And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010


Amateur modernists

“The quest for vernacular photography … has been like an archaeological expedition digging around Cold Comfort Farm that unearths the Palace of Knossos - and can’t quite grasp the significance of the discovery.”
Janet Malcolm; Diana and Nikon; The New Yorker. April 26, 1976

Unidentified photographer, Turkish Soldier, C1940-50

One day in the late 1940s or early 1950s somebody decided that their photograph of a Turkish soldier would look more interesting if they crouched down to shoot up and tilted the camera 45 degrees. Were they aware of Alexander Rodchenko’s portraits of Soviet soldiers and peasants? Quite possibly; whatever the Turkish Government’s official line, a lot of its citizens were, shall we say, interested in what was happening across the border. Then again, the idea might have come to the photographer out of the blue. “What if I do this? What does it look like?” About the same time another Turkish person liked a family portrait so much they decided to take a photograph of it. They probably weren’t aware that over in the US Walker Evans was taking photographs of photographs – particularly family portraits of poor white farmers – as an ironic counterpoint to certain entrenched ideas about truth and representation. Is this a portrait, or is it simply a photograph of a photograph?

 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1940s

Modernist photography was easy to recognize, harder to define. Alfred Stieglitz is called the father of American modernism but, frankly, his early work looks dated; more 19th century Pictorialist than 20th century avant-garde. Etienne Jules Marey’s chronophotographs are indubitably modernist in appearance except he was a scientist working in the 1880s who couldn’t have cared less whether people thought his images were art or not. But that is one of photography’s great gifts; it screws with definitions and one thing the modernists agreed on was that image and representation were never the same things. Rodchenko’s photographs weren’t of peasants but Soviet idealism, the titles that Moholy-Nagy gave to his photomontages were deliberately abstruse and Evans insisted that his photographs of buildings and deserted streets were portraits of people in their absence. This is not a photograph of a drugstore. If you think about the person who should be behind the counter and the people who should occupy the stools, it’s a portrait of mid-west Americans.

 Unidentified Photographer, USA, C1940s

In April 1976 Janet Malcolm published an article in the New Yorker titled Diana and Nikon, a reference to one camera favoured by amateurs and another by professionals. It was one of the first articles to extrapolate on an idea that had drifting about for a while, since at least 1964 when John Szarkowski first published The Photographer’s Eye, namely that fine art photographers were much more influenced by vernacular photography than anyone had realized or let on. Today that’s a given; Jeff Wall spends months setting up a photograph that is supposed to look like a spontaneous snap and the Met put on an exhibition last year dedicated to Evans’ collection of postcards. Both are bookends to an argument that sometimes throws out dubious claims; that the snapshot is the ‘purest’ form of photography (whatever that means) or that the snapshot deserves equal ranking with other forms of photography, which can lead to the logical conclusion that many great photographers are no better than amateurs. Something the argument overlooks is that the relationship is mutual. Professionals influence amateurs. Every serious amateur and budding professional has taken a snap and said to themselves, “My God, that’s as good as anything by Ansel Adams. (Insert photographer of choice here.)” Even more pertinently, they have headed into the street searching for that Cartier Bresson and Kertész moment, seen something like it and fired.

 Unidentified photographer, unknown, C1930s

The distinguishing point about all the images in this post is that they are conscious attempts by amateurs, if not to emulate great photographers then a modernist style just as they would have seen in magazines like Life and Vu. They have played with angles and lighting, interrupted the composition with elements that shouldn’t be there according to their camera manual and otherwise tried for something more interesting than a formal snapshot. So, if it’s the case that amateur snapshots influenced professional photographers like Evans and Kertész and then amateurs were influenced by the professionals, does that say something worthwhile about the history of photography? Is it possible to write a history of photography showing the mutually causal links between amateurs and professionals?

Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1950s

The project sounds daunting; one that would suit an academic comfortable with fearlessly defending shaky claims. The problem with – actually another great thing about - vernacular photography is that it eludes historical analysis. A photograph of a Turkish soldier may look like something Rodchenko would take but that doesn’t prove any influence. The historian would have to examine literally thousands of snapshots to establish skeins of influence, all the time aware that since the amateur is anonymous there is no way of knowing their thought processes. Deciphering the Voynich Manuscript would be easier. Still, there is a nagging feeling that forces are at work in these photographs. Amateurs are looking at modernist photographs, picking up their cameras and going out to take snapshots, conscious that the way they look at the world has changed.

 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, 4/11/1943
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, 1940s
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1950s
 Unidentified photographer, Unknown
 Unidentified photographer, unknown
 Unidentified photographer, Bulgaria, C1940s
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1950s
 Unidentified photographer, Turkey, C1940s

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


10 hand painted real photo cigarette cards from Cavenders

“Sing tive, tive, tive, now in full cry,
With yeeble, yabble, gibble, gabble, hey!
The hounds do knock it lustily
With open mouth and lusty cry.”
Anon; C1600: Verse on the back of Cavenders Camera Studies No.4, ‘Unwelcome Followers’.

 It must have made perfect sense at the time; find some 50 photographs of the British countryside, print them 45x70mm, small enough to fit in a cigarette pack but hand paint them too to bring out the vibrant colours of spring, the yellow summer harvest, the reds and browns of autumn and the stark blues and greys of winter. What would that have involved? Dozens, possibly hundreds of workers stippling photographs with fine point paintbrushes. A cursory look at these images indicates the workers’ efforts could be pretty crude but could they be blamed, bent over for hours at a stretch, patiently applying specific colours to tiny areas? Their mistakes did guarantee – and it says something about Cavenders (est. 1775) that the company never promoted this – that each card would be unique. That erratic bleeding of the watercolours couldn’t be replicated.

The hand colouring of these images owed something to Pictorialism, a curious movement that tried to find a compromise between painting and photography. It managed to alienate a lot of photographers and artists while remaining incredibly popular with camera clubs and photographic societies. Probably Pictorialism’s greatest achievement was to divide the photographic community so thoroughly that some people deliberately sought the sharp focus and cold abstraction of modernism. Without Pictorialism to kick against, they might have been content to stick with formal landscapes and portraits. 

These cigarette cards were produced in 1926, when Pictorialism was in its death throes but also at that moment just before natural colour photography became accessible. Autochromes were produced on glass plates and the various other processes, like photochrome, were still too expensive for mass production, at least for something as disposable as a cigarette card. If Cavenders wanted to outdo rivals like Senior Service who had their own series of real photographs, it needed an angle, hence colour. But there was something more going on.

 The company could also lend respectability to the collection by scouring the vast library of British poems dedicated to the countryside. They found Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wordsworth and Keats of course; “How silent comes the water round that bend/Not the minutest whisper does it send.” Maybe not their finest words but then the company wasn’t after quality, just its illusion. The most modern poet included was Rupert Brooke who had been killed in 1915 (probably taken out by a mosquito, not an enemy soldier), though he could hardly be called a modernist unless by accident. 

Post-war Britain was a wreck. High unemployment, thousands had returned from the war too disabled to work, the empire was in decline, manufacturing had shrunk, wages were being forced down and there were the dissenters to worry about; the Irish, women, Bolsheviks, immigrants. 1926 was also the year of the General Strike. A man, the type who smoked Cavenders, had cause to wonder who really won the war. This series can be seen as an attempt by the company to remind its customers that whatever they’d fought for had been worth it. True, there’d never been any real suggestion that the Central Powers would invade Britain but by beating them back the nation had preserved its soul, its hallowed rural traditions, the peace of the English countryside and the centuries of literary heritage. A man could light up, look upon a coloured photograph of sheep grazing outside a thatched cottage, turn to the back, inhale again, read a verse by Thomas Hood and consider that yes, there was something about England guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


10 real photographs from the Senior Service ‘Our Countryside’ series.

Under the ominous bowl of the sky a man was ploughing the sloping field immediately below the farm, where the flints shone bone-sharp and white in the growing light. The ice cascade of the wind leaped over him as he guided the plough over the flinty runnels. Now and again he called roughly to his team: ‘Upidee Travail! Ho, there, Arsenic! Jug-jug!”
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

By the 1920s most British people lived in cities and found some cause to complain about the horridness of their lives. The rich could retreat to the countryside, to a manor house in Sussex or a small castle in the Scottish highlands. The poor had to make do with cigarettes and the miniature photographs that came with each pack. Unwrapping that day’s supply of Senior Service, they might find a timeless scene from the ‘Our Countryside’ series that showed rural England as a world of quiet, dignified labour; a place far removed from the squalor of their actual lives. Some no doubt recalled that their parents had either abandoned or been driven off that same land and moved to the city because it offered more than the miserable drudgery their family had put up with for generations.

During the 1920s nostalgia for rural tradition was becoming a big business in Britain. The working classes who’d moved to the cities had more or less surrendered the countryside to the rich, who could now pick up a decaying mansion at a bargain price and get a charming little village thrown in for free. This was the age of the classic English murder mystery, when a detective, preferably amateur, arrived at a country manor, met a collection of eccentric and debauched suspects with hyphenated names, also some taciturn locals who knew more than they were letting on, and solved a bloodless killing using a logic that was seldom logical. More sophisticated writers like John Buchan regarded the British landscape as the backdrop to an elaborate conspiracy that threatened the very world it was set in. By 1932 Stella Gibbons had grown weary of all this melodramatic nonsense and published Cold Comfort Farm.

One way to show sympathy to the people so mercilessly patronized by her colleagues was to ramp up the attack and make it preposterous, so the Starkadders became a family of physically and emotionally crippled atavistics. They had their own language, which though incomprehensible sounded obscene nevertheless. The women dropped babies at a regular interval without being too sure who the father was or how they even got that way. As for the men, it was horrifying to think they had offspring at all. In the kind of novel Gibbons was mocking it was a duty for the leading character to bring some kind of civilizing influence to the country folk, so Flora Poste introduced birth control, sent one Starkadder off to Hollywood, possibly cured the matriarch of a long standing neurosis and even arranged for the most powerful symbol of the modern age, an aeroplane, to land at the farm. It was funny because it was true; not the part about rural folk being backward, the one about educated city folk regarding their country cousins as a different and vaguely terrifying species.

The 1920s saw another outbreak of that fear Britain suffered from periodically, namely that hallowed traditions were dying. Before long, people worried, there’d be no thatchers, coopers, shepherds or ploughmen left. This was nonsense. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 150 years earlier, traditional occupations had been disappearing from the land faster than many animals and the only reason some still survived was that the workers could not afford the new technology. The choices facing the worriers were existential; embrace mass-production and make goods affordable to all or stick to tradition and keep the country backward and poor.

One way around that dilemma was to turn the camera on vanishing Britain. If the old ways were dying, somehow photographs might keep them alive. Senior Service marketed its collection of 48 ‘Our Countryside’ cigarette cards at a time when it was generally acknowledged that Britain had to modernize or die. It was the decade of the General Strike, when production lines were cutting the cost of cars, when America was forging ahead. As with all of its collections of real photograph cigarette cards, the company sought out professional studios like Valentine’s or Frith’s and didn’t credit the photographers. The point was not to think of these images as works of art or as a documentary but as artifacts from a dying world where photography was the fiction that sustained it.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


Three 19th century panoramic format photographs of the English Landscape.

“Living in England, provincial England, must be like being married to a stupid but exquisitely beautiful wife.”
Margaret Halsey; With Malice Towards Some.

 Marsh Bros, Thames Parade, Albumen print, C1880s

By the time American photographers had discovered the west, British photographers had been roaming their own countryside for some twenty years, It’s common when reading about the early photographers of the American west to encounter ‘mythic’ and ‘heroic’ in the descriptions; less so when reading about the British but the terms are just as pertinent, maybe more so since the mythic and the heroic were precisely what British photographers were looking for. The mythic was the literary world that stretched from Arthurian legends to the romantic poets, the heroic were the generations who had first tamed Britain’s wilderness then fashioned it into a form of Eden, misty valleys and desolate moors framed by hedgerows and stone walls. There were a few places on the continent, Tuscany or the Dordogne perhaps, where the British might concede the cultivated landscape came close to English finesse but the British countryside was a kind of evidence of national greatness. 

Marsh Bros, Mapledurham Weir, Albumen print, C1880s

These three small panoramas of the Thames were probably taken in the 1880s or 1890s. In the lower right of two photographs is a stamp identifying the studio as the Marsh Bros of Henley. We don’t know what the actual purpose of the photographs was, for exhibition, for sale in an album or a commission, but they are classic examples of British landscape photography. Firstly human intervention appears to have barely disrupted nature. What buildings there are lie in the distance and bleached out by the exposure. In the photograph of Mapledurham Weir, the single human figure is angling, a traditional British way to commune with nature. The figure in the centre foreground of the photograph of the regatta course is a ghostly blur. The path along the Thames Parade is deserted, not so much as a wheel rut scarring its surface.  In the British consciousness, humanity mustn’t injure nature but tend to it as a garden. This allows us to make certain interventions. We can clear the forest so long as we replace it with something aesthetically respectable; herds of grazing cattle or golden haystacks. In the Marsh Brothers’ depictions the Thames is a river of quietude, a place to drowse on the banks, watch the water drift past and listen to the splash of trout and the buzzing of mayflies. Who needed the wilderness when nature had been domesticated and taught to behave as it should? 

 Marsh Bros, Regatta Course, albumen print, C1880s

Thursday, 8 July 2010


12 Kodak Instamatic Snapshots from Paris

“Nobody realizes that some people expend an enormous amount of energy just trying to be normal.”
Albert Camus

 It depends on your perspective really; was 1963 the year of Kennedy’s assassination and a point where the world changed? Or was it another year in a long summer, so to speak, where the killing of a president, or any international crisis, could barely dent the feeling that all was well with the world? If you were a university graduate with a job and a house in the suburbs, what did you really have to worry about?

In 1963, Kodak brought out the Instamatic. The film came in a cartridge that was simply fitted in then removed when all the frames had been exposed. Not that many people had a problem loading cameras but this was an automatic age and Kodak had always understood that for its customers, the less they had to do the better. Aesthetically the cameras weren’t much to get excited about. They were boxy and made from moulded plastic but then this was an age of plastics, and disposability. People were beginning to furnish their houses with moulded plastic furniture. Clothing was made from nylon and polyester. A man could dress himself for work in the morning, confident that not one single piece of his attire was made from organic materials. Never mind that in the summer he began to stink like a polyurethane rubbish bin; bring on the new world.

The other important point about the Instamatic’s aesthetics was that the prints were in square format. Kodak had been producing square formats for cameras for years but the Instamatic prints were enlargements. Remove the cartridge with its 24 frames, each approximately 23mm square, take it to the chemist or drug store and a day later pick up twenty four 90mm square prints. Enlargements, mind you, bigger, glossier and better than you imagined when you looked through the little plastic viewfinder.

The early sixties were a wonderful time to be living in the suburbs, or so we were told, and the square format Instamatic was the perfect camera for the times. One might think it was invented with grassy lawns and carports in mind. The square format had the effect of enclosing the world within the frame, as though nothing existed outside it. That suited the ideal of the suburban home as a place of refuge from the noise and grime of the inner city. The suburbs were still too. A husband could leave for work in the morning, his wife could look through the picture window at midday and he could return in the evening and throughout the day very little, if anything, had changed. Other cameras were built for action, to record rapidly unfolding motion and cluttered, hectic scenes; the Instamatic treated the ordinary as beautiful. It respected the rigid lines of modern architecture and it could make the banality of contemporary living look natural.

One day in the early 1960s a Parisian brought a new Kodak Instamatic home and began recording, well, not exactly the stuff of their daily life, more its artifice. He or she began playing with family and friends, posing one another in windows or doorways like fashionable models and setting each other up against the most mundane backgrounds. That was another thing about the Instamatic; it was a camera for having fun with. No serious artist would touch it. The people had no idea of course that in a few years photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz would take expensive, professional cameras into similar terrain and turn the square format into a kind of weapon that reflected the suburbs as barren, soulless places. Perhaps the French photographer would be amazed to see the prices an original Adams print gets these days; then again, they were French, living in the era of Sartre and Beckett. It’s just as possible they appreciated how absurd modern life was and knew the best machine for recording it was the cheap, ugly, supremely functional Kodak Instamatic.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Four panoramic photographs taken in India

“I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever … The more I looked, the more the panorama unfolded.”
Frederic Remington

 “The heavy bullock guns/ Sorry you can’t see the whole of the gun teams. Those with only six bullocks are (indecipherable)”

The panoramic cameras invented in the 1850s depended on two concepts paradoxical to photography. One was that in order to compress space perspective had to be excessively distorted, which was counter-intuitive to the premise that photographs should reflect reality. The other was in the process of compressing details to fit the frame photographers discovered that some of the most striking images looked almost empty. The landscape dominated by a vast sky looked much more impressive than a crowded streetscape. Panoramic cameras weren’t designed to record facts but space, which for the era was about as abstract and elusive as time. 

 “The cavalry just after the final charge/ 9th Lancers in middle”

Most 19th century panoramic cameras relied on a lens that rotated or scanned a field of vision from 120 to 150 degrees. Given the slow exposure times – anything from a few seconds to a few minutes – that the film plate was exposed, this made anything that moved faster than a stone almost impossible to photograph but also raised the metaphysical possibility that a person photographed at one side of the frame might have time to run behind the photographer to stand at the other side, so appear twice in the same shot and participate in a photograph that considered time and space in unison. Perhaps someone tried this idea; photographers were obliged to be highly imaginative, but for the most part panoramic cameras were used as tools for hard science rather than metaphysics.

 “Native infantry going passed (sic) in enactor(?) columns. 31st Punjabis are near side. That is a brother of Colonel Dennys on horseback. He is CO of 31st Punjabis”

These four panoramic photographs were taken at a military parade in India. The regiments named were all formed in the 1850s and the costumes of the Europeans suggest the 1880s. The Colonel Dennys referred to on the back of the third photograph may be the Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dennys mentioned in a register of British officers serving in India who was stationed in the Punjab between 1874 and 1882. Given the four photographs are fragile albumen prints that date range seems viable. It also fits with a technical innovation that would have made these photographs impossible to take a few years earlier. The dry plate process invented in 1871 and on the market by 1875 not only saved photographers the time involved in preparing plates, loading, exposing and then developing them, it also shortened exposure times, making a large tableau of people and animals in motion possible.  

 “16th Bengal Lancers Note Imayut (?) Khan on horseback just to the right of those two ladies in foreground”

What about the photographer? The inscriptions on the back of each print are personal; “Sorry you can’t see the whole of the gun teams”, but they also suggest the recipient was informed about the various regiments and military identities. Presumably the photographer served in the military; not only because he knows the regiments and particular officers but because the military frequently employed panoramic photography to survey terrain. The organic quality of the images, the way for example the troops on parade in the third photograph are framed in sharp perspective demonstrate he understood the panoramic camera well enough to exploit its virtues. That took technical expertise. Not only would he have to view the world through his camera as upside down and back to front but bowed out and in sharp distortion, almost a mathematical series of arcs and triangles.

Note: Photographic historian John Hannavy pointed out that these photographs appeared to be gelatine bromide prints, which were not produced in the 1870s. Further research revealed a W E B Dennys was the commanding officer of the 31st Punjabis between 1903 and 1907. 

detail from first photograph