Shadows AND Smoke

The denizens of two Northwest Baltimore pool halls -- the hustlers and tough guys and boys who would become nice guys -- stare out from the '50s in Michael Lang's photographs.

March 18, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Envision James Dean and Elvis Presley in some edgy, film noir about disaffected teens in the 1950s. The image that comes to mind would bear uncanny resemblance to a photograph by young Michael A. Lang taken at Benny Kitt's pool hall in 1957.

The James Dean fellow, with switchback hairline, peers over the shoulder of "Elvis," a hunky guy sporting a Vitalis-slicked do, poised to play a card.

The image is all mood and attitude. It shows a grittier side of an American decade forever linked to prosperity and bland self-satisfaction.

These Northwest Baltimore boys, for whom Benny's (officially Belvedere Billiards) was a second home, weren't consciously imitating rebels without a cause on the big screen, Lang says. Nor were they all hustlers and tough guys. Over time, some would become accountants, doctors, truck drivers; others would disappear into the gambling nether world. "That was just how things were," Lang says, studying his work. "This is the real life."

Lang's photographs and taped recollections by those who frequented Benny's and Knocko's, another Northwest Baltimore pool hall, form "A Nice Clean Room: Pool Hall Portraits from 1950s Baltimore," at Touchstone Gallery in Washington through April 9.

The photos sat unexamined for four decades in Lang's files. He did not lose interest in photography; life simply intervened. Lang grew up, got a PhD. in physiology and biophysics at the University of Maryland, became a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health, married, had kids, divorced, married again.

It wasn't until 1995 that Lang, who lives in Takoma Park, printed the pool hall series. He was stunned by what he found: baby-faced card sharks, velvety dark shadows that spoke volumes, sultry silhouettes limned in the silvery available light of the pool room. One photo caught the flurry of cards cascading through a man's hands like a bird in flight; another, a man enveloped in cigar smoke as he contemplated a move.

As he became reacquainted with his work, Lang's fascination with those pool halls returned. He had first wandered into Benny's at Belvedere and Reisterstown roads at the invitation of a friend and discovered a world as captivating as it was repellent. Lang couldn't get his head around the gambling and yet was lured by the camaraderie and culture of this all-male realm frequented by Forest Park and City College students.

"I was absolutely drawn to it," says Lang, 57. And yet, "I knew I couldn't be them."

He paid six or seven visits to Benny's and Knocko's, a different kind of room on Park Heights and Garrison, where the lights only went on for pool games and men played cards for high stakes in the back room.

Lang, who used a crutch after a childhood bout with polio, would brace one leg with the other and shoot at his preferred speed of 1/30th of a second with the lens of his Leica IIIC wide open. Or he would sit, observe, unobtrusively take aim. Like other gifted photographers, he became invisible. Perhaps because Lang didn't really know anybody, the guys ignored him. They didn't mug or take offense while he quietly caught their gestures, their corner shots, their side-long glances.

Lang was just an underage kid -- albeit well-trained at his temple's camera club -- but had a precocious grasp of "street photography," capturing with sublime results the quotidian ballet of people going about their business and amusement.

Reconnecting with subjects

When Lang took his rediscovered work to Gentleman's Cue, not far from the original Benny's and now operated by Gordon Guss, he found that the once male, primarily Jewish domain was crowded with women and men, and people of all races and nationalities. Asians, blacks and Orthodox yeshiva students played pool side by side. Remarkably, Lang also found people who had come to Benny's since it opened in 1949. They peered at his photos, debriefed Lang on the subsequent lives of his subjects, supplied him with nicknames. "That's Frenchie," they told him. And, "That's Smooth."

Lang also got in touch with Dean Krimmel, curator of local history for the Baltimore City Life Museums. Krimmel was impressed. "When I first saw them, I thought those were the kinds of pictures that hadn't been taken before," Krimmel says. "It was documentation of that part of life in Baltimore -- the pool rooms, the boys, the young men's hang out -- that as a curator who had worked with historical photos of Baltimore, I hadn't seen before."

Krimmel was also drawn to Lang's hunt for his subjects. "I was attracted to the idea of the story of his involvement, and his quest; his search for people and his curiosity about what had happened to them and his basic question: What did they think about when they looked back?"

The City Life Museums co-sponsored Lang's application to the Maryland Humanities Council for a grant that that would allow him to interview Benny's aging clientele, and the two men planned an exhibit for City Life that would conjure up the pool room and its habitues.

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