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Harry Tarr, Photographer
In an era when gasoline was 10 gallons for a dollar and a first class stamp sold
for 2 cents, college tuition at an architectural school was $200 a year.
Everything is relative ... isn’t it, and it is fruitless to try and rationalize
the cost of living from one generation to the next.
My parents and I dug up the 200 bucks for my first year at Pratt with the
understanding that I would finance the following three years myself.
Pratt Institute was originally built as a "School of the Arts." It trained
illustrators and graphic artists as well as budding architects, engineers and
even young people interested in a literary career. It was an old school,
established years ago in a once genteel neighborhood with tree lined streets. It
is now in a distressed neighborhood located deep in the bowels of Brooklyn. Even
in the thirties it was a part of the city you wouldn't want to visit at night.
Its general library, to which all students had access, maintained a large
bulletin board, covered with school news, Uncle Sam army posters, student
communist propaganda – you name it, it was there. It was a kind of 1930's
Internet. Having mentioned the 30's, I should mention that, at this time, our
country was still in the midst of the Great Depression and most of us, and our
families were fighting a losing financial battle to stay afloat. Whenever an
offer of a job appeared on the bulletin board, it was quickly torn off and
investigated – every nickel was precious.
I read the board every day and one particular offer caught my eye. It said "Hand
colorist wanted, no experience required – See Harry Tarr, photographer," and it
left an address on Flatbush Avenue.
The note drifted around the board from one part to another as new messages
shoved it aside. I didn't know what a 'hand colorist' was, and apparently no one
else did either, so like a fool I rushed into a situation which I probably
should have checked out first. Throwing caution to the winds I decided to check
out Mr. Tarr.
Harry Tarr had a photographer's studio on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn.
It was wedged between a shoemaker and a bakery. His studio smelled of bread and
shoe polish with his own added aroma of acetic acid. Harry Tarr was watery eyed
and as hairless as a summer squash. I found him busy the afternoon I walked in
photographing a large Italian family whose daughter, Pendulosa was being married
the following weekend. Under the hot studio lights the aroma of Romano cheese
added an additional spice to the blend of smells already in the studio.
"I've come about the job of colorist," I started to explain. He told me to be
quiet and sit it the corner until he was through with "this band of gypsies," as
he called them. He went on, like a lion tamer in a cage full of unruly tigers.
He whipped them into accepted wedding poses and groupings that, I am sure, would
hold a cherished place in the couple's family album. He got it done quickly,
then he gathered up his plates and disappeared in the darkroom. "My wife will
tell you all you have to know ... it's no big deal ... I'll give you a quarter
for an eight by ten, and a dime for a five by seven." He threw this bit of
information over his shoulder as he headed for the darkroom and slammed the
door. It seemed like a pretty good deal at the time, but I was sure I wouldn't
come home with more than a dollar a day.
His wife walked into the room. In a dark toneless voice she asked me what I
wanted. "I'm deaf," she said. "Move your lips." She was very deaf, so deaf that
she looked about her constantly to see what was happening behind her. Although
her voice was toneless, it was several decibels louder than it had to be. She
held up a tube of what looked like oil paint. "See this here Marshall's "Flesh?"
she asked me. "You spread that on the faces ... Chinaman, black man, white man
... it don't make no difference who. Flesh goes on everybody. Then there's the
clothes, leave the men alone, they're always black ... but the women, you gotta
know who's got a pink dress or a blue dress ... Harry'll tell you."
There were no further instructions and I quickly learned that none were needed.
In those days all photography was in black and white and people gladly paid
extra for hand colored prints. It didn't matter much how accurate the color was
so long as they went home with pictures that looked like the pictures everybody
else had. I was surprised at first to find that like magic, “Marshall's flesh"
fitted all races of mankind – white people stayed white and black people stayed
black. The magic of “Marshall's flesh" soon became commonplace to me and I was
able to wade my way through fifty to sixty prints in an afternoon and, depending
on how busy Harry Tarr was, I sometimes came home with twelve to fifteen dollars
There was a downside however...
I rarely saw Mr. Tarr, he was an alcoholic, and he risked a very dangerous
intermingling of chemicals whole doing his own darkroom work. In the blackness
of his darkroom it could have been lethal.
When I arrived in the afternoon I could hear him singing in his darkroom. Mrs.
Tarr would be standing outside the darkroom door shouting, "You hear me Harry
... you comin' outta there now ... you better come outta there ... you hear
me?!" I was too young to understand the volatile and explosive relationship that
existed between Mr. and Mrs. Tarr, so I concentrated my efforts on the pile of
prints Mr. Tarr had already set aside for my afternoon of coloring.
Harry, knowing I was in the studio with Mrs. Tarr, would shout, "Tell her to go
to hell," and I would say, "He says he'll be out in a minute Mrs. Tarr." She
could read my lips but she couldn't see Harry's. The subterfuge went on for a
month or two until I finally checked out another request for a job as an
assistant plaster mixer to a sculptor of garden statuary and I bid farewell to
the Tarrs. The money wasn't as good at the sculptor but the vibrations were
better. I was sure if I stayed with Harry and his wife, something would have
happened to make me regret it.
About a year later I passed Harry Tarr's studio on Flatbush Avenue and I noticed
that it was now an industrial cleaning company. I wondered what happened to the
Tarrs and I looked through the back issues of the Times obituaries to see if I
could find his name. His request never reappeared on the bulletin board and he
was no longer listed in the phone book. He simply vanished and I couldn't help
thinking he had either mistaken a bottle of acetic acid for bourbon in the dark
or the world had run out of Marshall's 'flesh'.
©1994 Harry Buschman
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