Marsh began in 1937 as a newspaper photographer at The Cincinnati Post, left abruptly when he didn't get a raise and took pictures for clients and for himself for the next half century. Inadvertently, he produced a portrait of a city we can now see only in photographs.
A lifetime of photography produces a lot of pictures, and when the Visual History Gallery in Hyde Park purchased the Sarge Marsh archives from Sarge himself they got "a forest of metal filing cabinets in a thicket of overflowing cardboard boxes," John Fleischman writes in the text for this generously formatted picture book.
The gallery found an interested market for new prints from the negatives, especially the sports pictures (Pete Rose and Johnny Bench looking fresh and young) but also thought there must be a book here. Fleischman, brought to the project by local Orange Frazer Press, thought so, too, and also recognized that the book should represent the city as it once was.
Here is Cincinnati before interstates, before the Big Mac Bridge, when the Tyler-Davidson Fountain was not Fountain Square at all but on an esplanade in the center of Fifth Street. The book would focus on that portion of the 12,000-plus negatives that reflected Cincinnati from 1937 to the completion of Riverfront Stadium in 1970.
Marsh opened a studio on Fourth Street just before the war, where he "had a hand in everything from camera work to the window displays that rapidly became a favorite for Fourth Street window shoppers," the last a breed not much seen now. In the mid-'50s he moved to Ninth Street and repositioned his business for corporate and advertising work. Eventually he sold that to an associate but continued as a one-man shop specializing in documenting big building projects. Born in 1914, Marsh lived until 2003: Plenty of time to amass an archive of 12,000 or more negatives.
Even narrowing the focus to the city of the century's middle years left a wealth of photographs, so many that the designers of the book are tempted into excess. Every page has its black-and-white pictures, usually backed by shadowy gray prints of others that bleed off the page. Some of the text appears over the pictures and can be hard to read. The book adheres to black and white, the dominant reproduction method of the period.
Sarge was a darkroom man, Fleischman says.
"He once told an interviewer, 'A lousy negative can be printed up beautiful if you have a good darkroom technique. A good negative can be the predecessor of a lousy print if you're not watching what you're doing,' " Fleischman says of Marsh.
He did watch what he was doing, and his work is good journeyman stuff. The arty pieces, the ones where he's stretching for effect, now have a self-conscious, dated look.
Fleischman, also the author of Free and Public reflecting the first 150 years of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, points out that Cincinnati's mid-century self and the changes that followed are the story of a half-dozen other Midwestern cities like St. Louis, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
Change, as they say, is the only constant, but that enhances rather than hinders our pleasure in seeing things as they were. Grade: B
John Fleischman discusses Mid-Century City: Cincinnati at the Apex 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.