And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 30 April 2011


Photos of dogs

“I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven’t got the guts to bite people themselves.”
August Strindberg

For most of the 20th century New York’s status as the world’s greatest city couldn’t be challenged. It was one of the biggest, the richest and it had the tallest buildings. None of that is true anymore but if you want to measure its decline you don’t have to read the statistics. Go down to street level and look at the thousands of people walking their dogs, then look at the animals. Most of them are tiny, preposterous creatures; dachshunds, chihuahuas, shih tzus and other pedigrees cosseted in tartan jackets and kept close to their owners on diamond studded leashes. People who claim to really know dogs, professional dog handlers and the like, say that the smartest dogs are the mongrels. Purebreds are like the European royal families before the First World War; pampered and glamorous but riddled with genetic weaknesses that made them fundamentally unsuitable rulers. This predilection for toy dogs represents a neutering of the city. It is no longer street smart and self confident but small and yappy and expects everything on demand according to some long lost privilege.

In Australia – and no doubt in New Mexico and Texas – people generally expect some reciprocation in their relationships with dogs. The animal might not look that good but it can protect the owner and it ought to know not to run in front of a car. Even so, there are stories of devotion to dogs that leave non-dog lovers scratching their heads. Dog rescuers make it their mission to take abandoned and brutalized dogs into their care. Most people ambivalent about dogs would still find that admirable, after all ambivalence doesn’t mean we are not bothered by stories of cruelty. One dog rescuer was obliged to move out of the city, firstly because she was accumulating dogs but also because a lot of them were psychologically damaged and liable to turn vicious. When one was bitten by a snake she had to drive it to a vet some 60kms away for treatment. The drive alone would have been tense. A dugite or a tiger snake bite can kill a dog within an hour. The dog was saved but the real point to the story was the bill - $6000. Naturally she paid it. Would you?

Dogs don’t occupy a special place in photography, not in the way horses do via Muybridge and chronophotography. Towards the end of the 19th century there was a fashion for portraits of prize dogs, gentlemen sat for portraits with a favourite hound at their feet and taxidermists advertised the quality of their work with cabinet cards but as a rule the best images of dogs are amateur snapshots. That is probably because most of them are spontaneous. The dog is doing something, the owner has a camera handy and a Kodak moment is captured. The equation is that since amateur photography is an important part of the medium’s history and because pets, like newborn babies, are an important to amateur photography, we should see the images as valuable records of a private world. The presence of a dog can reveal more details about the inner life of the owner but really, like old cars, masks and handguns, they make snapshots intrinsically more interesting.


Saturday, 23 April 2011


What price would you put on these photos?

“I don't think any collector knows his true motivation.”
Robert Mapplethorpe

The discovery that some respectable fine art photography dealers are offering anonymous snapshots, and not necessarily exceptional examples of the genre, for $300 to $400 shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise; anybody who has been collecting for a while has watched the prices creep up and the art market depends upon the intangibility of value for its survival. It raises a few questions, one being who is willing to pay that much for an anonymous snap when, if they’re prepared to spend time instead, they can find what they want at a fraction of the price. A more pertinent question is how do you value a snapshot?

If you accept the definition of a work of art being something consciously created to be so, then snapshots are not art. Part of their allure is that we can’t tell how much of what we are looking at intentionally came from the photographer. Was the decision to press the shutter at that precise moment entirely wilful? How much credit should we give to the camera? And how much to the lab, which in processing every print to an average did not pay due care to one and so gave us something dark and moody when the photographer only saw gray, hazy skies? The contemporary idea that every beautiful object created by people can be considered art evokes G K Chesterton’s famous quote: “When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything." It suggests we’re in danger of losing the ability to discriminate and if you don’t have that can you really make a sensible judgement about the value of an object?

Anybody who has shuffled through boxes of old snapshots knows that not every photograph is a wonderful artifact in itself. One family can look an awful lot like another and the only intrinsically enigmatic quality to most of the photographs is their anonymity. But certain photographs hit you. Sometimes a tiny detail like somebody’s gesture changes the whole dynamic of the scene but it could also be the particular tone of the image that lifts it out of the ordinary. Suddenly a tiny photograph has a strange weight to it. It is difficult to describe the feeling these snapshots impart and if we could make it clear what that elusive quality was we probably wouldn’t be interested in them in the first place. We know however it has nothing to do with monetary value.

One thing dealers do recognize is that snapshots are unique objects. Most of the time the original negatives have been long lost and another print can never be made again. That puts them in a different category to works by master photographers held in museum collections. The museums often own or have access to the negatives too so if a print needs to be made it won’t be vintage but if printed correctly it won’t have lost the original quality either. The uniqueness of snapshots makes them fragile and fragility has its worth.

Something else unique about snapshots is their randomness. Since professional photographers are professional by reason that they know exactly what they are doing, they eliminate the mistakes and accidents that distinguish snapshots even when it appears that they have included them. It isn’t only the print that can’t be replicated but the entire circumstance. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile prices in the hundreds of dollars when it’s still possible to pick up prints by well known photographers at not even half the price. That is particularly true of 19th century photographers. A carte de visite by Felix Nadar of an ordinary French citizen needn’t set you back a lot and what do you have but an original print by one of the pioneers of photography. Nadar is reckoned to have photographed some 30 000 French citizens and quite a few of those prints are still kicking about, so you can say for a start that there are a lot more Nadar’s than any single collection by any amateur snapper.

There are also trends to consider: snapshots in, Nadar out, for the time being. No astute dealer is going to attach a price to something unless they are confident they can get it so you’d think, hope even, that the prices some snapshots are being offered for come from careful consideration. Even so, collecting snapshots is highly idiosyncratic. Most collectors have their particular categories; indoor shots, photos of cars, dull banality, double exposures and printing errors or mottled effects and stains, but everything is fluid. Nothing that gives an object an intrinsic value exists in snapshot collecting. It’s purely an aesthetic pleasure and a desultory one at that, seeing as so much is left to chance. Nobody sets out collecting anonymous snapshots with the idea they’ll get rich. This revelation about prices, while no great surprise, is ominous.


Sunday, 17 April 2011


 Photographs about politics

Not every problem that someone has with his girlfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production.”
Herbert Marcuse

In the 1980s you could buy t-shirts with the phrase “All art is political” across the front. At first hearing it sounded irrefutable, even, you could say, virtuous. After all, if you weren’t prepared to stick your neck out for something you believed in, what were you doing calling yourself an artist? With a little more thought however the statement quickly turned trite and vacuous. Firstly, if you were going to make any statement about the world and your place in it, it was by the contemporary definition political. Even if you chose to withdraw completely and create work based on the minutiae of your personal life, that could be construed as political. Inevitably, artists quickly learned to dress their work in politics and that wasn’t so hard. An ordinary, thoughtless installation could become a metaphor for political conflict and who was the viewer to criticize the artist’s intentions when a pile of bricks in the corner represented the threat of nuclear war or the divide between the sexes? (Sexual politics is a so much better term than ‘gender politics’; it suggests the issues are physical and emotional rather than clinically theoretical.) We don’t hear that all art is political so much anymore, partly because behind the maxim lurked too much bad art but mostly because politics is everywhere. All art is political and it pretty much has been since it left the caves.

Every news photograph, every image in a social documentary, every identity card portrait is political and if a photograph wasn’t originally taken intended as a political statement it could easily be given one. But what about photography that is about politics; photographs about ideology, the things people are prepared to die for? Anyone can read the political message in Boris Ignatovich’s portrait of the Kazakh soldier at the top: The glorious Soviet state is young, vigorous and looking upwards. For another view of politics consider the postcard at the top of this paragraph and the one immediately below: same woman, same photographer, same outfit, only difference being the flags, one American, one Dutch. Perhaps the studio produced dozens of these postcards, each with a different flag, and the last thing on the photographer’s mind was a particular nationalism. What we get however is the cynical malaise in every voter’s heart: “It doesn’t matter whom you vote for; they’re all the same.”

And here is a more deliberate statement; a group of Nazi officers eating dinner under a portrait of Hitler. There is really no doubt that the photographer composed the photograph with the intention of having the leader’s portrait as the centre of attention. There is a small question as to whether that was done out of love or fear. The sense is that it was the former though that could have been motivated by fear. The portrait changes the whole dynamic of the image. No one can seriously think this is merely a scene of a group of men sitting down to a meal for it tells us everything we need to know. They are complicit.

Compare that to these two photographs taken by an English couple in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. What were they thinking when they posed under the swastikas? By 1936 Hitler had made it clear he intended to invade Czechoslovakia and Poland and concentration camps were being set up. Jewish athletes were forbidden to compete for Germany, several countries had already boycotted the games and there was an international debate about how closely the Olympic salute resembled the Nazi salute. It’s a fair bet that “I’m only here for the sport” was heard a lot in Berlin that summer but no visitor could claim ignorance about what was going on in Germany. That doesn’t mean they either were supporters or that they felt the need to be sensitive to the situation. We have a natural attraction to sinister icons and you can also bet that they weren’t the only English visitors snapping away at Nazi symbols during the day, shaking their heads in pious disbelief over a few beers in the evening.

For another comparison we have two snapshots of Turkish politicians. There aren’t a lot of clues to tell us what their convictions were but then, when we are talking about politics ideology isn’t always important. What we can see is that the man with the top hat appears well versed in the theatrics of politics. The hat itself suggests a man who believes power is his by birthright. That upright finger is intended to persuade rather than admonish his listeners. Consider then the man we shall call his opponent. Surrounded by flags and people, he offers a grimmer, more pragmatic vision of the world. His rhetoric might have been full of paranoid allusions to dark forces but his audience understood what he was talking about. If we continue to imagine that these two were pitted against one another, the contest is between one who offers what people want to believe and the other who gives them what they suspect is the truth.

The gallery includes one propaganda postcard from France, because propaganda is about politics, and a couple of snapshots of crowds attending a speech by Kemal Ataturk. It doesn’t include portraits of political leaders because it is only by identifying them the portrait becomes political. Nor does it include war, surveillance, bureaucratic, protest or several other forms of photography that are deliberately political in intent. When everything is political you have to draw the line somewhere.


Saturday, 9 April 2011


Postcards of actresses from the Weimar cinema

JG: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
ND: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Sunset Boulevard
, 1950

According to standard histories the sudden explosion of inspired creativity that was Weimar cinema was snuffed out when Hitler came to power, but the Nazis probably delivered the coup de grâce rather than the first mortal blows. Its genius lay in silent films and although the years between the introduction of sound and Hitler’s anointment as Chancellor are too brief to make a definitive statement, nothing close to the two masterpieces that really bookended Weimar cinema – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927) - was produced in the early sound era. By the end a lot of actors, directors, screenwriters and cinematographers had moved to Hollywood, for economic rather than political reasons. Others couldn’t adjust to the new technology of sound. If the various influences that German émigrés brought to American cinema could be distilled into a single phrase it would be that they made Hollywood grow up. Without the worldly moral reasoning of people like Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich, Disneyland need not have been created because it already existed.
Some actresses stayed behind. Underneath the constructed glamour of stardom there is a study in the way people resisted dictatorship. At a time when no one could be openly defiant, some preserved their integrity by playing safe; others were prepared to put their lives on the line. Quite a few represented here emigrated, which, if anyone could do that, was both logical and wise. Most have been long forgotten. Even their films are lost. These photo postcards, published by the Ross Verlag company among others, are our most tangible link to some of these women.

Vilma Banky
Son of the Sheik hasn’t aged well but everyone knows the image of Vilma Banky swooning in the arms of the be-robed Rudolph Valentino. Most of the films she made in Budapest and Berlin have been lost. In 1926 she signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn and left for America, where she acted with Ronald Colman in a few films before meeting Valentino. She died in 1991, aged 92 but her death wasn’t announced for another year.

Pola Negri
Asked in 1978 if she had been responsible for introducing sex into the cinema, Negri assured the interviewer that was correct though pointed out that in her films it had always been left to the imagination. Born in Poland, she made her first film there in 1914. In 1918 she began working with the German director Ernest Lubitsch, notably as the lead in two silent epics, Carmen and Madame du Barry. Moving to Hollywood in 1923, her popularity as a silent film actress grew though she is probably best known today as the last great love of Rudolph Valentino. She returned to Europe in the 1930s to make a few films, leaving finally when Germany invaded France. Despite affairs with other men and women, her reputation as a sex siren was mostly a cinematic invention. Before she died in 1987 aged 90 she left endowments to several American universities and arts centres.

Lil Dagover
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Being anointed as Hitler’s favourite actress has inevitably led some to wonder how sympathetic Dagover was to him, though she was not obliged to reciprocate his opinions. The films she made during and after the war tended to be safe and forgettable but in the 1920s she had been one of the stars of expressionist cinema, mot notably playing Jane, Francis’ fiancée in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). She also starred in Fritz Lang’s Destiny and Dr Mabuse; the gambler and F W Murnau’s The Phantom (all1922). She continued to act in German television and occasionally in cinema into her nineties.

Grafin Agnes Esterhazy
Agnes Countess of Josika Branyitska, a descendent of Elizabeth Bathory, was born in Transylvania and began acting in Budapest and Vienna in the early 1920s. In Berlin her best known role probably was as a prostitute alongside Greta Garbo in G W Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925). Consciously rejecting the lavish visual elements of expressionism, the film was an attempt at social criticism during the period of hyper-inflation. Esterhazy was one actress who could not make the passage to sound film and had more or less retired by the early 1930s.

Brigitte Helm
If a single scene epitomized Weimar cinema, it was the moment when Maria, the saintly champion of the underground workers, was transformed into a robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It is the point when none-too-subtle allegories about humanity and the machine, technical virtuosity and the visual trademarks come together. It was also 19 year old Brigitte Helm’s first film and apparently she hated the ordeal. She acted in some 29 further films and was a star throughout Europe, but when the Nazis took control of the UFA Studios in 1935 she quit in protest and moved to Switzerland then Italy. She died in 1990, repeatedly turning down interviews and offers to return to the cinema.

Lya Mara
Despite being described as a major star of German silent films and an abundance of images of her, information about Lya Mara is scarce. Even the date and circumstances of her death are unknown. It is on record that she was born in Latvia, that she wanted to study chemistry until her father’s death made the cost of the required education prohibitive and that she took up ballet. In the late 1920s she was involved in a serious car accident – again, no details – and that she only made one sound film, suggesting that like a lot of actors she couldn’t make the transition. Like Brigitte Helm, she quit her acting career when the Nazis came to power, emigrating to London with her husband, the film director Frederic Zelnik. Thereafter the trail goes cold. There’s a hint in these spare facts of disappointment and thwarted ambition but that can only be speculation.

Lya de Putti
These days all the silent film actresses have been labelled vamps but Pola Negri’s claim to have introduced sex into cinema may have met with a sniff of derision from Lya de Putti. As the photo of her stretched out of the sofa, her top unbuttoned, party balloons in the air, and surviving scenes from her films suggest, she didn’t waste time leaving things to the imagination. Born in Hungary, she moved to Berlin during the war to act and perform in ballet. Her most famous role was as Berta-Marie, the trapeze acrobat in Varieté (1925) who becomes the destructive obsession of the circus owner. She moved to Hollywood in 1926. The titles of some of the films she made there; Prince of Tempters, Sorrows of Satan, Heart Thief, Midnight Rose, indicate she wasn’t hired to play the girl next door. She died in 1931, aged thirty two, from an infection she may have picked up in a New York hospital. Her decline and death received considerable publicity at the time though she did not inspire the wave of grief that had surrounded Rudolph Valentino. In Hollywood, femmes fatale always got their comeuppance.

Lillian Harvey
Goebbels called her ‘our little dancing flea’, and he thought he was being complimentary. She did tend to play the ingénue; perhaps a silent prototype of Doris Day is more accurate, but probably no other actress put her career at such risk resisting the Nazis. She helped Jewish friends escape the country, had her bank accounts frozen and escaped, working as a nurse for the Allied forces in France. After the war she remained there, running a souvenir shop in Antibes.

 Marlene Dietrich
Between 1930 and 1939 Marlene Dietrich regularly played the role of a prostitute, which may be a comment on what Hollywood producers thought of European women in general or it could be that she was better than anyone else at playing a woman with no illusions. There was a contrast between the woman on screen and in the flesh. According to her daughter, she took on George Bernard Shaw and John F Kennedy as lovers, with quite a few more in between, though she was married to the same man for nearly sixty years. During the war, when Hollywood’s Jewish producers preferred to keep their own counsel about what was happening in Germany, she was a vocal campaigner against Nazism. She had small roles in silent films in Germany between 1919 and 1929, most often playing a dancer.

Rosy Barsony
The only actress in this group publicly identified as Jewish, Rosy Barsony began working in sound films in 1931. Prohibited from working in Germany and her birthplace, Budapest, she travelled to Italy with her husband where again they were denied work. Her acting career was over by 1938.

Evelyn Holt
Beginning in the late 1920s, Holt’s earliest films were light melodramas. Trained as a singer she was able to move into sound films but her marriage to the Jewish publisher Felix Guggenheim ended her career. They moved to Switzerland and later to the US.

Camilla Horn
In 1972, when he was just another scruffy folk singer, Bruce Springsteen recorded the brief and insignificant ‘Camilla Horn’. “Camilla Horne, she was born a long, long time ago/She came from Germany to the U.S.A/and was acclaimed as the next Garbo … And so she took her place at the bar/Just another fallen star”. How much he based the last line on evidence is probably something Springsteen no longer recalls but ten years later Camilla Horn would have a small renaissance in German films and on television. In 1926 she had a major role in Murnau’s 1926 film of Faust but a film that deserves more attention was released the previous year. Ways to Strength and Beauty was a celebration of the health and vitality of the young German body and featured Horn and Leni Reifenstahl as dancers. Horn went to Hollywood and returned to Germany in the mid 1930s. She was arrested by the Gestapo and briefly jailed by the British in the months after the war.

Liane Haid
Haid played Lucretia Borgia in 1922 but was generally recognized as the sweet, virginal type. Like most of the actresses here she originally trained as a dancer, which translated easily into the physical expressiveness required for silent films.  She left Berlin for Switzerland in 1942. The silent era can seem so distant now it is easy to forget that actors were usually young and a few, Helm, Negri and Dagover for example, only died in the last twenty years. Haid saw out the entire century, dying in 2000 aged 105.


Sunday, 3 April 2011


Occupational Cartes de Visite
“Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”
Oscar Wilde

By definition a profession requires a university education and a trade time spent learning the ropes as an apprentice. Occupation refers to the means by which someone makes a living. In London Labour and the London Poor Henry Mayhew listed hundreds of occupations from costermongering to street criers that have vanished from his city today. Dictionaries of historical slang make it evident that the Victorian underworld was as structured and stratified as polite society. The thief who stole the ladders from night carts and used them to break into houses were somewhat lower in status that the pickpockets. Then there were occupations like bookselling, which were legal although survival and prosperity depended on a ruthless streak and the negation of all scruples. A good bookseller saw nothing wrong in forging plates and rebinding someone else’s work to call it their own. If you want to know why Marx was so popular in the 19th century you only have to look at the economic structure of the labour market. Somebody had to try to restore its sanity.

In a sense all cartes de visite are occupational portraits since the people who sat for the photographer intended to show their position in society and in a rigidly stratified world a man’s moustache and the cut of his coat were evidence of where he stood, but so to was the uniform and the tools of his trade. We have been left with an abundance of images of carpenters, cobblers, priests, scholars, domestics, bankers and merchants. We can safely say that someone photographed every occupation in the 19th century and it’s our good fortune that a lot of these photographs still survive.

Travellers to the Orient tended as a matter of course to photograph representatives of the various occupations they encountered and it is easy enough to tell whether a CDV of a street trader was intended as an example or as a more subjective portrait. Most were the former so the rickshaw hauler or the Egyptian barber were inevitably types rather than individuals. With Europeans it’s a little harder to tell. We know that Charles Fredericks and Jeremiah Gurney received commissions to photograph American Civil War officers and sometimes all the members of a particular unit, and probably the same happened in Europe. Some of the military portraits floating about today must have originally been elements from such projects. There were also socially concerned photographers like Paul Martin who documented the inhabitants of slums though their focus was just as narrow. The only example that springs to mind of a European who set out to photograph other Europeans as a systematic typology of occupations was William Carrick in Russia. Presumably other photographers thought the idea too ambitious and not economically viable.

It has been left to us to construct the typology, which is not such a bad thing. Being removed by time and blessed with a certain ignorance we are more inclined to be democratic. To us a carpenter, an army officer and a domestic occupy the same level of interest when in their world they had little to do with one another socially and did their best to keep it that way. There’s always an issue when constructing these systems as to when and whether we stop seeing the subjects as individuals and see them as representations instead. Then again, the CDV format and the limited approaches photographers used tended to reduce people to types anyway. If we see ‘the soldier’ instead of ‘a soldier’, it’s quite likely the photographer dealing with a few dozen customers every day did too.