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Remarkable photographic archive of American life and mercantile enterprise in French West Africa during the 1930s.

Ivory Coast: 1932-6 Stock Code: 119443
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A unique and vivid archive of extraordinary breadth, comprising nearly 1,200 images that provide a striking panorama of colonial life in the Ivory Coast during the 1930s, as seen through the eyes of Brents Rowlett Gruber, wife of Lewis H. Gruber, an American entrepreneur from Louisville, Kentucky, who was involved in the logging industry and ran a Chevrolet dealership in Abidjan and Grand Bassam, trading under the name L. H. Gruber & Cie. A particular focus here is the two trade fairs of 1934 and 1935, the Foire-Exposition d'Abidjan, which have been described as playing a "particularly effective visual means for coercive displays of tradition and modernization" in French West Africa (Cory Gundlach, La Foire-Exposition d'Abidjan: Imagining Africa Through Colonial Spectacle, University of Iowa (2016). These fairs were a week-long event that "would include a competition among decorated cars, a city-wide procession of flowered floats, water festivals, musical performances by the 5th battalion of Senegalese tiralleurs, and 'tam-tams' by seven African peoples from the recently re-organized colony" (ibid.). All of these aspects are captured in these albums.

The larger album opens with some excellent views of colonial residences and commercial buildings in Abidjan (including the Gruber Chevrolet dealership), as well as street scenes and photographs of the docks decked out for La Foire-Exposition d'Abidjan, including a few group portraits - of who we take to be the Grubers - with some individuals being hoisted ashore via something akin to a ship's clamshell bucket. These are followed by many shots of the Exposition: including the Mossi emperor Naba Kom II and "rois" from Bondouku, Korhogo and Agboville; the government pavilion; and indigenous peoples: festive dances by Senufo women - wearing skirts and elaborate headdresses made of cowries, fibre, and feathers - that marked their eligibility to marry and the Senufo men's participation in the initiation ceremonies of the male secret society known as the Poro. There are images of the Baule dancers from Dimbokro and Ebrie dancers from the lagoons around Abidjan and Grand Bassam. There are stilt-walkers and men balancing children on one hand.

The remaining albums are an informal assemblage that form a striking visual record of life in French colonial Africa during the 1930s, exhibiting commercial and industrial interests (automobile sales and mahogany logging), big game hunting, and ethnographical photographs, of which there are several hundred. The unseen backdrop here, however, was the increased use of forced labour in large scale logging operations following the enormous rise in demand for wood in the post-war rebuilding of France. There are numerous images of mahogany trees being logged, trimmed down, marked for shipment - a number of photos show timber stamped "FDV" (Foreign and Domestic Veneers: the company of which Gruber was a director) - and stored on rafts in holding ponds off shore waiting to be loaded onto steamships. There are other scenes at Grand Bassam (the colonial quarter there now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), including the rail terminal, residential blocks, Bureau of Finance, the mosque, hospital, and the central market, as well as the newly created public parks, and vistas of Cocody Bay.

Hundreds of photographs of ethnographical interest are testament to the rich diversity of indigenous peoples, an ethnic mix that comprises some 60 separate groups; perhaps most notably the Lobi people, instantly recognisable as they wear various forms of lip plug (intended to ward off evil spirits). Not all images were captured at the Expositions, many were taken "in the field", including those of the Lobi people. There are trips to various locations "up country", including Bouake, a little over 200 miles north of Abidjan, which was the second largest city in the Ivory Coast, established originally as a French Military post in 1899, with photographs showing the cotton market, Duvriers Railway, and more African dancers. Several of the folding panoramas include vistas of Grand Bassam by L. Meteyer, a well-established photographer based in the town.

Big game hunting also features prominently. Another couple pictured in a number of photographs (and identified by a magazine clipping) are Mr. and Mrs. E. Kenneth Hoyt, who are pictured with the spoils of their big game hunting. The Hoyt dynasty owned tanneries and timber assets that became part of United States Leather Company and E. Kenneth retired from the family business in Argentina to pursue his passion for big game hunting. There is a sequence of scenes of the Hoyts setting off on a safari with a small convoy of vehicles presumably supplied by Gruber; including a particularly good shot of Mrs. Gruber photographing the Hoyts posing next to the lead vehicle. Lion, leopard, gazelle, and elephant are all pictured as trophies along with the Grubers displaying proudly tusks and antlers of varying sizes.

Lewis H. Gruber was vice-president of the West African Logging Co., director of Foreign and Domestic Veneers Inc. - both chartered in Louisville, Kentucky - and described by the Lousville-based Courier-Journal as "holder of the General Motors agency in the French Ivory Coast" (Wednesday, 25 April, 1945); a later Courier-Journal article (Friday, 21 February, 1947) mentions his "having spent a great deal of time in Africa buying mahogany". Before setting up his own businesses Gruber worked in Africa for the Mengel Company, "a giant in the field of wood products by the 1920s" (The Encyclopedia of Louisville, 2001, p. 610). The Grubers returned home to Louisville in 1941 "after twenty-one years' residence in Africa" (Saturday, 26 July, 1941) and built a house modelled on their "ranch-type home" in Abidjan at Prospect, just north of Louisville, although apparently it was their intention to return to Africa after the war. It was Gruber's wife, Brents Rowlett Gruber, who was the photographer, characterized by the Courier-Journal as "prominent social worker, traveler, and resident of Africa"; that paper also mentions her passion for photography and these albums in particular: "In Africa film archives must be tightly packed to be saved from the adverse weather conditions Mrs. Gruber, an enthusiastic photographer, brought back albums of pictures she had taken in Africa. Some of her favorite photos were those of her pet chimpanzee". In this collection there is one photograph of a young chimpanzee, posed gymnastically for the camera and oddly juxtaposed opposite the disturbing image of the displayed corpse of an adult chimpanzee. Brents Gruber was killed in a car accident in Louisville in April 1945. Another relative, John L. Gruber, perhaps pictured here, was company secretary of West African Logging (d. 1944, age 55: obit in The Courier-Journal). The Gruber family had originally emigrated from Switzerland to the United States shortly after the Revolutionary War. Lewis (or Louis) H. Gruber (d. 1911) was a carpenter who developed a contracting and building business and ran a planing mill in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He later established the firm of L. H. Gruber & Sons.

A remarkable archive of genuine immediacy that summons up the spirit of colonial life in the 1930s, the era of Waugh's Black Mischief (1932) and Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa (1935), witnessed from an unusual perspective: that of an American woman from the South eager to capture the richness of her African experiences.

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11 volumes, landscape quarto (first volume 280 x 250 mm; others 200 x 245 mm), the first 80 pages, others either 36 or 38 pages, unpaginated. Contemporary commercial photograph albums: larger album, dark brown cloth post-binder (nickel-plated posts) by Gilbert (stamped "Made in England"), gilt lettered on front cover; others uniform in brown cloth textured to resemble lizard-skin, gilt lettered front covers.


1,195 original photographs tipped-in on drab khaki heavy stock paper (photographs measuring approx. 55 x 90 mm up to 120 x 180 mm, several panoramic views 100 x 290 mm up to 100 x 905 mm, some carrying wet stamps of L. Meteyer on verso).


A few clippings from an American magazine pasted into the larger volume; binding of this volume a little worn, other volumes with some scuffs and rubbing to extremities, chips to extremities of spines, one volume with half of spine missing (but sound), another shaken, but overall in good condition; of the photographs a few are folded and repaired, some corner-mounted, a few with ink annotations at lower edge (in French), a handful with location identified in English; for the most part excellent prints in very good condition.


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