Sunday, April 26, 2009


Man on Train, San Francisco, March 2009.

There are many things about my personal appearance I don't like, but what rankles my vanity most of all is that I look silly wearing a hat. More than any other fashion accessory, a hat has the power to summon images from our memory. Most of them, of course, are movie images: gangster shootouts from the 30s, Cary Grant, Preston Sturges screwball comedies, Indiana Jones on horseback losing his Fedora again and again, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown saying "I'm just a snoop." My own memory of hats takes me back to Philippine cockfighting arenas in the 1960s, where hundreds of men wearing straw hats and closed-toe leather slippers screamed and hollered in the bleachers while two fighting cocks decked it out in the center of the sandy ring.

The sight of a man in a hat never fails to put my photographer's instinct at attention. Add a trench coat and I hit the ground running. It's almost impossible to take an uninteresting picture of a man wearing a hat because the drama is right there, sitting on top of his head.

In his book, The Ongoing Moment (a must read for photography lovers), Geoff Dyer said that the story of the Great Depression can be told simply by looking at pictures of men's hats. Poring through Dorothea Lange's portfolio of the depression years, Dyer looked at all the pictures with hats. He discovered that the hats, once signs of affluence, became more and more battered with each passing year until finally, in photographs of Skid Row, men slept on sidewalks using their hats for pillows. Dyer observed that by the 1950s "the great era of hats in photography has passed" and "it was no longer a reliable indicator of the ravages inflicted on men by economic forces..." As in the picture above by Garry Winogrand, "the hat was [now] just a hat."

Garry Winogrand, Untitled, 1950s.
Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1937.
Tina Modotti, Workers Parade, 1926.
Saul Leiter, Harlem, 1960.
Dorothea Lange, Ball Game, Migrant Camp, Shafter, California, 1934.


  1. Now your 'hats' is putting back some memories. My father when still alive always wears his hat, and try to hide it and he will not be able to leave.

  2. hi andrea - thanks for visiting and for the kind comments. blogging is strange; you write for no one in particular or maybe no one at all. so always nice to know that someone actually reads this :-) that's a funny story about your father's hat. it's amazing how simple objects rouse up memories we thought we've forgotten. i'm eman59 in flickr by the way.