Thursday, April 18, 2013

A new foist

I've given my friend S a break from five days of me and have foisted myself on another friend, Melvin Shaffer. He's a World War 2 photographer I met when I was working at a museum in DC (no, not the Smithsonian). I got in touch with him because he was an expert on a collection of photos I was processing. I've wanted to meet him in person since I first corresponded with him and missed my chance when he was living in Richmond, Virginia. I again missed my chance when he was living in Santa Fe and I was traveling near there. But he's now in Tucson and I've nailed it. Maybe seven years after first learning about him and his extraordinary memory, I'm finally here.

The photo collection I was working on at the museum was from the MAMAS collection, which stands for Museum and Medical Arts Services. About 100 photographers were sent to the European and Pacific theaters to document what they saw. Melvin was 18 or 19 when he was sent to Africa, southern Italy, and France, and took about 500,000 official photos and thousands of feet of motion picture film. He donated his personal photos to Southern Methodist University, which has created a wonderful online exhibit that Melvin captioned himself. These photos are well worth your time to peruse. The captions really complete the exhibit because those are the words of the guy who was there. Those in the Flickr set are photos from the collection I processed and were put online by museum archivists, including myself. There's some fascinating stuff there. I could email Melvin and ask him about a particular image and even though he wasn't the photographer he could tell me who shot it and what the circumstances were. When I say extraordinary memory, I mean it. He remembers details from decades ago better than I remember last week.

I told him this is my favorite photo from the collection. Just look at that woman. Serene, in control, confident. I'm in love with this photo. I'm still in love with it even after he told me it was staged as a bit of propaganda because I know there were nurses just like her on planes just like this.
MAMAS D45-416-45G. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.


 He then sent me one of his favorites, if not the favorite.
At the very height of the invasion of Southern France I was lying behind a sandbank, occasionally sticking my head up to take advantage of every photographic opportunity that might make itself available. On one occasion I glimpsed this French woman on her bike peddling furiously through the middle of the firing between the U.S. and German troops. I do not know why she took such a chance. What reason could possibly compel a person to do this? Her face clearly shows fear and determination. Her physical condition suggests to me a lactating mother. Did she make it to whatever destination she felt such an urgency to reach? Sorry, but I do not know. (Courtesy Southern Methodist University)

We had 13 shoebox-sized boxes of MAMAS photos at the museum but unfortunately none of them were Melvin's. His and the other photographers' official photos were sent to the Medical Museum, as it was then called, after the war and have since been misplaced. He told me last night that the photographers split the entire collection into three representational sets, and because planes didn't have a high success rate of getting where they were going, they were sent on three planes, as a way of assuring that at least one of them would make it to the museum. The photos did make it because he saw them himself when he was back Stateside. He also worked on them for a time himself after the war, but no one knows where they are now. As an archivist, this makes me want to start hauling boxes off shelves (the archives I worked in had 5000 bankers' boxes in storage at a warehouse) and as his friend, it breaks my heart. They're unique images that have never been published anywhere and probably haven't been seen by anyone since the late 1940s.


I'm a lucky, lucky woman to know a fascinating person like Melvin. His recollections are detailed and sharp and bring history incredibly alive. I'm so lucky.

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Thought of the day: 
When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world. (George Washington Carver)

2 comments:

  1. Wow! How lucky you are! It is so fascinating when we can hear first hand the details left out of history books.

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    1. I am indeed lucky. He and his son have opened their door to me and made me feel at home immediately. Melvin has story after story, all told with lively detail. Every history class should be taught like this.

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