And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 6 October 2011


Humour and other oddities in photos

Why should a clergy man always wear well-fitting clothes? Because he should never be a man of loose habits?
Why are stutterers never to be relied on? Because they are always breaking their word.
Edwardian jokes

 Step off the straight and narrow road of the established history of photography and you quickly find yourself in a place where received ideas have to be suspended. Words like ‘art’ and its even more vague corollary ‘genius’ are meaningless, as are some fundamental terms for describing things; ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sound hollow. There are photographs for which the only category they belong to is ‘strange’.  It isn’t always easy to pinpoint what that is. Would it make a difference if ‘the girl who wouldn’t’ was better printed and if she wasn’t blurred? Possibly, though improvements might also reveal its essential mediocrity. The photograph of two lovers on a sofa would have been sentimental and uninteresting except the attempt at colouring the champagne glasses was so inept it placed the image on another plane, maybe not a higher one but it has become something else.

These photographs aren’t snapshots. They were taken by professionals who were certain of what they wanted and a few were produced by studios that had the facilities to create various effects. One thing they share is that somewhere between thought and expression, something went askew. The postcard of the woman in the dirigible was always intended to be odd but in others the romantic looks creepy or there are details that maybe shouldn’t be there. It’s a bit like laughing at a joke and realizing afterwards that you didn’t really get it.

In the 1860s photographers realized that now they could mass produce images they weren’t limited to famous faces or views. There was a whole new market out there for people who wanted to indulge their sense of humour. The first efforts were tableaux vivants with a message at the bottom and composite prints where the fakery was obvious enough for anyone to get the joke. The usual formats were cartes de visite and stereographs. By the turn of the century, as the postcard took off, more and better techniques became available. The only limits for a photographer or publisher were imagination and skill, and the second wasn’t necessarily expected to be of a high standard.

Bad art is always bad but bad photographs can take on a new life It’s hard to figure out exactly what the person behind the photo above was thinking when he or she decided that a moonrise over a gloomy sea was suitable as a Christmas card and two angels carrying a banner would set things off nicely. The angels haven’t improved the image but they have made it more disconcerting. Another postcard with a religious theme is the one below, and though the thinking behind this is easier to follow, somehow the girls’ poses are all wrong. The taller one clutches the crucifix a little too desperately and why the photographer, a Mr W Greaves of Leicester, should think the image looked better if the other girl clung to her skirts is something only he could explain. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this photo but it does suggest the girls have a somewhat nervous relationship with their faith.

All of these photos come from that vaguely defined period immediately either side of the First World War, when the real photo postcard was coming into its own and photographers used every device and technique available to make their images different. It was also a moment when photography was being taken seriously as an art form. Portraits were meant to reveal something deep within the sitter, landscapes were meant to inspire and magazines were full of tips on fine printing and customized darkroom recipes. These photographs on the other hand are either wilfully ignorant or dismissive of the standard ideas of the day as to what good photography was but they remind us that photography could also be fun.


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