the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Blue Thumbtack

A cardboard reproduction of this picture, Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos, by El Greco, is on the bulletin board over my desk, stuck to the brown cork background by a bright blue thumbtack.   I bought this reproduction at a museum gift shop during college.  I was intrigued by the subject’s sly expression.

Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos has travelled a lot with me, between several tiny apartments in New York and Los Angeles, far far away from the grandeur of his former home in Toledo, Spain.   Right now, he is living in Flushing, Queens.

Jorge’s eyes remain mischievous, although the cardboard stock has yellowed over the years.   A dozen thumbtack holes pepper the edges.  Jorge has been shuffled around the perimeter of the bulletin board, depending on the priorities of the day and year, and his standing in our relationship.

During grad school, he was pushed to the bottom, denigrated to the bottom right, the 8×10 of a smiling brunette music student taking the starring role.   Six months later, after the photo of the woman has been retired, Jorge would be back in his former glory, like an old buddy always ready to take you out for a beer after a heartbreak, not expecting an apology.

Jorge has travelled in planes and suitcases and buses and cars.  He has faced towards Beijing and Jerusalem, depending on the feng shui of each apartment layout.  But wherever we made our home, he was fastened to the bulletin board by the same blue thumbtack that secured him on the day we first met.   Jorge is that special to me.

But this is not a story about Jorge.  It is a story about this —

I’m staying the month with my mother in New York. She is a big fan of Antiques Roadshow, the long-running show on PBS, which is ironic, considering that we have an even longer-running inside joke that we have NOTHING of value in Queens.  Guests on Antiques Roadshow are hand-picked, so the ones who make the cut tend to have a wood desk that Paul Revere’s brother carved with his own hands, or a Van Gogh hidden behind the a framed poster of a Pepsi ad from 1969.

I was in my room, on Twitter, when my mother screamed out from the living room.

“Neil, come here!”

I ran into the living room, expecting an emergency, like a mouse climbing the walls.

It was Antiques Roadshow on the TV, coming from San Antonio, Texas.  My mother was in her favorite chair.   On the show, they were talking about a local photographer, E.O. Goldbeck (Eugene Omar Goldbeck, 1891-1986) who was known for doing panoramic photos in the 1920s and 1930s.

Goldbeck worked as a “kidnapper.”  Similar to the annoying photographer who takes photos of you as you enter a cruise ship or a hotel in Disneyland, Goldbeck took free pictures of large groups of people, then sold prints to the individuals in the photographs.  He was also the “unofficial photographer of America’s military” because he was adept at shooting large groups, which at times numbered up to 23,000 people arranged in intricate designs. Goldbeck used a Cirkut Camera that held film that was up to 10” wide by 48” long, and the camera revolved on a tripod while the film advanced at the same speed.  Imagine what he could do with an iPhone.

Goldbeck was particularly fond of taking photos each year at the Galveston Beauty Contest.  As Goldbeck’s 1922 Galveston “Bathing Girl Review” appear on the screen, I immediately knew why my mother was excited. This exact photo, framed and signed, was hanging over my bed, given to my mother years ago as a gift.  I immediately went online to search for information, and discovered that the framed photo in my room was worth, at auction, from $1200 – $3500.

My mother was happy.  Yes, we DID have something of value in the house.  Maybe she couldn’t buy an apartment in Manhattan with the money she could make, but at least she could impress the neighbors.

The funny part of the story is that I never gave this photograph much thought.  I glanced at it through the years, and liked the retro-flavor of the Texan beauty contestants, but I never took the time to read the photographer’s name.   I’m not big on panoramas.  They seem too gimmicky.

I appreciate the photo after reading more about Goldbeck and his technique, but I can’t say that I like it any more of less now than I did before I knew it had any value.

Is it ridiculous for me to veer off and connect this story with matters of the heart?

Soon, I’m going to be dating again, which brings up the issue of “Who is Right for Me?”  On paper, it is easy to plan for a woman with certain attributes, or let the views of others color my views on who would be “good for me,” as if a stint on Antiques Roadshow makes you more worthy, like a Goldbeck photo.  But love never follows a plan, and Goldbeck’s Bathing Girls, while attractive, mean little to me other than eye candy hanging over my bed.

Does it make sense to be in love with an El Greco cardboard reproduction of Portrait of the-Artist’s Son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos when a valued Goldbeck sits nearby, on the opposite wall?   It is all mysterious and oh so personal.   I can’t explain how love works.  Or why one attracts us more than another.   Or why I still keep Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos safely secured with a blue thumbtack.


  1. Joe Freenor

    Well, at least you managed to work in something about thumbtacks! Seriously, interesting blog; I enjoyed it.

  2. moe/ozma

    Neil–You stopped by! Did you see I changed my monniker?

    This is a FABULOUS story! I dream of that happening to me, which is why my house is full of crap I don’t need.

    Also, I love El Greco. View from Toledo is a kick ass painting if there ever was one.

  3. Rufus Dogg

    When I was thinking thumbtacks, I did not even think about the significance of COLOR in the thumbtack. A thumbtack is a thumbtack is a thumbtack, right? Not so, says you and Jane Devin. Blue for your photo, red and green for her map. Makes you think about the significance of other dimensions of common objects that never gets a second thought…. hmmmm, I wonder if I have any Twinkies left over from the #letsblogoff celebration party last night….

  4. Megan

    There’s no accounting for taste – even in love.

  5. denise

    Lately I’ve been contemplating relationships, particularly friendships. How we become close to others, find that bond. I suppose we have to see our own Jorge in others…

  6. Chrisor (ynotkissme)

    This just reinforces the old saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. The price you can get for something has no bearing on its worth. Something may cost a million dollars but if you hate it, you wouldn’t pay a dime for it. The worth of something is the personal value to you. That’s why people grab photo albums when exiting a burning house. They have little to no worth to others but they have sentimental value and are irreplaceable. Enjoy what speaks to your heart. This includes people you meet. Some will tell you that you should like someone (to date) but you’ll know when you’re in the company of someone who you “click” with, who makes your step lighter.

  7. Welshcakes Limoncello

    What a fabulous post. I love the portrait and the story of the photos. Good luck with your dating!

  8. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    Ah, why do we love who we love?

    Why do some relationships, romantic and otherwise, stay with us through nearly all ages and stages and others eventually get discarded?

    This topic has kept writers going for years…

  9. Kara

    I prefer Jorge to the frou-frou beauty contestants too. Substance trumps monetary value.

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