a sled made primarily from a transformed biscuit crate outfitted with runners. In his inventory were harmonicas, and he himself played one. Eli’s talents were in dance music, the kind of dancing that could be done in boots. The peddler also sold heart-shaped mother-of-pearl brooches with a bit of gold wire looped across them, spelling out Mother or Sweetheart in script. Ben bought one of the pins that said Sweetheart himself, caught up for a moment with being one of the men at a remote logging camp who loved someone who was somewhere else. He wrapped it carefully in a handkerchief and left it behind.
He had always been careful—careful of what he imagined could ever happen. He had to be hesitant to imagine handing it to her, telling her the story of the peddler—of trying to hum some of what Eli Falk had played on his harmonica and dancing her around a bit, hand on her waist. Seated on his cracker-crate–turned-sled, Eli looked like the feral street vendor he was and that’s how Ben took his photograph. The men at the camp posed with their peaveys and saws and axes and their new harmonicas and one man held a cabinet photograph of his sweetheart in front of him at chest level. How many ways are there to say wherever you are, you are here with me? Ben wondered.
That last photograph he took that winter was of a brag load that towered over the team that hauled it—a record holder that season—293 logs. Nearly sixteen feet high and needing sixteen toggle chains to secure it. Thirty tons. The horses each had a blaze that looked like a plastering of blown snow. Greetings from the winter circus! Looks like a monster load of circus tent poles, doesn’t it? Ben wrote on the brag load postcard he sent to Jules later. He wanted to send messages to Goldie, too—but didn’t. He wanted to write down his next destination, tell her to take a train, find her way to him. Tell her to bring the boy, his boy—whatever Eddie believed, the boy was his. They could start all over again. Someplace else. There was always a someplace else.
Over time, it was the boy Ben thought of more and more. Thought about teaching him how to juggle. Buying him a sled. Maybe now was the time to go find Goldie, he thought as days lengthened, snow shrank, thaw began. Now before something else happened and he never got a chance to go find her. There seemed no other cure, not the woods nor the peaceful sleep of a cold night. Whatever their deal had been, his and Goldie’s, he would head to find her now. He would bring her up here one day. They would take a steamer, stay at a rustic lodge, maybe take the train through Canada.
Maybe he should scrounge up a few pooches, teach them pirouettes and how to balance on balls, show up at her door. When he saw her, he could say Just doing the circuit. Could you use a dog act on stage when the bookings go thin? But what would he say then? That he had barely managed to stay sober two days at a time between camps, but somehow, it would be different with her and the boy? In the end, he sat on a wooden bench in Schenectady’s train station, watching the ticket windows and the lone pigeon that had flown in thought the high windows open at the transom as he spent an afternoon tempting fate to have them walk through, she and the boy. Would she come meet an act arriving by train? Would she have a place to travel herself?
At the end of that summer a letter from Jimson caught up to him—Jules was gone. The boarding house had been left to him, if he wanted it.
Decades later, a library in a town along the edge of Lake Champlain did an exhibit of his regional postcards. Even in the small library of a small town, a postcard exhibit is a small thing, and so the curators created poster-sized blow-ups, a little grainy, to beckon people to come into the annex that housed the glass-cased postcards. They reprinted several of the wilderness camps and the steamers on the lakes were favorite once again, after a century’s rest. No matter how fabulous his body of work, it still fit in a shoebox. Eventually, a regional historical society would print a half dozen of the original images in a pictorial regional history, the editors commenting that the B. & B. Studios photographer had a knack for making you feel like you were there, right there. After researching who the B. & B. of B. & B. Studios might have been and if there were any heirs, they surmised that it must have been run by brothers, or by partners with alliterating last names, or perhaps by a father and son. Most collectors of the postcards, however, settled unconsciously and accurately into referring to B. & B. Studios as he instead of they.
In the swelter of summers to come, Ben would remember huge sprinkler sleds hauled out to ice the logging roads overnight as the temperature plummeted, and the sound of sled runners singing in the cold. He would think of horses on a downhill run at a full gallop in calked shoes, rounding an icy bend, staying ahead of a sled with a dozen tons of logs that could overtake them. There was no time to switch it back to a straight track, he would think. I can’t never manage it. I see it all.
Photo courtesy of James Walsh; view more of his work on Flickr