It wasn’t until the day I interviewed Jackey Neyman Jones and Tom Neyman in Oregon that I flipped over one of the few surviving set photographs and saw the name “Anselm Spring” stamped on the back. Despite the number of names (both real and fake) used to pad out the credits, his does not appear on the film. Just who was this person, and how’d he end up being the unknown set photographer on Manos: The Hands of Fate?
A quick internet search did, in fact, yield one German-born artist and musician with that name. What’s more, a very talented, prolific, wanderlust-y artist. An artist that lives today on top of a mesa in Utah, in a house he built with a wood fired stove in one room and a modern recording booth in the next. His studio, as I would find, was a proving ground for bold mixed media pieces large enough to cover most walls. The question still remained: how’d this future iconoclast, this eccentric-and-proud man of the world, get from Germany to the set of this film with a Pentax Spotmatic in tow?
The answer to that question takes us back to the Cold War. As the West (and with it, West Germany) developed a new arsenal of air defense weapons, many were tested in the field at El Paso’s Fort Bliss. 23 year old Anselm Spring was stationed there as an interpreter when an acquaintance, the owner of a local photo shop, recommended him to the production. Seeing in Mr. Spring both a germ of talent and the prospect of free labor, Harold Warren brought him into the Manos family. Anselm’s assignment wasn’t easy: with the bulk of the movie filmed at night, a limited number of harsh movie lights on the set were his only source of exposure.
After filming wrapped, Anselm turned in the best photos to the production company- none of which satisfied him, he says- and began to experiment with the leftovers, carefully charring slides with an open flame to create dramatic swaths of decay. Though many of his set photos would ultimately be lost, two “rejects” would survive, repurposed and submitted on a whim to Popular Photography Magazine. And so, images of Torgo and The Master found themselves in Anselm Spring’s first published work… though when we first talked, he couldn’t be sure which issue.
Long story short: I found myself in the public library on a long California afternoon, jolted by the familiar faces of Torgo and The Master flashing by in negative on a microfilm reader, flanked on each side by cute vintage camera ads. Above them, a headline: “ANSELM M. SPRING: HE HAS PICTURES TO BURN”. One trip to eBay later, and I had the full-color April 1967 issue in my hands.
Anselm credits this featured article, plus his subsequent friendship with a German-born, El Paso raised “military brat”, teenage model and future actress Susan Blakely, as instrumental in bringing him out of his shell and starting his career as a photographer and artist. However, having missed the premiere, he’d never seen the finished film until the day I visited his mesa. Mr. Spring’s blunt, off-the-cuff, yet articulate reactions to the film, as well as the sudden flood of memories it brought on, made for a remarkable and energetic interview. He even picked up his guitar and improvised a ditty that could just as easily apply to everyone on the cast and crew:
Manos: The Hands of Fate
I never, never ever got paid
(for the photographs I did)
Though he likes to insist that the film has little to no artistic value, Anselm seems to regard with affection that chain of events in 1966 that led him to his favorite means of expression. He has since updated his biography on his website to include the film- a meaningful acknowledgement from an uncompromising artist.