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Apr 1, 2011 1:56 PM | 5 comments

Very few photos exist of the little-known anarchist, vegetarian, and amateur photographer Heinrich Bollinger. Unlike his more celebrated comrades -- Johann Most, Alexander Berkman, and Emma Goldman, who all lived in Manhattan and with whom he consorted -- Bollinger spent his entire Brooklyn life living in an old stone house near Coney Island. His life, oddly enough for a self-professed anarchist, was a quiet one: he earned his daily bread selling sand worms and renting boats.

Bollinger collected the stones for his house just off the shores of Coney Island, enlisting the help of local oystermen to tow ashore the heavier foundation stones.

An image of Bollinger's sand worm shack. The identity of the man in the boat is unknown.

The paradoxical life of this retiring and, as the Eagle noted above, shy anarchist may very well have gone unnoticed by history if it weren't for the remarkable, though scant images, which he recorded with his homemade camera and which we now have in our collection. As a boy, Bollinger apprenticed with the photographer George Brainerd, from whom he not only received instruction in shooting and developing photos, but also in becoming a more compassionate observer of the plight of urban workers.

A photo by Brainerd of laborers repaving Clinton Street; notice the well-groomed boss looking on.

Almost simultaneously, two events conspired to alter Bollinger's life forever. In 1886 the Haymarket massacre in Chicago occurred, galvanizing America's labor movement and setting the tone of class conflict for decades. The other event, and a more personal one for Bollinger, was the death of his mentor George Brainerd in 1887 from chemical poisoning associated with the photographic process.

Despondent over Brainerd's death at the hands of the medium he so loved -- and blaming it in part on the chemical-producing industrialists -- Bollinger made a break from the traditional methods of photography, instead building a camera from an old valise, an oar lock, horse hair, and bits of varnished sea glass. Eschewing the silver bromides and nitrates necessary for bringing images to life, Bollinger instead used a mysterious mixture -- almost organic in nature some might now say -- of tobacco juice, sea water, and lemon pith to accomplish his task. These sorts of folk methods resulted in images of poor, but no less arresting, quality.

The view from the front door of Bollinger's sand worm shack.


On the back of this photograph a nearly illegible note is written: the rich[?] [cavort]ing [?]

Note on the back reads: Poor children [leav]ing tar[?] factory

Though no clear record of Bollinger's activities exists beyond the photos in our collection, we can piece together some of his intentions and intimate thoughts through the notes accompanying each photo. Judging by these, it appears as though Bollinger had a sort of half-conceived plan to committ some anarchistic attentat, much after the fashion of Alexander Berkman who, in 1892, shot the Carnegie Steel Manager, Henry Clay Frick.

On the back of this photo of troops at Fort Hamilton, Bollinger has scrawled: Must [?] blow up -- maybe [?]

And on the back of this stereograph of the Kings County Penitentiary, Bollinger has reminded himself to: Blow[?] it up with dynamite -- perhaps

If anything, the notes on the backs of these photographs tell us that Bollinger was a gentle soul conflicted by his desire both to change the unjust social order and to appreciate the beauty of the world around him.

The note on the back of this photo of an elderly junk picker seems to sum it up perfectly: Intolerable![?] but beautiful -- the light upon this visage[?] of suffering

Bollinger's fate is unknown, but the man himself can be glimpsed in two photos from our collection. Having rigged up a homemade timer for his camera out of "driftwod[sic] and spent fishing tackle," Bollinger presents himself as we must believe he wanted to be remembered -- a would be revolutionary and philosopher -- one hand on a rifle butt but with his eyes out to sea.


4/1/2011 10:20:25 PM #

Fascinating!  Tobacco juice, sea water, and lemon pith to develop photos?  Wow.


4/2/2011 2:12:57 PM #

I loved this article about the tender anarchist. Great stuff.

Matt Miller

4/3/2011 12:55:21 AM #

Great post; thanks Ben.

Perhaps he had another attentat in mind in that last photo... could he have been gunning for Coney Island developer Geo. C. Tilyou?

Save the Slope

4/6/2011 10:46:56 AM #

Readers might want to check the date of this post...


4/6/2011 11:10:18 AM #

Did he fish off the Coney Island pier?