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Sunday, 29 April 2012


A snapshot album of Germany in 1939

“In Russia everybody takes everybody else for a spy, and in the United States everybody takes everybody else for a criminal.”
Friedrich Durrenmatt

 There’s something strange about these photos. At first glance they look like ordinary tourist snaps but they were taken by at least two Turkish people in Germany in the summer of 1939, just three months before the start of the war. At that point it was inevitable; intentions had been made clear and alliances confirmed. Britain and France were only waiting for Germany to invade Poland and if their intelligence was good they would have known Hitler intended to move in late August. Ordinary civilians didn’t know that. So far as they were aware, the invasion could happen tomorrow, which, you would think, made tourism unfeasible.

But are they merely tourists? This is the Krupp shipyard in Kiel; to give it it’s full name, the Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft, where at the time the photo was taken U-boats were already being built (one is in the dock). Alfred Krupp was a strident Nazi sympathiser and made no secret of the fact that his company was developing the German war machine. The British and the French would have already had their eyes on the shipyard and you’d also think, wouldn’t you, that the neighbourhood was crawling with spies. It seems odd that anyone would be able to photograph the shipyards without formal permission; if for example they were engineers or architects on a fact finding junket.

It is entirely possible that’s what they were. Most of the photos are of structures. I don’t know if that means anything except that neither photographer appears to have taken shots of any obvious tourist sights.  Pre war, Germany was Turkey’s most important trading partner, more out of economic necessity and historical allegiance than political sympathy. Turkey also had one of the few reserves of chromite, which Germany needed to manufacture steel. In October 1939 Germany signed a pact with Russia to carve up post war Europe among themselves. Turkey immediately signed a mutual assistance pact with the Allies. In June however it was still open to doing business with all sides. 

One of the photographers used a folding Kodak autograph camera, which allowed him to write inscriptions on the negatives. I don’t know what the other used, it isn’t that important, but both showed a good eye for photography. I have to give the edge to the one not using the autograph camera, if only because of the blurred bike rider or trolley pusher in the scene above and the view of the Grünentaler bridge over the Keil Canal.

It’s tempting to see an architect’s eye behind a lot of these photos, especially this one of the bridge dissected by the cordage, but since we don’t know whether this was the image the photographer actually wanted or the only one that could be taken it is best to leave it as a good photograph. So long as you know what you are looking at, it isn’t that hard to take a good photograph regardless of your day job.

With hindsight you probably expect a bit more evidence of what was about to happen from these photos but the evidence – the swastika above the building at the top left for example – is thin. Why should it be any other way? The people who took these photos had to be aware of what was unfolding but, being Turkish, their principle concerns were commercial. War hadn’t yet been declared and people could still persuade themselves that it wasn’t going to happen. There can’t be many photographs of Germany on the eve of war taken by such disinterested observers – if they are that disinterested. We still can’t say for sure what they were doing in Germany or why they were given the access they had.


Saturday, 21 April 2012


Oriental fashions
 “Just as I was about to speak, Atatürk clapped his hands and, as he had orchestrated it, the dancing girls appeared, their multicoloured veils floating suggestively in the coolness of the room. As they danced their slow, sensuous dance, wordlessly Atatürk motioned that I sit on the red velvet and copper-collared cushions next to him. Mesmerized, I complied.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor, One Lifetime Is Not Enough, 1991

When this photo was taken in about 1905, modern A La Turca had been a fashion statement in Paris for just a few years. It didn’t have that much to do with Turkey, or more precisely, if the clothes conjured up images of the Orient they were A La Turca, and the Orient in a lot of peoples’ imagination was anywhere east of Italy. As fashion trends went it was a hard one to kill. Just when it should have faded, something would come along – Mata Hari, a new Rudolph Valentino film, the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and Oriental fever flared up again. Women put on turbans, scarves and long strings of beads and let it be known they were more exotic than their day job suggested they were. Zsa Zsa Gabor wrote two autobiographies, the original, tamer version when her first husband, the Turkish politician Burhan Belge was still alive, and the less discreet account where the quote above was drawn from. Did Ataturk really clap his hands and a troupe of dancing girls appear? It’s possible, although the scene as Ms Gabor tells it reads like she was confusing a memory with a Bob Hope film. 

There’s a common misconception that Ataturk outlawed the headscarf when it was the veil, the niqab, or to be specific, clothing associated with religion that was proscribed. Perhaps he would have liked to get rid of the headscarf but not for any particularly religious reasons, rather because of its associations with peasantry and all that it didn’t represent; education, sophistication, modernity. His vision for the Turkish Republic was that it would be run by self-possessed professionals who could distinguish between science and superstition, but then he hit the nationalist’s dilemma. How far can you go when the elements you want to transform are essential to the culture’s identity? Take the woman above: on the one hand everything she represents is the antithesis of the ideal woman in the new republic, on the other the image she projects is so quintessentially Turkish that to discourage its depiction was to challenge the national character. 

One way around the problem was to think counter-intuitively and instead of suppressing the folklore promote it, being careful to make it obvious that the imagery wasn’t portraits but typologies. No one looking at this photograph would think the woman was an authentic villager; the studio well gave the game away. It belongs to a genre (is that the word?) that began in the 1860s, when European studios producing CDVs found there was extra money to be made out of the local folklore. Some of the very best studios weren’t too proud to play this game, especially when all they needed was a costume and a model and both could be procured cheaply. By the time this photo was taken the idea had pretty much run its course, or more accurately, the traditions had faded from view. Turkey was one of the few countries where most of the population was still rural based and folk traditions survived.

And then there was the new republic’s wealthy, urban and secular elites, which clearly is where this woman came from. There are several possibilities to explain this photo, but whether she dressed for something like a small scale fashion shoot or if the headscarf was part of her daily wear, was she aware that she was drawing on a Western European fashion which originally had found inspiration in Turkey? It’s a great image though irony doesn’t seem the point here. 

But it is here. On the back of this 1930s snapshot is an inscription written in Spanish. “A mia Turca (the mid section is mostly indecipherable) Mil abrazos (a thousand hugs)”. Spanish tourists? Probably. Most of the fun in visiting a foreign country is imagining you have some connection to it, so why not dress as you imagine Turks do, or ought to? 

As discussed in a previous post, in Bulgaria the independence movement was driven by people who wanted to kick free of all Ottoman influences including dress sense. At the turn of the century anything that looked like a celebration of the Ottoman era was a tribute to its worst elements and an image like this was only a reminder of them. A few years on however and folk traditions were considered intrinsic to national identity. Identifying what was indigenous and what was borrowed was a part of the process but after 500 years of occupation there was a lot that no one could be sure of.


Saturday, 14 April 2012


Modern Beauties cigarette cards

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”
Edward Bernays

In 1917 Sigmund Freud published Introduction to Psychoanalysis and introduced a new word into popular culture. In America his nephew, Edward Bernays had already read some of Freud’s work as well as Gustave le Bon’s 1896 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and thought there was a use for psychoanalysis beyond the dubious treatment of hysteria. It could also be used to control people’s buying habits and the way they voted. In effect, he argued, the crowd was an organism that could be prodded to move in certain directions and this was actually necessary to prevent the decline into anarchy. Democracy was a meaningless sentiment unless leaders could make the crowd behave according to their will. Before Bernays came along, Hollywood had created one idea of mass desire but no one understood its science.

In 1928 the American Tobacco Company approached Bernays with a problem. Socially it was bad form for women to smoke and that cut out a huge slice of the market for the company. It asked him to find a way to persuade America’s women to take up cigarettes. To do that he turned to one of his uncle’s disciples, Abraham Brill, who outlined a plan to convince women that smoking was a mark of individual identity. In more psychoanalytical terms, a cigarette was a phallic object and if women were directed to think that smoking represented a mastery of the phallus, the ATC stood to make a fortune. Bernays’ first stunt was to have a group of ‘suffragettes’ light up simultaneously during the 1929 Easter Parade, galvanising the reporters and photographers on hand to forget the floats and marching bands and focus on the women and their ‘torches of freedom’. It worked. Within a couple of years women across the US were smoking as a sign of their emancipation. The glaring paradox that they were stating their individuality by engaging in a single act wasn’t lost on Bernays. That was how desire worked. Most of his campaigns worked on the premise that by wanting what everyone else had, a person was declaring their uniqueness.

Bernays also understood how to tap glamour. The notion existed long before he took it on but no one as yet had appreciated how it could be used to control public opinion. In October 1924 President Calvin Coolidge was perceived as dull, humourless and something of a liability with an election just weeks away. Taking on the campaign to restore his image, Bernays invited twenty eight Hollywood stars to a breakfast at the White House. Reports suggest the President moved about the crowd typically unimpressed by the names on the guest list but that was beside the point. He was being photographed shaking hands and talking to people like Al Jolson, the idea being that some of the glamour would rub off. Coolidge won the election though analysts suggest he would have anyway, his Democrat John Davis being regarded as even more dull and conservative.

He had his greatest success selling glamour for the fashion industry in the 1920s, driving a message to America’s women that certain clothes didn’t just make you feel good because of their texture or the way you looked in a mirror. That feeling you got putting on a Cheney Brothers gown came from deep inside. It was your identity showing through. Wear one and you became a more complete woman. The market Bernays pitched to were the middle class women who had surplus income to play with and only needed to be convinced that they needed that new outfit to feel whole. A lot of these women had mothers who had made do with one or two pairs of shoes and wore them till they fell apart. Bernays’ job was to shake them loose of that old notion.

 Modern fashion photography supposedly started with people like Edward Steichen but Bernays’ papers at the Library of Congress show that before the photographers made their mark he was really pushing for outfits to be depicted in a contemporary light, using modern art and design based on work by Georgia O’Keefe and Cezanne to suggest that the very latest in fashion was as necessary as it was sophisticated. The way these outfits looked in photographs was as essential as how they did in real life since it was the photographs women would see first. Technically, he wasn’t directing the photo shoots but he was giving the companies the ideas for how their designs should look.

Though Steichen gets the credit for glamour photography, the photographs here owe more to Bernays than they do him. For one thing, they came from cigarette packets, which Bernays would have approved of, knowing instinctively that the people most likely to collect them were women. Also, they lent smoking that glamour women needed to feel as they lit up. He would have certainly agreed with the idea of using images of Hollywood actresses as marketing tools though he would have pointed out that for a campaign to be effective the women had to inhabit a desirable dream world that was nevertheless, in theory, obtainable. Too sophisticated and removed from reality and the ordinary women who kept consuming in the hope they too would enter this world would soon enough give up and return to simpler values. The secret to convincing the public that buying something would give them entrance to a higher world was to make them believe that whatever it was they bought was all they needed to get there. Notice that the women project a kittenish, girl next door persona. The people involved in the marketing wanted men to think they were available, women to think they were just like them.  

There’s a lot more to be said about Bernays; the grotesque irony for example that his use of his uncle’s ideas would have a marked influence on Goebbels, who used Bernays’ theories in a campaign to whip up hatred against the Viennese Jews, forcing Freud into exile. There was his campaign in the 1950s for the United Fruit Company that was so successful that even the nominally left wing press in the US believed communist rebels were about to take over several Central American countries. There’s his legacy in Hollywood too. The notion that a Hollywood star could campaign on behalf of famine victims in Africa, getting the ear of presidents while being a functionary in a corporation partly responsible for the famine is in its way an ultimate realization of Bernays’ theories on the crowd.


Saturday, 7 April 2012


An English photo album from the 1930s

"What good is running if one is on the wrong road?”
English proverb

There are 47 photographs in the album, none marked with any inscriptions to give a precise date or location but the clothes and the cars tell us it was the 1930s. A shot of the Royal Border Bridge in Berwick indicates some of the photographs were taken in the north of England, others look like they come from the Isle of Wight and Wales. The ruins, the church interiors and the façade of a very modern building suggest the photographer was interested in architecture and possibly an architect. But how much do we really need to know? Not a lot when the images stand up on their own. By all appearances they considered themselves a typical middle class family. Whatever ideas they had about England and the English character came from the same sources everyone drew on; not the big stories about the ruined economy or bleak inevitability of another war but minor details picked up in the newspapers that seemed so intrinsically British that they couldn’t happen anywhere else. The stories below were taken from newspapers published in the 1930s.

Ghost hunting is the latest sport to take off in England. Hundreds gathered recently to hunt down a spectre seen floating about a house in Kent. They managed to flush out a tramp sleeping in the hedges but little else. Generally a medium will lead a party of ghost hunters to a site reputed to be haunted and attempt a scientific exposé. Recently a medium was observed undergoing a titanic psychic battle with an unseen spirit that left her unconscious. It has been reported that she has since died.

Every day for the last ten years the Prince of Wales has received a letter from the same, anonymous resident of Glasgow. Experts have determined the writer is most likely an elderly lady. Every letter begins. "My dear Prince," and then follows with a quote from the Book of Revelations. Nothing more is added.

Her family evicted from its estates at Witton Castle,Lady Chaytor has hit upon a scheme for raising the money to meet the debts. She intends to fly a Gypsy Moth biplane to Australia next March, stopping off at all the major cities of the Commonwealth on the route in order to present lectures on fashion.

Miss Ross, of West Hartlepool was exploring the caves at Marsden when she found a small mummified figure. It measured 12 inches and had dark wrinkled skin and two green glass eyes. She took the figure home and put it on the bookshelf shelf in her bedroom. The figure repeatedly fell to the ground despite having ample space. For reasons as yet unknown, Miss Ross' mother stabbed the figure with a hot knitting needle. The next day the woman was struck by a painful disease of the eye that has so far only been observed in the tropics.

For six weeks now the family in Finsbury has been living in terror of the mysterious night visitor. Twice the three children have been attacked in their sleep, waking up with puncture marks on their skin. The mother, Mrs Baines, says: "In the morning, I went in to the children and I found Marjorie, aged eight, and Eileen, aged seven, covered with blood. I found that Eileen had two small marks, half an inch apart, on her wrist. They were just like punctures, mauve in colour, and swollen. Marjorie had two just like it above her elbow.” Doctors are baffled.

The inquest into the death of  William Bollard of Norwood has heard that when police entered the house the four dogs guarding their owner’s body were so protective one had to be shot at once. Neighbours were curious as to why Bollard would live for fourteen years in the house, isolated from all company except his dogs. Some night the neighbours heard strangely beautiful music coming out of the house. When they peered through the window they saw Bollard sitting at a dusty grand piano.

Richard Lambert, editor of the BBC Listener has won his case against Sir Cecil Levita and been awarded £7500 after the jury agreed Levita had defamed Lambert when he said the editor believed in the occult and was crazy. At best, Lambert asserts, he had expressed the same interest as many ordinary Britons in Gef the talking mongoose. The mongoose, which inhabits a farm in the Isle of Man, speaks English fluently as well as a smattering of Hebrew and Russian, although only to the Irvings, the owners of the farm. None of the hundreds of visitors to the farm have heard the mongoose utter so much as a squeak.

JUNE 1937
The Yorkshire mill-owner is wealthy enough to stay in one of the better hotels off Piccadilly when he visits London but he insists that the bed be removed so that he can sleep on the floor. The purest air is always nearest the floor, he claims.

Indra Shira and Captain Hubert Provand, both being keen amateur photographers, were asked by Lady Townshend to take pictures of Raynam Hall, especially the grand staircase at the entrance. Provand had his head under the black cloth and was focussing the camera when Shira saw an ethereal shape coming down the stairs. "Quick, quick, are you ready?" he called. "There is something on the staircase!" Provand opened the shutter and Shira fired his magnesium pistol. When the photograph was developed it revealed a spectral yet feminine form wafting down the stairs.