And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 27 November 2010



“The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

Overexcited writers sometimes claim that the stereoscope was the Internet of the 19th century, or it was the Victorian era’s television. It was neither of course; it was a bit more remarkable than that. Stereoscopes didn’t really give knowledge to the people who looked through them. No one who gazed upon a 3D scene of the pyramids then switched it for one of a distant nebula was going to be any the wiser for what they saw but the way they looked at the world or thought about their place in it was changed.

One day a scholar of measured temperament and cool logic will investigate the ways the stereoscope changed our society, not in the obvious ways that are plain for anyone to see but where there are only hints or suspicions. Is it pure coincidence for example that science fiction, specifically the idea there might be civilizations on distant planets, first takes hold of the popular imagination in the 1880s, about the same time high quality stereographic images of other galaxies appear on the market? The same time, that is, as people are given free rein to imagine what might be out there? How about art and the apparently simple problem of trying to outdo not just the photographic representation but the fully three dimensional image of the female form? One way might be to kick against instinct and go find inspiration in objects others aren’t looking at; dressmakers mannequins for example. Where else to channel all that menacing resentment at the way something that was once mysterious and profane – the female nude – has been defiled by glorious 3D?

That is all speculation of course but there is still more to the stereoscope than meets the eye. The principle that Charles Wheatstone began working on in the late 1830s was simple. Two images nearly identical except that they are slightly out of alignment are viewed through binocular lenses. This basic idea has never needed improvement.

You might expect the stereoviewer to go the way of those other charming relics from bygone days, the zoetrope and the praxinascope, but it has had a strangely tenacious history. By the 1920s the old wooden stereoviewer was a thing of the past but about that time military departments discovered it was incredibly useful for aerial reconnaissance photography. Viewing stereographic photographs of terrain literally put them in perspective. Meanwhile tobacco and breakfast cereal companies were putting stereographic photographs in their products, the idea being that the buyer could collect coupons and send off for a viewer. In the 1930s the first ViewMasters came on the market. Each cardboard reel held seven photographs, which allowed for a rough narrative to be used. In the 1970s ViewMaster brought out the first talking model, where a cassette was played along with the images. ViewMasters are still in production.

The simplicity of the stereograph’s optical principles is one explanation for its resilience - they have always been cheap and easy to produce – but it isn’t the best. There is something to be said for the intimacy involved in holding a viewer to the eyes. It’s a private act that encourages contemplation. It’s the paradox of entering private space to view the wider world, more like reading than looking at art. A one dimensional photograph of a distant place may excite our curiosity but a stereoview inspires our sense of wonder.


Saturday, 20 November 2010


Photographic Curiosities

“Whoever produces kitsch ... is not to be evaluated by esthetic measures but is ethically depraved; he is a criminal.”
Herman Broch, 1933

Baudelaire was blunt in his opinion of people who thought photography was art; they were idiots. Real art was about the imagination and had nothing to do with machines. These days his invective sounds quaint, especially as most art now involves some form of technology. It’s as though someone insisted – they probably did – the typewriter would never replace the quill pen.

The argument as to whether photography is art or not became boring about twenty three years ago. At the same time it has never really been resolved. At some point we stopped wondering and decided some photos deserved to be, some didn’t. Still, it was a fight that went on longer than it should have and one result is the vast amount of photography churned out in the name of art where the only justification is its massive size, its reference to other well known works of art, the exorbitant price attached to it or its otherwise crude banality.

Back when the argument still raged people had more inventive ways to make the case. They painted on photographs, used mattes and multiple prints as if to say ‘I know this is only a photograph but it looks like art’. If they felt especially inspired they’d use multiple processes. The world is full of examples of this work and the odd thing is, they occupy a place that doesn’t quite sit with straight photography but we can’t call it art. It’s something else.

Maybe it’s kitsch but that word usually implies mass production and vulgarity whereas some of the works here are neither mass produced nor ugly. ‘Folk art’ is a more horrible term and it also suggests the creator is some backwoods naïf. Several of the people whose work is displayed here were working for a market they probably understood quite well. 

That’s one of the great things about photography. Economics demands that we attach definitions to objects; if we don’t we can’t give them a proper value. So much good photography however avoids categorization. Our response to it is purely instinctive. We like it, we can’t say why and we don’t actually need to.  The so called proto-modernist Baudelaire never realized that in the future art would be what we wanted it to be, which meant we’d never have to worry whether something was or it wasn’t. Meanwhile, like some huge toad watching insects swarm above it, a grossly indulgent art market gazes out through hooded eyes, wondering if this strange species carries a sting in its tail.


Saturday, 13 November 2010


Studio portraits from the 1920s and 1930s

The dumb brown eyes held hers. His voice was low, gentle. The sense of pleasure came upon her just as it had done in the shop the day before. He pressed the bulb. There was a little clicking sound.
Daphne du Maurier; The Little Photographer

Daphne du Maurier’s little photographer, Monsieur Paul, is an innocuous man. He lives in a shabby cottage in a small French village and gets by with no apparent talents. He is dour and unassuming. He also has a limp. The bored marquise who toys with him finds his manner of fussing over his equipment mildly interesting. Too bad for her she doesn’t show his attention to detail, but that is beside the point. He is typical of the few photographers who turn up in mid 20th century literature. They tend to be men of mediocre habits and appearance though they can also be voyeurs and obsessives who retreat to their darkrooms to vent their peculiar fixations. They don’t seek clients so much as prey on them. Even with M. Paul, there is a vaguely creepy about him that suggests he isn’t entirely an innocent victim. 

Whatever attention studio photographers received in the first half of the 20th century was seldom positive. No one seriously thought of them as artists; it was hard to when most of them were processing their clients on a virtual conveyor belt, moving them from the waiting room to the studio to the cashier (assuming the business was that sophisticated) by which time the sitter had become a mere number in a register. Nor was photography a craft in the traditional use of the term, which suggested patient and skilled manual work. Du Maurier’s little photographer tells the marquise that he goes out into the countryside to take photos he can sell as postcards. He makes it sound like such an inconsequential way to make a living and a lot of people probably thought photography was an easy occupation. What else did you need but a camera, some lights and a workspace? The customers didn’t care whether the photographer was an artist or not, they just wanted to look good. 

We don’t have to care either. That an image looks strange or beautiful doesn’t necessarily qualify it as art. Still, there is something about the images in this post that lifts them above the commonplace. Photographing people against a studio backdrop was supposed to do that. It didn’t matter that a dozen or more customers had already posed in front of the same scene already that day; the backdrop suggested there was something unique about the sitter. 

The backdrops and props rarely varied between studios. They were forest scenes and classical landscapes. Cheap plaster columns and balustrades implied a connection to antiquity or wealthy sophistication, seashores and woodland streams an Arcadian spirit. No one was fooled but no one was meant to be. The idea was to take an ordinary person and make them appear special. Maybe that’s why the best subjects were from the very middle class. These are portraits of people whose lives revolved around office jobs and regular hours and didn’t have much time for fantasy to enter their lives. 

Most of the photographers remain completely anonymous but they must have had some kind of empathy with their sitters to know what it was that they’d want and how to make them look how they wanted to. Maybe that’s one reason why they got such bad write=ups from literary authors. People like Daphne du Maurier must have been privately disappointed by the banality of studio photography so invested the operators with sinister leanings. Perhaps she was affronted by images like these that on the surface had the appearance of art yet seemed to be in contempt of it.  


Sunday, 7 November 2010


Portraits from Word War 1

“It's all a terrible tragedy. And yet, in its details, it's great fun. And - apart from the tragedy - I've never felt happier or better in my life than in those days in Belgium”
Rupert Brooke, Christmas 1914.
 Walking abroad, one is the admiration of all little boys, and meets an approving glance from every eye of elderly.
Wilfred Owen, 1914

Until immigration shifted the demographics in the 1950s and 60s, you could count on most Australian families having one photograph in their family album of a grandfather or great uncle wearing his ANZAC army uniform. More often than not the photograph was taken in someone’s backyard. He stood to attention or saluted, grinning somewhat foolishly as though he was in on the same joke as everyone else; he was no soldier. The same ritual was taking place all through Europe between 1914 and 1918. World War 1 was the first major war where photographers and cameramen ventured into the frontlines to shoot the action so to speak, but it was also the first war where people at home picked up their cameras and photographed it from their point of view. Fifty years before Vietnam supposedly became the war that entered our living rooms, people around the world were sharing their living space with a photograph of a son or a brother who had been killed in places they’d never heard of before.

There are thousands of these photographs out there. Once they belonged in photo albums or on mantelpieces but as time puts distance between us and events they appear more often in antique shops, often unceremoniously dumped in a pile of snapshots and cheap postcards. That point where memory transmutes into desire, the way it has with daguerreotypes of the American Civil War, hasn’t quite been reached. The portraits in this post are of anonymous people; we have absolutely no idea what happened to them during the war or if they survived it but they all tell pretty much the same story in the way that Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were English poets yet we know that the things they described were also seen through German, Bulgarian or Turkish eyes.

For all its horrific statistics, the First World War has entered our consciousness devoid of any deep cultural animosities. Nobody seriously blames the Germans or Serb nationalists for starting it. It has no sinister iconography like the swastika to evoke reactions. If anything, we see the real culprits to be the generals and politicians from our own side and historians pay more attention to the internal class wars that rived the various nations involved. In his paintings Otto Dix made it clear who he thought the war had been against. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Eric Bogle’s song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy are all about the class conflict at home. The enemy occupying the trenches across the way are barely seen, certainly not the focus of hate.