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Saturday, 28 June 2014


Some snapshots from Miami, 1942
 Second only to the sea, the Miami sky has been the greatest comfort in my life past 50. On a good day, when the wind blows from the south, the light here is diffuse and forgiving.
Iggy Pop

Photography being a relatively simple skill to pick up, it’s rare to find photos by someone who really has no idea of the basics regarding composition, framing and so on. So rare in fact that the photos can be more interesting than they would be had they been taken with a little care or knowledge. Such is the case with this group of snapshots, taken at Miami Beach in March 1942.

Our photographer really didn’t get it. If he or she – on gut feeling alone the handwriting makes me think it’s a he – had picked up a ten cent Kodak manual, (one probably even came with the camera) basic advice like keeping the horizon straight, finding a point of interest, applying the rule of thirds, would have improved the images. But here’s the real difference between a photograph and a sketch: once the snap has been taken it can’t be improved. You can’t go back and erase the tree. You are left with what you did. All that can be done as compensation is take another photograph. Frankly, I don’t think our photographer cared that much. He was like a kid with a new water pistol; point in this direction and squeeze, and now point this way and do the same. Don’t bother aiming; it’s a water pistol, not a real gun. Don’t bother with that manual. You’re not a photographer; you’re a tourist.

It isn’t that uncommon to hear people complain they aren’t good photographers. Usually, what they mean is that they can’t take photos that look like masterpieces. They tried taking a shot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but though they had Ansel Adams in mind, they got back a flat, muddy looking image. They sought the decisive moment but it always seemed to be thirty seconds ahead of them. Here’s the thing. I’m sure that had I been standing next to our photographer on the beach at Key West that early Spring day in 1942, I would have seen the point of interest in this scene and moved in. What I would have taken would be a shot of a girl in a short skirt bending over – a classic, or typical, human interest scene showing the humour in daily life, or some cliché along those lines. Instead what we get is girl in short skirt bending over, boyfriend with towel over his shoulders standing next to her, another man walking away, a fairly well populated beach and a jetty, to start with. If the camera is an eye, our photographer observes more than most professionals.

Miami Beach, March 1942. The date seems important, especially when we know that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour just three months earlier, and in February 1942 the Miami Beach Training Center opened. That might explain what our photographer was doing there, but what if it didn’t? Thanks to a mass media that finds nuance annoying, or downright subversive, we tend to think of the U.S.A post Pearl Harbour as behaving like a single cell organism. The profound shock of the event, the realization that America is now at war, the man looking at his wife as they both become aware that their world has changed. What if it wasn’t like that? What if our photographer had worked so hard the last year in the Detroit car factory or the New York law office, been so rattled by his divorce or the death of his mother, or just come from Minnesota where the snow was still two metres high, that, frankly, so far as Miami in March was concerned, Pearl Harbour might as well be on Mars? Recall September 11, 2001: for all the pieties we read about how the nation had changed, how a threshold had been broached, what we saw was a government behaving in unsurprising ways and a country that quickly reverted to type. What had changed was usually so subtle that it was hard to discern. The crime, the birth, marriage, divorce, economic parity and other vital statistics weren’t fundamentally altered. Our photographer may have resolved to offer his life to his country if it asked, but that wasn’t going to be revealed in his photos.

So let’s think about Miami, not the national state of mind (a fiction) instead. What if you had spent your life in Detroit or on a Minnesota farm or a New York suburb and you went to Miami in 1942; what would you find? Well, the Olsen Hotel for a start. It was one of dozens of Art Deco, or Streamline Moderne hotels that had been opened on the beachfront. Miami had embraced the moderne style like nowhere else in America, and today we are grateful for that (and to the conservationists who have fought for the preservation of buildings). Art Deco is to Miami what the skyscraper is to New York, the minaret on the skyline to Istanbul, the art nouveau portal to Budapest; it defines the city. All physical descriptions start from that detail. In Miami, Art Deco wasn’t just an architectural style; it spoke of a culture that was distinct from New York and other northern cities on the Atlantic seaboard. In Miami, where it was summer all year round, people dressed to fit in with the buildings, in white linen suits and floral print frocks. They nodded smugly when Minnesotans talked of the blizzard or when New Yorkers tried to introduce formality to the proceedings. Geographically, Miami was closer to Havana than it was to any other state in the U.S. It was like another country.

Here is a view of the Casa Marina, one of the best known resorts on the seashore, and one quietly muses on what happened when Robert Mitchum and a busload of starlets turned up. Yes, it was that kind of place, back when excess was considered both interesting and healthy. Rough and disorganized as this photo is, it tells us a lot about Miami, 1942. The building still exists, still as a hotel, with a long palm tree lined promenade leading up to the entrance. If that was in place in 1942, what we have is a tourist approaching tentatively and reaching a polite distance, accidentally cropping the bottom that would show the path. This is a Miami landmark, a place no tourist should avoid, even if the experience is as vicarious as viewing it from a safe distance. Of course we only have a few photos from the collection and don’t know that our photographer didn’t venture downtown to document Miami’s flourishing skyline. 

In the 1940s Key West was on the cusp of a boom. It wasn’t yet the retirees’ paradise, nor a refuge for Cubans, though anyone with foresight could have seen those on the horizon. I’m assuming Ocean Beach Cottages was an official name, although Googling it brings up a variety of places that are more prestigious than these places. Here, Ocean View Cottages look like the types of cottages more budget minded tourists would rent for a few days, have barbecues, run down to the beach, meet like minded folks and agree that when they hit 65, this was the place to set up camp. Behind the roughness and disorder of these images is a view of Miami more considered photographers would miss.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014


German propaganda in World War 1 postcards
"...among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages."
from The Idler magazine, dated November 11, 1758, 160 years before Armistice Day.

On the little chalkboard at the front the message reads, “Kriegsjahr 1914/15”, or “Year of the War” then something indecipherable and what could be Eisenfeld, which would be a small town north of Frankfurt. An expert could interpret the variety of caps and tell us more, but for the time being it looks like a battalion or regiment has been billeted in the town. The sign on the door at the back is for Odam camembert cheese, which obviously makes us think they are outside a store or bar. The middle aged couple at the back could be the owners and the two younger women their daughters or staff. Everything so far has been self explanatory, but what of the mug of beer on the table? Thousands of German postcards just like this one are floating about and the mug of beer is a common element. There’s a simple explanation – someone just ordered a beer, and as the man at the very rear left is also holding a beer that looks straightforward and evident – but simple explanations aren’t always satisfying. Could it have stood in for absent friends? After all, the toast to lost comrades has been common across all armies through the centuries, and though it is somewhat atavistic, the idea of having a glass of beer to stand in for them is not illogical.

The two predominant images of World War 1 are the bodies in the trenches and the fools in charge. As the centenary drew closer there was a spot of revisionism, a few suggestions that as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Gallipoli campaign, Churchill wasn’t quite the disaster he has been made out to be, but even the worst leaders have their ever faithful supporters. Here’s a postcard of Counts Häseler (on the left) and Zeppelin. The caption at the top tells us they are the oldest commanders of the German army. This and several others in the same series were made in 1910, when war was a certainty though no timetable had been drawn up. Neither man had an active role in the war, both being in their 80s, but something about this image says a lot about the state high command. It wasn’t just that so many of the generals were old men who should have been pensioned off, but most of them had come through the various officer corps during an era when class distinctions were so strong they might never exchange words with a single ordinary soldier. It was an era when officers were gentlemen, hoped to engage in at least one legendary cavalry charge and had no clue how to deal with irregular Sudanese, Boer or other upstart militias out in the colonies. Look at these two. What silly hats. What pompous outfits. As for the sabres; what good would they be in the trenches? The photo is by Alfred Kuhlewindt, an official photographer for the German High Command and a man whose job was to make the ridiculous pass for the sublime.

There is a publisher’s stamp on this but no photographer credited. That doesn’t matter. Variations on this image, the young frau wearing the soldier’s cap with a (painted) horse behind her, were among the most popular postcards sent to the soldiers at the front. Thereby hangs a tale, or an idea at least. Wir halten durch! In English: ‘We came by’, or ‘We stopped by’. Who is ‘we’? Well, it is the young women of Germany, but more specifically, the young women who rode horses. In Germany C1914 to 1918, that really meant the young women from good middle to upper middle class families, der junge frauen der mittelschicht (I think): well bred, wholesome, cultured, for whom horse riding was a pleasure, like reading Goethe or going to the museum on Sundays; in other words, the ideal German woman, she whose honour the boys in the trenches are fighting for. Wir halten durch! Why? To offer words of encouragement? To remind young Kurt that trenchfoot, dysentery and good odds of a premature death were but small sacrifices for the greater ideal? There’s a study waiting to be made of this young frau, and her English, French, Belgian, Dutch and Russian equivalents, because they are the same, but different in their subtle ways. You won’t find many images of British lasses with painted horses because horse riding didn’t have the same cultural resonance in England. Ditto the French mademoiselle, who likely as not is holding a flag in one hand, a tray of pastries or a bottle and wine glasses in the other.   

Happy Easter, 1915. It is postmarked April 2nd but even Germans have trouble reading the handwriting, because it is so flowery they can’t tell if they are looking at a t, an f or a j. The message, or what they can work out from it, seems fairly pedestrian. Someone is going to Cologne soon and thinking warmly of the recipient. It is the image that matters in any case, and how strange it is. The egg itself is easy to understand, not so much a symbol of fertility as one of the family. And look at the trench the soldiers are in. It looks more like a culvert, a neat, shallow and well constructed channel. Did the people back home really believe the trenches looked like this? They may have. In early 1917 disillusion with the German army was so strong that several cities were paralysed by riots. It wasn’t just the death toll that made people angry; it was also the discovery that they were being lied to. Their boys weren’t winning magnificent victories, and just like the Allies, they couldn’t retreat if they wanted to, the war being stuck in the trenches. Despite all the evidence in the form of the war wounded wandering the streets it took two years for that message to affect enough people that civil unrest became possible. The day this postcard was mailed off, a German cavalry unit was badly beaten in Poland by a Russian force but the chances were slim the author of the postcard knew that. Only the Russian news services would have published that information, and as every German knew, they weren’t to be trusted. In 1915 Easter fell on Sunday April 4. This postcard was mailed on Good Friday.

While we are on the topic of truth being ignored, misconstrued or overlooked, here’s one the Allies may have conveniently forgotten. On the back the message reads, in German, “Three Tonkinese soldiers captured 5. 6. .18.” It also says where, though that isn’t clear. ‘Tonkinese’ was the common term for people from North Vietnam, but often enough anyone from what was then French Indochina, which included Cambodia. Consider the background. The palms suggest an exotic, tropical location. Brief research (Wikipedia) has uncovered the detail that some 92 000 Vietnamese soldiers served in the French army on the Western Front. That’s an awful lot of people to leave out of the standard histories, especially when you remember that approximately 103 000 New Zealanders served. The French could argue that, coming from the Colonies, they were part of France anyway, but perhaps France has always been troubled by the Indochinese contribution. The history of the Indochinese wars that began in 1946 and ended with America’s defeat in 1975, properly begins in the First World War when the initial anti-colonial uprisings took place. Vietnam wasn’t just sending soldiers but being taxed to support the French effort, and when you study the expressions on these men’s faces you get an inkling of why the King of Vietnam, Duy Tân, would leave his palace to join the protestors in the streets in 1916. Ho Chi Minh later claimed his political ideologies first formed during the war.


Friday, 6 June 2014


Some Judge’s Scenes of Hastings
 “No place is boring, if you've had a good night's sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.”
  Robert Adams

When Fred Judge started out producing postcards in about 1904, he stayed close to Hastings in Sussex, photographing scenes that made the local news such storms, fires and the inauguration of monuments. These may have impressed the locals but tourists usually wanted something less specific and more identifiable with their visit, so he broadened his horizons, as it were. This might suggest his photos became more boring; endless shot of local landmarks, but a lot of them were like this. It could be any seaside town in England. There are a couple of things to keep in mind with this photo. The first is the caption. “What are the Wild Waves Saying” was a popular song by the Victorian composer Joseph Cartwright. Most people in the 1900s would have got the reference at once (quite a lot of them would have sung it while standing around a piano somewhere). It has a Christian theme and a somewhat morbid subtext.
The other is that up in Whitby, Yorkshire, Frank Sutcliffe Meadow, had taken very similar images to this in the 1890s; so similar he could be considered an influence without any real proof. But there is no mixing of the genders in Sutcliffe’s best known images. They feature only men or women, or boys and they are inevitably from the same class. This is more interesting because we get a mix. The woman in the centre is better dressed than the others, and not how she holds the back of her skirt to stop it flapping.

Brighton was always a seedy place. Think of any novel written between 1900 and the Second World War and as soon as Brighton gets a mention you know someone’s up to no good. They are heading down to cheat on their spouse, or they’ve been cheated on, and now they are standing on the pier in gin soaked formal attire, gazing through bloodshot eyes at some children playing in the shingle and asking themselves why they were denied a normal life. Self-pity is the curse of the educated classes, it seems. Hastings on the other hand was a family place. You almost never hear a bad word about it, except that it was a bit dull compared to Brighton. You get that impression from this postcard. Another of Judge’s early ones, un-numbered, which would put it about 1905, and on printing out paper, which explains the yellow tones, but technical details aside, it’s a very genteel scene; with good reason. A walk along the promenade wasn’t just a constitutional in Edwardian times. It was also part of a mating ritual. In a world where men and women rarely worked together, where a lady never went to a bar and social events were tightly monitored, the promenade was one of the few acceptable public places where the sexes could hope to meet. One strolled, hoping to catch the eye of another one, and if one (or two) were lucky, this would be the start of many long walks together. In the seats at the front, a man is leaning forward and talking to a woman while another woman sits between them, acting as a barrier. This would be considered proper. It looks as civilized as it sounds.

 One photographer Judge declared to be an influence on him was Paul Martin, though in reference to his night scenes of London. When we think of Martin, it’s probably his seaside scenes from late Victorian resorts; images of couples groping each other in the sand, a fat man beginning a dive off a raft, and people buffeted by the wind at a beach in Yarmouth. We may sense Martin’s eye in the first image above though not in this one, yet it is all over it. Judge has followed Martin down to the beach, so to speak, and while not focusing on a few people, as Martin did, has managed to catch some of the same atmosphere of England at the seaside. This is a scene full of details; look for example at the crowd lining the promenade and the bathing machines lines up on the shore in the mid-ground. When we look at the people on the beach something odd becomes apparent, no one is doing much of anything. There’s a small group at the front that look like they’re buying something. Everyone else is sitting and talking but you get the impression there isn’t a lot of noise emanating from the throng, no high cackling or laughter at a broad joke and no children screaming. Also, there appear to be many more women than men, leading us to wonder if the beaches were still mostly segregated. There is another, glaring detail. The English liked to sit on the beach fully dressed. What a curious breed. 

At night they’d head to the pier. I could attempt a close reading of this image, but we can do better than that and hand the discussion over to Rose, writing on the back of the card in August, 1925, or 26. “Dear Les, Are having a topping time, crowds of people here. Don’t you think the bandstand looks interesting in the dark, I assure you it’s great!” You hear Rose’s voice coming through but I can’t really describe it without sounding patronising. Still, I bet she has Agatha Christie’s latest, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, up by her hotel bed and thinks it’s a smashing read.
Incidentally, Judge was usually mindful of his numbering, putting everything in the order that he took it, but this one, 204, is too early because the bandstand wasn’t erected until September 1914. This may have actually been photographed around 1914-1915 and Rose bought it later.

To Eastbourne, just down the road from Hastings, and a scene that at first glance might look like an ‘interesting slice of social history’ but on careful inspection is much better than that. Going by the number on the card, this was taken about 1909. There is an advertisement for P and A Campbell under the right kiosk. The company started a ferry run to Boulogne in 1906, so it can’t be earlier than that. But let’s start at the far left, at the poster advertising a show by Albert Chevalier. We read that Mr Chevalier (1861-1923) was one of those stars of the English music hall, who is now forgotten but was wildly famous in his time. The more important detail is the booth for the ‘animated pictures’. Cinema was just over ten years old. Audiences may have watched a few short comedies of the type James Bamforth was producing in Yorkshire but the most popular genre by far belonged to ‘scenes of daily life’. The prospect of seeing yourself or your friends walking along Eastbourne’s streets pulled in the crowds. Note the time on the clock. The woman at the booth has missed the 3:30 session. The next is at 8:15. So, is she buying a ticket? Asking if there’s an interim session? Or is she more interested in another entertainment? At the end of the pier we have the Camera Obscura; Eastbourne Pier was a visual spectacular. The kid in the sailor suit in the middle foreground and two just beside the ‘Judges’ logo aren’t wearing shoes, meaning they can’t afford them. Just behind the two on the right are a girl and a boy, both wearing shoes, both from better circumstances. Most likely the children without shoes would work in factories six days a week and go to school for two hours in the afternoon. By today’s standards they’d enter adulthood effectively uneducated. Depending what type of school the other boy and girl went to, they’d already know a bit of history, some geography and just possibly a few phrases in Latin. Judge probably wasn’t thinking about these things and didn’t see them.

What he did see, very well, was patterns, forms and shapes. This is the entrance to the pavilion at Hastings. One thing you’ll notice is the absence of people crowding his view, meaning that he had the space and the time to work out his shot. The light pole is integral to the design. Remove it and very little is happening. You’ll notice too how by shooting at an angle he emphasises how there is nothing behind the façade. If I were an art critic, I’d call this proto-modernist.

If the numbering is consistent, (there is no guarantee of that) then Judge took this photo of the bandstand shortly after the one above, between 1922 and 1923, just before he stepped back from active photography to manage the business. Something about this reminds me of a Czech or Polish film from the early 1960s, where we see a few couples dancing inside oblivious to the poor outside. The war had ended four or five years ago and technically Britain was at peace. But thousands of soldiers had returned to chronic unemployment and a political establishment as incompetent in peacetime as it had been in war. In November 1922 the first hunger marches began across England and in February 1923 one arrived in Hastings. There wasn’t much evidence for a great Britain. One man who grasped the problem was the King, George V. "Try living on their wages before you judge them,” was his comment to the press during the 1926 general strike when he read descriptions of the strikers as revolutionaries. In any case, through this brief trawl of Fred Judge’s scenes from Hastings, we see a changing approach and a consistent eye.