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Thursday, 28 January 2010


Studio Boats

The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five pound note

Edward Lear, 1871

The beautiful pea green boat the owl and the pussycat set out in came from a photographer’s studio. The boat Edward Lear drew for the 1871 edition of Nonsense Songs and Stories has a high curved bow and stern and barely enough room for two small animals and a pot of honey. But what other vessel would a bird and a cat use? Lear’s poem has a dream’s logic and clarity. One could say the same about photographs of people in studio boats. At first glance they are ridiculous yet the very best of them have a poetic sensibility. In A. Caccia’s image, the girl wears a soporific expression as though midway through her sleep the boat has glided to the still water’s bank. It’s a verse from a poem, if not by Lear then Lewis Carroll.

The concept of using a boat as a studio prop is so idiosyncratic that one person must have come up with it but while their name is lost, the idea spread so quickly that examples from the 19th century can be found across the world. From small town America to Cairo, Egypt, in Sydney, Tokyo, Norway and New Zealand, people stood or sat behind a painted effigy and held an oar out while the photographer fussed under the black cloth. The idea most probably originated in a seaside resort like Blackpool or Nice in the 1860s, about the same time studios were learning the tricks of montage and double exposure so that they could photograph the subject, retreat to the darkroom and emerge with a print of him or her standing somewhere else in the world.

Studio boats were cheap and easy to construct. An actual boat could be used but a stage set worked just as well and if the studio’s finances were stretched, hay or wool could pass for water. The backdrop only had to suggest clouds or a distant shore. Around resorts it helped to give a sense of location, a local feature or the shoreline for example. Ironically, the actual scene was often just outside the front door.

Clearly, customers agreed with photographers that studio boats were a great gimmick, which brings us to one of the great mysteries in these images. Why do so few people appear to be enjoying themselves? Usually they look a little bored but sometimes they are quite disturbed, as though afraid the little boat is about to capsize. Was a session at the photographer’s really fun, or was it one of those obligations one had to endure on holiday, like watching bad comedians at the music hall?

Studio boat portraits occupy their own, neglected place in the history of photography. They are too popular to be art but they employ the same contrivances and though they are portraiture the sitters are highly fictionalized. They subvert the idea that a photograph is a record of truth but they don’t quite represent ideas. They are kitsch, but sooner or later everything popular gets that label.

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1 comment:

  1. A fascinating, if esoteric, subject for a posting. Still I'd not be reading your blog if I wasn't seeking esoterica.


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