Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Notes on a Photograph: A Sailor Named L.H. in 1912

07-07-2009 01;34;12PM Photo Postcard of a Sailor named L.H. dated September 19, 1912

L.H. stands awkwardly almost embarrassed aboard the ship on which he serves as he poses for this photo postcard in 1912.  (A handwritten note on the reverse of the card tells me his name and the relative date the image was produced.)   Behind him are his shipmates, the huge chains of the ship's anchors and the sizable double barrels of a large gun turret.  It is unknown which ship he is on, but judging from the details of the photograph, it is a large vessel, probably a battleship or a cruiser. 

On board this mighty warship, L.H, a cute, skinny seamen with prominent ears, is wearing  a white middy blouse with a black kerchief, white bell bottom pants and a sailor hat worn high on his head and pushed slightly off to the right side.   He looks incredibly young, 17 or 18 perhaps.  He seems unsure exactly how to pose for the photographer although his face seems relaxed with a warm, friendly smile.  It's his body that looks uncomfortable. 

What do I do with my arms?  I have never had my picture taken.  I wonder what I will look like.  Did he take the picture yet? 

And perhaps unconsciously or consciously feeling slightly ill at ease in front of the camera, he instinctively clasps his hands together in front of his genitals in order to protect them or hide them as if he were actually naked.  It is an appealing pose.  L.H. looks approachable, sweet and unthreatening in contrast to the deadly firepower that is located behind him.

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As a sailor, he expresses and embodies all the myths and realities of the SAILOR:  his strong sexual appetite, his girl in every port, the homosocial and homoerotic nature of his life aboard ship, his position as an object of homosexual desire, the sexual and commercial fetishization of his uniform and not in contradiction to all of this sexiness, his friendly appeal and approachable nature.  Herman Melville states eloquently the nature of the sailor in his novel White Jacket from 1850:

Like pears closely packed, the crowded crew mutually decay through close contact…Still more, from this same close confinement- so far as it affects the common sailors- arise other evils, so direful that they will hardly bear even so much as an allusion.  What too many seamen are when ashore is very well known; but what some of them become when completely cut off from shore indulgences can hardly be imagined by landsmen.  The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep.

Melville condemns the sailor’s actions, but simultaneously he seems to  relish his nature, his sexual rapaciousness both on shore and at sea.  Though the sailors may “decay” according to Melville, the author wants to know what goes on in the “wooden walled Gomorrahs of the deep.”  He is intrigued.  The White Jacket passage expresses not only Melville’s personal feelings, but also completely indicates all the denotations and connotations of the SAILOR in the 19th century, in 1912 and even today.


Therefore, myth and history with a long past swirl around L.H. as he poses on the deck of a great warship for the camera.  Intriguing and lucky for me and you, he wrote a short, fascinating yet cryptic note on the back of the postcard of his own photographic  image: 

Dear friend, This is not a very good picture of myself but it is the best I have at present.  We have no expert photographer on the ship so that these are the only kind we get.  Hope that this wont scare you out of sending me one of yourself.  We expect to get to (unreadable) sometime next week.  Hope to hear from you before then.  Yours sincerely, L.H.

This note enhances the visual awkwardness of the sailor’s stance.  L.H. does not think this picture really represents him very well.  He is afraid that the photograph (and his appearance) will “scare” his friend and cause him not to reciprocate with a picture of his own.  L.H. also informs his friend that the photographer is no expert, so don’t expect much and this is the only photo of himself that he has available to send.

Who is L.H. writing to in his note?  Who is his “friend”?  Is it a man or a woman?  Is it another sailor, a lover whom he met on shore leave while wandering through Riverside Park in New York City? In the early 20th century American naval ships dropped anchor on the upper Hudson River and sailors would therefore frequent Riverside Park.  Simultaneously in the  park, homosexual men cruised for se(a)men who often prostituted themselves at this time in order to make extra money to supplement their dismal income.

Was L.H. rough trade?  Or was he young and inexperienced and amidst the trees of the park he discovered his true self, his true desire?  Is this just my fantasy?  Is the note on the back of the  photograph and attempt to develop a new relationship that began in the park?

The note is at once impersonal, “friend”, “yours sincerely” and apologetic, “Hope that this wont scare you”, but also intimate and full of desire, “Hope to here from you before then.”  It is not written to a family member or someone L.H. knows very well.  The note is tentative, yet hopeful and secretive.  He signs it only with his initials.

Even though this 1912 artifact is a photo postcard, L.H. wrote on the entire back of the image and must have mailed it in an envelope to his friend.  But why?  To hide the note?  To hide his feelings and true identity from himself and others?

I’ll keep the note short and formal and not show my desire, how much I want him, how I covet him and his touch on my body.  Does my picture look okay?  Will he still want me?  It’s not my fault if I don’t look good…that damn crap photographer…He’ll understand won’t he?  But, will he remember me?  Will he send me a photograph of himself?  I want him so badly, but no one can know…I’ll just use my initials, he’ll know it’s me…

This small, seemingly insignificant piece of 1912 ephemera arouses my desire, just as L.H. on some level desires his friend.  It speaks to my own love of soldiers-of-the-sea and the way they look, so handsome and dead sexy in their middy blouse, crotch tight bell bottom pants cramped together aboard ship, men all alone at sea.  It is both a fantasy and a reality for me and them.

When I look at this photograph of L.H. I wonder what became of him and his life.  Did he spend all of his working life in the US Navy?  Did his ship see action in The Great War?  Did his friend send him a photograph?  Did he find love with this friend or someone else or was his life a series of assignations in Riverside Park or a girl in every port?  Did he endure?  Did he survive?  The photograph is opaque on all of these questions.  Still, it gives me a small glimpse of L.H.’s life and in that instance I enjoy a moment of bliss.

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  1. I enjoyed how skillfully you drew out the subterfuge of the note, which to a casual eye seems unremarkable. Another fascinating post!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I have had this card for many years and bought it because of the image and the note. It is so rare to know anything about the people depicted in real photo postcards let alone a young sexy soldier-of-the-sea!