Sunday, February 28, 2016

Camouflage Artist | John Vassos

Cover of John Vassos biography (2016)
We are awaiting the release of the first book-length biography of the American book artist, designer, and camouflage artist John Vassos (1898-1985). Written by Danielle Shapiro, the biography is titled John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life, and is slated for release in late March 2016 (see cover above).

If people have heard of Vassos, it is usually because of his innovative Art Deco-era graphic novels, of which the best known title is Phobia, which was initially published in 1931, then reprinted by Dover Publications in 2009, the cover of which is shown below.

Cover of Dover edition of Phobia (2009)

On the other hand, they may also know about his prolific contributions to American industrial design, including TV cabinets and various other devices, while a corporate designer at the RCA Corporation. His design for a RCA Victor Special Model K, Portable Electric Phonograph (c1935) is reproduced below.

It is generally less well-known that he served with the US Army Air Corps during World War II as a camouflage consultant. He also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA in connection with efforts to support the underground resistance in Greece. In the process, he is said to have secretly parachuted into Greek territory on two occasions.

John Vassos, RCA phonograph design (c1936)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Camouflage Artist | Manley Dewitt Barber

Charles & Anna Drain House, Drain OR
Above Charles and Anna Drain House (1893-1895) in Drain OR, designed by George F. Barber, brother of Manley D. Barber. Wikimedia.

Anon, CAMOUFLAGE IN WAR BY DEKALB COUNTY BOY: Sergeant Manley D. Barber Of American Camouflage Section Describes Some of Strange Operations Employed to Deceive the Germans in the True Republican (Sycamore IL), March 8, 1919—

Camouflage, which has from the beginning of the World War been an important feature of the operations, is something entirely new as carried on in this war, and of more importance than ever before in warfare. Special troops have devoted all their energies to it, and the work of the American Camouflage Section both in the Navy and along the battle lines has excited wonder and admiration. A member of the American Camouflage Section, 40th Engineers, was Sergeant Manley D. Barber, former DeKalb boy and well-known in Sycamore being a relative of the pioneer David West and Love families of Sycamore. He describes some of his regiment’s camouflage operations in a clear and interesting manner in the Knoxville Journal, published at Knoxville TN, where he now makes his home.

After giving an account of the statement of his comrade Private Cooper the paper states: Sergeant Barber was with Private Cooper until February of 1918. He left Dijon and went to Nancy for training with the French. This training was similar to that which we received at home, only more practical and illustrated with frequent trips to the front, said Sergeant Barber. We had frequent air raids during the time I was at Nancy. After the training there, we were sent immediately to the Front. I was in the Toul sector. That was in the time of the old trench warfare, when the line was practically fixed and there was no rapid charging as in the Argonne-Meuse drive. Camouflage is really more effective in defensive than in offensive fighting for the reason that heavy camouflage material cannot be moved easily enough to keep up with a rapidly advancing army. We had to camouflage pill boxes, concrete protections for machine guns. These were sometimes below the surface, but often six feet above ground. We had to cover these with camouflage sheets in stair-steps; that is, there were a series of sheets, each smaller than the other and about five feet apart. This arrangement was made so that the shadow of the upper layers would be absorbed in the outlines of the lower ones, and no distance shadow would be cast by the whole. Sergeant Barber was in the Chateau Thierry drive and contracted trench fever. He was sent to a hospital behind the lines and reported missing for several weeks .

During the Argonne-Meuse drive there was one instance when camouflage men had to make a forest move, he said. A position was taken just behind a low hill, covered with a young forest, east of Fleiville. The guns were placed on the edge of the forest. The problem was to camouflage the guns and yet make no change in the outline of the woods as it might appear on the enemy's aerial photograph. The only thing to do was to move the forest back far enough to cover the guns and about 100 men in that particular unit, which was 20 or 30 feet. Trees were cut from the grove and stuck up in the mud thickly enough to make it look natural. The guns were covered with underbrush (real material being used wherever possible instead of manufactured camouflage) and the change in the whole when seen from an enemy plane would not have been noticeable. As a result, our guns there were never fired on. Camouflage in the winter is about as easy as in the summer. Of course the foliage on the trees helped to a certain extent in the summer, but then in the open the snow covering the nets stretched across the trenches or artillery centers aided quite as much. One of the greatest helps in the study of camouflage was the aerial photograph. That was what we had to deal with in regard to the enemy. In practicing the use of the different kinds of camouflage our own men made pictures of our work and let us see the real effect on an aerial picture. The pictures were usually made at a distance of about a mile and a half. Enemy planes hardly ever dared come any nearer than this because of the anti-aircraft guns.


There is online information about WWI camoufleur Manley Dewitt Barber at the 2007 Knox Heritage George Barber Homes Trolley Tour.  Manley Barber was the brother of George Franklin Barber, a prominent residential architect first in DeKalb IL, and then in Knoxville TN from 1888 until his death in 1915. By the end of the 19th century, George Barber’s architectural firm was the largest in the state. Thirty-five of his elaborate Victorian houses are still standing in Knoxville, with hundreds of others across the country, and in Canada, Japan, China and the Philippines. The Manley Dewitt Barber House (designed in 1905 by George Barber for his brother) is at 1620 Washington Avenue in Knoxville.

According to the online source—

After moving to Knoxville in 1903, Manley worked with George in the architectural firm of Barber and Klintz, and also spent time as a contractor and builder. Manley was best known as a collector of shells and fossils. He found many new specimens which he sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC to be named; three specimens were named after him and his collection is said to have been the largest in the United States in 1928. 

Robert Williams Wood | Carrot in Camouflage

Robert W. Wood, How to Tell the Birds From the Flowers
Above One of the comparative illustrations in How To Tell the Birds from the Flowers: A Revised Manual of Flornithology for Beginners, with verses and illustrations by Robert Williams Wood (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1917). A later edition was published by Dover Publications in 1959. Wood (1868-1955) was a prominent American scientist. In his children's book, each comparative image is accompanied by a nonsense verse. This one reads as follows—

The Parrot and the Carrot one may easily confound,
They're very much alike in looks and similar in sound,
We recognize the Parrot by his clear articulation,
For carrots are unable to engage in conversation.


Anon, The Versatile Carrot in the Urbana Daily Courier (Urbana IL), May 28, 1919—

There is nothing like a war to change the status of things. Look, for example, at the humble carrot. Before the war it was one of the lowliest of all the vegetables, seldom used except for stews or New England boiled dinners, but it certainly has been doing its bit in the culinary line recently. It has become a past master in the art of camouflage. Grated raw, it is said to be a very good substitute for eggs in certain things. Little slices dried become raisins and currants, and other bits, treated a little differently, masquerade as candied orange and lemon peel. Orange marmalade and certain kinds of jam are made of them, and large chances of them boiled and sugared make wonderful candied fruits of very kind—pineapples, pears, apricots, cherries—and are used by many caterers to give their war cakes and puddings a prosperous and festive look.

Paul J.E. Dezentjé's Art of Camouflage

Above Title panel from Paul J.E. Dezentjé's The Art of Camouflage blogpost at foundnyc.


Anon, A GOOD WAITER in Urbana Daily Courier (Urbana IL), 27 December 1919, p. 1—

In a restaurant in Chicago most of the waiters were returned sailors and soldiers. A traveling man came in and ordered roast beef with tomato sauce over it and a bowl of noodles. The waiter shouted, “Camouflage the calf and a bowl of submarines.”


Anon, SCHOOL NOTES in  Nashua Reporter (Nashua IA), January 17, 1918—

Hank Dana has been nominated for the Naval Academy at Annapolis MD. Gilbert Haugen of this district will take the examinations for the school some time in the near future. Hank should make good and the result of his application will be watched with interest. Hank has been camouflaged for the past few weeks with a mustache which graced his upper lip but since the news of his nomination has come out from behind the brush.


Anon, LeMars Globe-Post (LeMars IA), August 19, 1943—

Pvt. Norman Rohlfs of Craig enjoyed a 3-day pass over the weekend at the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Rohlfs, at Craig. He is at present stationed at Harvard NE with a camouflage unit. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Camouflage Artist | Walter L. Tubesing

French camoufleurs armband insignia (not the US version)*
Walter L. Tubesing (1889-1949) was an American artist from St. Paul MN. He is of particular interest because he was among the artists who comprised the first American Army Camouflage Corps during World War I. He began his training (along with 250 others) at Camp American University (Washington DC) in September 1917. While in training there, he was listed as having contributed to issues of The Camoufleur, an illustrated camp newspaper that we've blogged about before.

Their training continued in the US for four months, and then the unit was reassigned to France (landing at Brest). Corporal Tubesing served as a camoufleur in France (Paris, Dijon, Nancy, Chateau Thierry and St. Michiel) for the rest of the war. At Dijon, he and other soldiers worked with French women in producing camouflage netting, and contributed to the camouflage of YMCA tents (see example below), where childcare was available for the French workers. He and his fellow camoufleurs even produced a circus-themed musical show for the French children.

Camouflaged YMCA tent in France, c1918. Public domain.

When his Tubesing’s unit returned to the US in February 1919, he was among those listed in an article in the society pages of the Washington Times (February 9, 1919, p11), which reported on the fundraising activities of the League of American Penwomen. Through the courtesy of the Fortieth Engineers, the article notes, members of “the Camouflage Section will make the posters and decorations” for the organization’s upcoming carnival ball. It also offers this aside—

Men of the camouflage corps are seen on the streets of Washington wearing funny looking yellow lizards on the left shoulder. The lizard is really a chameleon, a “critter” which changes color according to the background on which it is placed. The insignia therefore is significant of their work.

The following is a list of the camouflage artists who contributed to the carnival ball (including our many corrections): "Leslie Thrasher, H. K[err] Eby, A. Bloudheim, H[enry] R. Sutter, A. Rottnere [probably Abraham Rattner], G[eorge] B[radford] Ashworth, Fred[eric] S[eymour] [called Feg] Murray, Robert Laswent [maybe Robert Lawson], Joseph Cox, [Frederic] Earl Christie [Christy], Frank [Francis William] Swain, Don Methvin, Walter Tubesing, Howard [Ashman] Patterson and [William]Twigg Smith."

A month later, Tubesing’s work in camouflage was described at length in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (March 9, 1919), in an article titled CAMOUFLAGE IN WAR WORK; ARTISTS TOIL AS FOE SHELLS FLY. Corporal Walter Tubesing, Back From the Front; Shatters Several Illusions. Fish Net, Chicken Wire, Burlap and Canvas Important Tools of Workers. A photograph of the artist (not clear enough to publish here) appeared with the article.

The article states that “Mr. Tubesing lives at 714 Ashland Avenue, St. Paul, but is a member of the Attic Club in Minneapolis and has a studio here.” Through other sources, we learned that he was married to Lura Tubesing, and that, in 1940, they lived at 1854 Jefferson Avenue in St. Paul.

In the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (Brainerd MN), on April 4, 1949, page 4, there was news about his death. He died in St. Paul at age 60 on April 1, 1949, in the collision of a car driven by Alvin Hofstedt (age 35), a co-worker in St. Paul, and a Northwestern Railway passenger train, at a grade crossing near Tubesing’s home.

* Image is a detail from Hardy Blechman, DPM: Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia of Camouflage (London: DPM, 2004), p. 274.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dazzle Camouflage Animated | Designer Joe Myers

Joe Myers, Dazzle Camouflage (2015)
Graphic designer Joe Myers, who earned his degree at Northern Illinois University, has made a delightful short animation about dazzle ship camouflage. It combines his graphic components with excerpts from a radio interview that was originally broadcast on 99% Invisible. Such fun—it's well worth a visit.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Martin Stevens on Cheats and Deceits in Nature

Book jacket for Cheats and Deceits (2016)
A wonderful new book by zoologist Martin Stevens is out today in the UK, with US release to follow. Titled Cheats and Deceits: How Animals and Plants Exploit and Mislead (great title!), it is a timely follow-up to his other two recent volumes: Animal Camouflage: Mechanism and Function (2011) and Sensory Ecology, Behavior and Evolution (2013), all from Oxford University Press. Here is the jacket description from the latest, followed by an author’s bio from—

In nature, trickery and deception are widespread. Animals and plants mimic other objects or species in the environment for protection, trick other species into rearing their young, lure prey to their death, and deceive potential mates for reproduction. Cuckoos lay eggs carefully matched to their host's own clutch. Harmless butterflies mimic the wing patterning of a poisonous butterfly to avoid being eaten. The deep-sea angler fish hangs a glowing, fleshy lure in front of its mouth to draw the attention of potential prey, while some male fish alter their appearance to look like females in order to sneak past rivals in mating. Some orchids develop the smell of female insects in order to attract pollinators, while carnivorous plants lure insects to their death with colorful displays.

In Cheats and Deceits, Martin Stevens describes the remarkable range of such adaptations in nature, and considers how they have evolved and increasingly been perfected as part of an arms race between predator and prey or host and parasite. He explores both classic and recent research of naturalists and biologists, showing how scientists find ways of testing the impact of particular behaviors and colorings on the animals it is meant to fool. Drawing on a wide range of examples, Stevens considers what deception tells us about the process of evolution and adaptation.


Martin Stevens is Associate Professor of Sensory and Evolutionary Ecology in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, UK. His research work and teaching focuses on animal behavior and their sensory systems and ecology. Most of his work aims to understand the evolution and function of animal coloration, including camouflage, mimicry, and warning signals, from the perspective of animal vision. His work has included studies on a wide range of animals, including fish, reptiles, birds, insects, crabs, and primates. Martin's work has frequently covered topics related to deception, including mimicry by brood parasites ("cuckoos") and anti-predator coloration, including camouflage, eyespots, and mimicry. He has published over 80 scientific manuscripts, two textbooks, and a general audience book on deception in nature. Martin's research is frequently covered in the international media and he has taken part in a wide range of TV, radio, and magazine productions and given public lectures around the world.