And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 26 February 2011


World War 1 French propaganda images of women and children

‘"If," they cried, " you are weary of these ties of kindred, these marriage-bonds, then turn your anger upon us; it is we who are the cause of the war, it is we who have wounded and slain our husbands and fathers. Better for us to perish rather than live without one or the other of you, as widows or as orphans."’
Livy, The Rape of the Sabines, from Ab Urbe Condita

Three classical accounts of women and war to keep in mind when considering propaganda images of women are Livy’s account of the rape of the Sabine women (rape in its original use meaning abduction, not sexual assault), Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata and The Trojan Women by Euripides. All three informed the imagery even if the publishers and the customers weren’t aware of them. In Livy and Lysistrata the women intervene to put an end to war, humiliating the men into realizing that they (the women) are ultimately responsible to the survival of the society. In The Trojan Women they pay the consequences for the ignorance of their menfolk. In all three women are the civilizing force. In the postcards displayed here the message is just as blunt though slightly skewed; the women are telling the men they have a duty to protect civilization from an enemy that wants to destroy it. All these cards are French though Germany used near identical imagery for the same purpose.

Propaganda is never intended to be subtle and the imagery here isn’t. During World War I women in the British Empire were encouraged to send a white feather to men they suspected of shirking. These postcards had a similar intent. Not that they were accusatory or that they were always sent to men but they were an explicit and banal reminder of what the war was being fought for, hence the classical militarism and the invocations of Joan of Arc and Boadicea. Several of the cards show women wearing the traditional black bow, the schlupfkàpp, of Alsace-Lorraine. Germany had annexed the region during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and since then had become a symbol to France of what had been stolen from its national identity. The woman trampling the German border post and the teacher instructing her pupils on their true national identity are unambiguous in their meaning. Even an illiterate peasant would have got the message.

The most macabre image is the photomontage of the babies sprouting in the cabbage patch. “Graines de Poilus” – “Seeds of our Soldiers” was a common metaphor that various postcard publishers used and you could say it is somewhat alien to our way of thinking, for what are these children if they are not ready for the harvesting? The depiction of children in these postcards veers towards the grotesque. In none is there any sense that children might be innocent victims of war. A baby in a crib can’t wait to join his (presumably deceased) father’s regiment and a girl holds a flag under the slogan, “bruised but victorious”. In “Duty before all” the boy in the sentry box looks askance as the girl tempts him with flowers. It’s cute, if you believe a child’s destiny is to be cannon fodder.

Most of the postcards shown here use real photographs as the foundation for montage. Others are photogravure or collotypes. We know a little about the companies however they rarely acknowledged the photographer or the source, which could be a studio that sold the image on to them. A couple of the identified creators made names for themselves. Maurice Boulanger was already well known in France for his saccharine postcards of kittens. Alfred Noyer meanwhile stuck with photographing women. During the 1920s he was one of the most prolific producers of erotic postcards in the country.


Saturday, 19 February 2011


Miniature portraits of Turkish women from the 1920s

“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

Oscar Wilde

If you want to make a list of the various elements that distinguish photography from the other visual arts there are a few obvious points that spring to mind though one ought to be the first on any list. Every photograph becomes more interesting the older it gets. This is the case whether we’re interested in the surface details such as the fashions of the time, or if we are responding to something deeper regarding our links to the past. We don’t have to agree on what makes a photograph interesting and we don’t even need to know anything about it to appreciate its resonance. Photographs tell us things no other medium can.

The photos in this post were taken in studios in Istanbul during the 1920s. They are all approximately 80x60mm, or the size of a postcard cut in half, which is what they were. Presumably the customers were given a choice in the size of the print or the studios kept them in window displays to showcase their work. It’s a fair bet too that the women are Greek or Armenian. The Christian communities in Istanbul were generally much more conscious of European fashions and ready to embrace them. Also, the banning of Islamic headwear under Ataturk’s reforms came after most of these photos were taken and most Muslim women put something over their hair, even a loose scarf.

Small format full-length studio portraits like these aren’t so common in Istanbul and they tend to be of women. It may have been the case that women saw a session at the photographer’s studio as a small event, not that different from the carte de visite era half a century earlier when people put on their best clothes before heading off to the studio. Aesthetically they aren’t far removed from the CDVs; about the same size, the sitters assume similar poses and they even use the same props such as fake columns, furniture and books. One even looks like it has a clamp behind the two women to keep them still. A lot of the most reputable studios around at the time had been established in the previous century and though the original owners may have retired or died their formulae and look were still maintained.

On one level these photographs can be seen as a catalogue of women’s fashions in the 1920s but there is something more important going on. Our image of Constantinople (as Istanbul was still officially named) is of a predominantly oriental city, its symbols being the fez, the veil and the minaret. People who drag up that old cliché about Istanbul being the bridge between east and west are inclined to overlook the west bit, thinking of it instead as an Islamic centre where European visitors could feel comfortable. These portraits suggest that things were more detailed than that. There were women who saw themselves as essentially European, which in the 1920s meant modern in outlook as well as dress. They weren’t radical or subversive, or rather they were only if Europeans and Muslims saw them as outsiders rather than integral to the city’s identity and culture.



Saturday, 12 February 2011


Turkish itinerant photographers
"There are a considerable army of them who travel the country in all directions. There is not a market-town, village, or hamlet … that has not been visited by the face-making photographer."
The Leisure Hour, a family journal of instruction and recreation, 1859 (London)

They are probably the rawest photographs (technique-wise) you are ever likely to encounter; poorly composed, badly exposed and often out of focus, the subjects lined up against rudimentary outdoor backdrops and standing amidst the rubble of unpaved village streets. They are the work of Turkish itinerant photographers, men who travelled between villages and small towns or ran cheap studios in the cities and scratched a living photographing the local inhabitants. Their story has never been told. Whether it can be is another question.

Still, we have to try. If the history of photography depended on a few well known names with certain ideas about what made a photograph we’d have nothing left to say by now. Fortunately the art is interesting but so to are the economics and the social history and there are dark regions out there waiting for a little torchlight to be pointed their way. The photographers left no evidence of who they were or where they were located so to begin it is necessary to look outside Turkey, to England for example where itinerant photographers were working in the 1850s. Henry Mayhew interviewed a street photographer in London Labour and the London Poor and John Thomson and Adolph Smith met others in the 1870s when they were working on Street Life in London. The photographers in question worked the back streets, went up to the commons on public holidays and sometimes took their portable studios to seaside resorts in the summer. They made very little money even in the high season and they had no illusions about the quality of their work or the demands of their customers.

Itinerant street photographers could always be found in cities. In rural towns the only way to attract customers was to go out to them, to turn up at markets and fairs or to travel a route. Nobody ever got rich as an itinerant photographer. Thomson and Smith found a few who had run moderately successful studios but the business had failed and the itinerant trade was a way back to recovery. That may have been the case with some of the photographers here though unlikely; these photographs don’t suggest the person behind the camera had any particular skill with photography. Their equipment amounted to a camera, a backdrop – an old carpet was as good as anything else – and a portable darkroom because whatever success they had depended on getting the print to the customer as quickly as possible. All of that could be packed in a reasonably large suitcase.

If not for these photographs, our only photographic records of Turkish village life in the 1920s would come from outsiders - employees from various government departments including the police, or from occasional visitors from National Geographic and the like. One wanted evidence that could be converted into statistics or propaganda, the other local colour. The sitters here were most likely illiterate, girls especially would have received a rudimentary education, and quite a few would have never visited a city. To describe them as traditional doesn’t go far enough in explaining how isolated they were from the centres of activity.  It matters that the itinerant photographers came from the same social stratum and that they were probably a familiar sight to their subjects. Not that this made the photographs more candid. Some of the sitters are obviously suspicious of the camera, but it would have been an equitable transaction and whatever defences the sitters raised were implicitly understood by the photographer. The camera does not record the truth and ‘raw’ does not mean ‘real’ but what we get in these images are portraits that could only have been taken by someone who understood how their subjects thought but also had no interest in the artifice and irony that marked sophisticated studio photography. 


Saturday, 5 February 2011


The City in Photographs

The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.
Lewis Mumford; The City in History

There are really only two ways to photograph cities. One is to live in one for some time; the other is to pass through. Both approaches have their advantages and both ultimately fail. The long term resident begins to see the city in increasingly smaller detail and the significant aspects become more personal. The problem occurs when despite the most stringent documentation, the viewer loses sight of the city. What is iconic for the photographer needs to be interpreted by the viewers and if they get it wrong then it turns into a debate over who exactly is missing the point. Short term visitors are much more likely to photograph the landmarks that represent the city. The problem here is that photographs that include the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building are in danger of becoming photographs of them. They tend to dominate the image the way loud drunks who claim to know everything do a conversation. And we’re always left wanting more. Yes, we know we’re in Paris; now where’s the real city?

Photographing the idea of cities would appear to be a lot easier given there are universal elements that define them. One is architecture; size matters but also the relationship between buildings and space. The activity of traffic and crowds,  perspective and scale and the symmetry of the elements in the composition make it apparent that the photograph is of a city not simply a large town. It’s possible to glance at a photograph of a street scene and gauge the size and density of  the city’s population. Still, it is an elusive subject.

This photograph of Paris comes from an album of early Kodak snaps taken in 1896 by an unknown photographer. More of the photographs can be seen here at Luminous Lint. Possibly the photographer had recently bought the new Kodak Brownie and was testing it out but what is most obvious from the album is that he or she set out to document the city, which is to say the various elements that had particular significance. That included a few landmarks but also obscure side streets and people going about their private business. This approach is rare in the world of amateur snapshots. In most snapshot albums the city tends to form the backdrop. Few amateurs saw it as a subject in itself.

That was left to professionals, who tended to be thinking of their clients more than their personal response. For the few that did have a personal response it was usually political. With some notable exceptions (Marville, Atget), the best photographs of cities from the late 19th century are of the slums, areas the better off found it easy to avoid so they were always something of a revelation. By the 1920s, when photographers had discovered the joys of radical perspective, and architects were envisioning the possibilities of the vertical city, social conscience took a back seat, or at least it was abstracted into the general idea that the city could be designed to solve social problems. Photographers like Berenice Abbott looked for chance visual patterns and assumed meaning could be extracted from them. The Second World War put an end to that. Photographers stopped trying to represent the city by pointing their cameras up or down and went back to documenting the street at eye level. To them it was the inhabitants rather than the structures that defined the city. By the 1980s the response to the city had become personal. Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency isn’t explicitly about New York but you instinctively know the photographs don’t belong anywhere else. The city has always been a fluid and elusive subject. A history of the city in photography becomes a history of the medium itself. The two are inextricable because one has tracked our changing relationship with the other.