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Friday, 30 March 2012


Some Victorian and Edwardian photographs of ramblers

"They're scavengers. The absolute scum of the earth,"
Property developer Nicholas van Hoogstraten on ramblers: 1998

'Militant dog walkers.'
Jeremy Clarkson: 2010

 Stephen Gough sits in a prison in Perth, Scotland, seeing out the end of a 657 day sentence. It has been suggested that with his present attitude he could spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was first sent to jail in 2006 and this is something like his 17th stretch. His crime has been to ramble naked through the British countryside although to be absolutely legalistic about things, he was jailed this time for turning up to court in a similar state. He has walked the length of Britain, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in the nude. Not many have done that fully clothed. Gough is just one from a long list of ramblers who have fought the law for rights they have regarded as sacred. In the 1930s socialist ramblers had pitched battles with the police and in recent year ramblers have won partial victories against Madonna and Jeremy Clarkson (Partial for some still meaning utter defeat.) and all in the defence of a long held British tradition – the freedom to cross public land without hindrance. There have been gunfights, arson attacks, threats of murder and we thought a rambler was a middle aged Pom wearing an anorak and gumboots and carrying a copy of What Bird is That? in the rucksack.

The first walking club was established in England in 1824 and went by the long yet innocuous name of the Association for the Protection of Ancient Footpaths in the Vicinity of York. The group came together to protect the access of ordinary citizens to open spaces and encourage walking as a way to health but you could also describe it as an early environmental campaign. The 1820s were coincidentally the high point of British Romanticism, when John Clare and William Wordsworth were turning to nature for poetic inspiration. The link may be tenuous except you imagine the people behind the APAFVY were educated enough to read the poets yet not so high born that they considered the land theirs by entitlement. 

The photographs here come from the turn of the century; late Victorian to Edwardian. You’ll notice the women especially don’t appear attired for anything strenuous, but that’s because rambling wasn’t expected to be. As the name suggests, it was about walking casually and paying attention to your surroundings. The health benefits came from breathing clean air, not raising a sweat. The routes people took were often dictated by the availability of local pubs. 

Naturally, one didn’t ramble without at least a passing interest in the countryside’s nature and history. Around the time these photos were taken a cottage industry of books was springing up that helped invigorate a new enthusiasm for popular history. Jottings on some Wiltshire Monuments, Our English Villages and various county guides were written with an eye to walkers, giving them specific directions and pointing certain architectural features, an inn built during the reign of Henry VIII on their way out of a village or menhirs from a more ancient time standing in a field. It all sounds very benign but it also represented a class divide. The aristocracy and its hangers on assumed that heritage meant grand houses and long held family titles and a weekend in the country a hunt – what Oscar Wilde acutely described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible. Ramblers liked to find their history in less obvious places and no foxes were harmed on their outings. 

 These photos were taken before the politics turned nasty, before anyone considered that heritage and the environment could become political issues. They are also from the early years of amateur photography, when a camera was an essential item to take on a ramble, and by camera we mean something bulky that needed to be mounted on a tripod. You’ll notice than in the three central photographs, taken on a walk near Bodnant Estate in Wales sometime around 1900, that the sitters are carefully arranged. The top photograph has the inscription,"Taken on a ramble Good Friday 1911" on the reverse. Clearly, rambling was something the British took very seriously.


Saturday, 24 March 2012


Images of Mignon in early postcards

“I don't mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand.”
Edward Appleton

 Here’s a small mystery. The most popular opera in the early 20th century was about a long suffering wretch who lacked a personality, scarcely had a moment’s happiness in her life and brought much of her misfortune upon herself. Like Carmen, Mignon was a gypsy but where Carmen was unfettered, Mignon was servile, and meek where the former was mean. You could respect Carmen even if you were supposed to think she got everything she deserved. You could also see how she could become a sex symbol, but Mignon, the little dishrag in the corner? Why did she end up the poster girl for bohemian gypsy lifestyles?   

This is the opening to Mignon, a comic opera about thwarted love and mistaken identities: In the courtyard of an inn somewhere in Germany, Lothario, a wandering minstrel, is plucking his harp and singing of the travails in his life while some gypsies dance. Two actors, Filina and Laertes, appear in a castle window and down below a student named Wilhelm Meister turns up. The leader of the gypsies spies Mignon asleep in a cart. He threatens to beat her but Lothario and Wilhelm step in. The grateful Mignon divides a posy of flowers between her saviours. She then tells Wilhelm that she is not a real gypsy. She was kidnapped as a young girl and still has vague memories of her home. You don’t need to be told that once she confesses she was stolen as a child, Mignon will be restored to her family, and that said family own a fabulous castle. Getting to that point however will involve a series of misunderstandings and brilliant coincidences. This is opera, where anything can happen so long as it defies the laws of nature.

 When Ambroise Thomas wrote the opera in the 1860s he expanded on one chapter from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. In the original, Mignon was the abandoned daughter of a priest and it was only with her untimely death that Wilhelm began to understand the shallowness of his values. As that précis suggests, Mignon’s life was too miserable for a comic opera and Thomas needed an implausible redemption. He turned to a device used in hundreds of folk tales and by Dickens in Oliver Twist and by a remarkable stroke of fortune, Lothario turned out not only to be Mignon’s unwitting father but heir to a throne. At least the cast had something to celebrate with a rousing song at the finale. 

 In the very late 19th century some dancers found it useful to claim an actual gypsy heritage. Not only did it give their performance some authenticity, it conveniently blurred the issue of their origins. People were more willing to believe that Caroline Otero was a gypsy rather than the daughter of farmers, even if they preferred to think of peasants as honest and simple and gypsies as thieving rogues, because it added glamour and gave her credibility. Strange then that in most images Mignon is depicted as ragged, harried and dispirited. Maybe her problem was that she wasn’t the real thing. By admitting early on that she had been kidnapped she gave the story a riddle that needed to be solved but in doing that she extinguished any idea she had that romantic gypsy love of freedom in her veins.


Sunday, 18 March 2012


An Australian soldier’s snapshots from Palestine, 1941

“They crawled their way across the blazing sands of Africa... to turn disaster into victory!”
Tagline for The Desert Rats, 1953

You’ve probably seen the film. It’s World War 2 and a British officer is given command of a platoon of Australians. He is old school empire from his acutely placed peaked cap down to his polished boots. The Australians are not. He could probably deal with the drinking and brawling but their casual attitude to authority amounts to disrespect. The worst of it is that he has to take these unsophisticated larrikins on a dangerous mission, Naturally he thinks someone in brass has it in for him; why else would he be given such an odious responsibility? From the beginning the detestation is mutual. Over ninety minutes however he discovers that beneath that rough exterior they are tough and capable. The Australians also learn that he is no fool and under that starched uniform beats a human heart. In the end they pull off the impossible. The bridge is destroyed, the Germans retreat and the tide of war has changed. In the last scene he shows his humanity by saluting the survivors and uttering some inanity along the lines of; “Well chaps, shall we have a beer?” 

It’s rubbish of course. First hand accounts from the war usually describe the Australians as disciplined and no more willing to take risks than the British but the stereotype survives mostly because Australians don’t want to shake it. It’s good to think we stand up for ourselves against authority even if these days the evidence is a little thin on the ground. The sensitive, curious outsider doesn’t make for good copy. That’s one reason why these photos are interesting. At first glance they may not look that remarkable but something about them suggests the person who took them wasn’t cut from the same cloth as his comrades.

In the middle of 1941 Australian soldiers from the 9th Division (among others) were sent to Tobruk on the Libyan coast. Their job was to hold the port, effectively placing themselves under siege in order to stop the advance of Italians under Rommel’s command. By November they had achieved the objective and for the first time Rommel’s Middle East campaign was thwarted. Six months later they were on the Egyptian coast, preparing for El Alamein, the battle historians regard as decisive in securing the subsequent defeat of the Axis forces. In between the 9th Division was stationed in Palestine, on extended R&R away from the fighting. While there, one of the soldiers took these photos. We know that because one is dated December 12, 1941 and others are marked ‘Aleppo’, ‘Allenby Square’ and ‘Capernaum’. 

The first thing to point out is their subject matter. They are mostly landscapes. It wasn’t that common for soldiers to take cameras with them to war but when they did, most of the images they returned with were of their brothers in arms. This soldier appears to have wandered off by himself, taking photos of the local scenery much as any tourist would. His images are simply composed suggesting he wasn’t out to interpret places but record them for his own posterity. Some of them, like the one of the boat on the water, are almost meditative, indicating he might have sat on the beach staring at the water before he raised his camera. It leads us to think he was something of an outsider. Maybe the other Australians were a bunch of reckless hooligans and he preferred his own company to theirs.

Most of the photos measure 40x60cm, which corresponds closely with the Kodak 121 and 128 roll films. The photograph of the soldier outside his tent measures 30x40mm, about the same as the 828 film. All three of these were used in amateur cameras like the Kodak Bantam. A professional wouldn’t have touched them. Among the collection are several miniature snapshots such as he would have bought in a paper wallet from a local store. The feeling is that he could have already been interested in Jerusalem and the surrounding lands, either as the land of the Bible or of classical history.

Without a name or any other context there isn’t a lot more that can be said about them except that I think they don’t quite fit with the stereotype of the Australian soldier. Whatever else he did, he wasn’t supposed to go off by himself and quietly observe the world around him. That would have been too sensitive and enquiring for the popular image back home.


Friday, 9 March 2012


Photographs of Paris by Yvon

Man Ray: A man in love with a woman from a different era. I see a photograph! Luis Bunuel: see a film!
Gil: I see an insurmountable problem!
Salvador Dali: I see a rhinoceros!
Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris

The opening sequence to Midnight in Paris begins with a shot of the Eiffel Tower (naturally) at dawn. As the day progresses other landmarks appear - the Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, the Pont de Neuf - interspersed with scenes of people hurrying through the streets. An afternoon shower arrives, blows over and by nightfall we are back at the Eiffel Tower. In three minutes we get an effectively understated and elliptical impression of the city so that as soon as Owen Wilson turns up to the hotel you know he has not just fallen in love with Paris, it’s already everything he has imagined it to be. There aren’t many cities that can get that kind of treatment. New York is too noisy and overwhelmed by skyscrapers, Rome used to in the 1950s and London almost could except, honestly, it doesn’t have a reputation as a romantic town. The other reason the sequence works is that Paris has been so thoroughly photographed that even if you haven’t been there you will recognize the places. You have seen them before.

About five years ago I made some enquiries to a respectable photographic dealer about Yvon photographs and got the response that they were very cheap; in other words, why bother? Well, it’s true; you still shouldn’t have to pay more than a couple of dollars for a vintage photo postcard by Yvon, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t good. Cheap can also mean undervalued, or in Yvon’s case, there is so much of his work floating about that you can reassess his place in history and anoint him to the pantheon of great French photographers if you want; that isn’t going to budge prices. Good. We are lucky, because in an era when fine art photography is increasingly being marketed out of the reach of a lot of people, it’s important that we can still buy an excellent image like the one at the top of the page for next to nothing. It is among Yvon’s most famous shots, taken sometime in the 1930s when Paris was the centre of surrealism, and if he had been in the right circle and only released a few prints, today it would be considered a masterpiece of French photography. 

In 2010 W. W Norton published a book dedicated to Yvon’s photographs by Robert Stevens. Not having seen the book in the flesh it is hard to comment except that several reviews carry the observation that Yvon invented the Paris of our imaginations. By that the critics mean that when we think of Paris in the last century we unconsciously conjure up images he saw first. I doubt they believed that. Paris in the 1920s and 30s does have vivid connotations for a lot of us but the scenes are intimate - smoky cafes and jazz clubs inhabited by left bank artists and intellectuals – not his grand vistas. It is unlikely that several critics hit upon the same notion without a little help, so we can assume the book gave it to them but so far as photography was concerned, Yvon’s commercial instincts drew him to a Paris everyone would recognize and he sought locations already instilled in popular consciousness. Take as an example the study of the Palais de Trocadéro through the framework of the Eiffel Tower. By 1900 photographs from almost exactly the same viewpoint were being produced as postcards, half tone, photochrom prints and other processes so even people who hadn’t been to Paris knew the scene well.

In the 1900s Eugene Atget used to get up at four in the morning, pack his camera and tripod and trudge across Paris just to capture a particular street corner at sunrise. Such dedication has never been that uncommon among photographers but it required something more than simply forgoing sleep. If walking the streets and observing various features appeared to be a desultory, aimless waste of time, it actually required discipline and a practiced ability at observing small details. In effect the photographer had to see and compose the image, sometimes weeks before it was eventually taken. It is obvious from Yvon’s photographs that he subjected himself to the same rigours as Atget. He didn’t just stumble on these scenes on his walks but noted them, calculated the best conditions for the photograph he wanted and then returned at the right time, regardless of the hour. Dawn was best, when the weak light created the strongest atmosphere and the streets were empty of people. They are rare in his images. He probably saw them as an inconvenience unless, like the bookseller above, they represented an essential element of the Parisian street. 

The big distinction between Atget and Yvon is that Atget’s work was much more personal. His city was represented by small shopfronts and anonymous backstreets and often as not the photograph could have feasibly been taken in any French or, for that matter European, town as Paris. Working just a few years later, Yvon rarely published an image that wasn’t immediately identifiable as being Paris. This difference didn’t come down to a question of how closely one or the other observed or how they defined the city but their market. Atget advertised himself as a photographer of scenes for artists, a job description he invented himself for a business with a limited but faithful clientele. Yvon wanted the general public. With that in mind he published his photographs as postcards and small snaps in paper wallets. He could have found work with a magazine or a publisher but by going out on his own he kept a couple of things Atget also valued; independence and integrity. 

What really distinguishes Yvon’s photographs from the enormous pile of clichés is a particular atmosphere. Fog was his friend and the best time to make use of it was just before dawn in late autumn. Some of the critics not only compared Yvon to Atget but to Brassaï (or rather, Stephens did) and presumably they weren’t just thinking of the two photographers coincidentally wandering through the city but an atmosphere. Shooting around Montparnasse and Montmartre, Brassaï used fog to heighten the seedy and slightly dangerous ambience. You get the impression his subjects regarded the weather as useful cover and protection.  You can also date Brassaï’s work to the 1930s because of the cars and the clothes people wore. In Yvon’s work, Paris in the fog became stately, baroque and somewhat gloomy, and it was timeless too.  A lot of Yvon’s photographs could have been taken at any time fifty years either side of when they actually were. 

A photographer who set out to sell as much of his work as he could via the cheapest and most accessible formats available would hardly care how posterity judged him. Even so, Yvon (his real name incidentally was Pierre Yves-Petit) deserved a monograph. If some of the claims made in his favour are dubious, compare his work instead to his rivals, the dozens of other companies plying the postcard and snapshot market and it becomes apparent that he worked harder, cared more about his work and had standards that wouldn’t allow him to compromise. Like the others, he tended to keep his distance when he shot a scene, framing the point of interest in the centre so there could be no ambiguity about what the viewer was supposed to be looking at, but his work is better than average because he chose vantage points that encouraged the viewer to look into the image and see its details. If he wasn’t the genius the critics declare he was he didn’t have to be. The real mark of his photographs wasn’t that they show the Paris of your imagination but one he had an affinity for. That was Gil’s discovery at the end of Midnight in Paris too. You know at the end as he walks off into the rain with Gabrielle that he will never meet Hemingway, Gertrude Stein or the others again but their Paris vanished years ago.

Apart from the postcard of the rhinoceros, these photos come from an album of some 80 miniature views collected some time in the 1920s.


Saturday, 3 March 2012


15 Senior Service Cigarette Cards 1939

"What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?"
James Boswell

“Beautiful Scotland” always seemed like an oxymoron. Firstly there was the history, which comes across as a litany of bloody and disastrous defeats. There were the cities, or more accurately their parts, like the Gorbals, which for decades had the reputation as the poorest and the most violent in Europe, and that’s saying something if you’ve seen certain areas in London, Marseilles or Naples. The national cuisine sounded appalling and looked life threatening, and blame the English for spreading propaganda but the people were always portrayed as mean and quick to fight. If you wanted two words to describe Glasgow or Edinburgh then grimy and sinister would do. ‘Highland’ and ‘loch’ on the other hand conjured up a craggy, mist thralled landscape that sounded rather excellent if you were stuck in a damp, smog choked and dreary city. Beautiful Scotland might have existed but you had to get far away from people to find it.

One of the finest panels Hergé ever created is on page 43 of The Black island. Tintin (ridiculous in a kilt and Tam, but then he always liked to go native) is nosing a motorised dinghy between the jagged cliffs of the island while above him looms the ruins of the castle of Craig Dhui. Seabirds wheel about its crumbling turrets. It looks forbidding in broad daylight and it is understandable that the locals on the mainland believe the Black Island is haunted. Hergé hadn’t been to Scotland when he first drew the panel but he didn’t need to. As a boy he had read enough adventure stories to know the atmosphere of the desolate coasts of western Scotland. The Black Island was the first Tintin adventure set in Europe (if you exclude Land of the Soviets, which was always something of a ring-in). Previously the plucky young reporter had travelled to more exotic lands; the Congo, China, South America, Egypt and America, so you have to wonder if when deciding on a European location Hergé settled on the area in that held the most romantic connotations for him. Incidentally, it was first published as a book in France in 1938, the year before Senior Service published these cigarette cards. What Hergé imagined and what the photographers caught weren’t worlds apart.

One of the books Hergé obviously read as a boy was The 39 Steps by John Buchan. The stories follow a similar arc; the hero is falsely accused and on the run from the police also finds himself chased across Scotland by a gang of Eastern Europeans. Buchan published his book in 1915, during the first year of the war against Germany and it has a subtext Hergé may have missed but wouldn’t have found important anyway. The network of spies were plotting an invasion of Britain and for Buchan, thoroughly Scottish and a defender of the Union, the very idea was as plausible as it was terrifying. At threat weren’t so much British values (whatever they were) but his wild lands of heather and moor, the Scotland his characters return to throughout his novels, for release sometimes but also, you get the impression, because they were on a home ground worth fighting for. 

Similar thinking might have been behind the publication of these cigarette cards. Ever since Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement in September 1938, Britain had been preparing for inevitable war. That same year Senior Service had released the “Our Countryside” series; focusing on the steadily disappearing small villages and rural scenes of England and if neither set of cards was exactly a call to arms they were a reminder that heritage and certain traditions were worth preserving. Once the danger had come from progress, and however you defined that it was mostly a good thing. Now a real enemy was on the horizon and what could happen to the land didn’t bear thinking about.

There’s another possibility that invoked a similar national sense while having nothing to do with imminent threats. The 1930s was the first decade when the car became a part of the average household and most adults drove. In Britain this statistic was celebrated in the Shell guides, pamphlets that listed and gave potted descriptions of the small towns and villages in each county. The series was first edited by the poet John Betjeman and illustrated by some of the nation’s leading artists such as Paul Nash and John Piper. Shell wanted people to get out, drive and buy fuel. The editors and artists wanted them to get out and explore so the benefits of such a project were apparent to everyone involved, even if their motives remained mutually suspicious. In producing its series of rural landscapes Senior Service didn’t have to cash in on the success of the Shell guides to have a similar idea. What the company really wanted was for people to buy cigarettes and if collecting the cards in each packet was one way to encourage them and if a Sunday drive was the fashionable entertainment of the era then inserting miniature photographs of the countryside was an obvious and easy marketing strategy. 


It’s too bad then that Senior Service never saw fit to print the names of the photographers. Small as they are, some of the images are technically exquisite and if they are infused with commercial sentimentality that had been their point in the first place. They were supposed to move people to feel a national pride or a desire to go to these places, not contemplate the nature of photography. Theoretically the company could have commissioned photographers but it would have been cheaper and easier to turn to publishers like Valentine’s, Tuck & Sons, Judge’s or one of dozens of smaller firms that had extensive libraries and could provide exactly the scenes Senior Service required. Business was ruthless, few photographers had any legal power and publishers didn’t like to dispense with money or accreditation if they didn’t have to, so names were left out.

The photographers probably deserve recognition but frankly, identifying them could involve more time than the rewards are worth. One thing you can say is that though professionals may have taken the images here, they also belong to a school of amateur photography that went back to the 1880s and found its most widest exposure in dozens of magazines like Camera and Amateur Photography. These magazines had strict ideas regarding the definition of a good landscape photograph. Beauty was the defining factor and that was dictated by atmosphere and harmony so although the photographs were expected to interpret the landscape the image itself was so emphatic and complete it didn’t itself require interpretation. The magazines and their associated photographic clubs loved sunsets and the hour after a storm had cleared, when the sunlight was still weak and battling with the clouds. Studies like the one below, “On an Ardgour Croft”, were models of fine photography. The draught horses, the two ploughmen and the thatched cottage in the background told the whole story and with the even composition between the three elements it was all up an excellent scene. A lot of these magazines remained heavily influenced by Pictorialism into the 1940s and ‘50s, when smarter competitors were already growing tired of modernist shapes and rhythms. 

Which brings us to the important point. There was a time when this style of photography became dull. It was too neat, obvious and mawkish. Age has improved it, partly because it has become increasingly difficult to find natural landscapes with an expanse unscarred by highways or construction, because we can’t shake the idea that things were much simpler then but also because in a glut of modern practice driven by irony and the worship of banality, our eyes sometimes hurt for the want of something direct and undisguised. They are a reminder that good photography doesn’t have to do much to do its job. The idyllic scenes in some of these images might too nostalgic to be entirely honest but it is only a conceit to think that we could come up with a better truth.