And furthermore ...

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Friday, 30 April 2010


Identity portraits of Turkish citizens

… sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead … I never recognized her except in fragments.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

In the 1880s Francis Galton, scientist and explorer of South West Africa, braved the slums of Whitechapel in search of the essential Jewish face. His method was to find a family and take composite portraits, sandwiching the negatives on each other and printing the result. If the families didn’t resist his intrusions it was probably because he had the imprimatur of other respected scientists and government departments. Too frequently Galton found families that didn’t quite match the details he was looking for. The mother and two children might be dark and have the classic Semitic nose but the father and the rest of the family looked too European. Galton’s answer was to ignore people who didn’t meet his requirements. He had already tried the same experiment on jailed criminals and something similar on successful English families and he believed he was engaged in real science. It must have been obvious to his cousin, Charles Darwin, he was producing propaganda. Darwin didn’t endorse the work.

At the same time, Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of anthropometric photography in the Paris Prefecture of Police, was extending his research away from criminals into the search for essential French features. Believing that by taking a person’s face he could detect regional variations so trace the history of their bloodlines, he took thousands of photographs of noses, ears, lips etcetera and cross-referenced them. Here he imagined, he’d find the Breton nose attached to the Aquitaine ear and the Burgundy mouth. The social history of France with its migrations and marriages would be revealed. Bertillon never had Galton’s respectability in the scientific community but wide-eyed reporters would turn up to his office for a lecture and leave ready to tell their readers great mysteries would soon be revealed.

Since the beginning of the 20th century governments around the world have been obsessed with photographing their citizens. In second hand shops around Istanbul there are shoe boxes and suitcases full of old photographs; tiny portraits the size of a postage stamp that were taken for official documents for the Turkish government. They are a field guide for anthropologists. We have fair skinned and swarthy people, Turks who look like Arabs, Turks who look like Russians, Circassian, Mediterranean and Balkan faces and people who wouldn’t look out of place in the north of Scotland. All this in a country where some people still invoke the image and the cult of the pure Turk, whose unadulterated bloodline can be traced back to the Altaic steppe. Their cause is lost. Everyone else can accept the logic that if a source of a nation’s greatness is its position at the centre of the world then racial purity is an absurdity. If the portraits in this gallery prove anything it’s that utopia is impossible. But we know that; hence they prove nothing.


Monday, 26 April 2010


Leopold Reutlinger, Art Nouveau and the tinted photo postcard

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”
Oscar Wilde; Preface to the Picture of Dorian Gray

“Her enemies, in their honester moments, would have admitted she was svelte and knew how to dress, but they would have agreed with her friends in asserting that she had no soul.”
Saki, The Unbearable Bassington

Art Nouveau was the most feminine of art movements. Floral embellishes, lacy filigree and curvaceous typography have never been exactly manly in their intent although some of the best examples can be found in the unashamedly masculine skyscrapers constructed in New York and Chicago from the 1890s to the 1920s. Whether used in printmaking or the design of a gate, there was always something subversively erotic about Art Nouveau. It suggested beautiful, rich people indulging themselves by lying about all day in silk kimonos, sipping Japanese tea and smoking Turkish cigarettes through long, alabaster holders. Consider Frederick Evans’ iconic portrait of one of its most famous practitioners, Aubrey Beardsley, his chin cupped in his hands, his long, womanly fingers extending past his ears. This man wouldn’t hold a cricket bat, let alone a spade yet his output suggested he spent a lot of time in the presence of naked women, and that must have infuriated to a lot of working men. (Beardsley’s gaunt appearance was largely due to tuberculosis, which killed him when he was 26.)

Leopold Reutlinger inherited the Reutlinger Studios in Paris from his father, Emile, who had taken them over when his brother Charles fell ill. Charles had built the business up as a successful portrait studio. Leopold would expand it into one of the best known in France and along the way he’d expand into postcards and more or less create the idea of Art Nouveau photography.

Reutlinger didn’t invent a single element in his postcards but he brought some together in a way that made them distinctive, incidentally allowing him to charge a price that defied the petit bourgeois to buy them. Take a portrait of an actress or dancer, preferably a current attraction at the Casino de Paris, then montage it into a country scene or against flowers, in a heart or some other obviously romantic image. The most difficult part was the tinting, which had to be done by hand. The secret to tinting was to only select particular details, her scarf, her lips or a flower in her bonnet, and only use pastels. The idea wasn’t to create colour photographs but give the illusion, and illusion was everything. However Reutlinger’s models behaved in private, in his world they were delicate, diaphanous creatures with sensibilities as fragile as a petal. 

Reutlinger had his rivals in the market for tinted postcards of women; “Professor” Edouard Stebbing in Paris and, the Steglitz Studio in Berlin being two whose style was often indistinguishable from his.  All of them produced images that were too soft to be pornography, too banal to be erotic but suggested the women in their cards were unobtainable to any man save the most aesthetically minded. Meanwhile, before seaside postcards became synonymous with a smutty, working class humour, holiday-goers could buy tinted photographs of girls in swimsuits. Images of women using classical Greek themes implied paganism was for the very sophisticated. There were also markets for veiled girls from the Orient and Valentine’s Day cards. Despite the efforts of their creators, some of them stand up today as passably beautiful objects. 

‘Dancer’ or ‘actress’ was often a euphemism for prostitute and in popular opinion most of the women posing for photo postcards would have been regarded as being on the same level or just a shade above it. The women who posed for Reutlinger were too famous to suffer that insult. Aino Ackte was a Finnish soprano, Marville a celebrated singer and actress. The Casino de Paris where they performed opened in October 1890 and on the 19th of that month a reporter from the New York Times described ‘stained glass windows signed Champigneulles …  a huge electric sun … quite as stupendous as the luminous fountain’ and the performances; chorus girls in one hall, a ballet in another and clowns appearing between variety acts. ‘There is so much to see and so little monotony that it takes several visits to place every attraction in its proper locality.’ This was la Belle Époque at its most extravagant.

In 1930 a friend was opening a bottle of champagne when the cork flew off and struck Reutlinger in the eye, blinding him and ending his career. That may not have been fair but it had an undeniable poignancy to it.  Today Reutlinger’s postcards can be found sandwiched in dusty piles in junkshops and antique stores. They deserve better than that. Reutlinger’s postcards avoid the cheesy sentimentality of most of his competitors and his women are placed in the design to suggest that art wasn’t ornamentation so much as a lifestyle choice. In the way that Art Nouveau architecture has come to define certain cities like Budapest better than their recent history, his photo postcards suggest the glamour of the age better than any documentary photographer we know about.


Friday, 23 April 2010


An album from a race meet in the Australian bush, C1930s

"Why, I heerd a mother screamin’ when her kid went tossin’ by
Ridin’ bareback on a bucker that had murder in his eye." 

Henry Lawson A Word to Texas Jack

When Kelly the Mug died sometime in the 1930s, the obituarists around Donnybrook in Western Australia’s south fondly recalled the ruses he’d pulled on them. One involved a horse he had entered in a local race. On the morning of the event he made sure he was seen galloping into town on the animal then claimed he’d ridden it all night just to make it in time. The bookmakers assumed it must have been exhausted and raised the odds. When it won and Kelly the Mug had pocketed his winnings, he took it back to its float hidden in the bush on the outskirts. That’s a trick you can only pull off once.

At country race meets around Australia horse owners still try an old favourite. In the morning their families sit around barbecues not far from the starting gate. Just before a race the jockey wanders over, ostensibly to receive a bit of encouragement. Someone pulls a potato from the billycan that has been boiling away and surreptitiously passes it to him. Mounting his horse, he raises a hand to give it a slap on the rump. In goes the potato and as the barriers go up the horse bolts away. It hurts, but it’s safer than drugs.

The 24 photographs here comprise a complete album of snapshots taken at a race meeting in the Australian bush. There are no inscriptions on them but elementary detective work - the cars, the clothes - indicates they were taken in the early 1930s, probably around Kalgoorlie on Western Australia’s goldfields. Technically they are amateurish, the shutter set at an unnecessarily slow speed for bright sun and overexposed, and the framing is loose. But photography doesn’t have to be good to be interesting.

Most snapshot albums are an assemblage of images placed without any sense of narrative. In this case we have a story with a traditional beginning, middle and end. (That there are 24 photos in the album suggests they might have come from the one roll.) The entire event probably began around 10 in the morning and finished around 4 in the afternoon. We have the spectators gathering, the jockeys leading their horses out, a race, a winner and a final race. Admittedly the story is more interesting for its historical rather than its dramatic content. Incidents that we might think significant probably escaped the photographer, or rather, he or she chose not to record them. This was supposed to be for fun, for reunions with people who maybe met up twice a year, not a sociological study.

Still, there are details for the sociologist in us all. It’s understandable that people dress up for an event but out here, on the edge of the desert, a suit and tie is taking things a bit far. John Berger wrote an essay, The Suit and the Photograph, describing how the outfit was a claim on respectability for three village musicians in an August Sander photograph. The people in these photos already have what Sander’s musicians wanted. They are station managers and horse owners at a time when Australia built its wealth on agriculture. They might not have been rich but they weren’t doing too badly. In those years Australia was still a very English country, coloured pink on the world map and saluting the King; even the accents broadcast across the wireless were very English. People took their cues on how to behave and what to wear from the British. In their way these people are country squires. They wear suits because they have that rural conservatism that requires formality, even when the temperature hangs about the high thirties. There’s no beer or food about either, even though a few evidently have a warm relationship with the liquid amber. They were sensible, abstemious types who knew that if they’d started drinking in the sun the whole day could quickly fall apart. Afterwards of course they’d drive into town or to the station manager’s house and open a few bottles. For now it’s the races that matter, and around the world the racetrack, like the church or the opera house, has always required a high standard of dress. Even at a small event like this, in an isolated outpost, one has to follow venerable tradition.

In cinema the closing shot can be more important than the opening scene. Someone walks away and the camera pulls back to reveal a deserted street or the protagonist looks across a landscape that has had its equilibrium restored. The final image in this series, of the cars lined up with the windmill and the water tank in the background, catches a moment before the credits roll. As the photographer departs the scene retreats and in a minute the cars will be specks on the horizon. There’s another thing to be said about it. When the photographer took this shot they wanted to remember the day in its entirety. The photograph is already nostalgic for something that has passed. This was the place where all the action took place and the cars are the people who took part in it.


Monday, 19 April 2010


Postcards of women at the birth of the Turkish Republic

That is no country for old men.
W B Yeats; Sailing to Byzantium

The case can be made that the people who gained the most from Kemal Ataturk’s revolution were educated, middle class women. Men had certain rights expanded. Women actually got some; the vote (1934), legal equality and access to positions in government. As Turks will point out, they had more rights than their sisters in several Western Europe countries. So, what happened? Indexes measuring women’s rights around the world commonly rate Turkey down among underdeveloped states like Sudan. Is this really the pervading influence of Islam at work, or is something more ingrained in the culture? And incidentally, how was it that the two countries that initiated the first great modernist revolutions in the 20th century, Turkey and Russia, ended up looking outdated so quickly? Every time an honour killing is reported in the international press or statistics on the popularity of Islamism are produced, commentators not bound by diplomatic niceties talk about the country joining the 21st century before it can join Europe.

The women in this gallery sat for their portraits during the era surrounding Ataturk’s revolution. They voted and they had other opportunities denied to their mothers. They could have been employed in government offices, which is a big step considering that a few years earlier many women lived indoors.  Embracing secularism has never meant abandoning religion and several in the gallery obviously haven’t. Not all of them are necessarily Turkish; they could be Greek, Jewish or Armenian. The most interesting women here appear to have not only spurned religion but also the whole classical idea of womanhood.

At first glance the portraits of this last group of women suggests a subculture of lesbian cross-dressing. It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, lesbian and cross dressing subcultures existed in Berlin, Paris and London and in certain ways Istanbul (still called Constantinople back then) was more self-consciously European than it is now. Still, if it was here it has been erased from history books. Even contemporary Turkish feminists confess ignorance of any such subculture. On the other hand, it’s the nature of collecting to be selective.  It’s hard to pass up an old photograph of a woman in man’s clothes even if the explanation turns out tamer than the image implies. So, are these photographs evidence of something more interesting and subversive taking place in Turkey than we are likely to find in the usual memoirs and reflections? We can only hope so.

Right now Turkey is locked in a fight more intriguing than a wrestling match between two blind men. On one side are the pious Islamists insisting that an Islamic state can be democratic (a glance beyond the borders suggests otherwise). Opposing them, (we are talking about the edges here, not the morass in the middle) hard line secularists argue the only way to protect the ideals of 1923 is to return to them. Turkey watchers (Surely there’s a better term.) agree; it’s too early to take bets on the outcome but, although the Islamists reject Darwin’s theory, history favours evolution. The further the country moves away from 1923, the more desperate and outdated the hard line secularists’ arguments sound. The commentators may not grasp the paradox but if they want Turkey to join their 21st century it will necessarily involve religion being admitted to the fold at some level.

The futures that pious Islamists and hard line secularists offer Turkey begin to look similar. In both cases it is a rigidly controlled culture dominated by Orwellian double-speak; “faith is freedom” or “the future is the past”. Both reason that if the basic human right to believe what you want didn’t exist people wouldn’t want it. Both are boys’ clubs that see women’s rights as insignificant in the grand scheme. Neither wants progress, merely power. What would their grandmothers think?

Some of the images in this post can be found in an exhibition of cross-dressers at Luminous Lint. To view that exhibition, go HERE.


Friday, 16 April 2010


Cartes de visite of actors

“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”
Oscar Wilde

In October 1871, 19 year old Caroline Gee had her lucky break and was going to London to act in her first big play. Her bags were packed when she started arguing with her father. Throwing a tantrum, she rushed into his darkroom and drank a glass of potassium diluted with water. It isn’t clear whether she did that by accident or in her fit of histrionics but within the hour she was dead. The real point to the story comes in the very last line of the report in the Belfast News. “A replacement for Miss Gee will be found.” The show must go on.

When George Swan Nottage established the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Co. in 1855 it specialized, as the name suggests, in stereoscopic cards. By 1859 it was just as well known for its cartes de visite and even better known as the place to buy portraits of actors. The LSPC was probably the first company to realize that customers weren’t merely buying mementoes, they were also collecting. Whether they wanted one actress or an entire repertory, they weren’t happy if there was an image out there they had missed. Nottage understood the economics of collecting early on and is supposed to have initiated the practice whereby customers could trade cartes at no further cost. That would have made sense. The first trick to making a sale is to get the customer inside and once they were there they were as likely to buy as to trade.

The CDV revolutionized the commerce of photography because it made the idea of buying a portrait of a complete stranger acceptable. It was difficult to do that with daguerreotypes when each was unique and the large format collodion prints available since 1851 were still too expensive. Reproductions of a single image in the CDV format could have enormous print runs, some photographers claiming to have sold around 50 000 cartes of members of the British royal family. Following the exploits of someone famous through the newspapers was one thing, owning an actual portrait of them something on a new level. The CDV also marks the beginning, the real beginning, of the birth of celebrity culture.

The celebrity attached to the arts has always had a necessary element of scandal attached to it. So long as their work was good actors were given licence to behave outside the norms, so Sarah Bernhardt could have a string of lovers and Clara Rousby get into drunken brawls. If they were tragically cut down at a young age it only added to their glamour. When the French actress Rachel, mistress to Napoleon III, died from TB in 1858 engravings based on her deathbed portrait sold in the thousands. The stage also gave people the freedom to behave in ways they otherwise couldn’t. An old queen could act like one in a children’s pantomime and get laughs. If he tried the same in the street he could get arrested. CDVs of James Rogers dressed as a woman were sought after at a time when cross-dressing was a criminal offence in Britain. No one seems to have seen any contradiction in this.

Actors brought one quality to portraiture that is easily overlooked. In the 1860s and into the next decade, cameras were still too slow to capture movement successfully. Most subjects stood or sat as still as they could for the duration of the exposure. Actors on the other hand were professionals when it came to movement. They were trained in freezing an expression or a gesture. No surprise then that portraits of actors are usually far more vivid than those of other people.

In a sense everyone who posed for a carte de visite became an actor. Whether they put on their very best clothes and spent hours attending to their grooming or they stood in their work clothes with their tools of trade at hand, they were playing a role. Actors took that to another level. A portrait of an actor often depended on a knowing falsehood; ‘this is not a photograph of a woman, nor is it a photograph of me. It is just an image’.

George Nottage had other successes. He became an alderman. In 1879 the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Francis Truscott accused him of distributing pornographic images through the LSPC, the evidence being several cartes of naked Zulus. At the council meeting the Mayor was hissed down. In 1884 George Nottage became Lord Mayor himself.


Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Snapshots of cars and their owners

“The "Poop-poop" rang with a brazen shout in their ears, they had a moment's glimpse of an interior of glittering plate-glass and rich morocco, and the magnificent motor-car, immense, breath-snatching, passionate, with its pilot tense and hugging his wheel, possessed all earth and air for the fraction of a second, flung an enveloping cloud of dust that blinded and enwrapped them utterly, and then dwindled to a speck in the far distance.”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

In his autobiography Follow my Dust, crime writer Arthur Upfield told a story about the coming of automobiles to the Australian interior. A swagman he knew was walking along a bush road one evening and decided to make camp for the night. The road was relatively flat and in the open so, as he had probably done most of his working life, he unrolled his swag and bedded down. This was, around the 1910s, when the only traffic on bush roads was likely to be slow moving drays or fellow workers either walking or pushing bicycles, and that was in daylight. During the night – you can see this coming, the swagman couldn’t – a truck ran him over.

The story is a reminder of how the automobile completely re-altered our relationship with the places we lived in. One of the photos in the gallery says it well. Sometime around the First World War five people are lying and standing about a car. Painted on its side is the boast; “From Seattle, Washington to Carlyle, Illinois in our Rolls. US. Nice four”. The first sentence makes sense. That was a journey to be proud of, up there with the pioneers who’d travelled the same route the opposite direction in their covered wagons fifty years before. It would have taken a few days and judging by the vehicle’s appearance, several stops to let the radiator cool down and deal with various other malfunctions. Driving from Seattle to Carlyle today might take a little planning but we have cars that reach 240 kph, they have air-conditioning and sound systems, and we have freeways. If pushed, we could do it in a day, comfortably. Where’s the achievement in that?

The way some of the people in the snapshots here pose, one foot on the running board, an elbow on the window frame, clearly suggests the car is their first. They possess it with pride, and why not? Buying a car has opened up their lives. They can now do things that were impossible before, take a girl out or drive to another town for work, or best of all, split that small town and find a real life in the big city. For a down payment of a month’s wages they have been given freedom and power denied to their carless friends.

Owning a car has its disadvantages. You have to keep your eyes on the road and be aware of other vehicles. Driving through the British countryside with its twisting roads and constant villages, you can’t afford to look too closely at the details. On desert highways you have to be aware of what’s happening in the corners of your eyes. Impressions are received by absorption. It’s like listening to music and the two are symbiotic. It can have a dirty carburettor, a leaking manifold or tuned out pistons but if a car doesn’t have a radio it doesn’t work. (The only thing more tiresome than driving in silence is having screaming kids in the back.) Tastes vary but as a rule, Beethoven’s 5th doesn’t really work on an open road in bright sunlight. Bob Dylan does because his entire oeuvre has been about a man moving restlessly from one vicarious experience to the next.

Rock and roll needed two parents for its birth; one was the electric guitar, the other the car. They came together at the very beginning, in Route 66, a name check on the worthwhile towns between Chicago and LA, but before that there was every blues song with road or highway in its title.  Bonnie and Clyde is a film about two outlaws but it is also about cars, about crisscrossing the mid-west sticking up banks. Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd also understood the car was their best weapon against the law. The subjects for the FSA photographers – Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange et al – can be divided into two; those who have cars, who must move, and those who don’t and are trapped. Then there was Robert Frank, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore and the others who picked up their cameras, jumped in their cars and showed us what America looked like through a windscreen. The car is the great, supporting character in 20th century American literature. The Grapes of Wrath, Lolita, just about anything by John Updike; Buicks, Dodges, Lincolns and Cadillacs transport the protagonists ever forward into final failure. Whether negotiating a cloverleaf in the pouring rain or pulling into a motel on the Nebraska plains, they all suffer the illusion the car is protecting them.

Jack Kerouac, incidentally, couldn’t drive.


Friday, 9 April 2010


Buildings and portraits from Constantinople 1860s to 1920

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks'
“Istanbul not Constantinople” lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy, music Nat Simon

“I am ever haunted in my sleep by this vision which is always the same. My ship puts into Stamboul, a hurried, stolen visit; this Stamboul which I see in my dreams is strange to me, bigger, distorted, sinister … Oh, that strange Stamboul, the oppressive spectral town which I have seen in my dreams! Sometimes it was a long way off, only just its outline to be seen on the horizon; I would land upon some desert shore in the twilight, seeing in the distance its minarets and domes. Heavy with sleep I would make my way across great melancholy wastes full of graves.”
Pierre Loti, Phantom of the Orient

Flaubert contracted syphilis in Constantinople, which gave the disease an exotic lustre when he returned to Paris. To Pierre Loti the city was a seductive but cruel mistress (He was French.). It was inevitable that Madame Blavatsky would turn up in Pera. No 19th century seeker of spiritual truth could leave the city off their itinerary. For these travellers, highly educated and modern thinking, the fractured wail of the muezzins offered a metaphysical awakening. In Constantinople Christianity, a religion most of them had grown up with and reviled, still had an ancient demeanour, as though its essence survived intact. Talmudic scholars sat in doorways running their fingers over ancient texts. Armenian traders offered rugs and silverware from distant places whose uttered names conjured images of desert cities and caravans winding along the Silk Road. The few Muslim women they saw on the street were hidden behind veils, which only added to their allure.

Naturally, the natives of the city had a different perspective. The facts regarding the political health of the empire may not have been on public record but they were apparent. The squalid chaos that excited foreigners was a symptom of imminent collapse. Constantinople’s position at the point where east met west meant that cholera always announced its entrance into Europe by decimating one or another quarter in the city. If by the 1890s the European enclave in Pera was beginning to look somewhat Parisian, it was because a succession of fires had razed the area. Once masters of architecture, the Ottomans had to rely on European skills and money to rebuild. This dependence gave Europeans licence to cheerfully slap the city on the back one minute, kick it the next.

The London Times was particularly adept at urging the Ottomans to sign treaties and engage in peaceful solutions in its editorials while printing articles that depicted a filthy and dangerous city inhabited by cutthroats. The descriptions of Turks with hooked noses and hooded eyes bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Arabs. Meanwhile the Arab states regarded the Ottomans as colonial overlords. Pan-Arabism was a cogent idea in the late 19th century, pan-Islamism not so because it would have necessarily involved an alliance with the Ottomans.

A story from the New York Times, September 26, 1880, condenses European attitudes in one paragraph. A young Frenchman catches sight of a veiled beauty and falls for her. He attempts correspondence, eventually succeeds and heads off one night for a rendezvous. Following the directions she has sent in a letter, he goes to a cemetery where he meets an enormous black servant. He is led to a doorway. A friend watches him step inside. He is never seen again. There are no names, dates or any other evidence to give the story substance, most likely because it never happened. It is a moral fable: beware of those veiled women, and beware of the Turks; they cannot be trusted. Still, there is just the chance he survived and the reason contact can’t be made is because he doesn’t want it.

There was nothing enviable about Constantinople’s geographic position. Both Europe and Asia yet neither, it was trapped on the fence. Meanwhile, to the north, Moscow repeatedly made clear its intentions to invade. One of the enduring positive images of late Ottoman Constantinople is of Muslims, Christians and Jews cohabiting peacefully. This isn’t entirely true. There were several religious riots in the city in the 1880s and ‘90s, not to mention a popular opinion in Greece that, having thrown off the Ottoman shackles, it could one day reclaim the jewel that was originally its own. Surrounded by enemies, Constantinople was under theoretical siege. Given these conditions, choosing friends becomes a luxury and cultural differences lose their significance. One has to make do with what one has.

The foreigners returned home with tales of Sufi magicians and other mysterious encounters in the labyrinthine streets of the European quarter. They filled their poems and travelogues with images of minarets and harems. It’s a fair bet the locals would have been bemused by their city’s reputation as a mystic melting pot. For them religion would have been one of the few constants and probably the only thing that offered hope of salvation.


Tuesday, 6 April 2010


Bridges in photographs, 1860s to 1970s

“Bridges are America’s cathedrals.”

Lovers meet on bridges, and when the love dies they jump off them. People come to bridges to lean over and stare into the darkness, contemplating difficult thoughts or emptying their minds; it’s much the same thing. Constantine discovered God on the Milvian Bridge; others have watched the tumbling rapids below or studied the cityscape and had visions every bit as profound. Bridges linked Buda to Pest and made them one. They cross the Bosphorus to join Europe to Asia. Long before people built cities, long before they built proper houses, they built bridges.


Admittedly, not every bridge is a thing of beauty but each of them requires ingenuity in the construction. The engineers have to think about load and stress, equilibrium, the geology below, the climate above, and then there are the economics. Anyone who has seen the famous 1940 footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, twisting like a ribbon before it literally shatters under high winds, understands that the construction of a span across empty space requires detailed and rigorous thinking.

  If bridges weren’t so important, there is no reason why they shouldn’t all look the same but they matter, so they can’t. Every major city must have its bridge as a symbol. Quite a few labourers lost their lives in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge but when it was up New York could boast it had built its bridge basically out of wires. Eiffel designed the Maria Pia Bridge to cross the Douro River into Porto. It looks, not unsurprisingly, a little what his tower might if it blew over and fell across the Seine but Portugal didn’t just need a bridge it needed a stake in modernity. The three decades between 1850 and 1880 were a halcyon age in bridge building, bettered only by our own. Besides the Brooklyn and the Maria Pia we got the Széchenyi in Budapest and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Completed just outside this time frame, London’s Tower Bridge looks like a medieval anachronism alongside the sleek elegance of the others but it works like a clockwork toy. The greatest of them all was Scotland’s Forth Bridge, a statement that can only be challenged by someone who believes bridges must conform to a certain orthodoxy or that bombast and sophistication are necessarily opposites.

We think of homes as the centre of our lives but when bridges are destroyed entire communities are cut off. The effect is the same as being under siege except there is no enemy. A lifeline has gone. Military strategists have always known this. The first objective in an invasion is to gain control of the bridges, or demolish them. Without its bridges a city is crippled.

Bridges have always been natural subjects for photographers. Either they dominate the scene, a statement of human achievement, or they intrude quietly into the landscape as evidence of our presence. In Carlo Naya’s photograph of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, it is almost lost among the gondolas and canalfront edifices. It is nevertheless the central point of the composition, a way of saying the bridge is Venice; without it the city would be nothing. In the following image, by a M. Degano of Nice, the Pont St Louis has become absorbed into the rock face. Logic tells is it is a recent construction but it looks natural, as though it has been there forever. The people who collected the photographs for the Senior Service cigarette card series, a neglected contribution to the history of photography, understood that bridges were a celebration of Britain, its engineering triumphs and the pleasures of its cultivated landscapes. Amateurs, who once devoured instruction books on how to take perfect photos, have never needed guidance on how to photograph bridges. Instinctively we know where to stand to get the best view. It’s something we were doing before cameras were invented.


Thursday, 1 April 2010


A history of European civilization in cinema lobby cards

“What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon.”
Napoleon Bonaparte

In the 115 years since its more or less official birth, the cinema has managed in to document almost every year of human history that preceded it. Almost, since there must be a few gaps but they are short and sparse. Professional historians have tried to uncover some poorly documented eras and given up. The cinema colours in the spaces they leave blank. The professionals can despair that cinema distorts the picture but they have lost that fight. Imagine an authentic film about our Neolithic ancestors, sitting under the shade of acacias for days on end, staring out across the plain, not doing a great deal then dying around the age of thirty. If we followed dictates that historical films had to accurately describe our knowledge of the times, Jesus would be short and swarthy, the crusades would involve years of peaceful interaction punctuated by outbreaks of violence, Columbus would most likely be a Spanish mercenary and quite a lot, really, quite a lot of our great heroes would share their beds with young boys.

Historians shouldn’t complain too much. The cinema has given them a lot of work. Every time Hollywood makes a historical epic with some lantern jawed American playing a 15th century explorer or a leader of a slave rebellion, the experts are called out to explain some facts. Actually, we like the discrepancies. They give us something to discover. Pushed to some basic research on a character from a film, we find out their motives are more complex and often less honourable than the film depicted. What’s more, our hero didn’t tower over his enemies. He was short, fat and bald, drank too much, was pushed around by his wife and probably had no foresight into the effect his actions would have.

One day someone will curate an exhibition showing the entire history of the world based upon stills from films. It will be massive, approximately 3 500 images in chronological order and it will be controversial. The Sioux will complain that Sitting Bull looks suspiciously white, the Turks will point out that their Ottoman ancestors did not wear Roman armour but these are details. We will not be looking at an actual history from which we can understand something about the past; quite the opposite. It will promote ludicrous fictions, suggesting the young women of ancient Babylon had enormous breasts, their fathers wore fake beards. Physically we will all look much the same, the Saracen guard as muscle-bound as the Comanche warrior, the New York bank clerk as thin and effete as the Chinese wise man. Women first appeared dark haired and cunning. Civilization not only softened their natures, it lightened their hair. 

The real achievement of the exhibition is that as we progress through we will be struck by how bizarre our ignorance is and when we leave, slightly exhausted by the size of the show, it will be the sense that no matter what disasters we have inflicted on ourselves, we’ve always looked good doing it. The photographs here, all lobby cards from the forties through to the seventies, are just a small sample of what will be on show.