Martin Elkort Photography

Musings

How I Preserved My Father’s Photography Legacy

And Still It Was Bittersweet

Martin Elkort, an enormously talented artist, was not only a street photographer, an illustrator, a writer with numerous books and magazine articles to his name, a food critic, a friend, a mentor and teacher to many—he was my father. He left behind the arts and worked in the travel industry for most of his adult life to support his family, but when he retired, only then did he once again pick up his camera and begin to photograph in the same style he was known for in the late 1940s in New York City. And with his renewed focus came the opportunities to exhibit his work.

When I recognized the revived interest, I realized my father lacked the skills to organize and promote his artistry. When I began to see what was needed, I knew I could help. After twenty years working as a video biographer, helping families and companies tell their stories and leave lasting legacies for their future generations, I, his daughter, had the exact skills he was missing. I excel in project planning, photo scanning and archiving, large volume archive indexing, and storytelling. And I knew that working with him would provide both of us the opportunity to not only spend more time together but also to achieve a common goal of finding a wider audience for his art.

During the early years, we built his website (martinelkort.com), began high resolution scanning of his negatives, created an inventory of silver-gelatin prints, organized gallery shows, produced a book of his photographs of children (Children: Behind the Lens), and created and developed press opportunities. My father’s photography came second to the fun I had working with him on such a large project. I know Martin cherished the time we spent together and was grateful that I would spend my time with him. He also found a renewed sense of passion for making sure that his photographs, his legacy, received even more exposure. As much fun as we had, it wasn’t always easy. Marty’s “stuff” was disorganized and thrown together in numerous boxes and file cabinets. The attention he gave in the taking of photographs did not carry over into their management. But over the years, we built all his “stuff” into a well-organized and sizable archive.

In November of 2016, Marty passed away.  It wasn’t long after that, at least for me, that the fun went with him.

Fast forward to March of 2020. Covid had us all in lockdown, but thanks to Zoom, we had the opportunity to participate in groups that may have been more difficult prior. I have been a member of the American Photographers Archive Group (APAG) for close to ten years now. Based in NY, before Covid, I had managed to attend only a few virtual sessions. But last year, I started going to a weekly Zoom meeting, and it was in these meetings that we discussed what photographers and archive managers were up to. In a small chat room after the main presentation, I shared my history with Marty’s photographs, and that I wasn’t sure where or how to move forward. That conversation led to an invitation from the Dolph Briscoe Historical Center for American History, which has forever changed my life.

The Briscoe Center is an Austin-based organization that collects, preserves, and provides access to materials relevant to United States history. The center operates within the public services and research components of the University of Texas, at Austin. As one of the largest historical archives in the US, their Photography Collection holds more than five million photographic images from the late 1840s to the present, including the archives of leading photojournalists.

Prior to arranging the photos, letters, and other documents to send to Briscoe, I orchestrated five museum acquisitions: The Jewish Museum in NYC, The Museum of the City of New York, The Norton Museum in Palm Beach Florida, The Columbus Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles Public Library. All significant and respected institutions. Afterwards, I spent a full year creating a more complete inventory of all of Martin’s photos and documents prior to sending them to Briscoe.

This past week, Alison Beck, the Director for Special Projects at Briscoe came to my home to pick up everything and travel it to Austin. After she left, I walked around the empty den, looked in the empty closets, and had such mixed feelings. I am so proud of my father’s body of work and the fact that his legacy will now live on in perpetuity. It will forever be available to museums, historians, writers, and film makers. Also, this legacy will no longer be my responsibility. For that, I am greatly relieved. Being responsible for the physical contents has always been a concern. I no longer need to worry about a hurricane ripping off the roof and waterlogging all his prints. Or any other doomsday scenario I could think up. In addition, and on a personal note, I have opened up a world of free time which can now be spent on some of my own hobbies and pursuits. But also, watching those boxes drive off the other day left me faced with a concrete ending of a part of my life, a part that gave me such a sense of joy and accomplishment.

I think I should have taken photographs of the piles of boxes, then the boxes sitting in the car and, finally, me waving good-bye. But when the boxes were leaving, my emotions didn’t allow me to get outside of myself enough to even think about recording this moment.

But I sure did feel my dad standing beside me that day, as we both watched his legacy drive off down the street.

Stefani Elkort Twyford
August 10, 2021

A Visit To Georgia O’Keefe

In 1959 Martin Elkort visited artist Georgia O’Keefe at her Ghost Ranch home and studio. Martin was living in Santa Fe at the time and working as an art editor and critic for The New Mexican and a contributing writer for New Mexico Magazine. I had thought he told me that he went to interview her for an article he was writing for The New Mexican but I have never seen copies of that article in his archives. He said she showed him around her studio and they had tea, and then she told him, “It’s time for you to leave now.”

I found this letter going through his archive and I’m not even sure he remembered he had it. It was in his filing cabinet with numerous newspaper clippings of his New Mexican art column. Most were very yellowed the way newspaper gets when not archived well. Fortunately the letter, written on onion skin paper, survived in great shape.

Letter:
Abiquiu, N.M. 10/22/59
Dear Martin Elkort:
You do not say when you plan to have color plates made in your letter of Oct. 5th. That makes a difference in what we can do…. or would do.

Could you come and see me? I am at my house at the Ghost Ranch. You turn to the right through the Ghost Ranch gate just beyond the Museum. It is the house on the right about a mile and a half after the gate. It is the second Ghost Ranch gate, about sixteen miles from Abiquiu….. going north.

Would you bring you bring copy of your magazine if you can?
I am seldom away but if you wish to be certain write me when you wish to come.

Sincerely
Georgia O’Keefe

Listening to Ghost Stories

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, young kids are often the best audience for good ghost stories. Told with equal elements of entertainment, belief and fear of the unknown, it’s tough not to get sucked into the drama and feel a shiver up your spine.

The headless rider riding through the town, “don’t go in there”, the heartbroken bride, the transparent face in the mirror…. you no doubt grew up hearing a wide variety of spooky stories.

Memories of Childhood at Summer Camp

Summer camp is such an essential part of many of our memories of childhood. Camp gives us the opportunity to meet new people, try new things and most importantly have growth experiences that may have influence on us long after camp was over.

Here is a photograph of boys swimming in the lake at Camp Onibar, a summer camp in the Poconos.

What memories from your summer camp experiences have stayed with you?

Cooling Off During a Heat Wave

We hope everyone had a great 4th of July break.

Now back to our regularly scheduled summertime programming!

With temperatures at record highs around the world, here’s a throwback photograph to a 1949 heatwave that struck New York, and one man’s creative attempt to find relief.

Martin Elkort loved coming across people engaged in unusual every day activities, and this is certainly one of his unique finds. We hope you manage to find your own creative ways to stay cool this summer!

Reflections on the 4th of July

On the occasion of the American Bi-Centennial in 1897, Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and John T Morgan penned this reflection on the founding fathers and the state of the Union, as it was conceived and as it was in 1897.

“The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not have envisioned these changes (in America.) They could not have imagined, nor would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendent of an African slave. “We the People” no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of “liberty,” “justice,” and “equality,” and who strived to better them.”

The full text of this reflection can be found online.

Delmore Social Club – © Martin Elkort – 1947
Shoe Shine – © Martin Elkort – 1948
Homeless Woman – Los Angeles – © Martin Elkort – 2001

Photo Retouching Family Photos

Back before Photoshop became a photographer’s de facto digital manipulation software, Martin Elkort became enamored with the art of hand coloring his family photographs. He was fortunate that his parents trusted him with their photographs!

Here are a few examples.

Martin Elkort on vacation with his parents.
Martin’s uncle Eddie, who booked entertainment for the troops in Europe during WWII.
Martin’s cousin Eleanor.


Sunday Funnies

Sunday morning, the sharp light filtering through the windows, illuminating the scene as two kids are focused on the morning comics, or what they referred to as “the funnies,” with rapt attention. How many of us remember mornings spent this way? 

Sunday Funnies

This photograph, Sunday Funnies, is featured in Martin’s book “Children: Behind The Lens.” Recently I received an email from photographer Ray Anello after receiving the book. Here is what he had to say:

I grew up in an intense street world in the Bronx. A working class immigrant Italian neighborhood. Your dad’s shots bring that whole experience back. He clearly knew and loved the streets. As do I looking at his photos and remembering them.

Sometimes it’s hard to say why one particular shot affects you so powerfully. But “Sunday Funnies” does that for me. I love the improvised feel it has. Love also how in spite of the relaxed feel it conveys a telling moment. I used to read the funnies all the time at home on Sundays. It may sound odd but they gave me–a kid–a kind of alternate way of seeing the adult world. Your dad was lucky to love what he did with the camera so much. And it shows.

Recently I’ve been having a lot of conversations with photographers about this very topic. How sometimes, the right photo can immediately tap into some primitive emotion of ours that brings up feelings of home and identification. Often from times when we were pre-verbal but we remember them because we felt safe and part of our community. That a photograph can be so evocative is truly the gift from the photographer to his audience.

The Garment Worker

I was in New York City last week and made a special visit to see the sculpture “The Garment Worker” by Israeli sculptor Judith Weller that looms large on 7th Avenue. The statue is a testament to all the immigrant tailors who built the garment industry in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century.

I was immediately struck by the similarity to a photo that Martin Elkort took in 1947 while photographing the ORT (Occupational and Rehabilitation Training) School that helped concentration camp survivors integrate into American culture by teaching them garment construction skills. 

The Garment Worker by Judith Weller ORT Garment Worker

This image is so iconic to me. Both of my mother’s parents worked in the garment industry in NY and many other relatives were part of this industry. The Jewish immigrants who came to America and worked in the garment industry changed the way clothing was made and distributed, making clothing much more affordable for everyone. Prior to the mid 19th century, most people made their own clothes or if they had money, had tailors make their clothes. The immigrant wave of the mid 19th and early 20th century provided skilled tailors, furriers, shoe makers and others who streamlined the process and made it affordable for people to purchase clothing. Working long hours in crowded tenements an at paltry wages, this was not the dream of America with the promise of ‘streets paved in gold.’

More of Martin Elkort’s ORT photographs can be seen on this website and the entire collection was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

 

Eyes Wide Shut!

This “musing” was written in one of Martin’s journals. His grandson Evan Twyford, read this piece at his funeral, because it so aptly captures how Martin constantly examined things, analyzed his surroundings and marveled at the wonder of how the world works.

Our eyes are never shut, even when the lids are closed! Closing the eyes merely lowers the curtain on the continuous drama unfolding “before our eyes!” But backstage, the eye is still looking – until we fall asleep and abandon ourselves to the subconscious eye of our dreams.

What, if anything, do our eyes see when the lids are closed? To find out, sit outside on a sunny day and let the sun shine directly on your “closed” eyelids.* What you are likely to “see” is a pink network of intersecting lines, dominated at the center by a large circular form. depending on how much sunshine is falling on your eyelids and how tightly your eyes are shut, the central form will seem greenish. These impressions are fleeting and ever-changing, like the images inside a kaleidoscope, but less precise and always in the red part of the spectrum.

Now look closely and, if you are “sharp eyed” and objective, you may “see” small forms moving slowly through the network. These are red blood cells, making their way slowly through this tiny network of capillaries.

*It requires a sort of Zen-like concentration until you get the hang of it.

 

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