Friday, December 14, 2007

Cool Stuff: Flea Market Photography (Update)

September 2, 2007: With the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge closed this weekend, it was an unusually quiet morning at the Alameda Antiques Faire. (All the better to get dibs on the good stuff, my dears ... )

Nick and I snapped up a bunch of vintage barware for practically nothing -- tumblers and highball glasses and such; I guess we'll need to start drinking the hard stuff now to make use of it.

But my absolute favorite finds were the vintage photographic prints above. We'd already been scavenging for hours when I spotted them. It was hot, we were almost at the end of the stalls, and we were tired and thirsty and ready to call it a day. I almost passed the booth by, but something made me stop and look through a plastic bin filled with large, decades-old black and white prints.

I'm so glad I did -- it felt like the sort of thrilling, unexpected discovery you go to flea markets secretly hoping to make, but rarely do. Before long there was a crowd gathered around and three or four of us were pawing through the prints and snatching out our favorites to hand off to waiting friends and partners while the vendor filled us in on how she came upon them.

The photographs, she told us, were taken by a woman named Helen Brethauer who lived here in Oakland. She was active in the local photography club in the Fifties and Sixties and exhibited a bit here and there. When Ms. Brethauer passed away recently, her sister apparently set out a giant stack of her prints for the trash pickup, along with the other discarded contents of her home. (Can you imagine?) Luckily, the woman I bought them from happened by and asked if she could take the lot before they ended up at the dump.

Now these four are mine ($5 apiece!). I can't wait to frame them and hang them opposite some similar tree silhouette illustrations in our family room -- I think that together, they'll make a nice little gallery.

I love their large size, their stark moodiness, and the fact that they were shot in my adopted hometown years before I was even born -- at least one, and perhaps all, around Oakland's lovely Lake Merritt. But I think that what I love about these most of all is the sense that the woman who took them was absolutely passionate about her art -- the hundreds of arresting images taken over what must have spanned decades leave little doubt about that.

I'm so curious about her now. Who was she? Did she ever achieve any minor local renown? What was her life like? Scattered through the pile were several shots of a nattily dressed man casually leaning against a classic roadster somewhere along Highway 1, his fedora cocked to the side to shade his eyes from the sun. Was he her husband? Some long-forgotten suitor? Were the bright-cheeked, closely shorn young boy and the beribboned girl in many of the photographs her children -- and if so, where are they now, and why would they allow the products of their mother's creativity and love of photography to be put out with the trash?

Full of questions, I rushed home to plug her name into Google and see if anything popped up. But alas, there are still some mysteries that internet sleuthing can't solve for us.

Whoever you were -- here's to you, Helen. I'll be proud to display your work in my home.

December 14, 2007: I just got a note from the son of one of Helen's friends, who included this photo of her at the pool at the San Francisco Zoo (did you even know they had one?) sometime in the 1920s or 1930s. In addition to being a talented photographer, Ms. Brethauer was quite the bathing beauty! (Thanks so much for sending the snapshot, John.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Leah - I also bought several Helen Brethauer's prints at today's Alameda Pt. Antiques Faire. I googled Helen's name trying to find more info about her/her work, and found your blog posting instead! Yes, Helen produced some extraordinary work, and if these prints are her proofs and rejects, can you imagine how great her final prints were? A shame that her sister thought they were worthy of the dump. What a find for us! - AC

Mandy Lou said...

I am so jealous - that print of Lake Merritt is awsome! I'm an Oakland girl born and raised, then transplanted to Michigan, so I love finding cool Oakland stuff for my home. Let me know if you find anything more - I'm off to google Helen and see if I can find anything on eBay!

The Paris Apartment said...

Those are haunting and stunning! amazing that she could capture a moment like that. it's crazy what you can find at the fleamarkets, it's an obsession of mine too. i do believe there's always something special there, like an archaeological dig you just have to search for it!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see you picked up some of Brethauer's work. I was surprised to see you had some of her work for just 5$. You should know that her superimposed photos and some portraits are reaching up to 1500$ each for the large ones and around 500$ for the landscapes. Good find!

Leah said...

Hey Anonymous,

Woo hoo! Seriously?

Where? Please share! I'll never part with these, but I'd love to know more about her work.

Thanks so much!



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