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Friday, 7 November 2014

HOME IS SO SAD

A Bamforth series of postcards from the 1950s
“The miniature gaiety of seasides.”
Philip Larkin: To the Sea

When I look at these postcards I think of England’s favourite modern poet, Philip Larkin. I think the small, grey suburban world he described was inhabited by the same people who bought these cards in the 1950s and scribbled perfunctory messages to relatives back home. I also think of Larkin himself, dragged away from the library at Hull to a seaside resort. It would be mid-summer and he’d be sitting in a café watching the people outside hurry out of the rain. Inspired to write a poem but without any paper at hand, he’d glance over to the counter and see a rack of postcards. There’d be the usual seaside postcards with their double entendres as subtle as a punch, some multiview scenes of the town with a cat or a terrier in the centre, and then there’d be one of these, with dirty washing piled on the sink or Mum’s knickers on the line. Without a second thought, Larkin would grab it, hurry back to his table with the chipped china cup of lukewarm tea sitting in the middle of the plastic tablecloth and start writing. Home is so sad. It stays as it was left.


 These postcards with their inimitable graphic design were produced by the Bamforth Company. We have met James Bamforth earlier, when he was producing real photo postcards at the turn of the century. A man of stern principles when it came to Christianity, alcohol and women, and a pioneer of cinema when Yorkshire was the centre of the world’s film industry (not Hollywood), he was long dead when these were published. Something happened with the company after James died in 1911. As though a great weight had been lifted off someone’s back, it abandoned restraint and became notorious for postcards that frequently crossed a line as far as the Government censor was concerned. There was nothing controversial about this series, unless the censor suspected Middle England was a hotbed of radicalism.

 It’s astonishing to realize that it wasn’t until the 1950s that a lot of English families could take vacations; not just a long weekend with a bank holiday but to be able to head off to Skegness or Blackpool for a whole week. Before that there was the war, and before that the Depression, before that the other war and before that factory workers got Saturday afternoon and Sunday off and were lucky to make a few shillings a day. The British have the trade unions to thank for improving their lives. James Bamforth didn’t think much of the unions, so it’s ironic that the Company made so much in the 1950s from a new generation of holidaymakers, but not as ironic as the next generation wilfully undoing all the good work.

 No coincidence then that these postcards were produced at the time when it was estimated that a quarter of Britain’s families owned caravans. The classic oval shaped two-tone caravan, ideally hauled by an Austin Cambridge or a Morris Minor, was supposed to be the epitome of post-war holiday freedom. Families set off to the seaside, exploring England’s back roads along the way and following their instincts, not a pre-ordained itinerary. Inevitably they ended up in caravan parks, lined up like soldiers alongside hundreds of others. 

 
 It was also the decade that Butlin’s Holiday Camps took off. With their brightly painted chalets, miniature railways, radio broadcasts, dance classes, shaving competitions. glamorous grandmother contests and nightly amateur theatre, they came to represent the other English holiday; the one where everything was provided so that you need not waste a minute feeling lost for entertainment. Today Butlin’s has come to stand for a particular pos-war Britain; its optimism defined by a vulgar lapse in popular culture, but they were also run on very religious principles. Each camp had an Anglican chaplain and holidaymakers were expected to attend church services. There were bars for Dad to head off to in the evening but most of the activities were designed to get the holidaymakers outdoors and exercising in the fresh air. Not surprisingly, in the 1960s the Carry On franchise spotted the English holiday resort as a prime target for satire. 1977’s Confessions from a Holiday Camp made the Carry On films look sophisticated in comparison.

 
But back to the 1950s. Notice that what most of these images are celebrating isn’t really the seaside resort but domesticity: the washing up, laundry day, the wife nagging the husband to attend to those minor repairs, the pleasure of a cup of tea after vacuuming the living room, filling in the pools; what Larkin thought was the English way of life: “The fathers with broad belts under their suits/ And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat; an uncle shouting smut; and then the perms”. And yes: They fuck you up, your mum and dad; often by dragging you off to Weymouth or North Wales, where for a whole week you had nothing to do but stare sullenly at people who were just like you.

  So much for the customers; what about the postcards themselves? The designer of this series gets no credit and it is difficult to find out who it was. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover he or she was from Eastern Europe. Pre-war, Czech and Polish designers had specialized in a combination of bold graphics and typography, and post-war a lot found work in Britain. They didn’t need to be familiar with that thing called the National Character because someone in management would have approved the original concept then advised them what would and wouldn’t work. Also, as a recent arrival to Britain, the designer would have an eye and an ear tuned to British idiosyncrasies. Management might not think a pile of dirty dishes or knickers on the line had some unique English quality until it was pointed out to them. The Bamforth Company was prolific and though it is best known for the Donald McGill style (dumb blonde, meek husband, shrewish wife) this series has a distinct style indicating that whoever was behind them knew the theory of design as well as the technique. 

 During the 1950s, the biggest change most postcard publishers were prepared to take was the shift from real photographic black and white to half-tone colour, which was like deciding the Kodak Instamatic was a better camera than the Leica only because it was cheaper. This series would have been among the last produced by any company as real photo postcards, hence among the last to introduce an innovation in design. Other companies may have toyed with the concept but few of them would have understood the broad humour and tastes of lower middle England better than Bamforth, the company that had always known that knickers were funny, and no one liked doing the dishes.


 Offering a critique in Circa of a 1993 exhibition of John Hinde’s colour postcards of Ireland from the 1960s, Eoghan Nolan didn’t find them nostalgic because the “hokum world they picture was hardly ever there”. Nothing looked less like Ireland than a John Hinde postcard of an Irish Butlin’s camp. The postcards here can’t evoke nostalgia for Blackpool or Skegness in the 1950s because the towns scarcely feature. The motifs could be recycled for every resort if so desired, and the photographs in the middle of each card were just as functional, but after this, something would be lost. If there is any nostalgia, it is for a world of dingy council houses, boring, low paid jobs, sunless skies, rationing; a world so drab that hundreds of thousands of British people forewent their annual holiday by the seaside and used the money to emigrate to Australia instead.

HOME IS SO SAD

Thursday, 30 October 2014

THIS IS THE MODERN WORLD

Edwardian era fashion postcards 
“Fashion is made to become unfashionable.”
Coco Chanel


 I have been informed, politely and otherwise, that I am unqualified to discuss fashion. It is true that when the words ‘fashion’ and ‘photography’ appear next to one another a yawn needs stifling. It is the least interesting genre, one reason being that it is so pervasive. It is one thing to encounter fashion photography in the cosmetics department at the local pharmacy, another when it turns up in hardware stores, as though using this power drill will bestow some kind of glamour upon us. Also, the genre has run out of ideas. People speak of a golden age of fashion photography that lasted from 1920 to the 1950s, which was a long time ago now.


 
 This ‘golden age’ began with technological processes that made it possible to reproduce photographs to a high standard in magazines. Previously they had to rely on line drawings. It coincided with the rise of Parisian fashion houses such as Chanel, the diffusion of modernist principles in photography and suffrage for women, which shifted the balance of power so they were not just portrayed as elegant but having authority as well. But if we look to the years immediately before, we discover that the most important medium for transmitting the latest ideas about fashion was the common postcard.

 
 What made the postcard special was that it was cheap, intended to be sent, and also collected. Typical messages on the backs of these postcards from the first two decades of the twentieth century are: “What do you think of this?” (meaning the costume) or: “Here’s another for you”, meaning the recipient – inevitably a young woman - collected fashion postcards. With the popularity of postcards, studios were pumping them out so someone in Paris could send a postcard to someone in London, who got that season’s fashion tips hot off the press. If her mother was relying on Tatler for fashion advice, she might have to wait weeks for what her daughter received in a few days.

 

Another advantage postcards had over magazines was that they could be hand-coloured. Fashion advice from the era places a lot of emphasis on colour; gowns and robes are not merely green but chartreuse; burgundy is in; vermilion is out. Japan had been a source of inspiration for European designers since at least the 1880s. Japan meant delicate, which itself meant pastel shades rather than bold colours. When Hermann Kiesel’s studio photographed this model, it most likely received specific instructions on what shades of ink to use. 

Despite the postcard publishers promoting fashion, labels are rare to non-existent on the postcards, suggesting that the designer didn’t matter. We know that in the 1910s the fashion house was still emerging as a distinct force but another explanation for the absence is that the outfits on postcards weren’t strictly haute couture but copies. Department stores in New York imported fashion items from Paris but they also copied the designs. If a broad-brimmed hat complete with ostrich feathers and silk bands direct from Paris cost too much for anyone but the wealthy, most middle class women could afford an accurate replica. Also, the market for the postcards belonged to young, unmarried women. We know that because on the back the cards are usually addressed to Miss or Mlle Someone. Actual haute couture was out of their reach financially, and also maturity-wise, since that was supposed to arrive with the debutante ball, or if they couldn’t afford that, marriage.

 

Which brings us to that borderline between fashion and erotica. The frontier has always been vaguely marked out, given that one is often an intrinsic element of the other, and there are postcards that make us wonder whether the real attraction was the fashion or the impertinence, but young women were supposed to have thresholds. They might have gone for the flapper look, with the cloche hat and the woollen outfit. Showing the suspenders however was perhaps too indecorous. The risk of sending a postcard like this to a friend is that the parents could find it, so casting her in their eyes as an immoral vixen. It isn’t the evidence of the suspenders that would have necessarily caused offence but the woman’s posture. In fashion, a woman’s expression could be sultry, provocative or downright lubricious but her physical pose was always supposed to be demure. 


 In 1931 Jeanne Jullia of France won the Miss Europe beauty contest. Some time later it was discovered that in the 1920s she had posed nude for Julian Mandel, the infamous and mysterious producer of erotic postcards. The revelations created a minor scandal but they were handled with more savoir-faire than they would be today. She was not stripped of her title, bundled off to rehab or made to grovel before the press, probably because a sullied past was nothing to get excited about in 1930s France; everybody had one. As with the designers, the women who appeared in these fashion postcards were unnamed but look at enough postcards and certain faces become familiar. Usually they were actresses or singers without the status to warrant a caption. Although some women worked as professional models the job was so poorly paid it was something they’d do on the side. Like acting, it was still a disreputable occupation for a woman but at least in the theatre she could redeem herself by becoming a star. 



 This card was sent to Mlle Sarah Parent at 1197 St Catherine St Montreal on April 25 1907 and asks if she can still come to the theatre that evening. (Mail was commonly delivered three times a day back then, which is why you can find postcards mailed from Brighton to London arranging to meet that afternoon.) A Sarah Parent turns us in the Quebec records as born in 1893. If this is the same Sarah, she fits the profile. At fourteen she would be going to the theatre with friends and have an interest in fashion. Notice that the girl in the photo is only a few years older, about eighteen; in other words, a suitable role model. This was sent at the height of the fashion postcard era. That ended with the First World War. It wasn’t so much that the war created a break in the culture but that the customers grew up. Post war, Sarah Parent would be twenty five, possibly married and if she were still interested in fashion she would be turning to the magazines that were aimed at older women. Like the extravagant Edwardian hats, fashion postcards belonged to the past.

THIS IS THE MODERN WORLD

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

WINGS OF DESIRE


Transgressive images from Weimar cinema
 "I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes. I do not wear them to be sensational. I think I am much more alluring in these clothes."
Marlene Dietrich


 Berlin in the Weimar years: a city rampant with leather wrapped, cross-dressing S&M fetishists, or not. Depending on whom you ask (or what you read), that image is either an invention or a conflation. There were bars like the Silhouette, where a customer could take a table and watch a parade of men in make-up and dresses and women in tuxedos, but reliable advice suggests most of the night spots were a lot tamer than that. Apparently we can thank films like The Night Porter and Cabaret for seizing on a rumour and treating it as fact. If the Nazis were perverts by definition, it was assumed that for night time amusements they’d prefer watching a couple of transvestites spanking each other rather than a blonde fraulein singing banal operetta, but when you think it through, the latter is darker, stranger and altogether more disturbing. One of the hallmarks of the Nazi leadership was an abject lack of imagination. These were people who dreamed of a world where everyone shared their passion for kitsch, which meant blonde girls in gingham singing folk songs, not sexual ambiguity. Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s original book on which Cabaret was based has no scenes set in a cabaret, but can we really blame Michael York and Dirk Bogarde for helping create the enduring image of Berlin C1930? Not entirely. Thanks to the Ross Verlag postcards we have thousands of surviving images that show the photo studios pushed the idea of a city where taboos were broken as a daily habit. Yet, coming from the cinema world, they were images of what the world could be, not what it was. Lya de Putti’s attire may have looked fabulous but it was impractical, and it was easier to imagine a world where women strolled along the Kurfürstendamm in sheer, glistening black rather than live in one where they actually did. After all, for a lot of ordinary citizens struggling with hyperinflation and massive unemployment, to dress like Ms Putti does in this photo was like waving a red flag at a National Socialist rally. The photograph is by M. I. Boris, aka the Bulgarian Boris Majdrakoff, who arrived in New York in the 1920s with a past respectable thriller writers would have dismissed as too unlikely. 

 
 Look at contemporary fashion images of women wearing suits and ties and we are meant to think of them as daring experiments in gender reversal, but so many of the Ross postcards show women wearing men’s clothing, or a close approximation, that we realize they were a trend back in 1920s and ‘30s Berlin. What makes us think they are about playing a game rather than making a statement is that so many of the actresses portrayed did not have reputations for challenging convention. From what we know of Carola Tölle, she played solid roles in films that are largely forgotten because there is no compelling reason to remember them. Her private life can’t be accounted for but it appears scandal free.

 
 Henny Porten’s fame and reputation have endured, for her roles as a gentle or long suffering earth mother type. Comparing the photo of her with that of Ms Tölle, we begin to see a pattern, or rather, a style. Only a decade earlier the notion of a woman wearing a suit and tie would have still caused a stir. In 1919 however, German women won the right to vote.  What had changed had less to do with Weimar Berlin’s free thinking than fashion designers’ understanding of how to accommodate radical into chic. Ms Porten’s sleeveless waistcoat has a decidedly feminine cut. She is not wearing a business suit. In the 1970s Diane Keaton revived the suited look in Annie Hall. If it didn’t make the jump to the pages of Vogue that was because it was too idiosyncratic: it was one thing to look like Diane Keaton, another to look like Annie Hall. And maybe the crusty old editors at the magazines took one glance, recalled their youth in Vienna wearing Papa’s silk ties and thought it had all been done before.

 
 Having never seen Marcella Albani in a film, commenting on her strengths as an actress is pointless, but in every other photograph of her in the collection she is portrayed as the embodiment of graceful elegance; a woman with a preference for haut couture and intelligent conversation. That doesn’t mean she lacked a sense of humour. When she fronted up to the studio on this particular day, she might well have been bored with the idea of yet another soft focus study suggesting she had just emanated from the mists. Perhaps Herr Binder was bored too and together they concocted an image the very opposite of what was expected. She was an actress; it was her job to be out of character. 

 
 Russian born Hella Moja dressed as a baroque era noble (or Mozart) looks to be having the last word on androgyny here, and in a way she is. We know from photographs by Walery and Reutlinger that the Ancien Regime look was popular around the Parisian music halls a generation before Karl Schenker took this portrait. So too were the matador, the Gypsy and even the blacksmith. They were too exaggerated to be subversive, more like fancy dress, and never began with the premise that other women might want to dress that way in the street. Also, it was always more acceptable for women to dress as men than the other way around. How many of the leading male stars were willing to don corsets and bustles?

 
 Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays famously turned up in the U.S and turned women on to smoking. He took his lead from home, where the habit was already associated with modern sophistication, added a bit of volume and general crassness and earned the undying gratitude of his employers. A lot of the Ross postcards show women smoking; by the mid 1920s a cigarette in the hand was a sign of elegance, of adulthood, but not necessarily of rebellion. Ms Haake’s forte was light comedies and socially concerned dramas and she’d go on to a long career, appearing in films into the 1980s. If the idea of a woman smoking was as scandalous in Germany as it was in America, she’d be one who’d put hers out before the photographer was ready with the camera.

  Not so Fern Andra, the great, unsung heroine of early cinema. American born but European by preference, she promoted herself as a woman who liked a cigarette and a stiff drink and would be disappointed by any man who did not offer her both. In reality she was an intensely serious worker who understood the dangerous gulf between public image and private life. She paid a price, but not for smoking or dressing in men’s clothing or any of the standard contraventions. As actor, director, producer and even photographer, she controlled her image so closely that when it began to fade no one was on hand to help her revive it.

 
 Which brings us to that most infamous figure of the early screen, the vamp. Her modern history began with the nineteenth century music halls, she came of age with silent film and died with its passing. It was difficult to be a real vamp in the 1930s. The Hays Code in Hollywood was very much opposed to any young woman who thought a man’s marriage was a speed hump not a stop sign. According to the new rules she had to pay for her crimes, which was an obligation no genuine vamp ever considered. The Nazis weren’t keen on her either. For all the bondage and S&M imagery bestowed upon them, publicly their ideal woman was blonde, virtuous and enthusiastic about the outdoor life. She could suffer but never inflict pain herself. The vamp was dark, saturnine and came alive when the sun went down, like Valerie Boothby in this image from Iris cards. Despite her very English name, Ms Boothby was German. Her career was short but included such titles as Girls on the Cross (1929), Adam and Eve (1928) Inherited Passions (1929) and Marriage in Name Only (1930); all which suggest some poor fool learns a lesson about love the hard way. 

  The vamp and the femme fatale were subtly different creatures; though the man who fell victim to either was seldom astute enough to know that. Both depended on exploiting male vulnerabilities but where the first was essentially amoral the second had principles and objectives. Sometimes she was looking for a way out and figured the man would lead her to it, and sometimes she was genuinely in love with him. If the last scene saw the vamp heading down the street with a man in her arm, you knew they were going back to her lair. If it was the femme fatale on the other hand, she may well have been persuaded that the path to true happiness lay in marriage, children and a home in the suburbs. Lissi Arna is one of the many German actresses of the silent screen forgotten now by all but the most devoted fans of the era, yet throughout the 1920s she was one of Weimar cinema’s most popular stars. Her reputation today, such as it is, rests on several films where she played the prostitute (hard hitting exposé) or the seductress (comedy, melodrama) but as it transpires she made more of the routine romances that were the bread and butter of the film business. The Kiesel Studio was located at Kurfürstendamm 11, meaning the address was fashionable but real information beyond that is hard to find. Alongside the celebrity portraits are many more showing children with oversized Easter eggs, or (that other inexplicably popular genre) dressed as their parents. What we see here is one of those minor shifts in the way women were portrayed that don’t raise the number of eyebrows today that they should. There is nothing vulnerable in Ms Arna’s expression. She knows what she wants and how to get it. 

  The secret had less to do with women discovering an independent spirit than technicians realizing the power of lighting. Photographers were learning that a shift in angle to throw a shadow could do more than animate a portrait. It could transform Elizza La Porta, generally sensible star of such morally didactic films as The Right of the Unborn and The Vice of Humanity (abortion and drugs respectively) into a siren of the night. Silent Hollywood gave the vamp fame and notoriety but in Los Angeles she was a European construction. Think of the number of famous Hollywood mantraps from the silent era, how many have ‘European’ names, and what their actual names were: Theda Bara (Theodora Goodman), Dita Naldi (Mary Dooley), Olga Petrova (Muriel Harding). She was by definition exotic because part of the danger of becoming involved with her lay in being unable to penetrate her closed, enigmatic mind. In Germany, America was a strange, distant land (witness the popularity of Karl May’s Native American novels), but so too were places just beyond its borders. The Balkans, home of the vampire, Oriental Turkey and the Arab lands, the Russian steppes; they were all breeding grounds for women who could crush a man’s soul with as much thought and effort as it took to flick a cigarette into the gutter. Romanian born Elizza La Porta may not have played the seductress on screen but she knew how to for the Manasse studio. Operated by Olga Solarics and Adorjan von Wlassics, it specialized in glamour photography and in surreal, modernist erotica. After years of relative neglect, the erotica was rediscovered and in the process became representative of decadent Berlin. The studio was equally adept at portraying actresses as sweet and wholesome as a strudel. But any fool with a camera can do that.

WINGS OF DESIRE