English street photographs from the 1930s-1940s
“When all is said and done, monotony may after all be the best condition for creation.”
Of all the forms of commercial, domestic photography practiced during the middle years of the last century, that which belonged to the itinerant street photographer was the most diligent in its ordinariness. Armed with a medium format camera, a flashgun, a fistful of business cards and a resolute nerve, photographers took up position on particular street corners, at either end of bridges and outside department stores and fired away at passers-by. They cared nothing for the quality of their images but worked with the confidence that most of their printed images would look the same. Unlike studios for whom a painted backdrop or a style of lighting could be a hallmark, these photographers were after the ultimate in innocuity: they wanted their work to look just like everyone else’s.
The street photographers were pedestrian in every sense of the word. They weren’t keen on photographing themselves so we don’t have many images of them at work yet we imagine a kind of shabbiness: an overcoat stained where passing traffic has thrown up mud, a tie that has become loose as they jump out in front of people all day then chase them with their cards and a hat picked up too many times from a grimy pavement. It was a job that required a polite but tough edge. You couldn’t let passers-by pass you by without getting them to pay for the photo. Once they had done that and received the business card with the I.D number on it and the reminder to call by tomorrow, it was time to chase after the next person. The lunch hours between twelve and two would be especially hectic, as would be the end of the typical workday around five or six. During both periods the population on the street swelled but just as importantly the photographers were likely to catch a customer in a good mood. What with a steak pie and a couple of real ales under his belt a man would be more willing to pay for a snap than if he was hungry or he had to hurry back to a pile of paperwork.
All of these postcards come from Britain though itinerant street photographers were found across the globe. Away from London and the big cities they haunted the seaside towns, where again, vacationers were likely to be in a good mood. Like climbing into the fake car or putting your head through the hole above the painted female body, having your photo taken on the pier or the promenade was probably one of those things you did on a holiday at Margate or Blackpool.
The giveaway for itinerant walking pictures is the number usually scratched on the negative but sometimes stamped on the back. Prices varied but a standard three and a half by five inch postcard cost around twelve shillings or (roughly) half a pound. Getting a group this large together probably took some effort to organize but the pay-off was several pounds in orders. My guess is that the photographers worked for commission. The more they sold the more they were paid so a photo like this represented a small coup.
We know the names of some of the companies because the postcard carried their names stamped on the back. According to this useful site, Walking Pictures, walking photos were just one service the typical company offered along with standard interior portraits, processing and printing and film and camera sales. To paraphrase Keith Richards on his music: “Art was short for Arthur”.
Yet if thinking of these images as art is frivolous we shouldn’t otherwise think of them as trivial. Like the actual photographer, the people in the photos are usually anonymous but these belong to the age of Mass Observation and the Recording Britain project, when documenting British society in thorough detail was believed to be a valuable research process for understanding how the nation’s future stood to unfold. What we ended up with was a vast collective snapshot of Britain. Admittedly most of the subjects are happy, there is really nothing to illuminate what was troubling them or whether they even cared about the well-being of the nation, but there are clues in the ways that people dress, their postures and in other minor details that tell us not to trust the usual stereotypes.
Sometimes banality is so intense, the idea or the image gets repeated so often that it passes through monotony and becomes compelling. We can get this with these images, in the way they draw us into the illusion that we are able to read something about the people or the society from them. And then there is the statistic that there are so many millions of them out there that surely their presence must amount to something worthwhile.
|WALK DON'T RUN|