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Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Miniature snapshots from around the world

‘Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place and very little different from becoming a parcel.”
John Ruskin

Between the 1920s and the early 1960s photographers swarmed through the world’s cities blasting away at one landmark then rushing off to the next. There were myriad ways to photograph the Eiffel Tower but they knew their customers only wanted to see it in its full glory, rising above Paris as a symbol of everything from the baguette to the café accordion. There is a suspicion sometimes that photographers must have stood next to each other as they gathered images, glancing enviously at one another’s cameras before they returned to the studio to churn out print runs for the publishing companies.

Miniature photos, “authentic views”, “vues artistiques” and the other names they were sold under, came in pocket sized paper wallets holding up to twenty four photographs. They are the bastard offspring of art and commerce, thoroughly formal in their composition and glorifying the cliché. No wonder collectors often sniff and pass them over. How many miniature snaps of the Coliseum does anybody really need? Still, every so often there is an image that actually looks more art than commerce. It isn’t just a photograph of a well known building; it’s an atmosphere or an idea. There are also those images that live up to their names in unexpected ways. The world they show isn’t simply miniature in its presentation. It looks like a miniature world, artificial and toy-like, and timeless too,  

James Valentine established a studio in Dundee, Scotland, in 1851. By the 1920s his descendants had expanded and opened agencies around the world. In Britain it specialized in highly romanticized landscapes and in small, picturesque villages. This was a world of hay-carts and apple trees, a place most British people only knew through consciously nostalgic novels and picture books. It wasn’t difficult for the company to find these scenes. By the 1930s, when Valentine’s was at the peak of production, it had nearly eighty years of stock images to draw from and wasn’t averse to compiling a set from photographs taken in the 1890s, when the Pictorialist movement was at its most fashionable. 

Other photographers regarded the world with a more modern but no less fabricated style. Alfred Hitchcock employed an arsenal of special effects in his films so that the audience not only recognized places but saw them as he thought they should. There is something of the Hitchcock aesthetic in some of these photographs, not so much landscapes or city views as film sets, where everything looks perfect; too perfect. It was. Like Hitchcock, the photographers weren’t interested in reality as some objective fact. They wanted the world to look beautiful, the way it would if there weren’t so many tourists crowding the streets. The end justified the means and they used whatever they could  make it look so beautiful as to be almost unrecognizable.

When the market for these photographs began in the 1920s it catered to those tourists who either had no facility with a camera or if they did discovered that while snapshots of each other were fine, the photographs they took of landmarks or scenery were often disappointing. Exposures were wrong, the buildings were out of focus and forget about photographing in the late afternoon or night, when the shutter speed had to be so slow the subject in view was blurred to an abstraction. To be really successful, amateurs still had to return to basics and that would have meant packing a whole other suitcase full of camera equipment; tripods, lenses, filters and so on. Commercial photographers saw an opportunity. Let the tourists photograph each other, leave the difficult stuff to the professionals. They were prepared to be up at dawn when the shadows were still long and the streets deserted and they could return to the studio to sandwich in clouds and other effects. Tourists were grateful. It didn’t matter to them that they didn’t take the photograph if they had been to the sight and seen it for themselves. 

By the 1960s cheaper printing processes put an end to the miniature snapshot. Once cost had meant little when the alternatives were limited, now producing a wallet of real snapshots was too expensive when tourists could buy a folding booklet of hastily photographed, roughly printed “authentic colour” scenes for the same price or less. With their decline a whole way of looking at the world, for photographers and for tourists, also vanished. Modern postcards made the planet look flatter, duller and more crowded.


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