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Sunday, 30 January 2011


Early 20th century photographic postcards of children

“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Secret Garden

In 1900 the infant mortality rate in England began to plummet, from around 160 to 180 deaths per 1000 children in the late 19th century (distributed across the country; in industrial areas the rates were much higher) to about 110 in 1910 and falling steadily. At Christmas in 1904 the original stage play of Peter Pan opened in London. Six years later Frances Hodgson Burnett published The Secret Garden, the story of an orphaned girl restoring life to a family living in self-imposed isolation. In Peter Pan children stay eternally young in Never Never Land. In The Secret Garden an orphaned girl breathes life into a family living in morbid isolation. There is nothing coincidental about these pieces of information. People were beginning to think of childhood as a magical time and children (in literature anyway) were being given a germ of influence over the adult world. Photography played a part this change of attitude. In early cartes de visite and cabinet cards children were often photographed against a drab studio background, no different to the way their parents were, and the attitude they presented to the camera was one of sombre discomfort.  It was as though childhood was just a phase adults had to go through. Gradually more elaborate and imaginative props were introduced and children were encouraged to perform. By the turn of the century and the introduction of the postcard, they had started to inhabit fantastically theatrical stages closer to Never Never Land than mundane reality.

The best known authors of late Victorian and Edwardian children’s fiction had childhoods that were famously wretched or punctured by tragedy. Whatever Peter Pan offers Freudian analysis pales in comparison to the relationship that Barrie had with his mother. When Burnett’s father died the family went from moderate comfort to poverty more or less overnight and Kipling and Andersen claimed they were abused as children. Their books weren’t so much offerings of hope to the young as ways for themselves to escape the past. One way to do that was to reinvent it and give it qualities it had never possessed. Around the turn of the century – a little before to be precise – childhood became sentimentalized. Children appear in studio portraits holding their favourite toys and wearing Fauntleroy suits - inspired by Burnett’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy about a boy who teaches by example the virtues of charity to a family of cold hearted English nobles. Childhood was regaining its innocence. It was also becoming cute.

This festishizing of children is apparent in all of these photographs, most obviously in the one above of the girl on the pedestal. At first glance it is a chaste enough image, and certainly more cute than erotic, but everything in it from the girl’s costume to her expression mirrors contemporaneous postcards of women where the intentions were more obvious. In a lot of postcards from this era girls especially have been encouraged to be coquettish. This could mark the beginnings of the sexualisation of childhood in popular culture, or it could be something less contrived. Cuteness in children necessarily involves a certain precocity on their part and the photographers, and parents, couldn’t obtain that without referring to the most obvious differences between an adult and a child.

Just like the novels of Barrie and Burnett, this was a genre supposedly celebrating childhood but it was also about loss, the things denied to the older generation and a desire on the part of parents that childhood could last forever.


Saturday, 22 January 2011


Snapshots from a German officer's photo album

"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil."

Hannah Arendt

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?
Leonard Cohen; All there is to know about Adolf Eichmann

These snapshots come from a wallet sized album containing 32 photographs that belonged to a Nazi officer. There are no inscriptions on the back or on the album to give us any idea who he was or where they were taken (presumably though not necessarily in Germany). Most of them are of ordinary domestic scenes with a few of his fellow soldiers but there is no triumphalism in those images, though this shouldn’t surprise us. They are no different to the photographs that French, British or American soldiers were taking. The impact, the punctum if you want to be technical, resides in the swastika armbands. The swastika is the most potent symbol of evil that emerged in the 20th century but then if you regard its presence in these images as sinister you ought to also ask yourself what kind of man takes photos of his girlfriend, his dog or his friends playing cards?

Among the millions of images we have of Germany in World War 2 - Hitler, Nazi parades, the concentration camps and battle scenes - family snapshots like these are scarcely considered. For a long time we weren’t allowed to unless we were prepared to be accused of attempting to show ‘the human face of Nazism’ but it is also the case that they lacked the graphic impact of other images. The point however is not that they stand in opposition to those photographs, or even that they support it, rather they are as integral to our conceptions. Given that every other detail of Nazism has been so thoroughly analysed, domestic snapshot albums like this remain the last artifacts deserving our consideration. One thing this album reveals, and admittedly it’s no great discovery, is that love of the Fuhrer and the glory of the Third Reich were not uppermost in the soldier’s mind. He had other things to worry about.

That people could be much more concerned with maintaining order in the household or a semblance of humdrum routine than they were in the state of the nation is still problematic for some scholars. Like the stories of villagers living alongside concentration camps who claimed to know nothing of what was going on inside them, it suggests wilful ignorance but then how many alternatives did they have? Once they acknowledged that something terrible was happening across the fields they had to ask themselves what they were going to do about it. Sustaining a sense of domestic normalcy is a survival mechanism. It stops people from descending into paranoid madness. Maybe the camera becomes a tool in that struggle. Photograph the everyday as proof of its importance and it offers protection against all the other images flowing in. A snapshot of his dachshund doing tricks becomes evidence that life can still be banal under extraordinary circumstances.

Hannah Arendt’s credibility as a critic of Nazism has been called into question in recent years and her term ‘the banality of evil’ has been overused to the degree it is in danger of becoming a cliché, yet her basic argument remains intact. Stripped of his power and facing a court in Jerusalem, Adolph Eichmann had become a shabbily ordinary man, banal in the way that shopkeepers and minor government clerks were supposed to be. Arendt singled him out but didn’t think he was unique. All the Nazi leaders possessed the same ordinariness. None of them was particularly gifted intellectually. Even their vision of eternal world power was timeworn and conventional in a way that any middling petit bourgeois could understand. If not, it could never had had what success it did. The original owner of this album might have been just such a person, or his thinking may have been more nuanced. Whatever the case, his response was familiar.


Sunday, 16 January 2011


Photographs of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, Moscow, 1954
“Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union.”
Joseph Stalin

Before knowing anything about these photographs you realize there is something dystopian about them. They don’t quite belong in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but the world they represent is not far removed from that. The year is 1954, a day midway between Stalin’s death on the 5th of March the year before and the speech Nikita Khrushchev will deliver to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, on February the 25th 1956.  ‘On the Personality Cult and its Consequences’, is a partial but devastating list of the former dictator’s crimes. They aren’t exactly a secret, Western governments have had some idea about what was going on but for their own purposes preferred to remain quiet. Still, no one expected Khrushchev would reveal the list and so deliberately to ensure that although it would be called the ‘secret speech’, the West received full notice. But for now that is in the future. In 1954 the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition reopens after a 13 year hiatus. It covers 237 hectares and it celebrates the vast expanse of the Soviet empire, from the borders with Finland, Poland and Turkey to the west and Japan in the east. Stalin has been dead for a year but his presence still hangs vivid over the USSR. This is as much a monument to him as it is to the idea of the USSR.

Stalin is one of the few non-architects (British royalty aside) to have an architectural style named after him. An entire style actually, incorporating Stalinist Gothic, Stalinist Empire and High Stalinism. It used to be derided as proof of his extreme narcissism and if you wanted to know what drove a man to have millions of his people murdered you only had to look at the Moscow skyline. The trouble with this reasoning is that across the waters in New York and Chicago architects and engineers were being driven to design and build ever more extravagant and grandiose skyscrapers, in styles not dissimilar to Stalinism. If Moscow State University was a monument to egotistical madness, what was the Chrysler Building? A tentative reassessment of Stalinist architecture is taking place, led by people who have no memory of the Cold War or no ideological reason to sustain one. For them there are times or conditions when the Seven Sisters have the same awe inspiring majesty as any of the USA’s great towers.

The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition was the best example of Stalinist Gothic, gothic being defined as ornamentation with nostalgia for vanished ideals that never really existed. Architecturally, the halls dedicated to the various Soviet cultures bore no relationship to any native style but were supposed to evoke classical, medieval and renaissance eras, as though the key text for the architects was some overblown Victorian piece of historical fiction. There’s an apparent paradox in all this. If the modern state is such a spectacular success, why draw inspiration from a past that has supposedly been made redundant? But this isn’t a particularly Russian problem. Chicago’s White City built for the 1893 World’s Fair and supposed to represent modern America also relied on a mishmash of historical styles. Actually, it appears there was an unwritten code that the architecture for all expos and worlds’ fairs had to be simultaneously nostalgic, tacky and magnificent.

There are a few details to pay attention to in these photos. The badly cut suit coat of one of the Russian women for example, evidence in itself why eastern bloc citizens craved Levis. You might wonder about the medals the dignitaries from Central Asia are wearing too. One looks like you earned it but half a dozen is a parody. If the fountain designed as a gold sheaf of wheat, the Golden Spike Fountain, was supposed to be a monument to Soviet agriculture, it could also be one to Trofim Lysenko and his experiments on genetics and wheat that have been blamed for creating one of the worst famines in the Stalinist era. Then again the relationship between architecture and power has always relied on sustaining delusions to the degree they become a manifestation of paranoia. In that regard, Stalin was no different to any other ruler who devoted too much of his rule to constructing temples to his legacy. The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition wasn’t however a complete white elephant. It still survives; more or less intact as the day it was reopened in 1954, still an expo and convention centre with an outdoor market place for small time capitalists.


Sunday, 9 January 2011


 Snow scenes

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter.  Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show. 
Andrew Wyeth

The Eastman Kodak Company always understood that its success depended upon making photography accessible to amateurs. To do that it needed to convince amateurs that with a little training they could take photographs (just one was enough) to rival those of a professional. With that in mind the company invested a small fortune in manuals and pamphlets intended to show amateurs how easy photography was. The company would have realized too that at Christmas thousands –actually hundreds of thousands – of Americans and Europeans would receive a Box Brownie and the first thing they’d want to do was load a roll of film and rush out into the snow. Magazines like Kodakery went to some pains to calm the excited neophytes with a list of careful instructions in case they ruined the roll of film and decided there and then that cameras were too complicated for them or worse, Kodak was being a touch deceitful with its assurances about the simple pleasures of photography.

‘Expose for the snow’ was the typical warning although some Box Brownies had only two aperture sizes to work off and one speed, plus ‘B’ for the open shutter, so the advice was to ‘expose as quickly as possible’. Actually, photographs in the snow rarely failed. True, the image might not have been what the photographer intended but with a background of white snow, stark, leafless trees and dark figures wrapped against the cold it was always going to look good. The worst that could happen was that the sudden cold played havoc with the film chemicals and gave the print a dull, sombre tint.

Taking photographs in the snow may have sounded technically difficult but Kodakery had a lot more to tell its readers besides what settings to use on their cameras, how to compose the perfect shot and how to get the most out of the new Kodak Velox paper. There were also articles on how to fake snow for quaint, homemade dioramas or a sequence of silhouettes; how, in other words, the humble Box Brownie could achieve the same results as professional animators working for the major film studios. 

If there is a thorough exhibition dedicated to the place of snow in photography that needs to be curated it would begin in the 1860s, when technical limitations obliged studios to experiment with snow scenes. The gallery Faux Snow at the American Museum of Photography has some beautiful examples of studio trickery. The exhibition would move on to the French Bisson brothers, Louis and Auguste, who defied conventional wisdom and took their cameras up into the Alps. It would inevitably include Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley’s work from the Antarctic expeditions in the 1910s but it would have to incorporate a high number of images by unknown amateurs. Ever since photography was made available to amateurs, people have waited for the blizzard to clear and rushed out to document its impact. Snow makes the dirtiest and most decrepit city street look clean again and it encourages us to engage in ancient, pagan rites, like building effigies and staging mock battles. But more than that, people have been irresistibly drawn to the same images; the pine tree with its branches covered in snow and the streets blanketed in white. Those images must be in the exhibition. More than any others they suggest the connection to nature people still feel but can’t articulate.


Saturday, 1 January 2011


 Early 20th century erotic postcards
Nudity is a form of dress.
John Berger

 Seriously, anyone who claims that their actual interest in early 20th century erotic postcards is historical, sociological or aesthetic is joking, or lamely spouting perfidies. Which isn’t to say there isn’t some interesting history and sociology to be found in them, and aesthetically they are preferable to the stuff labelled erotica in magazines or on the Internet. Too bad too because once we admit what our real interest in erotica is we’ve more or less run out of anything sensible to say about it.

There are no doubt some carefully thought out, very sensible academic studies on erotic postcards but if researching the history and sociology of the cards is your thing, there are a few sources somewhat off the beaten track worth contemplating. One is a 1944 essay George Orwell wrote about Salvador Dali; Benefit of Clergy. Orwell touches on postcards in a few places – he calls them ‘filthy’ – and he admits he is no art critic, but he pins down something most critics would have missed. Dali’s rebelliousness depended on graphic violence, masturbation and scatology and Orwell found that childish and inept. He did think however that Dali was an excellent draughtsman and he identified a strong reference to Edwardian imagery (Dali no doubt called the era by a different name) in Dali’s paintings. More than that he sees the Edwardian period as elemental to Dali’s later obsessions. If Dali did have any idée fixe based on erotic ideals in the early 20th century, he probably found it in postcards. If you follow Orwell’s thinking, growing up in religious and repressive Spain, Dali identified the elegant, mildly tantalising images in postcards with everything unobtainable. To Orwell, Dali wasn’t a fraud and when he set out to shock people he understood the source of that desire. Above this paragraph is an apparently innocuous French postcard. Look closely however and the outline of the girl’s nipple is quite clear. That’s a detail immediately obvious to ten year old boys and parish priests.

And here is an actual Edwardian (as in English) postcard. There’s nothing erotic about this image. The best word for it is ‘saucy’, a very British concept. Presumably the man knows the woman – the idea of a complete stranger creeping up on a sleeping woman would have been too strong – but he’s silently pondering a relatively inconsequential part of her body, her stockinged ankle, his mind full of feverish possibilities. That’s a very Daliesque form of voyeurism.

 The women, girls, who modelled for these images were not prostitutes as is often assumed. Most of them were dancers or chorus girls, or to give them their more poetic title, chorines. Some might argue there was a fine line between the dance hall and the brothel but if so it was still distinct. The chorus line was a place to begin a serious acting career. Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn and Paulette Goddard were all chorines, and in later life some of them did try to suppress evidence from their early, less public days but they didn’t sell their physical bodies for money, only the representation of them.

Julian Mandel is one of the best known names from the erotic postcard trade in the 1920s though there is a debate whether that is the pseudonym of one person or a group. He wasn’t different, merely better and more prolific than a lot of the others. One of his models was Kiki, of Montparnasse, and her Memoirs is another useful book for anyone thinking seriously about the genre. Not because the book is a literary classic – it isn’t – nor because she describes the business in depth – she doesn’t – but because she gives us an attitude at odds with common perceptions. It’s easy to think that if the men who photographed the models and those who bought the cards were predatory then the women were victims. Kiki has a different idea. Being a nude model was a lot better than most of the other work available to a girl from the slums. It wasn’t difficult, it paid ok and it gave her a certain status in the demimonde. And if she hadn’t been a model for Mandel and others she wouldn’t have come into the orbit of Man Ray and his friends like Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia and Alexander Calder. Memoirs was banned in the US until the 1990s. Reading it now it’s hard to see why, except that she is utterly shameless about her life and adventures. Somehow, the idea that a woman might want to boast about her life as a model bothered some right thinking people.

The images in this gallery range from the saucy to the explicit (in 1920s terms). Some are barely erotic to our eyes but the sight of a cleavage was enough to justify moral outrage in some minds. Others clearly belong to the genre of artists’ models, as though the purpose behind them was to provide a physiological guide for painters. The four small, square photos were either sold as they were or used to create postcards. Note the use of the mirror, a popular device for suggesting an artistic sensibility while showing the body, front and back, in all its glory.