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Monday, 29 March 2010


The image of the photographer in 19th century novels

“He throws no shadow, he make in the mirror no reflect.”
Bram Stoker, Dracula

“’Photography is one of my hobbies,’ said he. ‘I have made my dark room up there. But, dear me! what an observant young lady we have come upon. Who would have believed it? Who would have ever believed it?’ He spoke in a jesting tone, but there was no jest in his eyes as he looked at me. I read suspicion there and annoyance, but no jest.” 
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Near the beginning of Dracula, Jonathon Harker travels to Transylvania to finalise the transaction for the English manor house the Count has bought. Describing the house – Harker is a churchman but he speaks like a real estate agent – he admits he has not been inside Carfax but; ‘I have taken with my Kodak views of it from various points’.

Dracula was published in 1896, two years after the first Kodak pocket camera went on the market. The Count may have lived in medieval isolation but the other characters in the novel were up with the very latest in technology. Incidentally, for purists, the snapshots Harker produced would have been round if taken with an older model or rectangular if with the Pocket Kodak but either would have been not much bigger than a postage stamp.

The place photographers occupy in 19th century literature is curious given everybody was supposed to be excited by the new medium. In the last years of the century a few novels came out where a central character was a photographer but for the most part they have a minor role, and not an especially creditable one. They tended to be vapid obsessives or shady, as though they ran a sideline dealing smut.

Here is Jabez Wilson describing his assistant to Sherlock Holmes in The Red Headed League. “Never was such a fellow for photography. Snapping away with a camera when he ought to be improving his mind, and then diving down into the cellar like a rabbit into its hole to develop his pictures.”
And here is a conversation between Holmes and the King in A Scandal in Bohemia.
Holmes laughed. “It is quite a pretty little problem,” said he.
“But a very serious one to me,” returned the King reproachfully.
“Very, indeed. And what does she propose to do with the photograph?”
“To ruin me.”

That Holmes would mistrust photography is natural. He liked ephemeral clues; the hard stuff a photograph might provide interfered with his high minded faith in logic, but was all this a bit of projection on Conan Doyle’s part? It’s ironic that his characters speak of photography as either a petty hobby or a tool for sinister purposes. In 1917 he came close to ruining his reputation when he insisted the infamous photos of the Cottingley fairies were genuine.

The photographer in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables needs a proper job. “I dig, and hoe, and weed, in this black old earth, for the sake of refreshing myself with what little nature and simplicity may be left in it, after men have so long sown and reaped here. I turn up the earth by way of pastime. My sober occupation, so far as I have any, is with a lighter material. In short, I make pictures out of sunshine.”

The girl, Phoebe, is unimpressed. "A daguerreotype likeness, do you mean?" …. "I don't much like pictures of that sort—they are so hard and stern; besides dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether. They are conscious of looking very unamiable, I suppose, and therefore hate to be seen."

The House of Seven Gables was published in 1851, by which time daguerreotypes had been on the market for over a decade. Phoebe is too young to remember the world before photography so her disdain for the medium is out of place. It’s like a ten year old today sniffing that the Internet has destroyed the art of letter writing, which may be true but how would she know?

Grant Allen is a forgotten writer, which is perhaps for the best. His stories involving drug taking religious sects, mummies roaming pyramids and time machines might sound good in synopsis but their strangled, purple prose makes for tough going. In 1891 he published a novel, Recalled to Life. Professor Vivian Callingham had invented an ‘acmegraph’, a camera with a sliding plate and electric light that took instantaneous sequences. The Professor specialized in chronophotographs of horses and athletes. Naturally, he harboured a terrible secret from his past. (His similarities to Eadweard Muybridge are not fortuitous.) In the opening paragraphs Callingham is found murdered, in a locked room. Fortunately there may have been a witness; unfortunately it was his daughter who is so traumatized by the event she immediately lapses into catatonic amnesia. Thereafter the story becomes lurid. Photographs are the key to the daughter’s recovery of memory; through snapshots of faces, buildings and landscapes from her past she eventually finds her reason, and her real father.

Although the book invoked some very modern scientific theories it’s whole tone is strangely reactionary. Modern technology is a dark force. Scientists are not to be trusted. That suggests one reason why Dracula has survived so well. It was a contemporary novel. The characters made good use of science and technology to battle the vampire. Among all the other themes involving sex and disease, the idea that science can save the world is in there. A camera in itself can’t defeat evil but the mindset that embraces it can.

The people in this gallery are characters from an unwritten gothic novel wherein evil, real or imagined, lurks under the surface.



Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Five portraits by Felix Nadar 1820 - 1910

The critics may say what they like about Zola, they cannot prevent us, my brother and myself, from being the John the Baptists of modern neurosis
Edmond and Jules Goncourt: The Goncourt Journals, Tuesday, April 23, 1878

March 21 marked the centenary of Felix Nadar’s death. 100 years is sufficient distance to ponder those questions that always niggle us when we consider a great man’s reputation. In Nadar’s case one is to wonder what the Goncourt brothers really thought of him.

Edmond and Jules Goncourt’s journals hang about the literature of Flaubert, Sand, Zola and Victor Hugo like an old aunt muttering caustic asides. Emma Bovary may have been the first ‘modern woman’ in literature but they knew her creator was an unsophisticated, syphilitic louche, which meant of course he fitted in well with Paris’s Bohemian culture and met with the brothers’ approval. Sand could be a cold lover but it was a position from which she could write about men with analytical detachment, and she did not wear men’s clothing so often as people assumed. Sarah Bernhardt looked like ‘a gaunt convalescent’. This one had flatulence, that one a diseased liver. Most of the writers, including Jules, were riddled with pox.

The brothers were not dilettantes in the sense the word was used in cultural circles at the time because they did write novels and plays but, in the way we use it now, they gave us the blueprint. Their journals are fawning and spiteful, conceited and plagued with neuroses. The Goncourts like to imagine their judgements were universal laws and whomever they deemed a genius was now vulnerable to their whims. It ought to be said that most everyone they did anoint as great is still considered so. They made dilettantism an art form in itself.

Between 1877 and 1879 Flaubert burnt a huge amount of his early correspondence. His justification was that he was doing it for the sake of posterity, but he should have realized that if future scholars wanted to learn about the author behind Madame Bovary they would have to resort to the Goncourts. With friends like that … Being artful gossips, the brothers didn’t lie, merely highlighted those details that appealed to them, which brings us to Nadar.

His portraits of Sand, Dumas, Flaubert etc perfectly complement the Goncourt journals because they also play with the idea of truth. Nadar knew how to make a sitter appear eminent. Someone who has never heard of Alphonse Daudet could study Nadar’s portrait of him and know he was an intellectual who must have had a significant reputation. He looks the part. Most of Nadar’s portraits are tightly framed; the head is all that matters. In his most famous portrait of George Sand he has drawn back. She is aloof and ironical, which is much how the brothers described her.

Nadar only earned two entries in the journals. The first was when, as a printer for the brothers, he livened up a party by inviting people in off the street. The second is really a reference to a woman Daudet ‘inherited’ from the photographer, a woman ‘drenched in absinthe’. In both cases Nadar behaved exactly as the brothers demanded one from their circle had to. (Falling in love was dull. One had to have mad affairs.) Still, he is very much a passing figure.

One reason might be he was essentially in competition with them. Like the brothers he willfully situated himself at the centre of events but this at a time when photography was usurping a role traditionally belonging to painting. A photograph took a matter of minutes to produce yet it could reveal much more about the sitter than a painting. And the brothers sweated over their words; Nadar simply pressed a shutter, or so it appeared.

The debate as to whether photography was art really only raged between critics. Painters by and large were actually open to the new medium. Turner collected daguerreotypes and Degas used photographs for his sittings. Few painters it seems described the new medium as a threat. Writers thought otherwise. It wasn’t just that Nadar could say so much with so little effort but he could also contradict the critics. The Goncourts devoted a lot of energy to degrading the people they most admired. Nadar put them on a pedestal. He was a presence at the same era as the brothers but, like blind men at a crime scene, they witnessed things differently.

The five portraits by Nadar are of unidentified French citizens. Though his portraits from Paris’ artistic milieu are his most famous, it is said that some 30 000 people sat for his camera. If all those portraits could be assembled that would create a singular record of Paris in the Second Empire. Words could not describe it.


Tuesday, 23 March 2010


Photographs of children from the Victorian age

“He walks shockingly and is dreadfully awkward, holds himself as badly as ever and his manners are despairing, as well as his speech, which is quite dreadful. It is so provoking as he learns so well and reads quite fluently; but his French is more like Chinese than anything else; poor child, he is really very unfortunate."
Queen Victoria describing her son, Leopold, in 1859

I had a kind of Dickensian childhood.
Shaun Cassidy

Pity Lewis Carroll. It is his tragedy that no one can discuss him without raising the spectre of paedophilia. A tragedy because the evidence is unresolved so it continues to haunt his reputation; tragic too because people are inclined to read a sinister eroticism into some of his portraits merely because the subject is a young girl. And it gets worse. What is often deemed dangerous, at least unsettling, in Carroll’s portraits could be nothing more harmless than girls playing dress-ups. Meanwhile some of his contemporaries, Oscar Rejlander for one, have escaped scrutiny for works of much more deliberate salacity. 

Alice is the most well adjusted child in Victorian literature, encountering the various characters she meets in Wonderland with unruffled maturity and commonsense. Then again she hasn’t suffered the litany of horrors usually dumped on her contemporaries, Pip in Great Expectations, Tom the chimney-sweep in The Water Babies and all those other children adrift in the world without parents, raised in the workhouse or cut down by disease. For a lot of us, our first impressions of the Victorian era were formed when some well meaning relative gave us a copy of A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist and plunged us into a world of unrelieved miseries. Even now, with a few years of accumulated knowledge behind us, it’s hard to imagine London in the 1860s washed in sunlight and alive with the sounds of chuckling infants. It was grim, the air was filthy and children battled through unloved and abused. No wonder they seldom smiled for the camera.  

Newspapers provide convincing evidence that life was actually as bad as that. In 1862 a Dr Greenhow discovered that three quarters of children born to Nottingham factory workers died in infancy, that at a time when one in four children in England died in their first year. Overlooking the frequent reports of murders and neglect that happen as much today, we have the stories of child labourers. A story from the New York Times in November 1875 describes a group of spectators so disgusted by the treatment handed out to one of ‘Count Leo’s’ circus acrobats they had him arrested. Subsequently it was found that all his child workers were severely malnourished. In an orphanage in Buffalo misbehaving children must place their hands under a window sash. It is brought down hard upon their fingers, somehow guaranteeing they won’t play up again.

It’s not all horrid. Just as Dickens’ child heroes find some kind of redemption, there are stories of sharp-eyed adults rescuing children from the brink and of politicians and newspapermen roused to action by their own compassion. Carroll regarded his own childhood as idyllic. Still, the idea remains that the Victorian childhood was a nasty place to be. Our great, great grandparents wander through contemporary films and novels hollow eyed and pale, resigned to a premature death or a life of unrelenting, thankless toil. 

The children in this gallery come from England, Europe, the US and Australia. They are aged between four and about fourteen. They play, they work, look miserable, bored, sulk and smile. One thing that unites them is that they all appear strangely adult in their deportment, as though whatever their background they had to grow up faster back then. The images are cabinet cards and CDVs from the 1860s to the 1890s.


Wednesday, 17 March 2010


Photographs by a Turkish Student in Berlin, 1929 - 1930

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking …”
Christopher Isherwood. Goodbye to Berlin

Driven to be a writer, in the late 1920s Christopher Isherwood believed he had two options. One was to remove himself to a farmhouse and work in solitude. The other was to stand at the centre of the world from where he could study the chaos of its detritus furiously spinning around. That meant moving to Berlin, the city any intelligent observer at the time realized was where Europe’s fate was about to be determined.

Whether or not he was a capable analyst, Isherwood had one quality that would give his observations a vividness lacking among seasoned professionals. Throughout the two books that came from his stay, Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains, he comes across as a fish out of water, bemused and somewhat naïve. From this position, he learns things in Berlin others take for granted. Neither book explains what is unfolding as the Weimar Republic collapses but, in line with his famous quote about being a camera, he presents a series of tacit images. Isherwood began writing his ideas down in 1930. By the time the six pieces that make up Goodbye to Berlin were assembled into one, nine years later, war was just a breath away and the book had taken on a sibylline quality.

At exactly the same time as Isherwood was blithely moving between apartments and collecting his thoughts, a student from Turkey arrived in the city. He had a real camera, a Kodak or a Voigtlander with a folding bellows and a little ground glass window which allowed him to hold the instrument at waist height to compose his shots. If he was a good student, he understood he was there to observe.

The Turkish Republic was just seven years old and in the middle of its own cultural revolution. Ataturk was tearing down the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and assembling a modern, secular state. It’s quite likely the student was sent abroad with the idea that what he learned in Europe he would bring back to the new republic, that he was expected to be in the vanguard of modernism.

Whatever knowledge he brought back about law or science or the arts, his photographs, the only tangible remains of his experience, correspond with some of Isherwood’s sentiments. Isherwood, for example, never mentions modernist art, but it is clear from the way he structured his writing that he was aware he could say things in new ways. Whether or not student was aware of the Bauhaus before he arrived in Berlin, his photographs of the tower and the harbour and window scenes are not coincidences. He is playing with contemporary ideas.

The most apparent comparisons however are in their portraits. Isherwood ranged across a wide spectrum, from the inhabitants of cheap boarding houses to millionaires who never quite explained the source of their wealth, from the gay milieu to upright Jewish department store owners, with the developing theme that their ideas and lifestyles will damn them. A similar sense of doom infects the photographs. Maybe it’s because there is a whole set of images and everybody is expressively affectionate and happy but there is a poignancy to these photos that has everything to do with time and place. Beneath the smiles these people may have a sense of unease but we know for sure what will occur in a few years. 

Up to a point, that is. We actually don’t know anything about these people, whether they graduated and served as officers in the SS, were sent to concentration camps or watched the war and wrung their hands from the sidelines. Then again, that’s the whole point about anonymous photographs; wondering rather than having answers. Presumably the student returned to Turkey. After he died, somebody must have glanced at the photos and thrown them into a discard pile from where they were passed about until ending up in a suitcase outside a particularly grimy second hand store in Istanbul. Luckily for us, no one ever bothered looking too closely at them.


Friday, 12 March 2010


Photographs of people reading

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
Jorge Luis Borges

Reading is usually a solitary, self-absorbed activity so photographs of people reading represent an intrusion. Alternatively, a photograph of someone reading is a photograph of someone only pretending to read. The photographer is a spy or an accomplice, both soiled occupations and each is instrumental to photography.

Reading was one of the earliest themes in photography. People sat for their portraits at a table with a book. Sometimes it was open and they leaned forward to read. The book was a prop to add interest to the scene with the advantage that having the subject study the open page kept them still for the long exposures. The presence of a book could signify knowledge, education and class but it could also have been the nearest object at hand for the photographer to use.

By the mid 1880s amateurs were buying miniature cameras that fitted into their stovepipe hats or cravats and some models that actually looked like books. The era of the amateur spy was a godsend to fear-mongers. Newspapers from the period carried wise warnings to young women to be aware that however harmless their activities outdoors, snappers were always lurking in the bushes. On August 20, 1884 the New York Times suggested no one was safe from camera lunatics. Almost exactly one year later, on August 18, an amateur interviewed proudly boasted that ‘while there is honor amongst thieves, there is none amongst photographers’. (That was after he woke up a group of sleeping drunks just so he could get a look of surprise on their faces.)

If spying on readers is the more recent phenomenon it’s a lot more interesting as well. People absorbed in reading have all manner of curious gestures. They screw up their faces, laugh to themselves, mouth words, pick their noses and suddenly look up and stare into space, lost in thought. Of all the activities usually done with the clothes on, reading is the most removed from the outer world. People can read on busy streets or in crowded terminals, in noisy cafes or rattling trains oblivious to everything happening around them. The photographer is invading a personal space the subject isn’t even aware of having created.

Andre Kertész occasionally photographed people reading and collected his examples in a book published in 1971 and called On Reading. For a man who spent a long time wandering the streets of various countries, readers were a natural subject. They remained still long enough for him to structure the composition and most of them weren’t conscious they were being photographed. Beginning in 1936, for five years Walker Evans rode the New York subway with a camera strapped under his jacket. Some of his unwitting subjects were also reading. Kertész and Evans were using a similar approach, the difference being that Evans needed to get closer so had to hide the camera, and both wanted the same result. Evans wanted to photograph people when ‘the guard is down and the mask is off”, which was what Kertész was also after.