And furthermore ...

One Man's Treasure encourages the use of anonymous photographs posted here to illustrate books and album covers.
If an image appeals to you, contact John Toohey at johntoohey@hotmail.com.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

ON THE BEACH


Beach Snapshots, 1910 – 1950s

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
James Baldwin

Switzerland doesn’t have a beach. Neither do the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkmenistan, Chechnya, Laos, Chad, Zimbabwe and Botswana, for starters. The people from those lands never know what it means to gaze out across an empty sea and contemplate its space, which is the same as meditating on life’s alternatives. More, or worse, than that, they never feel the erotic charge of the beach. It’s not something to be discovered on a rare trip to the seaside. It has to be deep in the psyche and so intrinsic as to be taken for granted. People who grow up with the beach head off each summer to be semi naked with thousands of others, drop their pretence at being adults and return to that primeval state where they splash and scream like little children. The next day they knot their ties, polish their shoes and go to work where they assume a mask of mature, responsible dedication. It’s not wildly different from the medieval carnivals where, for a few days each year, the citizens went into a carnal frenzy before the church bell tolled the return to normalcy.


Some time ago, a film maker discovered that one way to let the audience know the actor was in a profoundly melancholic mood was to have him or her walk alone up a deserted beach. Even the Czechs and Laotians who had never seen the seaside understood what was going on. Today in Turkey, the land of the hyperglycaemic video clip, it’s like Mum’s recipe for baklava; no need to change what’s always worked so well. Thing is; most of us beach dwellers have at some time found ourselves on an empty stretch of coast, pondering life’s sharp turns. It draws us, especially when the circumstances demand a particular, self-absorbed sentimentality. It’s no good, for example, if a real tragedy has occurred. That requires serious grieving, ideally in a small, enclosed space like a bedroom. The beach is the place to go when that brief relationship we both knew was flawed has come to an end. The questions we ask are rhetorical because we know the answers very well. Answers aren’t the point anyway; it’s the emotion. In other words, we may be feeling down and philosophical but we’re still enjoying ourselves, enormously.  


Technically, the beach is the worst place to take a camera. Sand scratches the lens, salt air is corrosive and seawater can rust a camera in a matter of hours. Still, we must bring it along. The beach is one of our ritual zones, a place we can behave in ways we can’t anywhere else and if we don’t have the camera to record the moment it could be lost forever. These photographs come from Turkey, Australia, Britain, the USA and a Melanesian island and were taken between 1910 and the 1950s. They prove that no matter where we come from, when we get to the beach we behave the same ways, and the only thing that has changed in the last 100 years is the swimsuit.


ON THE BEACH

Thursday, 28 January 2010

THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT

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.

View the Gallery Here
THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT

Monday, 25 January 2010

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER



The Snapshot Aesthetic



 When OMT first picked up a camera with serious intent, back in the very late 1970s, he quickly discovered the work of Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. It was a revelation. Good photography had nothing to do with the textbooks. It wasn’t bound by strict rules of composition and a great image could be domestic and banal. Even better, he didn’t have to learn tedious lighting and darkroom techniques. The important thing was to respond to a scene, preferably with irony or aloofness. The end result for our budding snapper was about two years worth of utterly boring photographs and a lesson learned too slowly. The apparently casual regard for rules of composition by photographers in the 1960s belied a deliberate, studied approach. As so many gunslingers discovered too late, shooting from the hip takes practice and Friedlander’s haphazard compositions were never as accidental as they first appeared. To be artless is easy but to appear that way takes effort.



Whether they wanted to be or not, Friedlander, Arbus and Winogrand were associated with the last formally declared art movement of straight photography. Given several names, the most resilient is the ‘snapshot aesthetic’. It followed certain, traditional laws of art movements in that it returned to old values while subverting them, in this case, amateur snapshots. That at least was the thinking behind the ‘New Documents’ show at the MOMA in 1967. None of the photographers exhibited seems to have disputed the association with snapshots though they would have insisted that their work was more considered. It had a point.

The snapshot aesthetic occupied a non-state. Emotions were at best enigmatic, the subjects ideally caught, to quote Lou Reed, between thought and expression. Their actions were unresolved and they looked out of place in their environment. The viewer meanwhile was not always certain of where to look. Roland Barthes’ punctum wasn’t always evident, or if it was it was the wrong detail. 



The photos in this week’s gallery anticipated the snapshot aesthetic. They were, with one exception, taken in Turkey, during the 1940s and 50s but they share some of the uncertainty and misplaced tension in Friedlander and Arbus’ photographs. The similarity is usually coincidental though in a few it appears the photographer attempted something and fell short, accidentally leaving us a glimpse of the future. Such serendipity reinforces one of the fundamental elements of photography. It isn’t that anyone can take a good photograph (true enough) but we can all take photographs that suddenly reveal mysterious symmetries and hidden contexts. We can’t all be artists but we can be poets.

View the gallery here
SNAPSHOT AESTHETIC

Sunday, 24 January 2010

A GHOST STORY

Let’s dispense with the technical information first. These nine photographs come from a small, rectangular olive green album. The prints measure 5x4 inches and are probably contacts, the glass plate negative placed directly on the printing paper. They were made in the very last years of the 19th century or the first of the 20th. The quality of the prints, their depth of field, the careful use of natural light, the tonal range, suggest they are the work of a professional or a highly skilled amateur. They were bought from the USA.

One Man’s Treasure could devote thousands of words to a description of these photographs but recommends you go to the gallery, zoom in and explore them for yourselves. Pay attention to the background details; the pictures on the walls, the fittings, the lamps and crockery on the sideboards. Among the several photographs on display, none appear to be of children. There are other details a sharp eyed expert could use to precisely date the photographs; the model of telephone behind the woman at the desk, the style of wallpaper and the lampshades for example. The house has electricity yet the inhabitants still rely on candles. The picture of the elk looks like one of those images that enjoyed a spectacular fashion for a few years before being consigned to the attic.


The man is a professional, a doctor or lawyer, of no small means anyway. In the photograph captioned ‘Up Stairs Living Room’ he appears to be reading the New York Times. The woman is looking at a picture, an album by her elbow. The pages in this album are black, hers appear to be white, which regrettably rules out the possibility she and you are looking at the same. The paperweight could be a fossil.

Go to the kitchen. A caption cropped from the image reads ‘Our Kate’. The ‘Home Sweet Home’ decoration looks out of place compared to the pictures in the other room. Maybe it is Kate’s and the kitchen is her domain. The range still gleams as though brand new. (Another detail about this house; the abundance of chairs. They are everywhere.)


This post has been titled ‘A Ghost Story’, in part because the photographs without people are so compelling. The rooms are alive with an invisible presence. In a small way, the photographs bring to mind Eugene Atget, who could photograph a deserted Paris street yet impart a sense of bustling activity. The old chestnut that Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes pondered, that we photograph the passage of time, hence death itself, seems resonant here in a way it isn’t always with very old photographs. The intimacy of these photographs, the neatness of the rooms and the studied quietude of the people, will be broken, and lost.
VIEW GALLERY HERE
A GHOST STORY

GEORGE WASHINGTON WILSON



… I can impart but little of what we felt. We were still on the same side of the water, and, being immediately under the hill, within a considerable bending of the shore, we were enclosed by hills all round, as if we had been upon a smaller lake of which the whole was visible. It was an entire solitude; and all that we beheld was the perfection of loveliness and beauty.
Dorothy Wordsworth; Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland AD 1803, pub; 1804


Firstly, there is his name. His parents were crofters; Scottish farmers who rented a small holding, were denied a vote, and they christened him George Washington in 1823, in the midst of the notorious Highland clearances. To name a son after the victorious general in the War of Independence was a blunt political statement. The boy became court photographer to Queen Victoria and took one of the most iconic images of her, mounted on a horse, her footman, John Brown, holding the bridle, the scene swathed in a moody fog. The journey from a small farm in Aberdeen to Buckingham Palace was not so much difficult as unlikely. So, did Wilson’s success involve a betrayal of his family’s principles?




George Washington Wilson was the most British of photographers. His landscapes, particularly of Scotland, belong more to a sensibility in literature than the visual arts. His contemporaries among painters, Turner especially, tend to pit nature against society. Light and fog smother cities and obliterate detail, the sea threatens to smash ships to splinters. In novels like Emily BrontĂ«’s Wuthering Heights the characters inhabit the landscape and are shaped by it. Ditto Thomas Hardy, Walter Scott and R. D Blackmore. Wilson’s photographs worship nature yet celebrate human intervention. The rugged highland valley has a road cut through it. A boat rests on the lakeshore. Gloomy skies embrace the ruins of churches. People seldom dominate the frame; rather they are figures in a setting; distant, anonymous farm labourers or fishermen. 

On the evening of the 3rd of May, 1827, the garden of a large red brick bow windowed mansion called Northend House, which, enclosed in spacious grounds, stands on the eastern side of Hampstead Heath, between Finchley Road and the Chestnut Avenue, was the scene of a domestic tragedy.
Marcus Clarke: For the Term of his Natural Life, pub; 1870-1872

A common literary device in Victorian novels and short stories was to open with a panoramic description of a village or the landscape. The church, the house or tavern at the centre of the drama was first given context by the surroundings from which the tale’s atmosphere developed. Sensationalists especially understood that a bucolic setting was the best place to begin a tale of shocking scandal or heartrending tragedy. Wilson’s landscapes could be the opening paragraph to a Victorian novel; a scene of quiet rural splendour luring the reader into a series of disastrous events.

Aesthetically Wilson was a Romantic, which marked him as a patriot in temperament if not actual politics. Whatever his position on Scottish nationalism, his image of Scotland, the brew of wilderness and human spirit, was shared by the English, who regarded it as essentially the same country as theirs, and by one woman in particular.



Queen Victoria and Prince Albert shared an attested enthusiasm for photography: there is a story that on the day she proposed marriage she opened proceedings with her husband-to-be by discussing some examples of a new process that had come her way, daguerreotypes. An amateur herself, her patronage of photographers would establish the reputations of several studios within Britain, including Wilson’s. What she though of his name was neither here nor there. It shouldn’t be forgotten that although hers is forever associated with prudishness, she bought a print of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life with its phalanx of naked women when galleries were loathe to exhibit it.

In 1852 Queen Victoria bought Balmoral Castle as a summer residence. The new building, partly designed by Prince Albert, echoed a medieval mythology. It featured neo-gothic spires, turrets and domes and was set in parkland fronting the Dee River. The estate contained all the essential elements for a highland retreat; a deer park, forests for hunting, streams for fishing and mountainous crags for wandering through. Wilson, whose studio was in nearby Aberdeen, was hired first to take photographs of the construction, later the interiors and eventually, as official photographer, portraits of the royal family.

The first paragraph ended with a question that can’t be answered but that shouldn’t preclude its being asked. Wilson’s Scottish landscapes are a manifestation of national consciousness, nostalgia for a country that had been taken away from its people. The mid 19th century, the era of the highland clearances, was also the time when the foundation myths of Scottish nationalism, the 1692 massacre at Glencoe, William Wallace, Culloden, were taking form. A true Scottish photographer needed a deep feeling for his country. Maybe it was those qualities that attracted Victoria and Albert in the first place. Their standards and expectations were high. Anything less than a profoundly poetic eye would have disappointed them.

Visit the Gallery Here

GEORGE WASHINGTON WILSON

Friday, 22 January 2010

 THE PRIZEFIGHTER AND THE LADY


Cigarettes and Modernism

In the 1920s modernist principles began to creep into commercial photography. The old axiom that the photograph was a statement of truth gave way to the concept of representation. Shape, form and texture mattered, also the idea that the message could be abstracted using lighting and angles. Political leaders looked more impressive if the camera pointed up to them, thinkers seemed more profound and enigmatic if half of their face was cast in shadow. A photograph was not of a world famous author but of genius, distilled. The nude was no longer the subject, eroticism was. Photography was accepted as a type of fiction.

The boxer was a perfect subject for photographers. His uniform was his semi-naked body, and coiled into a fighting pose against a stark background, its minimum of information delivered a complete image of physical strength, courage and skill; the virtues all young boys were expected to aspire to.

Boxers were gods, local gods, mind you. One could be worshipped in Whitechapel yet unheard of in Brooklyn and the devotion was assuredly sectarian. Ted “Kid” Lewis was also called the Aldgate Sphinx but the faithful knew his real name was Gershon Mendeloff and so far as they were concerned he was fighting for more than the simple pleasure in it. Promoters understood this all too well. Set a Dublin Catholic against a Glasgow Protestant and you had more than a boxing match, you had a metaphor, and a full house.




Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, No 10 from “Sporting Champions”, available with ‘The Champion”, April 1st, 1922

In popular imagination a champion embodied the canard that a boy could literally fight his way to the top of the heap. The qualities that got him there involved discipline, character, pluck and desire. Small wonder that in so many films from the 1930s and ‘40s involving boxing, a priest hovers about to remind the boy, and the viewer, the wayside is only a misstep away.

Like the boxer, the actress needed nothing more than her physical presence for the photographer to start constructing a myth. The intention was to infuse her image with glamour. It was irrelevant if she spoke with a broad Midwest twang and assumed a book was something a judge threw. A hairstyle, a gown and some basic lighting could transform her into a creature of such elegance and sophistication to make, as Raymond Chandler put it so succinctly, a bishop kick a stained glass window in.




Ginger Rogers, No 16 from “Modern Beauties” Third Series.

No one ever required an actress to show character off screen. Her image in front of the camera was sufficient as her virtues were entirely physical. Indeed the classic legend of the actress’ path to glory in is contradistinction to that of the boxer. He fights. She is discovered, plucked from her job at the milk bar and miraculously transformed into a star. The Hollywood priest reminded the struggling fighter to dig deep into his soul to bring out his greatness. She, on the other hand, had “it”. Frankly, when all that was ever asked of her was that she look good under a klieg light, it was ungrateful that she’d demand the right to a personality.

Modernist photography was only interested in the surface anyway. Genuine modernists cared nothing for the substance of their subjects’ lives. How could they? To depict the squalor most boxers came from, to suggest that they fought professionally because it was a skill they picked up alongside petty thievery, was to spite the imagery of magic and dreams commercial photographers built their careers on. That would be like a Hollywood producer insisting that true love was a sick, cynical joke. And who wanted that? Not the audience; the man gazing lasciviously at the magazine starlet’s thighs while his dumpy wife pottered about the clutter of the kitchen, or the girl who imagined that if she only wore that gown her life would be fulfilled. Not their subjects either, whose whole purpose had been to escape the ghetto or the barren little town in the first place. The new modernism showed photographers how to create mythologies everyone wanted.

Cigarette cards had been around for a while but beginning in the 1920s, companies began including real photos. For a shilling a smoker could buy a pack and have a small piece of authentic modernist art included. The buyer wasn’t expected to think about art of course but that pantheon of deities, the screen goddesses, the lords of the ring who, in their portraits at least, were mortal, yet somehow above the fragility of commoners.

Most modernist artists scorned populism, and among those who didn’t many failed to make a tangible connection with an audience. Intentionally or otherwise, their manifestos and theories alienated the people whose thinking they were supposed to transform. Paradoxically, it was left to commercial photographers to dispense with all but the superficial appearance, bring it into the home and make it mainstream.

THE PRIZEFIGHTER AND THE LADY

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

SHERLOCK HOLMES

The critics were unkind to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Some were quite wrong. The principle cause for their gripes was that Ritchie had veered too far from the classic image of the detective yet on several points he was closer to the original than any other of the various films and TV adaptations produced in the last century.


Actor, C 1860s - 1870s

If faithfulness to the original was the critics’ desire then they could hardly condemn Jude Law’s Watson, the most accurate portrayal of Holmes’ sidekick ever. Physically he resembled the young, thin adventurer who had served on the Afghanistan frontier and loved women on five continents. What too should we expect from such a character? He’d be useful in a fight and up for one if called, yet no doubt he’d feel a nagging urge to settle down, especially as his profession offered a solid income and a comfortable life. We forget that Watson’s recounts are set sometime in the future, so to speak. He is reminiscing, no doubt from a desk by a warm fire, a dog by his feet, a glass at his hand.

As for Holmes, his domestic squalor was everything Watson repeatedly complained about and utterly logical for a man whose interests ranged from Chinese tattoos to local soils, that is to say, from popular art to geology and all that lay in between. Do people of such frenetic curiosity live in neatness and order? None that I know of. He was a drug addict too. Drug addicts are often messy, partly through lethargy, partly through induced self absorption. To claim Ritchie took excessive licence yet to praise Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s performances is worse than unfair; it demonstrates a failure of understanding.
Greyhound trainers, C 1880s

The film also caught a detail of Victorian London that has been unforgivably forgotten in cinema. It was an age of magnificent engineering, Brunel’s Great Eastern, the Blackfriars Bridge, the Tower Bridge, the Crystal Palace, and those hundreds of mislaid dreams to connect England and France by road, to build intercontinental flying machines, to plan utopian cities. A sequence of tiled frescoes in the passage under the Blackfriars Bridge depicts its construction and the extravagant superstructure required to link two sides of the Thames. In the film the fight scenes in the shipyard and on the bridges pay careful attention to that grand, perverse beauty. The primitive forest of beams and ropes, chains and pulleys speaks of labour as much as vision. One could not exist without the other.

The dictates of fashion and politics make authenticity a dubious quality in films with a historical setting. Today’s Victorian Britain emphasises the crowded filth of the city, which fits in with our gentrified, contemporary aesthetic and the corollary of lost values. To put it another way; cholera is no longer a problem and gas lamps no longer cast their dim glow but with their passing London has lost a vibrancy and atmosphere the most du jour film-maker can’t help but feel nostalgic for, and Sherlock Holmes is an intensely nostalgic film. It’s a film about an era when men were caught up in the idea of Britain’s greatness and an age of certainty. Magic is science, because science is magical. America is weak. Money is no object. Adults have a childlike freedom to explore a city of dark corners and mysterious passages. London is a vast carnival of gypsy fortune tellers, midget scientists, secret societies and shadowy schemers.


Dancer; Horatio Nelson King, C 1860s

The Cartes de Visite in the album are of people from Holmes' world. Click to visit the album