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OVERHEARD: When You're Strange

Thu, 09/07/2023 - 12:31
From the Weird Photo files: Michael Cerchiai, in clown suit, serves ice cream from his truck, c. 1991.
The East Hampton Star archive

In the dim and slightly dank back room at the Star office — an anachronistically industrial space left over from the days when local newspapering was a heavy manufacturing business, with big machines and strange chemical perfumes — rest (slumber, you might say) tens of thousands of photographs, in a warren of densely packed filing cabinets.

The Star photo archive is an anachronistic system, a holdover, unchanged since the days when images were not digital collections of pixels traveling on ether, but material things printed on paper in a basement darkroom. And, to the delight of any reporter or editor who finds an excuse to wade, hip-deep, into the archive, there are — wedged in among the many mundane black-and-white photographs (too many mildly “arty” snapshots of ducks and decoys, wood fences and weathered barns) and among the treasures (rare glass-plate negatives of Amagansett whalers and candid shots of major literary lions) — lots of truly wacky souvenirs of days gone by.

Boy on a torpedo, mid-1950s.

Some of us at East have become connoisseurs of the Weird Photo. We have been collecting them for years, and know that a photograph simply of people in silly costumes is a cheat. There exist, for example, many humorous society snaps of members of the Maidstone Club in costume (fancy-dressed as Carmen Miranda, balancing a full salad of fruit on top of their turban; or as a jailbird in striped pajamas, or in lederhosen), but while those are greatly entertaining, zany mementos of less-self-conscious days gone by, they aren’t truly weird, if we’re honest.

Similarly, thick 1970s mustaches have proven hilarious to our college and high- school-age interns, but a photograph of a 1970s businessman in a wide-lapeled suit and a Burt Reynolds handlebar isn’t, ipso facto, weird; it’s just evidence of timelessly questionable taste.

Rightfully earning a place in our very special Weird Photos file are: a man who looks like Andy Warhol in Ray-Ban sunglasses inspecting a sunfish — a huge, hideous, monstrous-looking sea creature with teeth on the top of its grotesque head, circa 1970; or, a boy age about 8, in a Sunday-best tie and collared shirt, sitting astride a 20-foot-long torpedo on the beach at Napeague in the late 1950s. Why was the piano player for the Bonac Hill Billy Band seated upon a metal garbage can as he played the stride keyboard? Why was Marty Feldman, the bug-eyed actor who played Igor in Young Frankenstein, photographed with fistfuls of striped bass caught aboard the Viking Star in the winter of 1970?

Face-plant in a snowdrift, 1984.

Modern digital technology allows us to uncover, rather quickly, the backstory behind many of these photographs. Each issue of The Star, dating back to 1886, can be accessed online, and searched for using keywords. It’s not Marty Feldman with the prized striped bass, it’s Frank Albaneisi, making a comical face. We don’t know why some vandal wrote the words “Smoke a Bong for Nixon” on  the side of the Bridgehampton Carvel store, but we can quickly discover that the delinquent was writing obscure yet obnoxious slogans on the concrete side wall of Carvel on a monthly basis in the year 1990.

Weird-photo collecting has become something of a hobby among East magazine contributors. Because filing is, and always has been, a subjective and quirky science, you never know what will be found hiding in a given folder with a given label, and so the drawers frequently contain surprises, like the prizes in a Cracker Jack box.

Say you need to find a photo of the officers’ housing at the Montauk Air Force Base. It might be filed under “Camp Hero,” or “Air Force,” “Housing,” or “Montauk.” And while you are perusing the images in the various folders you come across the unexpected and the weird. Nuns in habits, doing non-nun-like things, fishing or jogging. Gangly gymnasts in boxer shorts and black socks in exhibitionistic poses at an outdoor “happening” by the Lighthouse in the early 1980s. A marching band made up entirely of tuba players at a Montauk Friends of Erin parade.

Shenanigans at the Maidstone Club, 1950s

Folders are arranged alphabetically, of course, in drawers arranged alphabetically, but there are at least five different archival categories — in five different sets of cabinets and boxes, each separate set having its own alphabet. The logic behind the categories and subcategories is arcane, occasionally addle-brained, frequently inscrutable. There is one set of “People Photo” files, A to Z by last name; there is another of “Old People Photo” files, those taken pre-1970, approximately, also A to Z; and there are, also, old, old photos of people, A to Z, within a separate “Old Photos” drawer, in which the most ancient images reside. Stephen Talkhouse is in the “Old Photos” drawer, under “People: T,” but an original 19th- century print in a cardboard frame showing “Bull Butler, Montauk Indian” was recently unearthed in the “M” for Montauk drawer, crammed in a “Montauk Indians” folder. (It wasn’t even labeled “Montauketts.” And his image wasn’t kept in one of the “People” folders, either, begging the question of why his portrait wasn’t filed under the same logic as the 19th-century white folks’ were. Many of the old categories, hand-written on the folders in fading pencil, urgently need modernization.)

The Weird Photograph connoisseur sympathizes with the photo librarians responsible for the organization in the waning decades of the 20th century. Where, for instance, should a 1950s photograph of the Elm Tree Inn, infamous in pre-liberation days as the first “gay bar,” have been filed: in the “Amagansett, Main Street” file? the “Amagansett, business establishments” file? under “Nightclubs”? Or someplace else — like a new “L.G.B.T.Q. history” folder that could swiftly be created? Some zealous photo librarian, 30 or 40 years ago, filed the fading picture of the Elm Tree Inn away under the photographer’s  last name . . . and it only saw the light of day again by pure happenstance, when an editor procrastinating on deadline decided thumbing through random forgotten files was “work.”

Many of the older photographs in The Star’s archive have been scanned and digitized by the good folks at the East Hampton Library, and before long, no doubt, every one of these images, both mundane and Weird, will live on, eternally, in the ether. Findable and identifiable just by being clicked and dragged into a visual-search box. But for now, as the 21st century picks up steam and and those of us who were born in the last one, and grew up intimately familiar with the Dewey Decimal System, grow gray and begin to cast off this mortal coil, the photo graveyards of small- town newspapers will remain one of the final bastions of analog filing systems, gathering dust. Strangeness becomes a rarity as all questions are answered by the internet.

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