Postcards of the Blackpool Illuminations
“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
In November 1879 Thomas Edison applied for a patent for an incandescent light bulb, and as every American school student will tell you, the light globe was born. However, a couple of months before Edison made his application, Blackpool had its first festival of illuminations and coloured lights were strung up along the promenade. The English may remind you that Joseph Swan beat Edison by a year. Edison is famous for inventing things some time after someone else did but this is beside the point. Even if Swan’s incandescent globe wasn’t quite practical in 1879, electric lighting existed in various forms and, like the automobile, it was understood that it was only a matter of time before it became practical for every house to have electric lamps. This was reason enough to have a festival.
During the years before the Second World War Blackpool’s illuminations had become internationally famous. Electric lighting was now commonplace in most cities around the world but the illuminations were a celebration of something more ancient and sacred. Held from mid-September to mid-November, they were a final protest against the steadily shortening days; a rebellion against nature, which, some philosophers argued, was what the modern world was all about. Having subjugated electricity we could defeat the powers of darkness.
As the images here attest (Actually they do something else but we’ll get to that.), Blackpool’s waterfront was transformed into a psychedelic fantasyland of giant butterflies, gondolas, stagecoaches, fish, devils and flowery biplanes. It all looks very wonderful, which is where the problems arise.
Every year the Valentine’s Company sent out a photographer, probably local to Blackpool, to photograph the lights so the results could be turned into postcards. The initial results would have been drab. The images were in black and white and the discrepancies between light and shadow were so extreme that some areas were either horribly over or under exposed. Even when standing under bright lighting shutter speeds needed to be slow. Obviously, straight photographic representations were out. Fortunately, the Valentine’s Company had never placed much value on straight photography.
Even before real photo postcards emerged in the 1900s, James Valentine’s company had treated the negative as a mere starting point in the process of creating a final image. Beginning and end did not need anything more in common. That attitude was the norm. Very few commercial photographers in 1905 would have argued there was something sacred about a negative.
Still, it needed to be the foundation of the image. For the postcards from the Blackpool Illuminations, the predominant features in the scene had to be intact, so here the photographer snapped a gondola and sailboat in the pool in front of the bath house, with Chinese lanterns strung across the water and the fairground in the distance. The people in the foreground were also there, the one to the left just entering the scene. That however was the extent to any veracity. Taking the people as the starting point, they may have been within a brightly illuminated area but only very slow film of around 800 ASA and higher would have had the capacity to freeze them in motion. What if however, the photograph was taken at dusk, just after the lights came on but before the sun set? The people in the retouching studio would have had no trouble creating the impression of night.
It is no coincidence that where it appears in each of these photos the moon is full and approximately the same size as it emerges from the clouds. It is apparent that it is artificial, a detail Valentine’s wouldn’t have tried to hide. It is that moon against a dark sky that tells us this is nighttime. Everything else could be photographed at dusk and then enhanced with colour.
The decision to use hand-colouring probably wasn’t difficult to make but it was what distinguished the images. Blackpool became lurid and almost grotesque. Of course, the intention was not to strive for authenticity but aspire to the impression created by the illuminations. Pastels were out of the question. The colours had to be vivid, even though it meant that some scenes, like this one, have a sinister quality.
This postcard was most likely not published by Valentine’s. The suspicion is that the original negative was under-exposed, which wasn’t an impediment. When the outlines were enhanced a strange scene with this crowd of shadowy figures was created. Once the living of Blackpool retire indoors, the dead arise to wander about in a state of dulled curiosity.
When these photos were taken electricity was still a hallmark of progress, which could be boasted from the crest of the street car. We can’t be absolutely certain when these postcards were produced but we can wonder who though electricity was still a sign of progress after WW2 with its rocket attacks and atom bombs. In any case, once again we get a spectral atmosphere from the brightly lit but empty interior of the car. Who said ghosts have to be monochrome?
We understand the image of Blackpool being created by these images, yet in this final scene the impression is almost the opposite. Brightly lit, yes, but also eerily deserted and joyless. In the bottom right a figure hurries from a taxi towards a café, which also looks empty. Blackpool is like a town in a Robert Aickman story, where everything looks in place except that one, nagging absence, which in this case turns about to be any other sign of life.