In two dimensions it shines, this lifetime of inconsequential encounters with the famous, the strong and the beautiful documented in thousands of photographs, accumulated and annotated obsessively -- 8x10s, snapshots, professional portraits, all in black and white, a combination of professionally shot 8x10s, snapshots and what appear to be newspaper outtakes
40,000 framed the pictures behind glass in prodigious quantity, marking them up with notes, decoration and other jottings. He occasionally cut out individual figures and often drew red, white and/or blue frames around the edges, whether the pictures were to be combined into collages or framed individually.
Where the images were out of focus or otherwise unclear, he completed and improved them, adding color to clothing and backgrounds and definition to faces, always trying, it seems, to rescue them from the haze of memory and photographic indistinctness. Faces often were tinted, usually in pink, and lips drawn over. Eyebrows were added when necessary. Walls were decorated with ball-point patterns that trace the wallpaper or represent entirely fictional coverings. Ties and other clothing were outlined as well.
At times he stapled or taped comic strip, newspaper and advertising clippings to the photos, or otherwise extended them, sometimes inserting an absent party into a scene: say, the late Mayor Daley extending a hand from outside the frame to congratulate Murphy's brother Johnny on winning an award.
In this piece, Murphy combined his two great themes: family and the famous (or quasi-famous). There are many hundreds of images of people in both categories, constantly repeated. Murphy mixed his family with the stars in the collages and in the photos themselves, sometimes posing his sister Dorothy or nephew Jimmie with the celebrities. Tributes to his "dear old Ma" and to his nephew ("Our dear boy Jimmy") appear to outnumber the pictures even of his favorite stars, such as the skater and actress Sonja Henie. (That's Sonja on the left, with another Murphy favorite, Hopalong Cassidy.)
|And on most of the pictures, collaged or not, there is Murphy's compulsive notation. A framed triptych of 9x12s shows 40,000 with a chubby Gene Autry ("Some cow-boy," it says on the picture), a "Gebor" sister ("Some baby") and a stockyards cow ("Bessie"). Then there's 40,000 at Comiskey Park around 1948, in front of the stands, his arm around a smiling young woman. "My Marilyn Monroe," it says on the back. (He told the Tribune that she squeezed his hand when they took the picture.)|
Standing in a shot with Louis Armstrong, 40,000 holds a trumpet. Next to Armstrong there is this note in red:
(A blow-up of this picture hung in Andy Frain headquarters before the company shut down recently, along with a number of other 40,000 Murphy photos that keep him legendary there, though he had passed from working memory.)
Still another photo shows 40,000 and a second usher posing in front of a food concession with five skaters from an ice show ("Stadium Ice Show - Stadium - Some girls," 40,000 has written on the photo.) In the background another skater, arms folded, looks impatient while a girl and a young woman gawk at the performers' translucent hoop dresses, which 40,000 has highlighted in red and blue ink. Eyebrows and teeth have been inked in even on an older woman who is in the background leaning against the snack stand.
There is a sad, campy glamour to the decoratively costumed skaters, who turn up often in 40,000's pictures. Like so many of the people in these photos, the women are frozen in mystery. Their talent and beauty long ago lost to obscurity, you can tell what they did for one moment, but not who they were or who they became, other than demigods in Murphy's shrine.
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Copyright Interesting Ideas 1994