And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 7 September 2013


  Itinerant film still photographers
 “The film drama is the opium of the people…down with bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!” 
Dziga Vertov

There’s a long history of commercial street photographers who worked city centres taking candid snaps of pedestrians and selling them the prints, and it’s only just started to catch the attention of photo-historians. As a genre it is related to restaurant photographers, who the historians have also only recently begun examining. In both cases the photographs themselves are rarely as interesting as the idea that semi-itinerant photographers were shooting the inhabitants of our cities as they walked to the office or the department store or sitting down to dinner. A vast record of our parents and grandparents lies scattered and underappreciated among collections and archives. If you want to know what Dublin was like in the mid-20th century, you could look in a lot of places but the photos of Arthur Fields, who hustled on the O’Connell Bridge for fifty years, might tell you more than a selection of beautiful prints of beautiful buildings (You can see some of his work at Jacolette here). Within that huge and unruly world there is a sub-genre that deserves its own place in the history. Working alongside, even competing against the regular street photographers were a small group carrying portable 16mm cameras who set the shutter on single image and took ‘movie snaps’. There are only two examples in the collection and an envelope advertising the service, but they come from Istanbul, Perth Australia and Toronto, so we know the idea was worldwide.

This one is credited to the Filmograph Company, located at 378 Murray St Perth. A quick look on the internet reveals similar photos from the same company being taken in Brisbane and Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1930s. It’s hard to believe a company survived let alone conquered Oceania on the singular idea that people would want a candid sequence of themselves walking along the street. The feeling is this was just a sideline and the real business was probably in film processing or editing though we’re ready to stand corrected. After all, some of the street photographers in the US were operating franchises for national companies. 

This is the front of the envelope from Movie Snaps in Toronto. The phrasing; ‘As you walked along we have just taken a moving picture of you’ suggests it was spontaneous and the subject had little idea they were being filmed. On the back it reads, “Remember, your photo has been taken.” Is it just our age of CCTV cameras on the street corner and internet surveillance or would that have sounded just a little like a threat back then as well? The company is reminding potential customers that we don’t just have your image; we have your movements on our files.
There’s also the reminder that the print will be ready in 48 hours. As a commercial proposition this sounds risky, relying on pedestrians to first of all be interested and then care enough to turn up two days later. 

Note how the price on the front is 25 cents and on the back we find that a postcard enlargement costs 35 cents. There’s a little bit of deception going on here. The 25 cents print is probably small and cropped. The 35 cents postcard is the one you would really want, plus the copies. It wasn’t a huge amount of money back then, according to records 35 cents could get you a sandwich or a cup of coffee at a diner in the mid 1930s, but that was enough to pass on the offer if things were tight.
These companies didn’t offer portraits. They are so small and indistinct that when the clients turned up two days later they could be forgiven for wondering if that was actually them under the big hat.  Movie Snaps’ language implied that you might not get to Hollywood though here was an idea of what you’d look like if you did yet that is just sales pitch. The idea, the gimmick of sequential images only worked so long as motion pictures were still mysterious and exclusive. People still found them fascinating. Standard 8 home movie film was around in the early 1930s but that was about people having fun at barbecues and distant fuzzy figures chasing footballs on a school oval: home movies weren’t really popular until the 1960s when Super 8 was released. When these were taken it was a little like the early days of photography. The customers found the process fascinating because they didn’t quite understand it.


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