Earl was the only bachelor who worked as a civil engineer in dad’s highway department office in the 1960s. In my eyes, he was the most interesting coworker there, too. Earl drove an Austin Healey roadster to work each day; he liked to vacation in distant places; and lived for photography. He usually kept an older Leica IIIf on his desk, ready to take to highway worksites.
Earl sometimes invited dad and me to his home to visit and view his latest photographs. His favorite pictures were shot with a Rolleiflex twin lens camera or his “workhorse” Nikkormat 35mm SLR. The Nikon was Earl’s all time favorite that went everywhere with him.
After Earl’s retirement, he spent most of his time either taking pictures or squirreled away in the darkroom, creating beautiful works of art. He often entered his best works in art shows and the Nebraska State Fair. A few years before Earl passed away, he won a purple ribbon for a stunning black and white print of a mirror image reflection, shot at a local lake. (I wish I could find a copy of it.)
It turned out that the fair officials had analyzed and judged his masterpiece photo upside-down. Earl laughed that there was really no way to know the difference unless the viewer was familiar with the lake and its surroundings. Also, the horizon line was not centered in the photograph.
Landscape photographs of mirror images in water are quite popular with photographers and viewers. Most of the time, the reflections have a slightly different sharpness or tint than the rest of the scene that would make an upside down display very obvious. But sometimes a photographer is lucky enough to shoot a scene on a perfectly calm morning or evening when the water is as smooth as glass.
Of course, photographs are not the only images that could be mistakenly displayed upside-down. Abstract and other forms of modern art could also show up in exhibitions in erronious configurations that most of us would never notice.
On October 17, 1961, the finishing touches for New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “The Last Works of Henri Matisse” were made. The show was to include one of the master’s most beautiful paper cut images, Le Bateau (The Boat), created in 1953.
The work is a very sparse arrangement of paper cuts that form a simple blue sailboat on a windy day. The clouds and water are represented with curving purple line cuts. The bottom half of Matisse’s painting depicts the reflection of the sailboat and a few more purple line cuts.
The next day, the Matisse exhibition opened to the public to rave reviews. After 47 days and some 100,000 art lovers had visited the show, one viewer noticed that Le Bateau didn’t seem right. A stockbroker named Genevieve Habert was a devotee of Henri Matisse. She understood that the artist would never have arranged his picture as to depict the reflection having more detail than the sailboat.
During Habert’s third visit to the MOMA exhibit, she purchased a catalogue. The booklet’s photo of the painting validated her hunch. It showed Le Bateau hanging the correct way, upside-up. Because it was a Sunday, the only MOMA employees present were the security guards. Since Habert was unable to contact a museum official, she phoned the New York Times. The newspaper published their story on December 5th, the day after the exhibition director corrected the error.
Later, officials of MOMA claimed that other galleries and museums had committed the same error. Apparently, labels and deep screw holes in the bottom of the frame caused the New York museum to assume the alignment was the correct one. During a much more careful examination of the back of the frame, less noticeable screw holes were present at the correct places.
I wonder what other paintings and photographs have been mistakenly displayed upside down. Many mirror reflection depictions contain the seeds for erronious displays. How many art museum curators have egg on their faces?