And furthermore ...

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Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Miniature snapshots from around the world

‘Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place and very little different from becoming a parcel.”
John Ruskin

Between the 1920s and the early 1960s photographers swarmed through the world’s cities blasting away at one landmark then rushing off to the next. There were myriad ways to photograph the Eiffel Tower but they knew their customers only wanted to see it in its full glory, rising above Paris as a symbol of everything from the baguette to the café accordion. There is a suspicion sometimes that photographers must have stood next to each other as they gathered images, glancing enviously at one another’s cameras before they returned to the studio to churn out print runs for the publishing companies.

Miniature photos, “authentic views”, “vues artistiques” and the other names they were sold under, came in pocket sized paper wallets holding up to twenty four photographs. They are the bastard offspring of art and commerce, thoroughly formal in their composition and glorifying the cliché. No wonder collectors often sniff and pass them over. How many miniature snaps of the Coliseum does anybody really need? Still, every so often there is an image that actually looks more art than commerce. It isn’t just a photograph of a well known building; it’s an atmosphere or an idea. There are also those images that live up to their names in unexpected ways. The world they show isn’t simply miniature in its presentation. It looks like a miniature world, artificial and toy-like, and timeless too,  

James Valentine established a studio in Dundee, Scotland, in 1851. By the 1920s his descendants had expanded and opened agencies around the world. In Britain it specialized in highly romanticized landscapes and in small, picturesque villages. This was a world of hay-carts and apple trees, a place most British people only knew through consciously nostalgic novels and picture books. It wasn’t difficult for the company to find these scenes. By the 1930s, when Valentine’s was at the peak of production, it had nearly eighty years of stock images to draw from and wasn’t averse to compiling a set from photographs taken in the 1890s, when the Pictorialist movement was at its most fashionable. 

Other photographers regarded the world with a more modern but no less fabricated style. Alfred Hitchcock employed an arsenal of special effects in his films so that the audience not only recognized places but saw them as he thought they should. There is something of the Hitchcock aesthetic in some of these photographs, not so much landscapes or city views as film sets, where everything looks perfect; too perfect. It was. Like Hitchcock, the photographers weren’t interested in reality as some objective fact. They wanted the world to look beautiful, the way it would if there weren’t so many tourists crowding the streets. The end justified the means and they used whatever they could  make it look so beautiful as to be almost unrecognizable.

When the market for these photographs began in the 1920s it catered to those tourists who either had no facility with a camera or if they did discovered that while snapshots of each other were fine, the photographs they took of landmarks or scenery were often disappointing. Exposures were wrong, the buildings were out of focus and forget about photographing in the late afternoon or night, when the shutter speed had to be so slow the subject in view was blurred to an abstraction. To be really successful, amateurs still had to return to basics and that would have meant packing a whole other suitcase full of camera equipment; tripods, lenses, filters and so on. Commercial photographers saw an opportunity. Let the tourists photograph each other, leave the difficult stuff to the professionals. They were prepared to be up at dawn when the shadows were still long and the streets deserted and they could return to the studio to sandwich in clouds and other effects. Tourists were grateful. It didn’t matter to them that they didn’t take the photograph if they had been to the sight and seen it for themselves. 

By the 1960s cheaper printing processes put an end to the miniature snapshot. Once cost had meant little when the alternatives were limited, now producing a wallet of real snapshots was too expensive when tourists could buy a folding booklet of hastily photographed, roughly printed “authentic colour” scenes for the same price or less. With their decline a whole way of looking at the world, for photographers and for tourists, also vanished. Modern postcards made the planet look flatter, duller and more crowded.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Snapshots of people in canoes, on boats, ships and a submarine

A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree
Spike Milligan

The wise man crosses the great ocean
A frequent recommendation in I Ching trigrams

If you want to write a great novel but you’re absolutely stuck for inspiration, try this simple, foolproof device; put your characters in a boat and cut them adrift. You can give them whatever you want; a crew, a few supplies, a tiger (though that’s been done, twice) or nothing at all. Now, watch where the boat goes, to a specific destination or nowhere in particular, down river or out to sea; it’s your choice. You have every thing you need, character, plot and narrative structure. All you have to do is make one sentence follow another in a logical way that keeps the reader interested. We love stories set on boats. Anybody who has written a novel set on a boat, and anyone who has read a few, will tell you that the moment the character is on the water the story takes off.

Our fascination has everything to do with our psychic need for freedom. Once we are on a boat we have severed contact with solid earth. The rigours of our daily existence don’t mean so much when we pull the oars up and let the boat drift. The freedom is even more profound when we are on the open sea and have lost sight of land altogether, when we have no real idea of where we are. That’s real liberation. It’s also why some people find it terrifying. Some of us have to see land to feel safe. No surprise that in fiction so many people cast off and end up in hell.

We love taking photographs of people on boats. There are thousands of them out there; snapshots of people in dinghies the size of bathtubs, on yachts and on ocean liners, and wherever there are boats, people with cameras are not far away. Everybody photographed on a boat is going somewhere or coming back. In some cases they are rowing out no more than a few metres but in others they are crossing oceans. All of them are making a journey, which still has atavistic connotations with changing our lives. When we come back we are different, if only for a few minutes.


Friday, 14 May 2010


National types of beauty

“I love those decadent wenches who do so trouble my dreams”

In the 1880s Francis Galton was so convinced that measurement could unlock the secrets of science he started collecting data that would establish empirically where in England the most beautiful women came from. Because he believed in the absolute objectivity of science he could not ask assistants to make judgements for him, nor could he ask women to meet at a certain place at a given time so he could take their statistics. Instead he travelled from city to city and when he spied a woman who matched his idea of beauty he’d follow her at a distance, scribbling down information about height, weight, gait and so forth in his notebook. It’s actually not surprising he wasn’t arrested for his behaviour. Men could get away with this sort of thing and had a policeman stopped him and made enquiries he most likely would have been released on the grounds he was just another eccentric savant, and England was full of them.

In the early 1930s publishers of cigarette cards hit upon a scheme that might have intrigued Galton though he wouldn’t have found it at all scientific. They gathered together photographs of actresses and models from around the world into a series called ‘National Types of Beauty’. The idea each nation had its characteristics of beauty would have met with Galton’s approval though the project could hardly be called scientific since it left the final decision to the individual smoker.

Finding examples wasn’t hard; the company approached various studios who were happy to licence out images. Actresses like Anna May Wong from China, Frances Doble from Canada and Greta Nissen from Sweden came to represent those qualities most desirable in a woman from their country, or perhaps they didn’t. Maybe they simply asked for an example without any selection process involved. The primary idea wasn’t to conduct an anthropological survey rather to have a set of photographs that would have the customers coming back for more. Some of the women match stereotypes so the women from the Middle East look mysterious, those from Europe’s hot countries vibrant and so on but some don’t. Miss Eve Gray from Australia with her plaited bun looks more Scandinavian than antipodean. Also, there are no black women. This series is as much about class as beauty so only those women from wealthy, industrialized, ‘sophisticated’ countries stood a chance.

A short description was written on the backs of the cards. This striking example of photographic art gives a vivid impression of the beautiful Norwegian; stately, fair haired, blue eyed and of fair complexion and The distinctive modeling of the face, the black glossy hair and the almond shaped eyes, indicate a type of beauty always associated with the Far East (Japan). This was a time when a man could feel confident in his assessment of foreign women, even if he’d never met one. the Spanish were feisty, the Chinese demure; ‘those Mexican senoritas will as soon as look at a man as cut his throat’.

Depending on your level of sensitivity, the descriptions on the back are either quaint or appalling. In a few, short years racial profiling would stain Europe, not just in Germany but in England, France, Holland and everywhere that fascist groups and sympathizers came together. It was the age when Galton’s theory of eugenics came into force. We’d soon go back to our old ways. 1950s Hollywood was riddled as a poxy sailor with racial stereotyping and in other countries we’d just shift the posts, so a typical Australian beauty now wore an Akubra hat and rode a horse and those eastern European dames still had a hint of cruelty about them but were tragically oppressed by a communist regime.


Tuesday, 11 May 2010


An itinerant gold rush photographer.

“There are always two people in every picture:  the photographer and the viewer.”
 Ansel Adams

The career of Perez Mann Batchelder could be considered the essential story of the 19th century studio photographer; nomadic and experimental though by temperament a businessman more than an artist and barely aware that he is a pioneer. His name might be lost among the sketchy records of thousands of studio operators but for his presence at particular moments and in certain locations when the practice of photography took a sudden shift. This isn’t to say he was in the right place at the right time. More often it seems he’d leave the scene just too early. If he wanted fame, unwittingly he eluded it.

Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: a biographical dictionary, 1840-1865 (Palmquist and Kailboum) gives us some details of his early life. Born in Massachusetts in 1818, he opened a daguerreotypist’s studio in Boston in 1844 but by 1851 had moved to San Francisco with his brother, Benjamin. It was the last big year of the Californian gold rush, the year before the big companies arrived and pushed the diggers out. The brothers opened several studios in California and ran a mobile photographer’s wagon, travelling between the towns and the diggings. At one point they sold the portable studio to William Rulofson who would go on to open a major studio in San Francisco and a partnership with Eadweard Muybridge. A detail often cited about Muybridge to give some idea about his inventive and entrepreneurial sprit was that he ran a ‘flying studio’ around northern California. Clearly he wasn’t the first but it’s also conceivable that Muybridge got the idea if not the equipment from Rulofson who had bought them from the Batchelders. It does not seem likely that Muybridge and Perez Mann Batchelder ever met. Muybridge arrived in San Francisco in late 1854 or early 1855, by which time Batchelder was in Melbourne, Australia.

On paper the move in May 1854 made sense. Economically speaking, the Californian rush was over but in 1851 gold had been discovered at Ballarat and Bendigo outside of Melbourne. Still, had Batchelder stayed around he could have taken advantage of the boom in landscape photography sparked off by Carleton Watkins and carried on by Charles Weed and Muybridge. Portraits of local citizens were bread and butter but a single print of Yosemite Valley could sell in New York for what photographers were making in a week. It was also the age of Manifest Destiny, when the US Government became intensely interested in the potential for photography in selling the vast, unfenced territories.

In Melbourne Batchelder was joined by Benjamin and two other brothers, Freeman and Nathaniel. In 1855 Batchelder, who specialized in portraits and stereographs, hired Walter Woodbury as a photographer. According to Batchelder's entry in the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online, Woodbury was sufficiently impressed by his work to send a photograph to his mother, writing, ‘I think the best thing in the photographic line I ever saw'. Woodbury went on to invent the Woodburytype, a process that enabled photographs to be printed in books without any significant loss of quality.

Perez Mann Batchelder left Australia in early 1860 and returned to Boston to go into partnership with James Black. On November 19 that year the Melbourne Argus reported that Black had managed to ascend in a balloon to take aerial photographs of Boston. Felix Nadar had done the same a few years earlier but wasn’t satisfied with the results. They were also lost; making Black’s the earliest aerial photographs now in existence. 

The cursory evidence here doesn’t suggest that Batchelder needs reevaluation but it casts light on a career that is too often regarded as little better than a trade. There are probably millions of CDVs floating about the world and it’s usually the subject who takes up our attention. We forget the photographers also have their stories.

The CDVs in this gallery were taken by the Batchelder Studios in Melbourne in the early 1860s so it is unlikely Perez Mann was responsible for any of them. They don’t veer from the standard approach to portrait photography at the time, nevertheless they’re in remarkably good condition for their age and they show why the studio was considered by some to be the best in Australia. They are also a snapshot of the middle class in Melbourne during the gold rush years, when it was the richest city in the world.


Thursday, 6 May 2010


Photographs of the USA by unidentified commercial photographers, 1930s -1950s

“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.”
Oscar Wilde; The Picture of Dorian Gray

"Photography," says Walker Evans, "has nothing whatsoever to do with 'Art'. But," he adds quietly, "it's an art for all that."
Time Magazine, Dec 15, 1947

Walker Evans published American Photographs in 1938. Twenty years later Robert Frank gave us The Americans. The photographs in this gallery were taken by unknown photographers during the interim. Some are tiny, measuring 30x50mm, others, slightly bigger, 110x60mm, and were sold as sets in paper wallets for tourists. At first glance they may appear to be the antithesis of what Evans and Frank were trying to achieve but look again and certain connections emerge.

The USA has more monuments than any other country, actual monuments that commemorate particular people and events but others that are more abstract, so to speak. The Capitol building in Washington is a monument to Roman republicanism, the Empire State Building to a mythic relationship between labour and capital. Even geographical features are designated as monuments under federal law. It’s a country where every feature, natural or built by people, has a signpost to a higher meaning. Monuments are scattered throughout Evans’ book, mostly statues in small towns commemorating the Civil War, and always placed in an ironic context, so a marble soldier looks down upon an empty street. When he set out with the intention of documenting the symbols of modern America he knew exactly where to find them but he avoided the Capitol building or the Lincoln Memorial. The ideas they represented were too big and too dubious for someone who wanted to get down, as it were, to street level.

Evans and Frank took nearly identical photographs of the road, at least in the way it stretches through empty space to a vanishing point. Since the invention of the car and the idea of cross-country travel the road has been an irresistible image for American photographers. Commercial photographers sent out to capture scenes for the tourist market got this as much as anyone else. Maybe a photograph of the road winding through the forest along the Mohawk Trail doesn’t have the metaphorical intent Evans and Frank employed but it’s reaching for the same idea. America is restive and in motion. Europeans didn’t often take photos of roads but when they did they usually travelled a short distance before stopping at an identifiable landmark. One of the great things about American photographs, whether taken by Walker Evans or an unknown commercial operator, is that the end is never in sight. The road disappears into the forest. You have no idea where it will take you.

Neither Evans nor Frank would have considered themselves landscape photographers though they could never avoid the subject. Not many can in America unless they hide out in cities. By the 1970s the heroic image of the landscape as exemplified by Ansel Adams (and the photographs of the Grand Canyon here) had run its course. In 1980 Robert Adams, who was no relation by either blood or instinct, produced From the Missouri West, His landscapes looked scrappy, there were no dominant features and they were scarred by human intervention. It seemed he had either reinvigorated landscape photography or put it in its proper place, which is to say the idea of nature as the powerful life force was a lie so long as we kept destroying it. Robert Adams may have been an original but look at the photo here of Crawford Notch in New Hampshire. It isn’t as exquisitely printed as Adams would have it but that isn’t the point. At the very bottom, almost lost in the scrub, runs a line of telegraph poles. Whether the photographer saw them or not, Adams would have. It’s another case common in photography of an innovator being anticipated by a complete unknown.

Which brings us back to Messrs Evans and Frank. If you want to know how good American Photographs and The Americans were, look at photos like these as well and see the similarities. See how they are responding to the mythic image of America?


Tuesday, 4 May 2010


A mysterious grand tour in the 1920s

Once again everything was deserted in the immense hotel. Empty salons, corridors, salons, doors, doors, salons...empty chairs, deep armchairs...stairs, steps, steps one after objects, empty glasses...
Last Year at Marienbad: Directed by Alain Resnais

It’s spring in Istanbul and the tourists have arrived. They gather outside the Hagia Sophia for group photos, snap away at the Blue Mosque and stop at the entrance to the Grand Bazaar to take one shot before venturing in. Some have other ideas and wander alone, photographing architectural features and streetscapes. Then there are the few who appear driven by different impulses. Occasionally a tourist will stop, take a photo and move on and when you look to where their camera was pointed it’s hard to see what attracted them to an empty laneway or rubbish bins against a stone wall. Maybe they are doing something really interesting and travelling the world in search of specific details; the pattern of shadows on brickwork, old signage or deliberately avoiding the typical sights in favour of the commonplace and banal. They are hunting the images that others have missed. In the end they don’t have a record of Istanbul so much as what it means to be a tourist. ‘This is not a photograph of the city; it’s of me and what I feel like when I’m here.’ That is, if that’s what they’re doing.

Between 1925 and 1927 a group of people, two men, a woman and the photographer, went on a grand tour, from England to Venice and Switzerland, to Jerusalem and Canada. Of course it may not have been one trip but several yet it appears they travelled together. We don’t know any more about them except that they were middle aged, possibly retired, and dressed better than modern tourists.

The mystery of who these people were is intrinsic to the images. They appear in most of them, dwarfed by the buildings or the landscape and in all but the first (in this series, not necessarily the sequence in which they were taken) they are simply standing, holding much the same static pose in each shot, their faces obscured but unsmiling. We all do this of course - put our friends in front of monuments – but in a lot of the photos the figures are too small and obscure to suffice as portraits. Another noticeable aspect of these photographs is the absence of levity. It is as though these people had a purpose other than to enjoy themselves. A grand tour to get acculturated was and remains a principle of tourism yet if that was their purpose some of the locations are odd; Land’s End in Cornwall, a train station in Switzerland and the shore of the Dead Sea. Where, you might wonder, is St Mark’s Square or the Dome of the Rock, and, though Canadians may beg to wonder why, Toronto, the industrial harbourside especially, wasn’t on many itineraries for a grand tour. Was that really what they were on?

The images have a rawness that gives them a certain authenticity. The way the prow of the gondola intrudes into the photograph of the Rialto Bridge disrupts the composition yet makes it complete. Take it away and we’re left with a photograph thousands, maybe millions of tourists have taken since. Others have a muddy quality that call to mind amateur watercolours but again, if they were perfectly exposed and printed we wouldn’t be left with much to ponder. If alienation is too strong a word to use here, the way the people keep appearing in the photographs as stiff, tiny dark figures against the background recalls Last Year at Marienbad, at least in the way they are detached from their surroundings, as if the places they visit are of secondary interest. Even their communication with each other is minimal. It’s easy to imagine them drifting from Venice to Switzerland and down to Jerusalem holding cryptic, non-sequential conversations. (Another detail; regardless of which country they are in they wear heavy coats. Presumably they preferred travelling in winter.)

Here’s the thing. We may be looking at a set of photographs a group of ordinary tourists took of their travels but there is something about them that suggests otherwise. There’s a story here but like a novel where the narrator reaches for the truth and falls just short, the details we get and those that are missing combine to leave us asking more questions at the end than when we started.