Part II of The Photographic Archives Collection

Part II – Our Introduction to the Photographs of John Albok (1894-1982)

Our first introduction to the photography of John Albok was a life changing experience. It was an unforgettable day twenty-six years ago. A well-dressed woman walked into our gallery on Lovers Lane in Dallas with an acid-free box full of black and white photographs. She gave us the impression of a woman from another era, and definitely not a Texan.

That box contained thirty or forty Depression era 8×10 photographs, a mixture of Central Park scenes, children playing in the streets, storefronts and immigrant street vendors, political themes and more, all dating to the 1930’s and ‘40’s in New York, and all in excellent vintage condition. They were historical gems. I immediately recognized museum quality work.

And that woman was John Albok’s sixty-five-year-old daughter, Ilona Albok Vitarius, who was in fact not a Texas native, but rather a transplant from New York City. Our photography gallery had been open for five years at that time and Ilona was looking for a local venue to exhibit her father’s work. Our reputation for photographic preservation and historical photography must have piqued her curiosity to pay us a visit.

Beckie and I immediately fell in love with the work and the opportunity to introduce Dallas to John Albok. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and working relationship for the next twenty years until Ilona’s death in 2013. Her passion for her father’s work and the desire to share his life and art with others never waned.

John Albok Merchant Tailor, 1938. 1391 Madison Avenue, NYC.

Ilona had so many stories to tell about her father. John Albok was a Hungarian immigrant who, in 1923, established himself on upper Madison Avenue as a master tailor. But his true passion and avocation was photographing his newly adopted city. Beckie remembers the countless evenings we spent in Ilona’s living room drinking Chambord or Tokaji and discussing her father’s photographs. She was extremely knowledgeable about the backstory of every image and she was very literate in photography. Every visit was different. She would surprise us with a new selection of prints that she wanted us to see. It ran the gamut from pictorial, soft focus work reminiscent of Alfred Steiglitz to gritty documentary scenes on the order of Farm Security Administration photography, and studio portraiture that her father turned to when the Depression struck.

Self-Portrait of Albok, 1938.

According to Ilona, a day in the life of John Albok would start with an early morning of greeting customers in his one-man shop, taking measurements for gentlemen’s suits and sitting behind the sewing machine. Lunch was spent hunting the streets and parks with his Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, then back to tailoring. At the end of the day he would draw the curtains, climb the stairs for supper with his family, then back downstairs to convert his small tailor shop into a darkroom to develop the days’ film and print photographs. Other evenings Albok would invite musicians, artists and writers to gather and discuss art and culture, and on occasion to view his latest self-made 16mm film documentaries.

The Culture Club, 1932. Musicians, artists, and writers would gather in John Albok’s tailor shop for regular screenings of his 16mm films.

Albok rotated a photography display in his storefront window, and that is how he caught the attention of Grace Mayer who curated his first one-man exhibit of photographs at the Museum of the City of New York in 1938. Gordon Hyatt, a CBS television writer and producer, also discovered John Albok in the mid-1960’s after seeing his tailor shop photo gallery. That relationship turned into an hour-long Emmy nominated documentary film entitled ‘John Albok’s New York’, which essentially exposed the world to John Albok photography. Art galleries and museums took notice and began to collect and exhibit his work.

Albok’s Store Front Gallery, 1942.
John Albok with Gordon Hyatt (left), producer and Richard Stone (right), cinematographer at the CBS studio during the production of John Albok’s New York, 1965.

Highlights of working with the Albok collection were co-curating with Ilona two major exhibits for our gallery, John Albok, An American Legacy in 1994, and For The Children in 1995. American Legacy featured sixty-five photographs and four original artworks by Albok. We enlisted Tom Southall, Curator of Photographs of the Amon Carter Museum to deliver a gallery talk after the opening. And on a subsequent evening we converted the gallery into a theater for a screening of “John Albok’s New York”.

Working with Ilona on the exhibition catalogue ‘For the Children’ was a special treat. It took months of editing and re-design because she would continually surprise me with new items that I found irresistible to include in the catalogue. Items such as hand-written diary entries, a speech he made to the New York Camera Club at Rockefeller Center in 1939, letters from museum directors and curators as well as news clips and international reviews and publications of his photography which were all invaluable in assembling his curriculum vitae.

Albok with camera outside of his shop, 1970. 1391 Madison Avenue, NYC.

Over the years, we assembled a collection of John Albok photographs representing the major themes that concerned him. Our private collection includes 100 large scale, exhibition quality photographs taken between the years 1919-1977, plus an equal number of smaller uncatalogued prints; color photographs made in Albok’s later years; the twin lens reflex camera that he used during the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40; a pair of hand-made kid skin gloves; some of his sketches and artwork; and a small clutch of original negatives gifted to us by Ilona.

Albok in the Tailor Shop, 1952.

What was even more remarkable about the first encounter with John Albok photography, and his daughter Ilona, was the fact that we lived just three blocks away from her home in north Dallas for eight years and we never knew it! What a time we would have had if the introduction was made earlier. Had we been aware of such a vast historical treasure in the neighborhood we very well may have launched our gallery years earlier than we did.

Ilona Albok Vitarius, Photographic Archives Gallery, 1995.

 

Andy Reisberg
Wimberley, TX

 

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Marjorie Johnson Lee

AN AMERICAN MODERNIST

On May 31, 1911, Marjorie Evelin Johnson was born in Upland, Texas, a small town that no longer exists, in Upton County.  Her father, a country doctor who worked for Humble Oil, constantly moved his family around West Texas to wherever Humble oil workers needed his services.  Most likely from the stress of being in almost constant motion, Marjorie’s parents divorced in 1924 and her grandmother moved the family to Fort Worth where they lived in rental housing until 1938.  Marjorie graduated Paschal High School in 1925 and that next year, at age 15, started working for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.  That same year, pursuing her childhood interest in drawing, Marjorie started studying art with Fort Worth artist, Mrs. G.W. Greathouse.

Marjorie E. (Johnson) Lee (1911-1997)

In 1934, while still working with the phone company, Marjorie decided to attended Texas Christian University.  After taking classes at TCU for two years, she dropped out when Blanche McVeigh, a respected artist and printmaker who was a principal of the Fort Worth School of Fine Arts along with Evaline Sellors and Wade Jolly, was impressed enough with her artistic talent to invite her to enroll in their school.  Under Jolly’s tutelage, she became a skilled landscape watercolorist.  In the late 30’s and early 40’s she exhibited often with other prominent Fort Worth artists like Bror Utter and Veronica Helfensteller.  As with many serious artists in the Dallas and Fort area during that time, she traveled to Colorado Springs to take classes at the Colorado Art Center in 1942.

In the latter part of 42, to do her part, Marjorie joined the WAVES and was sent to Norman Oklahoma for training in radio communication and celestial navigation.  In 1943, she was assigned to Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida for the next three years where she taught young airmen these skills and painted and drew whenever she had time off.

Flowers, 1971 Oil on Canvas 24 x 20 inches

After WWII, she moved to New York City to attend the Art Students League under the GI Bill.  In 1947, to be sure she could stay in the city, she took a job with New York Telephone and continued to take classes at the League through 48.

She vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard in 1950 and chose to capture her impressions of the island in pastel.  She returned in 52, and this time chose watercolor, possibly more suited to the Island atmosphere.

She continued the artistic life in NYC and in 1950, met and married an experimental film maker and educator named Francis Lee.  Marjorie’s artwork documents their vacations and trips out of NYC over the next 14 years with works from Minnewaska, New Rochelle, Carmel, East Hampton, and Woodstock in NY, Colorado, Glacier Park in Montana, and New Jersey.

Rocky Crossing, 1978 Oil on Canvas 18 x 24 inches

After working for the phone company in NYC for 27 years, in 1974, she moved back to Fort Worth introducing her husband to life in Texas.  Although while living in New York, she continued to show in important Texas and regional shows, retirement provided the opportunity to focus on her art.  She started exhibiting with the Evelyn Siegel Gallery in Fort Worth and entering competitive shows all over Texas.  Nine years after their move, Marjorie and Francis divorced and he moved back to NYC.

About the time Marjorie entered the Art Students League in NYC, she fell in love with color and was won over by Modernist art.  During her vacations she filled drawing books with plein-air, almost fauve like, pastels and watercolors of ebullient trees, fast flowing rivers, and assemblages of hyper-colored rocks.  Upon her return to the city, her favorite pastels and watercolors would often evolve into studies for oil paintings.

Untitled (Still Life) Pastel and Cut Paper Collage on Paper 20 x 26 inches

After she returned to live in Fort Worth, she started creating brightly colored collages, cut from home-made and commercial colored papers, repurposed watercolors, and often combined with watercolor washes, ink, and sometimes pastel.  They were always bright in color and evolved over time from representational to totally non-objective.

Swim Through the Sea of Light, Little Swimmer, 1979 Cut Paper Collage on Paper 20 x 14 inches

Marjorie gave up entering competitive shows in 1984 and her last one-person show was held at Evelyn Siegal Gallery in 1994.  She died in a Fort Worth nursing home on February 1, 1997.

*****

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