A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Kaiser, Kaisers, Henry Js, French Fries & Giorgio de Chirico
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Every time I pass the Hongkong Bank building on Georgia and Hornby I think of many things including a big hole, Henry J cars, Gary Taylor's Bradley's, Henry John Kaiser, his grandson Edgar F. Kaiser Jr., French fries and a Giorgio de Chirico painting that went up in flames.

For me it all started outside the American School on Freire in Buenos Aires in 1951My mother taught there and I walked a few more blocks down the street to the American Grammar School. Parked in front on Freire, one of the students had brought his brand new Henry J. It was a smallish car with unusual fins and it was painted in a bright middle blue. I had never seen a car that colour and that shape.

The car was the brainchild of Henry John Kaiser and Joseph Frazer. Kenry J Kaiser, an American had moved to our Vancouver in 1912 and had started the Henry J. Kaiser Company Ltd in 1914 which built the first concrete paved roads in Cuba. During the war Henry Kaiser had innovated the rapid construction of modular-built ships (using car assembly line procedures) which became the famous Liberty Ships (the later ones were called Victory Ships. One Liberty Ship was built in four and a half days. These ships transported, as an example, thousands of Sherman tanks as fast as the Germans destroyed them. Henry J Kaiser's son, Edgar F. Kaiser continued with the family tradition (he supervized the building of Liberty and Victory Ships in Vancouver) and had a reputation of pushing his employees to their limits.

It was in the late 80s that I first met Edgar Kaiser's son, Edgar J. Kaiser Jr. I was to photograph him many times. I quickly found out that he spoke a perfect Argentine Spanish. The reason was that he was in charge of the Kaiser car production in Brazil in Argentina and Brazil which made cars into the late 1960s after the company had stopped production in the US in 1955.

I remember vividly the Kaisers in Buenos Aires as they were extremely large cars in comparison to the smallish Peugeots, Renaults, Austins and Fiats that were more economically priced.

To me those Kaisers were beautiful with a curvy windshield and curvy side windows that reminded me of art deco structures like the American Chrysler Building. Only a few years ago when I photographed my favourite military airplane, a Grumman A-6 Intruder at the Pensacola Naval Air Museum did I finally notice the resemblance between car and plane.

The hole (if you notice on the top right of it, you will read Bradley's which was Gary Taylor's last venture in the entertainment business) preceded the building of the main branch of the Bank of BC. Its CEO was Edgar Kaiser Jr. When I photographed him with the model of the building which then became the HSBC bank he shouted at the underlings that told him that the architects had decided on a particular colour for the building's glass.

I remember him saying something like, "I don't care what they say, this is my building and I will decide on the colour of the window glass." I never found out if he indeed prevail with his choice.

On a previous occasion I photographed him for Equity Magazine. We used a beautiful chess set as a prop. I conciously cropped out of my camera's viefinder a beautiful Giorgio de Chirico painting (in the photograph you can get a hint of the bottom frame). Years later when I photographed Kaiser who was backing a venture that proposed installing French fry vending machines in airports, etc I asked him about the de Chirico. Kaiser's house had gone up in flames a few years before. He looked at me sadly and told me it was gone as well as most of his extensive (one of Canada's largest) art collection.

Articles had appeared at the time on the French fry venture that reported that the machines had a tendency to catch fire and also stank of cooking oil. There is no way that Mr. Kaiser will pose with chips for you, his publicist told me." I showed up the morning of the shoot and had a nice chat in Spanish with Kaiser and asked him if he would pose with product. Without any hesitation he sent the publicist to buy some chips at MacDonald's and then we filled an empty Spud Stop container and I took my shot.


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