And furthermore ...

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Friday, 28 November 2014

TURK 127-12


12 Turkish snapshots
 “I would never understand photography, the sneaky, murderous taxidermy of it. ” 
Lorrie Moore; Anagrams


An eclectic mix of fifteen snapshots with little in common except that they are Turkish and they all have a mysterious quality, because they are in the square format. It has the effect of annihilating everything outside the frame. There is nothing of the world beyond what you see. Even the arm in this photo is an intrusion but it does not belong to an actual person. It is as though the photographer was drawing a picture and added the arm as a last thought. Incidentally, consider the background here: the timber wall, the corner of the door, the steps and the cinder block foundations, and notice the way they fall roughly into even quarters. Not only that, the lines in each quarter lead the eye in a circular direction. It such a perfect photo we don’t need to discuss the subject.

 
 Several of these were taken with a 127 camera, like the Bakelite Kodak the woman has hanging around her neck. It was a camera with a beauty proud of its ordinariness; like the Peugeot 2CV and the Renault 4 if we were talking about cars. A strange photo: the way that everyone is looking in different directions, but also, again, the way that they occupy their own space in the composition and that their individual gaze obliges your eye to move about the image. If an art director wanted a photo that expressed a dynamic ambiguity with a tension in the composition, most of us would have to think hard about how to achieve that, but here we have it all. It is like a frame from an Antonioni film, where everyone is locked in the same drama but wanders about disconnected.

 
This wasn’t taken in Turkey but either in northwestern Europe (Holland, Germany) or northeastern USA (Vermont, Maine etc), but either way, our photographer was struck by the way the light fell upon the leafless branches, . We can credit the previous two to happy accidents but not this one. It’s one of those scenes that any mortal with a heart and soul and a camera at hand would respond to.

 Another beautiful image (well, they all are) and one we can imagine an art teacher in the 1950s (not that he – which they mostly were – had an interest in photography) would have set to with a fistful of daggers and not stopped until our photographer fled the room in tears. Half a century later, we see uncertainty, imbalance, even anxiety; all being words we have come to admire. In the 1950s said art teacher would have demanded to know why and where to that person was swimming, while today we can accept there need not be any reason. Here you can put on your best Robert Hughes voice: “How do we know the late twentieth century is mired in pointlessness? Because this photographer tells us it is. Why or where to is this swimmer going? Who knows? Who cares?” Up come the credits, on an art programme and the modern age.

  The shabby, concrete apartments in the background could be Turkish, and the central figure in the monument looks like Ataturk, but the general impression is of somewhere on the other side of the Iron Curtain; the grim, grey, perpetually overcast other side of the Curtain. Take the three actual humans out of the photo then try and place them somewhere else in this scene. Chances are, you would end up at where we started. Nothing needs to be disrupted.  The figure dwarfed by the monument, the two military types marching behind; it speaks of a willingness to subsume the self to authority, which was a problem in the 1950s. You’d think we would have learned a lesson by now.

 
 No, not subsumption to authority but a love of history, of a lost past that cannot be revived.  This is a site that many Turkish people may recognize immediately although I can’t identify it. The space and the composition suggest a fortification out in the wastes of Anatolia. In Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel, The Tartar Steppe, a recruit finds himself in a distant fort, defending it against unknown and possibly non-existent invaders. Here we seem him before he enters the fortress; cocky, and confident he will be seeing the photographer again soon. 

 
 Among the thousands of Turkish snapshots I bought while living there, this was one of the first, principally because it reminded me of Lee Friedlander’s work from the 1960s, and if he finds little to recommend vis-a-vis my judgement, that is an issue neither of us has to deal with. Circa 1960, he may have agreed that the division between the roof of the building and the flagpoles, with the bars of the crosswalk in the foreground, was what was known as a ‘pleasing’ composition but also disruptive. He might have approved of the way ‘enter’ appears, and especially agreed with the full word “enternasyonal”, an outdated Turkish spelling of ‘international’. 

 
 Who would take a badly focused photograph of some Jewish funerary wares in a shop window? The first instinct is to think a Jewish person but the more considered thought suggests the opposite; somebody who found the image fascinating because it was alien. At a time when the Turkish government has descended into the sewers of bigotry and is happy to wallow in them, it is worth remembering that in the 1950s and ‘60s, about when this photo was taken, Istanbul’s Jewish population could count on a quality of acceptance they weren’t going to get in the Arab countries or Western Europe. An image improved by its lack of focus: a world that is present but unknown.

 
 The dent in his belly made by the top of the window frame makes the photo, but note too the mesh on the couchette behind him, and the way he performs for the photographer, looking forward with elation as though the train is already rumbling across the landscape. Turkish trains are slow and often decrepit but there’s compensation in the mountains and plains, farmland and semi-desert passing by. Travelling east, some passengers spend all day in exactly the same position and with the same expression as this man.

 
 The house has all the pretensions of a family home in a moderately prosperous  in Istanbul it is stuck out in the hinterland, and the donkey parked by the front door gives the game away. It is like the last survivor of a once thriving village, or a stubborn attempt at creating a new one. The landscape looks a bit like Silivri, which up until the 1980s was farmland far removed from the centre of Istanbul. Today it is on the edge of the city and infested with high-rise.

 
 Another boast on behalf of the Brownie 127. Picasa’s editing tools come with a Holga filter to give you the same effects of soft focus and vignetting. Ordinary photos can be saved from ignominy and made to look mysterious, but this only amounts to an ironic appeal to nostalgia. It is much better to consider the real thing. She makes the photo. If she wasn’t already exotic and alluring it would look like a less than average photo passed through Picasa’s editing proves.

 
 There is a point where soft focus and out of focus become distinct, and one where out of focus loses touch with reality and becomes, well, out of focus. This is right before that point. Everything is out of focus but still defined. We are in the middle years of the Cold War. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and provided it with the largest army, mostly made up of conscripts. Where a conscript was sent depended on several factors: family influence helped, and if you had little influence but a bit of money that was useful. About the worst place to be sent was the eastern border with Armenia. All you had to look forward to were endless patrols on a snowbound waste. The photographer probably thought the poor focus made this image a failure, but it is the opposite. Somehow it makes the soldier look more alone.


TURK 127-12

Friday, 7 November 2014

HOME IS SO SAD

A Bamforth series of postcards from the 1950s
“The miniature gaiety of seasides.”
Philip Larkin: To the Sea

When I look at these postcards I think of England’s favourite modern poet, Philip Larkin. I think the small, grey suburban world he described was inhabited by the same people who bought these cards in the 1950s and scribbled perfunctory messages to relatives back home. I also think of Larkin himself, dragged away from the library at Hull to a seaside resort. It would be mid-summer and he’d be sitting in a cafĂ© watching the people outside hurry out of the rain. Inspired to write a poem but without any paper at hand, he’d glance over to the counter and see a rack of postcards. There’d be the usual seaside postcards with their double entendres as subtle as a punch, some multiview scenes of the town with a cat or a terrier in the centre, and then there’d be one of these, with dirty washing piled on the sink or Mum’s knickers on the line. Without a second thought, Larkin would grab it, hurry back to his table with the chipped china cup of lukewarm tea sitting in the middle of the plastic tablecloth and start writing. Home is so sad. It stays as it was left.


 These postcards with their inimitable graphic design were produced by the Bamforth Company. We have met James Bamforth earlier, when he was producing real photo postcards at the turn of the century. A man of stern principles when it came to Christianity, alcohol and women, and a pioneer of cinema when Yorkshire was the centre of the world’s film industry (not Hollywood), he was long dead when these were published. Something happened with the company after James died in 1911. As though a great weight had been lifted off someone’s back, it abandoned restraint and became notorious for postcards that frequently crossed a line as far as the Government censor was concerned. There was nothing controversial about this series, unless the censor suspected Middle England was a hotbed of radicalism.

 It’s astonishing to realize that it wasn’t until the 1950s that a lot of English families could take vacations; not just a long weekend with a bank holiday but to be able to head off to Skegness or Blackpool for a whole week. Before that there was the war, and before that the Depression, before that the other war and before that factory workers got Saturday afternoon and Sunday off and were lucky to make a few shillings a day. The British have the trade unions to thank for improving their lives. James Bamforth didn’t think much of the unions, so it’s ironic that the Company made so much in the 1950s from a new generation of holidaymakers, but not as ironic as the next generation wilfully undoing all the good work.

 No coincidence then that these postcards were produced at the time when it was estimated that a quarter of Britain’s families owned caravans. The classic oval shaped two-tone caravan, ideally hauled by an Austin Cambridge or a Morris Minor, was supposed to be the epitome of post-war holiday freedom. Families set off to the seaside, exploring England’s back roads along the way and following their instincts, not a pre-ordained itinerary. Inevitably they ended up in caravan parks, lined up like soldiers alongside hundreds of others. 

 
 It was also the decade that Butlin’s Holiday Camps took off. With their brightly painted chalets, miniature railways, radio broadcasts, dance classes, shaving competitions. glamorous grandmother contests and nightly amateur theatre, they came to represent the other English holiday; the one where everything was provided so that you need not waste a minute feeling lost for entertainment. Today Butlin’s has come to stand for a particular pos-war Britain; its optimism defined by a vulgar lapse in popular culture, but they were also run on very religious principles. Each camp had an Anglican chaplain and holidaymakers were expected to attend church services. There were bars for Dad to head off to in the evening but most of the activities were designed to get the holidaymakers outdoors and exercising in the fresh air. Not surprisingly, in the 1960s the Carry On franchise spotted the English holiday resort as a prime target for satire. 1977’s Confessions from a Holiday Camp made the Carry On films look sophisticated in comparison.

 
But back to the 1950s. Notice that what most of these images are celebrating isn’t really the seaside resort but domesticity: the washing up, laundry day, the wife nagging the husband to attend to those minor repairs, the pleasure of a cup of tea after vacuuming the living room, filling in the pools; what Larkin thought was the English way of life: “The fathers with broad belts under their suits/ And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat; an uncle shouting smut; and then the perms”. And yes: They fuck you up, your mum and dad; often by dragging you off to Weymouth or North Wales, where for a whole week you had nothing to do but stare sullenly at people who were just like you.

  So much for the customers; what about the postcards themselves? The designer of this series gets no credit and it is difficult to find out who it was. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover he or she was from Eastern Europe. Pre-war, Czech and Polish designers had specialized in a combination of bold graphics and typography, and post-war a lot found work in Britain. They didn’t need to be familiar with that thing called the National Character because someone in management would have approved the original concept then advised them what would and wouldn’t work. Also, as a recent arrival to Britain, the designer would have an eye and an ear tuned to British idiosyncrasies. Management might not think a pile of dirty dishes or knickers on the line had some unique English quality until it was pointed out to them. The Bamforth Company was prolific and though it is best known for the Donald McGill style (dumb blonde, meek husband, shrewish wife) this series has a distinct style indicating that whoever was behind them knew the theory of design as well as the technique. 

 During the 1950s, the biggest change most postcard publishers were prepared to take was the shift from real photographic black and white to half-tone colour, which was like deciding the Kodak Instamatic was a better camera than the Leica only because it was cheaper. This series would have been among the last produced by any company as real photo postcards, hence among the last to introduce an innovation in design. Other companies may have toyed with the concept but few of them would have understood the broad humour and tastes of lower middle England better than Bamforth, the company that had always known that knickers were funny, and no one liked doing the dishes.


 Offering a critique in Circa of a 1993 exhibition of John Hinde’s colour postcards of Ireland from the 1960s, Eoghan Nolan didn’t find them nostalgic because the “hokum world they picture was hardly ever there”. Nothing looked less like Ireland than a John Hinde postcard of an Irish Butlin’s camp. The postcards here can’t evoke nostalgia for Blackpool or Skegness in the 1950s because the towns scarcely feature. The motifs could be recycled for every resort if so desired, and the photographs in the middle of each card were just as functional, but after this, something would be lost. If there is any nostalgia, it is for a world of dingy council houses, boring, low paid jobs, sunless skies, rationing; a world so drab that hundreds of thousands of British people forewent their annual holiday by the seaside and used the money to emigrate to Australia instead.

HOME IS SO SAD