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Wednesday, 9 July 2014


A Baltic cruise on the RMS Viceroy of India
 Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.
Zora Neale Hurston

When she (ships are always shes) was launched in 1929, the RMS Viceroy of India was the pride of P&O’s fleet. The sinking of the Titanic and then the Lusitania had hardly made a dent in the cruise ship industry, the construction of them and the sailing on them. Like the Titanic, the Viceroy of India was intended to have the last word in luxury travel, with an indoor swimming pool, banquet halls and even a museum. The vital statistics of this ship probably interest specialists but the detail that she was driven by two turbo alternators and the steam powered by six boilers rated at 350 psi means little to me. It is clear from this photo, probably taken as she was sailing through the Clyde after leaving Glasgow, that she was an impressive symbol of the new century. The photo is the first from a presentation album created for a cruise of the Baltic by a group of Rotarians sometime in the mid-1930s. With a cover of faux-leather and a gold embossed stamp of the ship, and most of the photographs 5x7 and hand printed, it was a fairly expensive item to produce, even without the standard paraphernalia such as menus or maps showing the route. It isn’t clear whether this one was produced for a particular Rotarian club’s records or if the passengers could buy it. In any case, the cruise ship album has a place in the history of photography. Granted it isn’t always a prominent one but this is a good example of a vanished world. It shows us the places visited and gives us glimpses of shipboard life.  

Although the Viceroy was built specifically for the route between Britain and India (RMS meaning Royal Mail ship), she was as well known as a cruise ship. On this cruise she carried a group of British Rotarians. Here they are; the heart and soul of middle England. Despite rumours, to be a Rotarian in the 1930s did not make you a rabid anti-socialist or a freemason. On the contrary, Rotarians, as this photo succinctly demonstrates, were rather ordinary. Of course, you had to be a solid and respectable member of society, so anyone who believed in a socialist utopia would be unlikely to join, and women could not officially become members until the 1980s. The Vatican banned priests from joining Rotary in the 1950s on the grounds it was a secret society but passed no edicts regarding laity. In the 1920s, before this photo was taken, Rotary banned recruiting from freemasons’ clubs, probably because it aspired to be secular and non-discriminatory and associations with masons would have tarnished its reputation. This group look like the types who’d provide schoolbooks to economically disadvantaged areas and make donations to villages struck by natural disasters. Both are commendable activities.

To be a cruise ship photographer can’t have been a bad job. You got to see the world and no one asked for originality in the photos you took. Maybe that’s why, despite the privileges, it was never considered a very prestigious occupation. If you had real ambitions, the magazines were what you’d set your sights on. This is the Kungsgatan in Stockholm. The towers, the Kungstorn, were designed by Sven Wallander and when they were completed in 1925 were officially the first skyscrapers in Europe. Presumably our Rotarians disembarked at Stockholm and went on a short tour, in which case a stop to look down Kungsgatan would have been on the itinerary.

Here’s a group of them. It’s hard to say whether the people at the back are part of the same cruise. No doubt that a stop in Stockholm involved a meeting with members of the Swedish branch of Rotary. There would have been a table laid out with teapots and cups, and possibly Danish pastries, which oddly enough were called Viennese pastries in Denmark, because that’s where they came from.

This is Helsinki’s Central Railway station, designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919. It is described in some books as belonging to the National Romantic Style, expressing ideas from Finnish folklore and national heritage. From here it looks like a fine example of Art Deco; what we tend to think of as typical National Romantic resembles more Victorian Gothic, with an emphasis on turrets and spires - think of an ice castle from a Hans Christian Andersen story. In any case, our visitors would have been impressed by its modern style. Interesting that the caption reads ‘Helsingfors’, which is, or was, the Swedish for Helsinki. This suggests our photographer may have been Swedish, a small but important detail. The cruise management would have wanted a local photographer, if only because someone who turned up fresh out of Glasgow might not know the sights and would miss some important landmarks. Also, the photographer could have boarded with a portfolio of previously taken images. The captions are only on the building and street views, indicating they may also have been published as postcards.

 I'm guessing the man on the left was known to everyone as ‘the Major’. 

The tower in the background looks more National Romantic than does Helsinki’s train station. It also looks old. It is the spire of Saint Nicholas’ Church, originally built in the 13th century. The spire was built in 1909, replacing a ruin that had been around since a fire in 1795. This in effect is the essence of all national romantic movements; build something modern intended to evoke a glorious past.

We usually associate scenes like this with more southern areas of Europe. Not because we assume Finland doesn’t have markets but because since World War 2 the Nordic countries have successfully promoted themselves as contemporary: contemporary design, contemporary architecture, contemporary ideas. Nordic is a euphemism for new and progressive. Old doesn’t get a lot of attention. Notice again this has a caption, and is taken from a high point from the harbour, meaning it was taken from a ship. Possibly it was the Viceroy but again, our photographer could have taken it months earlier.

 She looks a touch too young to be part of the tour group. She also looks Scandinavian.Did the cruise elect a Rotarian queen?

This and the next two images belie the case that Rotarians don’t know how to have fun. Of course they do. Never mind that ‘fun’ might involve countless cups or tea and singalongs, and we feel obliged to put the word in inverted commas, it is still defined as ‘fun’. These images are the centrepiece of the album. We can’t be sure what they were celebrating; obviously not the crossing of the Equator and the cruise went too far south to cross the Arctic Circle. What I suspect is, the cruise had a very tight schedule of activities arranged and one of them was some kind of on board party, a celebration of all the good work the Rotarians had done. 

Is he supposed to be an Arab, or a shepherd from a nativity scene?

From what we read, life on board during a cruise in the 1930s actually sounds a bit dull. Between meals, one lay back in a deck chair reading cheap thrillers or wandered to the lido bar on the off chance there was a game of bridge or baccarat to join in on. In the evening one dressed, had a cocktail, ate, played more bridge then went to bed. The kind of activities that gave some more innocuous sites sordid reputations seems missing. Of course, this was a tour by Rotarians and we’d hardly expect much in the way of shenanigans. Still, the presence of a spy could have spiced things up a bit.

 Ahh yes … 

 We know we are in Scandinavia … 

Interesting, but only a few years after this photo was taken a statue to the fishwives of Copenhagen was erected near this spot, and soon after the market closed down. Somehow the long history and tradition of the Copenhagen fish market gets neglected but it obviously mattered enough to build a monument to its women; a response perhaps to the more famous statue of the little mermaid. This, I also think, doubled as a postcard.

Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen. Grundtvig was not a saint but a nationalist poet, philosopher etc who also was a pastor, hence the legitimacy of building a church in his honour. Designed by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint in 1913, it was still being finished when our visitors arrived in Copenhagen. Though there are no apparent clues to its use, no crucifixes or statues, you know at one that it must be a church. Notice there is no caption. Possibly the building was still covered with scaffolding when our photographer last visited. This would therefore have been taken on the cruise. The photos here are from an album of 36 and are placed in the order they appear.
The Viceroy had a short, tragic life. In 1940 she was converted to a troop carrier and two years later was sunk in the Mediterranean after a U-boat torpedoed her. Four crewmembers were killed. Everyone was rescued but the ship lies rusting in the deep off the coast of Algeria.


Saturday, 28 June 2014


Some snapshots from Miami, 1942
 Second only to the sea, the Miami sky has been the greatest comfort in my life past 50. On a good day, when the wind blows from the south, the light here is diffuse and forgiving.
Iggy Pop

Photography being a relatively simple skill to pick up, it’s rare to find photos by someone who really has no idea of the basics regarding composition, framing and so on. So rare in fact that the photos can be more interesting than they would be had they been taken with a little care or knowledge. Such is the case with this group of snapshots, taken at Miami Beach in March 1942.

Our photographer really didn’t get it. If he or she – on gut feeling alone the handwriting makes me think it’s a he – had picked up a ten cent Kodak manual, (one probably even came with the camera) basic advice like keeping the horizon straight, finding a point of interest, applying the rule of thirds, would have improved the images. But here’s the real difference between a photograph and a sketch: once the snap has been taken it can’t be improved. You can’t go back and erase the tree. You are left with what you did. All that can be done as compensation is take another photograph. Frankly, I don’t think our photographer cared that much. He was like a kid with a new water pistol; point in this direction and squeeze, and now point this way and do the same. Don’t bother aiming; it’s a water pistol, not a real gun. Don’t bother with that manual. You’re not a photographer; you’re a tourist.

It isn’t that uncommon to hear people complain they aren’t good photographers. Usually, what they mean is that they can’t take photos that look like masterpieces. They tried taking a shot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but though they had Ansel Adams in mind, they got back a flat, muddy looking image. They sought the decisive moment but it always seemed to be thirty seconds ahead of them. Here’s the thing. I’m sure that had I been standing next to our photographer on the beach at Key West that early Spring day in 1942, I would have seen the point of interest in this scene and moved in. What I would have taken would be a shot of a girl in a short skirt bending over – a classic, or typical, human interest scene showing the humour in daily life, or some cliché along those lines. Instead what we get is girl in short skirt bending over, boyfriend with towel over his shoulders standing next to her, another man walking away, a fairly well populated beach and a jetty, to start with. If the camera is an eye, our photographer observes more than most professionals.

Miami Beach, March 1942. The date seems important, especially when we know that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour just three months earlier, and in February 1942 the Miami Beach Training Center opened. That might explain what our photographer was doing there, but what if it didn’t? Thanks to a mass media that finds nuance annoying, or downright subversive, we tend to think of the U.S.A post Pearl Harbour as behaving like a single cell organism. The profound shock of the event, the realization that America is now at war, the man looking at his wife as they both become aware that their world has changed. What if it wasn’t like that? What if our photographer had worked so hard the last year in the Detroit car factory or the New York law office, been so rattled by his divorce or the death of his mother, or just come from Minnesota where the snow was still two metres high, that, frankly, so far as Miami in March was concerned, Pearl Harbour might as well be on Mars? Recall September 11, 2001: for all the pieties we read about how the nation had changed, how a threshold had been broached, what we saw was a government behaving in unsurprising ways and a country that quickly reverted to type. What had changed was usually so subtle that it was hard to discern. The crime, the birth, marriage, divorce, economic parity and other vital statistics weren’t fundamentally altered. Our photographer may have resolved to offer his life to his country if it asked, but that wasn’t going to be revealed in his photos.

So let’s think about Miami, not the national state of mind (a fiction) instead. What if you had spent your life in Detroit or on a Minnesota farm or a New York suburb and you went to Miami in 1942; what would you find? Well, the Olsen Hotel for a start. It was one of dozens of Art Deco, or Streamline Moderne hotels that had been opened on the beachfront. Miami had embraced the moderne style like nowhere else in America, and today we are grateful for that (and to the conservationists who have fought for the preservation of buildings). Art Deco is to Miami what the skyscraper is to New York, the minaret on the skyline to Istanbul, the art nouveau portal to Budapest; it defines the city. All physical descriptions start from that detail. In Miami, Art Deco wasn’t just an architectural style; it spoke of a culture that was distinct from New York and other northern cities on the Atlantic seaboard. In Miami, where it was summer all year round, people dressed to fit in with the buildings, in white linen suits and floral print frocks. They nodded smugly when Minnesotans talked of the blizzard or when New Yorkers tried to introduce formality to the proceedings. Geographically, Miami was closer to Havana than it was to any other state in the U.S. It was like another country.

Here is a view of the Casa Marina, one of the best known resorts on the seashore, and one quietly muses on what happened when Robert Mitchum and a busload of starlets turned up. Yes, it was that kind of place, back when excess was considered both interesting and healthy. Rough and disorganized as this photo is, it tells us a lot about Miami, 1942. The building still exists, still as a hotel, with a long palm tree lined promenade leading up to the entrance. If that was in place in 1942, what we have is a tourist approaching tentatively and reaching a polite distance, accidentally cropping the bottom that would show the path. This is a Miami landmark, a place no tourist should avoid, even if the experience is as vicarious as viewing it from a safe distance. Of course we only have a few photos from the collection and don’t know that our photographer didn’t venture downtown to document Miami’s flourishing skyline. 

In the 1940s Key West was on the cusp of a boom. It wasn’t yet the retirees’ paradise, nor a refuge for Cubans, though anyone with foresight could have seen those on the horizon. I’m assuming Ocean Beach Cottages was an official name, although Googling it brings up a variety of places that are more prestigious than these places. Here, Ocean View Cottages look like the types of cottages more budget minded tourists would rent for a few days, have barbecues, run down to the beach, meet like minded folks and agree that when they hit 65, this was the place to set up camp. Behind the roughness and disorder of these images is a view of Miami more considered photographers would miss.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014


German propaganda in World War 1 postcards
"...among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages."
from The Idler magazine, dated November 11, 1758, 160 years before Armistice Day.

On the little chalkboard at the front the message reads, “Kriegsjahr 1914/15”, or “Year of the War” then something indecipherable and what could be Eisenfeld, which would be a small town north of Frankfurt. An expert could interpret the variety of caps and tell us more, but for the time being it looks like a battalion or regiment has been billeted in the town. The sign on the door at the back is for Odam camembert cheese, which obviously makes us think they are outside a store or bar. The middle aged couple at the back could be the owners and the two younger women their daughters or staff. Everything so far has been self explanatory, but what of the mug of beer on the table? Thousands of German postcards just like this one are floating about and the mug of beer is a common element. There’s a simple explanation – someone just ordered a beer, and as the man at the very rear left is also holding a beer that looks straightforward and evident – but simple explanations aren’t always satisfying. Could it have stood in for absent friends? After all, the toast to lost comrades has been common across all armies through the centuries, and though it is somewhat atavistic, the idea of having a glass of beer to stand in for them is not illogical.

The two predominant images of World War 1 are the bodies in the trenches and the fools in charge. As the centenary drew closer there was a spot of revisionism, a few suggestions that as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Gallipoli campaign, Churchill wasn’t quite the disaster he has been made out to be, but even the worst leaders have their ever faithful supporters. Here’s a postcard of Counts Häseler (on the left) and Zeppelin. The caption at the top tells us they are the oldest commanders of the German army. This and several others in the same series were made in 1910, when war was a certainty though no timetable had been drawn up. Neither man had an active role in the war, both being in their 80s, but something about this image says a lot about the state high command. It wasn’t just that so many of the generals were old men who should have been pensioned off, but most of them had come through the various officer corps during an era when class distinctions were so strong they might never exchange words with a single ordinary soldier. It was an era when officers were gentlemen, hoped to engage in at least one legendary cavalry charge and had no clue how to deal with irregular Sudanese, Boer or other upstart militias out in the colonies. Look at these two. What silly hats. What pompous outfits. As for the sabres; what good would they be in the trenches? The photo is by Alfred Kuhlewindt, an official photographer for the German High Command and a man whose job was to make the ridiculous pass for the sublime.

There is a publisher’s stamp on this but no photographer credited. That doesn’t matter. Variations on this image, the young frau wearing the soldier’s cap with a (painted) horse behind her, were among the most popular postcards sent to the soldiers at the front. Thereby hangs a tale, or an idea at least. Wir halten durch! In English: ‘We came by’, or ‘We stopped by’. Who is ‘we’? Well, it is the young women of Germany, but more specifically, the young women who rode horses. In Germany C1914 to 1918, that really meant the young women from good middle to upper middle class families, der junge frauen der mittelschicht (I think): well bred, wholesome, cultured, for whom horse riding was a pleasure, like reading Goethe or going to the museum on Sundays; in other words, the ideal German woman, she whose honour the boys in the trenches are fighting for. Wir halten durch! Why? To offer words of encouragement? To remind young Kurt that trenchfoot, dysentery and good odds of a premature death were but small sacrifices for the greater ideal? There’s a study waiting to be made of this young frau, and her English, French, Belgian, Dutch and Russian equivalents, because they are the same, but different in their subtle ways. You won’t find many images of British lasses with painted horses because horse riding didn’t have the same cultural resonance in England. Ditto the French mademoiselle, who likely as not is holding a flag in one hand, a tray of pastries or a bottle and wine glasses in the other.   

Happy Easter, 1915. It is postmarked April 2nd but even Germans have trouble reading the handwriting, because it is so flowery they can’t tell if they are looking at a t, an f or a j. The message, or what they can work out from it, seems fairly pedestrian. Someone is going to Cologne soon and thinking warmly of the recipient. It is the image that matters in any case, and how strange it is. The egg itself is easy to understand, not so much a symbol of fertility as one of the family. And look at the trench the soldiers are in. It looks more like a culvert, a neat, shallow and well constructed channel. Did the people back home really believe the trenches looked like this? They may have. In early 1917 disillusion with the German army was so strong that several cities were paralysed by riots. It wasn’t just the death toll that made people angry; it was also the discovery that they were being lied to. Their boys weren’t winning magnificent victories, and just like the Allies, they couldn’t retreat if they wanted to, the war being stuck in the trenches. Despite all the evidence in the form of the war wounded wandering the streets it took two years for that message to affect enough people that civil unrest became possible. The day this postcard was mailed off, a German cavalry unit was badly beaten in Poland by a Russian force but the chances were slim the author of the postcard knew that. Only the Russian news services would have published that information, and as every German knew, they weren’t to be trusted. In 1915 Easter fell on Sunday April 4. This postcard was mailed on Good Friday.

While we are on the topic of truth being ignored, misconstrued or overlooked, here’s one the Allies may have conveniently forgotten. On the back the message reads, in German, “Three Tonkinese soldiers captured 5. 6. .18.” It also says where, though that isn’t clear. ‘Tonkinese’ was the common term for people from North Vietnam, but often enough anyone from what was then French Indochina, which included Cambodia. Consider the background. The palms suggest an exotic, tropical location. Brief research (Wikipedia) has uncovered the detail that some 92 000 Vietnamese soldiers served in the French army on the Western Front. That’s an awful lot of people to leave out of the standard histories, especially when you remember that approximately 103 000 New Zealanders served. The French could argue that, coming from the Colonies, they were part of France anyway, but perhaps France has always been troubled by the Indochinese contribution. The history of the Indochinese wars that began in 1946 and ended with America’s defeat in 1975, properly begins in the First World War when the initial anti-colonial uprisings took place. Vietnam wasn’t just sending soldiers but being taxed to support the French effort, and when you study the expressions on these men’s faces you get an inkling of why the King of Vietnam, Duy Tân, would leave his palace to join the protestors in the streets in 1916. Ho Chi Minh later claimed his political ideologies first formed during the war.