And furthermore ...

One Man's Treasure encourages the use of anonymous photographs posted here to illustrate books and album covers.
If an image appeals to you, contact John Toohey at

Saturday, 26 March 2011


Ross Verlag and real photo postcards of film stars

“He whose face gives no light shall never become a star.”
William Blake

In 1919 Heinrich Ross, an Austro-Hungarian living in Berlin founded the postcard publishing company, Ross Verlag. Like any decent entrepreneur he could see the stirrings in popular culture before they became fully apparent and he realized that in the future the stars would not belong to opera or the stage but cinema. The film industries in Germany and France and especially Hollywood were emerging and with them new ideas about what glamour, beauty and stardom meant. The Ross Company is credited with publishing some 40 000 postcards, mostly it appears for the German market. Being a publisher, he wasn’t concerned with stage directing the studios, rather he licensed existing photographs. The history is a little obscure as to how much or even whether he invented the particular appearance to his postcards but within a few years the Ross Verlag look – if we can call it that – sepia toned gelatine bromide prints on cream card stock, were being produced in France, Italy, Austria, Turkey, Poland, Sweden and England. Naturally enough they focused on stars from their own countries but, especially where American actors were concerned, all used the same licensed images. In a lot of cases the only difference between cards was the publisher’s stamp at the bottom.

Ross and his competitors were by no means the first to realize the power of actors to sell its product. Half a century earlier the London Stereoscopic Company had been producing cartes de visite of stage and opera stars and encouraging its customers to collect them. There’d been a few changes in the interim, camera technology, the introduction of artificial lighting, but the most important so far as publishers were concerned was that the silent cinema was a global medium. Nobody in England would have been wildly interested in a German stage actress unless she spoke English fluently and appeared in the West End but everyone could watch Metropolis and the Europeans got Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as succinctly as the Americans.

The Ross Company bought images from the film studios and though we know that the work of some significant photographers such as Clarence Bull, George Hurrell and Emile Hoppé appeared on the cards, they were rarely credited. It was also the situation that various film studios developed a particular look for their stars that depended on lighting angles and background. The photographers tended to work within tight guidelines. The film studio was a place for manufacturing stars and the story of these cards then is really a case study in economics, how a product is created and marketed to the world. Here it isn’t the actors or the cinema but the idea of glamour and sophistication. For the first time these qualities weren’t innate to wealth or position. Even a farm girl could look the epitome of cool elegance if she was photographed the right way.

As his name might indicate, Ross was Jewish and during the 1930s the Nazis took control of Ross Verlag. He left Germany in 1939 and ended up in Chicago, where he died in the 1940s. An exhaustive history of the company including the publishing details of thousands of cards can be found here at The photos in this gallery include Ross cards, of course, but also French and Turkish examples, of actors, beauty queens and Jack Dempsey, who was neither of the above but was at least an iconic symbol of the 1920s.


Saturday, 19 March 2011


10 portraits of unknown people

“There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
Richard Avedon

The GAR badge on his cap stands for Grand Army of the Republic, an ex-serviceman’s league for Union veterans of the Civil War. He wears a  star on his waistcoat that may be a GAR medal and a small shield above that suggests some  official position. These details are useful but it’s the face that draws you in.  It’s ragged and dishevelled, ’lived in’ is the common descriptor, and it’s a face you earn rather than buy. Even without the badges to give you clues you know he has seen things no proper mother would want her son to. Some time in the late 1870s or the 1880s this unnamed individual sat for an unknown photographer. There were reasons why the photograph was taken. It doesn’t feel like he was after a portrait for his own interest. He doesn’t look exactly enthusiastic about the situation. It may have been a requirement for his job. It’s also possible the photographer had been commissioned to photograph veterans. Whatever the case, you have to agree that it’s an uncommon study of a man. This is why photography was invented; because painting could never reveal the facts with such immediacy.

When the Academie des Sciences announced that Louis Daguerre had invented a workable, permanent photographic process in 1839 he had to confess that he hadn’t yet been able to take a portrait of a person. It wasn’t so much an admission of failure – no one was claiming the daguerreotype was perfect – but it was an acknowledgement that until somebody captured the human face photography was still a medium in utero. Within a couple of years thousands of portraits of people around the world had been taken and the numbers would rise exponentially (Is there anyone alive who hasn’t been photographed?) but great portraiture has always been elusive. The definitions are too flexible; any photograph that includes a person can be regarded as a portrait and portraiture encompasses a lot of uses of photography, from passport shots to family snaps to elaborately lit and studied studio images, the famous to the anonymous.

When it comes to portraits of unknown people there are a few simple rules that define a great photograph. One is that it should reveal something neither photographer nor subject intended. It can be assumed that the photographer and the veteran weren’t planning on an image that would reveal the harrowing effects of life though that’s what they gave us. A second is that the portrait ought to have some perplexing element to it. The woman in the Sebah & Joaillier portrait above is probably Greek or Armenian. We can say that much, but it is difficult to say how old she is and more than that, we can’t really read what she is thinking from the intensity of her gaze. All great portraits should bother us. A third rule – and maybe it isn’t so much a rule as an ideal - is that the image should be metaphorical, in the sense that it represents a condition, the more subtle and open to interpretation the better. The adjectives we want to use to describe the subjects don’t spring to mind immediately. If they do they are not quite adequate. A great portrait in other words should make us think about things not connected to the image.

All the great portrait photographers made their names photographing the famous but people for whom posing in front of a camera is one of their professional duties quickly learn to adopt a mask. Often we are told that a great portrait of a famous person reveals some hidden, vulnerable side but what we are actually looking at is a game between photographer and subject. That is one reason why celebrity portraiture is ultimately disappointing. What we really want isn’t subterfuge but mystery. Only unknown people can give us that.



Saturday, 12 March 2011


"All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality."
Susan Sontag, On Photography

On July the 20th 1874 the New York Times reported a story, originally from a Kentucky paper, of a trader working the Ohio River who had fallen ill and decided to recuperate in a town called Ripley. Among his possessions was a small iron casket containing the bones of two of his children who had died twelve years earlier. According to another of his children he never let the casket out of his sight. Would he have been satisfied with a post mortem photograph of the children? Probably not. A photograph is merely a representation and the physical proximity of his deceased children was what mattered to him.

Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes claimed to see a connection between the act of photography and a form of death, or an affirmation at least of mortality. In freezing a moment of time the photographer acknowledges it has passed, hence a simple snapshot is a reminder that all of us must die. 19th century post mortem photographs don’t fit this argument. If anything, they were an attempt at immortality, to preserve the subject’s brief life beyond death. There are thousands of post mortem photographs still circulating today and most of them are of unidentified, unknown or untraceable people. All the photographs tell us is that at some point this person was alive. As it happens, post mortem photographs are often the last definitive proof of an entire family’s existence. All other possessions have been dispersed and lost. Rather than acknowledging mortality they confirm life.

It is easy to imagine our 19th century ancestors as gloomily obsessed with death. The evidence presented by portrait photographers is of a dour, unsmiling people dressed in dark clothes that cover the body, and we have been left a proliferation of photographs of death and illness. Not just post mortem portraits for the paying public but autopsies, the famous in their satin lined coffins, remains dug up from archaeological sites, medical studies and then there are spirit photographs, which aren’t of the dead because they were faked but they are about death. If not most then a considerable percentage were taken out of scientific curiosity. It is worth remembering that in the 1860s Etienne Jules Marey conducted an experiment on a decapitated criminal to identify the moment death took place. A satisfactory medical definition of death wasn’t available and there were all those chilling stories from the Revolution of blinking eyes and moving lips to deal with. Anthropology was a new social science and to be taken seriously it needed to overcome old prejudices about barbarism in non-Western cultures. That meant an objective study of funerary practices and to be objective it was useful to have that disinterested recording machine the camera on hand. It wasn’t a case of obsession so much as having a lot of unanswered questions to deal with.

Ever since photography was invented the camera has been on hand to document death but then the presence of death has always been an intrinsic feature to being alive. Inevitably life in all its forms and expressions couldn’t be documented without death. If any one person deserves the blame for the death of post mortem photography it was George Eastman. Once he put cameras in the hands of ordinary people they were able to photograph each other very much alive. We didn’t need post mortem photography anymore although there was plenty of death about to keep documenting.


Sunday, 6 March 2011


 Paganism and photography in the 1900s
“Paganism is wholesome because it faces the facts of life.”
Aleister Crowley

Dancer Olga Desmond’s performances were simple in theory. She assumed poses as Aphrodite or Venus on stage – essentially she became a living statue – and like most representations of the gods in classical art she was nude. Between 1908 and 1910 she succeeded in offending not only the authorities in St Petersburg and Berlin, who had her shows banned, but also that echelon of artists who believed in a pretty and saccharine depiction of nature and did very well for themselves as a result. Because those artists were the ones governments turned to for opinions and advice she was never going to get a fair hearing. There was always a question too whether her devoted audience admired her performances for their beauty or her nudity. In Paris at the same time Isadora Duncan was experimenting with free expression in dance and spectators packed the Folies Bergére and the Casino de Paris to watch dancers who left nothing to the imagination. Paganism was fashionable again.

In London Aleister Crowley made at least one court appearance and was named in others. In March he won an appeal against a ruling that had prevented him from publishing details of Rosicrucian secret rituals in his magazine Equinox and in October George Jones, a chemist, sued Looking Glass for an article that associated him with Crowley, a man generally agreed to be ‘a person of disgraceful and criminal character’ (at least so far as the London Times was concerned). Crowley never appeared too upset by all this attention. It takes some vanity to believe you hold the key to divine mysteries.

The Theosophists were probably the only people who did not call their movement pagan, though they wouldn’t have thought the term derogatory.  By 1910 the society founded on the principle that all religions were evolving towards a single, universal faith was splintering. Charles Leadbeater had been accused of child abuse and a power struggle had developed between him and Annie Besant. Still, Theosophy held influence over intellectual life in Britain and the US. W B Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, William Crookes, Kandinsky and Mahler were all sympathizers though for different motives. And if Theosophy was too intellectual or political or your interests in the occult were more fleshly, there was always the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its various splinter groups to get involved with.

Which brings us to photography and the pagan imagery that flourished between the turn of the century and the First World War. Leopold Reutlinger, the subject of a previous post, was one of the best known producers of postcards of women but there were hundreds of others, spread throughout Europe and America, who recognized that paganism provided the essential link between glamour and the erotic.  A photograph of a beautiful woman was guaranteed to have a market but enhanced with some of the accoutrements of popular culture from the ancient world and the message was amplified.

There are any numbers of reasons to explain the phenomenon. You could talk about the decline of religious authority, the influence of suffragism or take a more strictly Marxist approach and analyse the sudden wealth of the middle classes, but we are concerned with photography. While all of the above matter they only scrape the surface and they aren’t as interesting as the influence of that aesthetic curiosity the Art Nouveau movement. It’s called a movement though it had no manifesto to underpin its ideas and no coherent theory. It was mostly defined by surface detail and the common link between all the major practitioners was that beauty ought to exist for its own sake. Unlike neo-classicism, which in architecture linked classical imagery to power (hence so many Greek columns and domes on US Government buildings), when it came to the ancient world, Art Nouveau didn’t care for Aristotle or Cicero so much as its disrobed nymphs and the notion of lying about under the sun and drinking wine.

 These photographs are often dismissed as banal and ignored in histories of photography but if you want to know how important they were, consider any 19th century cabinet card of an actress and then one of an actress from the 1920s, when fashion photography was emerging on its own terms then ask at what point did stiff, formal portraiture became expressive and elegant. These photographs mark the transition. They still owe a debt to 19th century ideas about composition and they haven’t quite reached that moment when photography individualised the celebrity but the cool, studied atmosphere of 1920s fashion photography might not have existed were it not for these photographs. And these photographs would not have been taken without the fashion for paganism in all its forms.