In late September 1955 a fire in the Hester Street apartment of Stanley P. Cobler was thought to have destroyed all the original work of the young Beatnik photographer known for chronicling of San Francisco's North Beach district in the mid-1950s. But last week at an estate sale in Florida, a savvy collector spotted “Diner Self,” which now joins six other photographs as the only remaining original prints from the work of the young artist, and the only color photograph, who died two weeks after the fire from influenza brought on by smoke inhalation.
The fire, attributed to faulty wiring, was thought to have consumed thousands of photographs, many that were test shots at hundreds of locations throughout the Bay Area. Also destroyed were hundreds of original prints, thought to be his entire collection until this past week’s discovery. “Diner Self,”is probably the best known of Cobler’s work because of its proliferation as a popular poster in San Francisco in the summer of 1955. The original color print was thought to be lost in the fire, until it was discovered at the sale of the estate of Martin Phillips, a retired Oakland utility worker. Mr. Phillips, who retired to Florida in 1986, was 78.
The purchaser of “Diner Self,” was not identified. His discovery and purchase was made public by the Bay Area Museum of Photography after the museum was contracted to verify the photograph’s authenticity. No sale price or dollar value has been placed on the photograph. The photo, “Diner Self,” is a self photo of Cobler made at the Grant Avenue Diner depicting his own reflection in the windows of the well known eatery.
When Cobler, died his photographs had gained a solid reputation among some of the newer art dealers in New York and Los Angeles as well as San Francisco and he was gaining respect from the art community and a number of smaller galleries. He was mentioned in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town as “the Toulouse Noir of North Beach with his life-as-it-is world of coffee shops, jazz clubs and cafe scenes, all in black and white, all as stark and shadowy as film noir.” After his death, there was a brief flourish of recognition given to his work and in the summer of 1956, half a year after his death, New York's Museum of Modern Art included six of his works, at the time thought to be the only surviving originals, in an exhibition of Urban Photographers.
The fire and his subsequent illness, prevented Cobler from attending and photographing a poetry reading at the Six Gallery the first week of October 1955, famous for being the debut reading of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, an event he would have certainly attended.