And furthermore ...

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Friday, 13 November 2015


Back stamps and design on cartes de visite and cabinet cards.
 “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”
Walt Disney

For some people, the pleasure in collecting cartes de visite and cabinet cards lies entirely on the reverse, in the stamps that identify the studio and sometimes advertise the range of services. This is understandable. The images on the other side are often commonplace and uninteresting while the back carries an intricate design that can also be a code. This stamp on the back of a cabinet card from the Phebus studio in Constantinople is dominated by Apollo, the god of the sun and of light – AKA Phoebus Apollo - an obvious choice for a photographic studio. Apollo could also be a god of truth, which again makes sense for a photographic studio, since that was what they purported to offer. Note the idealized Ottoman script at the top and the French Photographie. Without knowing who runs the studio we can tell from the French that he was Armenian, because French was the lingua franca of the Armenia business community in Constantinople. Sure enough, Phebus was run by Bo─čos Tarkulyan, one of the better known photographers in town around the turn of last century. The Art Nouveau pattern was a deliberate nod to contemporary ideas in Western Europe, identifying Tarkulyan as someone less, or even not, interested in Ottoman traditions. The choice of flower in the frames at the top would have been conscious too. It may be amaryllis, which has some connection with Apollo, but that’s only a guess.

 The study of the backs of CDVs and cabinet cards is a branch of iconography, specifically one that can trace its origins back to the frontispieces found in books from the sixteenth century through to the beginning of the nineteenth. The frontispiece could be a declaration of intent or an acknowledgement of a patron’s greatness but were never just random images. It was intended to be read in minute detail and required knowledge of biblical imagery as well as more demotic symbols. By the 1860s, when this carte was produced, the art and meaning of frontispieces had fallen out of use but Theophile Gastonguay evoked them with the image of a beaver. Although the beaver did not become the official emblem of Canada until 1975, it had been commonly used as a symbol of Canada since the seventeenth century.

 Archibald McDonald ran a photography studio in Melbourne throughout the gold rush. Like every other studio photographer in Melbourne at this time he came from another country, from Nova Scotia in fact, just a spit away (in Canadian distances) from Theophile Gastonguay. You might wonder why St George and not a kangaroo but there we see the difference a century and a half of colonization can make. Although by the 1860s people around the world recognized the kangaroo as Australian, it wasn’t a national symbol. Australia (AKA “The Colonies”) didn’t have such a thing, or if it did it was likely to be St George’s dragon, which, like Australia, was proudly British. Archibald McDonald: logic tells us he was of Scottish background and he might have been the type to give a Glasgow kiss to anyone who called him British, but St George here doesn’t stand for England so much as a landmark in Melbourne. Long gone now, once upon a time everyone in Melbourne knew where St George’s Hall was.

 A similar thinking may have been behind Louis of Paris’s depiction of the Porte St Martin, which then as today was close by the central shopping district. Firstly it told customers the studio was located in one of the more salubrious areas, and then it told them how to get there. Notice it was opposite the Theatre de l’Ambigu, a place made famous by Louis Daguerre’s set designs.

Migevant’s studio may not have been at such a desirable address as Louis’ but no Parisian had to ask where the Place de la Bastille was. When this CDV was produced in the early 1870s there couldn’t have been too many people around who remembered the Revolution and the storming of the Bastille in 1789 but enough would have recalled the glorious revolution of 1830, which the July Monument seen here honoured. Essentially the French replaced one monarch with another, which is a little like stumbling from one failed relationship with a drunken philanderer straight into another. Today the Boulevarde Beaumarchais is lined with shops selling antique cameras.

The back stamp can be evidence. In 1876 Alfred Mayman took over the Temple Photographic Gallery at 170 Fleet St in London. Two years later the City of London dismantled the Temple Bar on account of Fleet Street needing widening and the structure was dilapidated. The sections were carefully stored and in 1880 Henry Meux bought it and reassembled it on his estate in Hertfordshire. In 1984 it was bought back from Meux’s descendants and re-erected in Paternoster Square. All this to say that there was only a two year period between 1876 and 1878 when there was any practical purpose for Mayman to have an illustration of the structure on the back of his CDVs. We don’t need any other information to date the image.  

 Images of cherubs with cameras are common, as is the inclusion of an artist’s palette, but what does it mean? Strictly speaking, these round and flabby infant creatures are Putti: cherubs have several heads and bits of eagle and lion attached to them. The precise symbolic meaning of the Putti is not understood but since the late Renaissance they have had an association with the arts, and music in particular. Originally the true artist had his muse, a goddess, who inspired him and for whom he created. The little toddlers might have been intended to suggest the playfulness every serious artist needs but also, babies were the inevitable result of creative coupling. In the way that a red and blue barber’s poles once indicated a place to have a bit of bloodletting and these days means a haircut, Monge, and every other photographer who used the imagery saw it as an icon not a symbol.

 Just to reinforce the point (somewhat), we find exactly the same image on the reverse of a CDV by a studio located on Rue de la Sabliere. The companies that printed the blanks for CDVs usually have their name in small letters down the bottom. We don’t get any such on either Monge or the Sabliere studio card and while we could assume the same company produced the blanks, it is also possible that several bought their designs from another source. Somebody could have produced this image of the putto, sold it on to the printers who then customized it for the various studios who used them.  

This palette is also very common, with a fairly obvious interpretation although it ought to be pointed out that few commercial photographers thought of themselves as artists in the way that people used that word even in the relatively staid 1860s. ‘Artist’ was a kind of password for quality of technique rather than ideas. Apart from being a photographer, Camille Benoit was an art dealer, so he may have seen the image as a pun. 

 Harrison Nathaniel Rudd ran his studio in Costa Rica around the turn of last century, as board mounted photographs were giving way to postcards. Costa Rica was relatively prosperous and peaceful at this time, meaning an American could operate a studio with some confidence it would not be closed down or he would have to get out at short notice. This rather elegant design may have also come from a template customized to his requirements. Or not. There is a pun here as well, in the idea of the woman’s hand holding out a carte or cabinet card. A camera is depicted at the top of the crest.  Maybe Rudd also had cartes with the same back design that the hand holds out.


Friday, 6 November 2015


Snapshots of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s
 I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago... I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.”
Rudyard Kipling

People will tell you New York used to be the world’s biggest city, the richest or most beautiful, but also the most violent and depraved. It was the cultural capital of the world or its actual beating heart, and so on. One or two of these may have come close to the truth at some point. Chicago never attracted that level of hyperbole but what we were told about it made it more glamorous, in a tough, seedy way: the meatpacking district, the black sox scandal, Al Capone and the outfit, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. If New York was an overdressed hooker preening under Neon lights, Chicago was the snivelling little pimp standing back in the shadows.

  Not that you’ll see that in this collection, centred essentially on this and the next two, being snapshots taken by the same person in 1943. This one in particular is rather special in that we get two military men framing a view down the sidewalk on Michigan Ave, the Stars and Stripes above them creating a triangle while on the right we get a line of Cadillacs under the Pabst beer sign. Pabst is horrid: you wouldn’t feed it to a dog, but the company did build one of the few advertisements deserving praise as an architectural icon. Note the time on the sign: it looks like 7 to 12.

  Which is about two and a half hours before this photo was taken. It’s a shame there aren’t more by this photographer of Chicago in the collection. He or she had an eye for the panoramic view. Consider the way your eye moves from the pole in the foreground to the one at the middle space, and then to the Pabst sign sitting between them in the distant background. Your eye is led in towards the sign; a trick that professionals don’t always understand.

 Okay it might be a fluke except that we see it again; less successfully if you want to argue that, but enough to demonstrate our photographer understands the interior design of a photograph. Janet Malcolm in her famous essay on vernacular photography, “Diana and Nikon”, struggled with the problem that an ordinary snapshot could be visually richer than work by professionals; the problem being that she wondered how to judge it without the standard parameters in place. And now the Pabst clock says it is 5:30.

 Chicago 1954: Syphilis took care of Al Capone some years back but the Outfit is alive and kicking. Whether Memphis Minnie knows it or not, her career is riding a steep slope downhill, but in a couple of years Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf will shake up England with the blues, and on June 19 the city, being several hundred miles from the coast, is struck by a tidal wave that kills eight people. Is our photographer here aware of any of that? Seems not.

 But he/she has time to visit the Chicago Zoo in 1954, and who wouldn’t? Opened twenty(ish) years earlier, it was revolutionary in the way it removed the bars between spectator and animal. All that separated some vicious, slow-witted carnivores from the furrier mammals was a moat and a low fence. We could wonder who benefited most from this – human or animal – and here we see two polar bears sans anything like a protecting fence or safe distance. In other words, we (the people) got to imagine animals as though there was nothing between us and them. What did the polar bears think of this? Who has the foggiest to be honest, but the stretch of lawn is a nice touch. Bet they never saw that on the ice floe back home.

 From the zoo to the aquarium, to the Shedd Aquarium to give it its proper monicker, despite ‘Shedd’ obviously being a thoughtless name for the world’s biggest aquarium and an institution that will boast of its size from the moment it was founded in 1930. Shedd was one of those figures common to America C1890-1920 who made a lot of money in ways only vaguely understood by the rest of us but poured a lot of it into public institutions like the eponymous aquarium, libraries and museums. One thinks of such entrepreneurs as being either great men or lesser men that have something guilt-like to deal with, but likable nevertheless for what they bequeathed. It’s possible the photographer wanted an exposure that filled the hall with light while showing the sea creatures floating about in detail but that could never be. What we get instead is something much better – a kind of modernist laboratory. What lies behind the glass in this scene? Something more mysterious than wrasse and perch. 


The visit to Chicago has been too short and too shallow. We barely get a sense of the second city. Back in the day, if we were to leave town, presumably because our luck had run out or because the local law enforcement officers encouraged us to, Union Station would be the place to head to. It was the kid of place that required a proper entrance, in a dark suit, grey rabbit fur homburg and a kipper tie. This view vanished years ago. That neo-classical thing in the foreground was replaced by an office tower seven times as high, four times as wide and twenty three times less interesting. This should come as no surprise. Like so many cities busily erasing their past, it is stuck back there and can never be genuinely contemporary.


Saturday, 17 October 2015


Real photo postcards by George Austin and others
 “I hate to be near the sea, and to hear it raging and roaring like a wild beast in its den. It puts me in mind of the everlasting efforts of the human mind, struggling to be free and ending just where it began.”
William Hazlitt

Eastbourne: a seaside town on the Sussex coast, halfway between Brighton and Hastings, known during the Victorian era for several grand hotels and one notorious murder when a teacher, Thomas Copley, caned his student Reginald Cancellor to death. Today it has an air of shabby gentility about it. The English used to specialize in shabby gentility; the Ealing comedies were essentially about nothing else. That may be a lost art in an age of ostentatious vulgarity but Eastbourne’s waterfront in the summer, with a chill wind blowing off the coast and bringing buckets of rain with it, holds out against the depredations of venality. Those pastel greens, oranges, mauves and pinks splashed across the seafront, the colours of a stick of Brighton rock left in a shop window for a couple of decades, are a reminder that what fades and decays can still have a faint pulse beat.

The point of going to Eastbourne has always been to leave, to head inland towards the kind of villages poets and other jolly chaps declared were the soul of England, or to head west and go up to Beachy Head, along what today is called the South Downs Way but back in 1910 was merely the crusty edge of England. The late Victorians and the Edwardians, the people who really developed the seaside town, held many dubious beliefs, particularly about the state of their bodies. One did not walk out to Beachy Head to marvel at the view so much as to improve circulation of the vessels surrounding the liver. This postcard is postmarked September 25 1915 but you can bet it was taken a few years earlier. The publisher was E. A. Schwerdtfiger and it was printed in Berlin. Look closely. The distant figure closest to the cliff edge at the right has one leg and a pair of crutches. 

But we are not in Eastbourne to talk about Germany or missing limbs. Much more interesting is George Edward Austin, photographer from the 1890s to the 1920s, who studio was at 70 Seaside (thanks again to for the info on Sussex postcards) From the beginning Austin was a portrait photographer. It appears he wasn’t even vaguely interested in the kind of topographical views that people like Fred Judge and Leonard Horner were making a packet out of and never took one. So imagine spending your entire career taking photos of families like this one; a kind of spiritual death you’d think, but born in London’s east end slums in 1864 (Bromley-by-Bow; about the most depressing place for a Londoner to arrive in the world that year) Austin probably didn’t waste much time thinking about spiritual death. And no, we are not in Eastbourne to talk about George Austin’s philosophical opinions but a curious project he undertook and which we can think of as one he made his own.

Beginning sometime between about 1905 and 1910 Austin began turning up to Eastbourne’s hotels to gather the guests and staff out the front and photograph them. According to the inscription in the lower left this was taken on August 4 1913, which the calendar for that year tells us was a bank holiday in England. The women are dressed the same as those in the Beachy Head photo and if they’re not the same individuals they are the same species; people who caught the train down to the seaside on Saturday afternoon and spent the next two days taking constitutionals. On a morning like August 4 1913 George Austin would be rushing between hotels and guest houses before they set out for the cliffs above lighthouse.   

His thinking was infallible. If some photographers were making a living photographing holidaymakers on the promenade during the summer, it made sense to photograph as many people as possible at once, which logically expanded sales from one or two per photo taken to potentially dozens. He didn’t think this up himself. Earlier posts have featured ferries from the same era crowded with passengers who were expected to buy the postcard when the boat docked. Postcards from other photographers taken outside of hotels have also turned up, all of them from seaside resorts and mostly from Sussex and Kent. If the frequency with which his photos turn up in collections, Austin was the most prolific. 

If his motives were entirely to do with economics, look at several of his photographs together and something else comes into play. They become a kind of typology, Eastbourne’s version of the Mass Observation project before its time. Raise a sceptical eyebrow and point out that his images are no different to those taken of school years or sports teams but that misses one important detail. Those are always of the collective as a single unit, hence the team stand together with arms crossed, or the class wear the same uniform. These photos are the opposite; people brought together whose only common bond was that they spent the night under the same roof. They didn’t even have to acknowledge each other in the dining room. That’s why we get a better dynamic: small cells with their own internal dynamics as opposed to the school or the team photo where everyone is the same age and often enough the same gender and who line up to stare dispassionately at the camera. Study one of these hotel photos closely and you discover people who don’t fit in, or someone’s odd gesture. All that aside, they are an object lesson in the ordinariness of life. 

Let’s leave George Austin, but not Eastbourne just yet. One of the odder genres of topographical postcard belongs to scenes of the interiors of convalescent homes, sanatoriums and other institutions for the infirm. Like the photos from outside hotels, these appear to be particular to the south east of England. Here we have one from the Merlynn in Eastbourne. What makes these different is that all other postcards were for tourists but these were for people who having arrived were not always expected to leave. The sitting room became their world. My theory is that they are a direct consequence of two world wars, when hundreds of thousands of former soldiers needed full time care, the south coast with its fresh air was thought to be the best place for them and so a quiet little town by the sea with comfortable armchairs, regularly emptied ashtrays and frequent pots of tea would sound perfect.