Fred Judge's Postcards
“I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down”
If you have ever rifled through a box of British topographical postcards, you’ve undoubtedly come across Judges postcards. Depending on your mood, what you were looking for and the price the seller was asking, you either went straight past, thinking they were no different to any of the others, or you stopped and took a second look. Considering that Fred Judge personally took over 9000 photos for his postcards and others in the company later trebled that number, some are going to be ordinary, or even less interesting than that, but others rank among the finest landscape views taken in the early part of last century. This isn’t my opinion: Near the end of his life, Peter Henry Emerson (the photographer of the Norfolk Broads) had a series of medals struck that he then awarded to the photographers he thought had most advanced the cause of art. The only one he gave specifically for landscape photography went to Fred Judge. Searching through editions of old photographic magazine like Photogram of the Year, I came across several mentions of Judge and always in the same context. A group exhibition had been held in London, Liverpool or New York and though the reviewer was mildly impressed with the collection, Judge was always singled out for praise.
Fred Judge was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1872 and moved to Hastings in 1902 to set up a photographic business with his brother. Initially he was retailing photographic equipment and took landscapes as a sideline but by 1904 he was producing real photo postcards and from then on they became his focus.
There were dozens of companies specializing in real photo topographical scenes in Britain: Valentine’s, Raphael Tuck and Frith and Co are probably the best known. These were large family concerns employing several photographers. Fred Judge, on the other hand, took his own photos, at least in the early years. The page on him at the Sussex postcards site is quite specific. After card number 9347, Oliver Butler shared the photographic work and by number 9847, taken in 1927, Fred Judge remained behind the desk.
He started out in the era when landscape photography was art so long as it was Pictorialist. Soft focus, deep shadows and sepia tones were the first requirements but these only worked if the photographer also regarded the world from an affectedly romantic point of view. England was a land of verdant fields, castles and quaint villages. The Pictorialists weren’t against modernity, in fact quite a few thought they were in the vanguard; it’s just their aesthetic didn’t work for capturing the modern world. Whatever they photographed looked old.
Perversely, that would be one of the secrets to Judge’s success. When he turned his camera to the landscape he could make it look as though nothing had changed for hundreds of years. Even the presence of a car couldn’t detract from that nostalgic feeling. If anything, it probably enhanced it. You could drive out of the city in a brand new Austin and within a few miles be back in the land of the Romantic poets or even Piers Plowman. It was a very literary world and despite what we are told about modernism ramping up time and embracing technology, a lot of people wanted that.
Judge himself was no anachronist. He exhibited regularly in the Royal Photographic Society salons, which might sound like gathering places for old fogeys and they were in so far as the ideas about what constituted a good photograph were narrow and rigid. But the RPS was also at the forefront of technical experimentation. Innovations in film and printing were always encouraged so while aesthetic judgements could be severe, the definition of a photograph was broad.
In 1915 Judge lodged patents in Britain and the U.S for “a camera for composite heliochromy”, another name for colour photography (GBD191515666 and US1312694A). Rotating discs carrying filters inside the camera would create colour photographs by the subtractive process, which is to say each filter removed colours, allowing only the natural colours through. He was effectively shifting the filtration step in colour printing to the camera. Nothing more has been heard of this camera but on September 21, 1915, The Times reviewed the International Exhibition for the London Salon of Photography, an offshoot of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, the temple of Pictorialism in Britain. His colour images were singled out for praise. We’re left to wonder whether he was displaying work taken with his camera or, as others were likely to do, hand coloured bromoil prints.
Speaking of bromoils, he is also credited with inventing the bromoil transfer process. Taking the standard bromoil print a step further, the bromoil transfer process heightened the painterly effect and would become one of the hallmarks of late period Pictorialism. His postcards were usually standard gelatine bromide prints but it is odd, if not unforgiveable, that Judge has been overlooked in most histories of British Pictorialism. The suspicion is that within narrow fields of research he is regarded primarily as a postcard photographer when we should think of him as a Pictorialist who used postcards as a medium.
And while we’re on the topic of people failing to acknowledge Judge, a really useful book about this period is The Camera as Historian by Elizabeth Edwards, who also fails to mention him, but she is concerned with the survey movement. Every weekend hundreds of amateur photographers across Britain set out to photograph villages, buildings and ancient monuments and local councils registered and filed away their efforts. In approach if not ideology, the survey movement was opposed to work like Judge’s. The driving force behind the survey projects, Sir Benjamin Stone, thought not only was Pictorialism a blight photographers needed to avoid, he was against any hint of the picturesque. The problem was, like Judge, the people who spent their weekends photographing Norman churches and village houses were inspired by the picturesque in the first place. That was probably the single most important reason a lot of them had taken up photography. We can see their struggle in some of the photographs reproduced in the book. The fading afternoon light can enhance a scene yet they are being told to avoid that. Even the organizers of the various county committees had to acknowledge that history wasn’t simply an accumulation of facts but involved interpretation.
What really distinguishes the best Judges postcards is their atmosphere. England appears to have been perpetually bathed in mist, its landscapes viewed through an eternal dusk. There is a gloominess that is neither bleak nor depressing but obviously romantic. Of a type we associate with Victorian Britain. It’s worth remembering that although Judge began his company during the Edwardian era, he came to it a fully formed Victorian. He had been told since childhood that the British Empire was the most powerful the world had known and its reign would probably go on forever, that its backbone was built from superiority in engineering and industry and art was the handmaiden of science. To look upon the landscape wasn’t to see rocks and trees but a culture and its history. That quaint little village in the valley with its thatched roofs and smoking chimneys represented the centuries of triumph and tribulation that had let to this moment where he stood in the mist and pointed his camera.
Take this view of Caedmon’s Cross in Whitby. It speaks of a long history dominated by Christian thought, the cross standing proud before the setting sun. Actually, it was built in 1899, just a few years before Judge took this photo. It was a modern design though the stone came from an ancient Roman quarry and was praised in its time for the way contemporary ideas were reconciled with England’s long history. Judge has captured that concept of the ancient fusing with the modern. The dark tones emphasis the sense that little has changed in Whitby. The photo could have been taken a hundred years earlier.
One of the reasons Pictorialism failed was it had no social content. The people who congratulated themselves on being artists had no way to respond to issues of the day. This is a great image but it is also a failure. From Judge’s series of London night scenes, he titled it (rather than captioned), ““Outcasts” London 1 am”. What are we meant to see? A scene of urban despair, or a street made atmospheric by the evening mist?
Here’s another scene, taken at Wrexham on the Norfolk Broads. For photo-historians the Norfolk Broads mean Peter Henry Emerson, and it takes cold-blooded indifference not to be moved by his work. Judge was a disciple of Emerson: when late period Pictorialists were asked to choose between Emerson and Henry Peach Robinson, you know whose side he was on. This is a ‘nice’ image, very calm, very quiet, but where Emerson understood the quality of stillness, this is static. It might make us want to get in the boat and glide away through the Broads, but it won’t ask us to do anything more.
Like all prolific postcard photographers, Judge’s works are an inevitable mix of success and failure. It’s a matter of personal taste of course which you prefer. Technically, his church interiors are usually faultless, and photographing them took good equipment but more knowledge and experience in the 1910s. (One reason they were so popular was that most tourists couldn’t take them.) In my mind his best may be his landscapes; scenes where it looks like he stumbled across them and was so taken he had to set up his camera. These can have a sense of stillness he might have wanted in the more Pictorial work but usually missed. Being able to take a good photo in a church doesn’t make you religious, but being able to take a good landscape needs affinity.
The issue to ponder is not why Judge has been neglected or even whether he deserves more recognition. That era between the end of Pictorialism and the birth of modernist photography has been corrupted anyway. It’s astonishing how many New York curators and art historians seem to think Pictorialism began and ended with Alfred Stieglitz, when really, he was late on the scene and a bit slow to leave it. The British on the other hand can come across as faintly embarrassed, wondering why anyone would think boats at sunset made for good photography when there was a class struggle going on. Because Judge turned most of his photos into postcards there are hundreds of thousands of examples of his work floating about. Far from being obscure, as soon as you start looking for him he turns up everywhere.
|INVOCATION TO THE EARTH|