And furthermore ...

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Sunday 29 May 2011


C. L Hunt: small town studio photographer

“A person can stand almost anything except a succession of ordinary days.”


As photographs they aren’t particularly interesting, being typical of millions of cabinet cards produced in the US in the 1880s, but precisely because of that we can use them as a starting point to consider what it meant to be a small town photographer in America in the late 19th century. At a time when there was a debate in the cities as to whether or not photography was an art, people like Clarence Hunt regarded themselves as tradesmen. Success depended entirely upon the number of customers and in a town like Franklin Falls, which today we’d think of as a village, there wasn’t much chance of getting rich or famous. Once a town reached a certain size a studio photographer became essential but it was an occupation for people of middling ambitions.

C. L Hunt was born in 1852. By 1881 he was operating as a watchmaker and jeweller on Central Ave, Franklin Falls, and by 1888 he had branched into photography. The move wasn’t unusual. It was common for photographers to run two or three businesses out of the same shopfront and jewellery and photography had certain affinities. Both involved a working knowledge of chemistry, the use of mechanical instruments and detailed work. A jeweller working with electroplating and engraving should have easily adapted to photography. Economically it made sense. Neither occupation could have been sustained on its own and being a merchant by disposition he would have understood the logic in diversifying. The elaborate studio backdrop in the group portrait indicates he had at least a moderate sized studio. He would have had a staff as well; a receptionist and at least one assistant in the studio and/or the darkroom.

Franklin Falls was a mill town just outside Franklin on the Merrimack River in New Hampshire. Maps and photographs from the 1880s suggest there were probably no more than 3000 people living in Franklin, a population large enough to sustain one photographer, two at the most. Other photographs by Hunt online show he took a few landscapes and did some advertising work but mostly he was a portraitist who followed orthodox procedures. Prices for photographs varied between towns and states and by the 1880s they had fallen considerably over the previous 25 years but a working figure would be between 25 and 50 cents per cabinet card. Cost of living figures for nearby Connecticut show that in 1880 the average wage there was $1.75 per day. At a very rough guess, Hunt would have needed 5 or 6 customers a day just to stay afloat. Presumably he got them because he was still registered as a photographer at Central St in 1895 and worked at least another 7 years.

Go to a newspaper archive from New York or Chicago in the 1880s and search for ‘photographer’ and ‘suicide’. There are a few entries and they tell much the same story. A photographer doing alright for himself in a small town decided to try his luck in the big city. Things didn’t work out and one night he returned to his room in a shabby boarding house and put an end to his suffering. Photography was a cutthroat business, particularly at a time when the technology was rapidly evolving. The shift from albumen to gelatine based prints for example required a whole new investment in equipment at the same time as the new processes were making the production of photographs much cheaper. One way to survive was not to innovate. Keeping to a formula his customers were familiar with, he could turn out a steady number of portraits and the only adaptations required were in small technological advances. Electric lighting for example was around in the 1890s although he might not have used it because it was expensive and the studio skylights worked just as well. By the turn of the century albumen printing was redundant but still available. The cabinet card was also on the way out. If Hunt, now in his fifties, thought he was too old or close to retirement to change he would have watched the arrival of the Kodak camera with a somewhat indifferent resignation, realizing that in a few short years his most important clients were likely to be the mills and local businesses needing advertising.  The real legacy of people like Hunt is that we have an archive of images of ordinary citizens from small towns, people who, like Hunt, had no ambitions to immortality but have been bestowed with something resembling it.


Saturday 21 May 2011


Hand painted studio photographs

“With colour one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.”
Henri Matisse

Back in those days, if you didn’t think photography was art but you thought painting was, where did you put hand painted photographs? Probably nowhere; any compromises would have offended purists, were ignored and left for a future generation to decide upon. But hand painting of photographs is one of the few elements of photography that can be considered a tradition. The earliest efforts date back to the daguerreotype process at the very beginning and the concept was carried on for another century until colour photography became practical and cheap enough to make it redundant. It didn’t die. Today we are certain where the people applying paint or ink to photographs stand. They are artists; they wouldn’t do it otherwise.

The questions that faced people applying colour to photographs were usually more basic than anything to do with art. One was how much to use. Have a look at the online exhibition of 19th century hand painted photographs at Luminous Lint. There are a few examples that could fool you into thinking the colour came from the photographic process. Often though a tint of pink in the sitter’s cheeks or a splash of colour in the clothing was enough to lift the portrait. Whether it always worked is a matter of judgement. Sometimes the photograph ceased to be a portrait per se but became a curiosity, like the family portrait in the gallery where the boy’s red bow tie dominates the image so loudly that you barely see anything else. Technically speaking, it fails but it makes its case as an example of the strange paths photography could take.

Unless steps were taken to protect the original print by laminating it, applying paints or inks interfered with the chemical processes. This could change the colours so that what we are looking at today is no longer the original. Obviously, when customers returned to the studio and collected their print they weren’t looking at some evocation of another age, but what did they see that we do now? It’s a small but critical issue when dealing with coloured photographs because they influence so much of our perception of the past.. When some colour film footage of the Second World War was unearthed and released to the public about fifteen years ago, the people behind the release were at pains to assure viewers the scenes were genuine and hadn’t been manipulated. As it happens, the fragile stock had faded. Some of it looks, well, hand coloured. Think of the number of times the early 20th century is evoked in films through washed out pastel colours. What we are looking at isn’t so much a representation of the past but nostalgia for it.

The best hand colourists rendered their work to be as natural as possible but there was never any hint of deception. Everyone understood that what they were looking at was merely an impression but it is also true that with a really good hand coloured photograph it is hard to imagine the original black and white could be more interesting or superior in any way.


Saturday 14 May 2011


Armenian and Greek Studio Photographers from Constantinople

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.


If you were to write a history of Armenian photography you would begin in Constantinople in the 1870s, when Pascal Sebah, the Abdullah and Gülmez brothers owned three of the most important studios in the city. There may have been Armenian photographers in Europe, Russia, the Middle East and America but in Constantinople they dominated the business. They had three advantages; their own community was large enough to sustain business on its own if necessary, there was a demand for albums and views of the city in Europe and they were living in an Islamic state slow to encourage the new technology within its faith. It is a myth that the only photographers in Constantinople were Christians and Jews. There were Turkish Muslim photographers but not many. Into the 1930s, most studios were run by Armenians or Greeks.

During the late Ottoman Empire Armenians and Greeks were marginalized, being obliged to live in certain districts, subject to unequal imposts and denied rights given to Muslims, but their situation was more complex than that suggests. They were preeminent in foreign trade, banking and the professional classes and the areas they had to live in were among the wealthiest in the city. There are stories of Armenian and Greek revolutionaries (we’d call them terrorists these days) seizing banks, of shootouts and riots in the city that ought to lay waste to the myth that Muslims and Christians lived peaceably as neighbours, also to any notion the Christian communities were innocent victims or pawns. From the 1880s onwards relationships between Christians and Muslims were punctuated by violence, a fair amount of it instigated by the Christian minorities sensing the imminent collapse of the empire.

No essentially ‘Armenian’ or ‘Greek’ aesthetic distinguished the photography – few studios in 1920s Constantinople advanced ideas about composition beyond what had been practiced since the 1860s – it is their subject matter that is important. The people who sat for their portraits belonged to the middle and upper classes and in a lot of cases could claim an ancestry in the city stretching back centuries. Even before the events of 1915 however they must have realized that regardless of how badly they might have wanted to see an end to the Ottoman Sultanate its demise meant theirs as well. Read any personal account from Turkey set between the beginning of the First World War and the declaration of the Republic in 1923 and you won’t find much celebration. Mostly it is fear and uncertainty, conditions made worse by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Though Greeks in Constantinople were theoretically immune from the exchange, the writing was on the wall. From here on Turkey was for the Turks; the Greeks, Armenians and Jews who stayed on would not be made to feel at home. These are the faces of people living through the end of times, when a city they have called home for generations is being shut off to them.

Identifying a Greek or Armenian studio portrait is usually straightforward because of the photographer’s stamp. Sometimes there is a message on the back in Armenian or Greek script and obviously, a girl in her communion dress or a crucifix around someone’s neck indicates an indisputable fact. Clothing isn’t always an indicator. Ataturk’s reforms westernized dress, (the fez and, for a time, the headscarf were prohibited) which makes it more difficult to determine who people were in photos from the 1930s onwards. There is a small problem with studio names too. Although Greeks tended to use their surnames, Armenians, like Turks, preferred more generic business titles, such as Foto Venus or Sabah (Turkish for morning, and a later manifestation of the Sebah studio). Often the research throws up small but intriguing scraps, such as Foto Galatasaray being run by Maryam Sahinyan, undoubtedly one of the few if not actually the only woman running a studio in Istanbul in the 1930s.


All the photographs in this post can be confirmed as either being taken by Armenian or Greek studios or being of Christians living in Constantinople/Istanbul. It would be remiss however not to acknowledge the diaspora following events in 1915, when Armenians emigrated to Europe and the Middle East, Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut in particular. Between the 1920s and the 1950s some of the best known studios in these cities belonged to Turkish born Armenians such as Armand and Van Leo.

All photographs become more interesting the older they get and all old photographs show a lost world but a particular case can be made for these. In September 1955, Turkish nationalists rioted in Istanbul, attacking Greek buildings, killing 13 people and raping a number of women. The pogrom effectively marked the end of the Hellenic contribution to the city. Within a few years the Greek population had halved. By the 1990s it was estimated to number about 2000. Turkish nationalists did their utmost to erase the memory of Christian communities in Istanbul but for Armenians and Greeks (who still officially refer to Istanbul as Constantinople) the city became infused with a mythic ideal, the garden from which they’d been banished. There are still reminders of the Armenian and Greek communities in Istanbul, churches, inscriptions on buildings and the like but they tell us nothing of the people who lived here. Portraits such as these are the most tangible evidence we have of a society in the process of self-destruction.


Sunday 8 May 2011


A 1930s snapshot album from India

At the third glass his eyes got brighter, and he began to talk … of strange scenes and doughty deeds, of wars and plagues and strange peoples …
… “I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, “just to look round a bit, you know.”
“Better where you are,” said the sergeant major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass, and sighing softly, shook it again.

W. W Jacobs; The Monkey’s Paw

Something happened to India in the 1860s. It had always been strange to the western imagination but now it became a land of occult mystery; at least it did in popular fiction. Once it had been a blighted land, mostly used as a device to conveniently kill off secondary characters, now army officers were returning with talismans or strange powers they’d picked up (stolen, more usually) from some distant temple. Think of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, W. W Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw and quite a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In 1879 Helena Blavatsky met Alfred Percy Sinnett, editor of the Pioneer newspaper in India, and moved the headquarters of the Theosophical Society to Bombay. Four years later Sir Richard Burton published the first translation of the Kama Sutra. The three of them gave an intellectual credibility to the idea of the mysterious east that made the most ludicrous story of ancient curses feasible. Photography also had a part to play in this transformation; the camera brought the country to life in ways that confirmed the wildest tales, and Darwin was also important. For a lot of people the theory of natural selection didn’t destroy religion so much as make it, the western version, trite and uninteresting. Rather than embracing atheism they looked for alternative religious ideas, of which India had a multitude. Cholera and restless natives were still dangerous but now India was also the home of snake charmers and other magicians and just possibly secrets of inner wisdom long lost in the west.

These photographs come from a small, yellow album and were most likely taken in the 1930s. They appear to be a mix of the owner’s personal snapshots and others bought in souvenir albums, though which is which is sometimes hard to tell. Throughout the album the owner has written descriptions in painstaking calligraphy and on a couple of pages added deft sketches of local types wearing fezzes and turbans. The skill in this work suggests he or she might have been a draughtsman for an engineering or architectural company, or even a journalist since at that time the ability to knock off a quick sketch was still valued by newspapers. One page has two photographs of British people – two of them officers - relaxing at Ootacamund, a hill station and resort in Tamil Nadu. A woman is in one of the photographs and there is no reason to think this wasn’t her work in the album.

Whoever put the album together, it was obviously intended to be more other than a collection of holiday snaps. It has something in common with the Gaumont or Burton travel films of the era;  ‘impressions of India’, if you like, with sequences of scenes showing the architecture, the people, the land and so on. Most of us can probably recognize this India from old novels and films like Kim and The Man who would be King. It was the India that was so thoroughly distilled in the European consciousness it is impossible to be rid of even now when India means Bollywood and economic statistics.

It is said that every stereotype has a grain of truth to it, or as David Cronenberg put it more bluntly; ‘every stereotype is true’. This album could be seen as a collection of stereotypes but if you think that you also have to ask whether the photographer went out in search of or happened upon them by chance, and if it is the second does that make them more authentic? Obviously, like any snapshot album, this one involved some judicious editing beforehand but photographs have a way of making a case in ways the written word can never match.  ‘This is the India of our imagination’, the album’s creator is saying; ‘and I have the proof it is real’.