And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 25 June 2011


Some wallet sized studio portraits of men 
”Men are all alike – except the one you’ve met who’s different.”
Mae West

What if back in the mid-1970s a Turkish record producer came up with a concept that would take disco out of the clubs and on to the top 40, a boy band for people who’d lost their innocence a while back? The five men fronting the group would be professional performers, not specifically singers, dancers or actors but a bit of all three. Forget art, this would be theatre. The performers would dress as Turkish stereotypes and everyone would get the irony immediately. Even old conservatives fundamentally opposed to the notion of gay men dressing up as Turkish stereotypes wouldn’t be able to stop themselves humming the tunes and practising the steps in front of the mirror. One of the performers, probably the front man, would be an Ottoman gazi or pasha (though a tea seller would suffice). Wearing a fez and a ridiculous moustache, he’d punch the air and twirl about as he led the anthemic chants for the other four. He might be centre stage but he wouldn’t necessarily be the star. The genius of the concept was that the audience always had their personal favourites.

Among the other four one had to be an army officer. Impeccably dressed down to his Sam Browne belt and jackboots, he’d represent that schizophrenic relationship Turks had with their army; part selfless defender of the borders, part instrument of dictatorship. When it came to minorities the producer needed to tread carefully. Some people had no sense of humour and might respond with bombs. Having someone dress up as an Arab could work. It acknowledged the imperialist past and think of him not as an Arab but as Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and even the Arabs would laugh along.

Who was left? A policeman? There was already the army officer and the uniforms not to mention the political implications were already too close. A construction worker? No one would get that. How about a gangster of some description? By the mid-70s a fair number of real life gangsters were convinced they were living the dream, part Michael Corleone, part Little Caesar and besides, at that time people the world over believed gangsters were swarthy Mediterranean types. The last member of the group required some deliberation. How about an athlete? In the mid-70s Turkey didn’t have an international reputation for excellence in many areas but it had produced a succession of wrestlers and weightlifters who were more agile and could lift a lot more than anyone else around. Let the Americans triumph at short course running events, how many of them could raise twice their weight above their heads and hold it there? Put one of the performers in a wresting costume and it was like putting a beret and a handlebar moustache on someone and calling him French.

In the middle of the last century especially it was common for people to go to a studio to have their portrait taken, get a dozen or so prints that they could put in their wallet and distribute to whomever they thought required them. The idea was to get an image that distinguished the sitter’s individuality, or in other words their better side. What we end up with however are images that correspond to stereotypes. Maybe Jack Nicholson was right, there really are only twelve types of men on the planet, or possibly people in these photos look like stereotypes because that is the easiest reference point we have for them. One of the men in the gallery looks like a cross between a young Phil Silvers and an insurance salesman from Midwest America (hat, glasses, pin on lapel). There might not be a place for him onstage with the group but he’d make an excellent PR agent.  It’s one of the strange things about these portraits; we always feel like we already know the person.


Saturday, 18 June 2011


Guns in snapshots

“Like the people you shoot and let them know it.”
Robert Capa

Back when sideshows were popular and actually interesting, some of them had shooting galleries where for a few coins you could point an air rifle at a target and if you hit it, instead of a fluffy toy or a kewpie doll, you set off a camera shutter and received a photograph of yourself taken a split second after you squeezed the trigger. For the winners the prize was an innocuous snap but for philosophers of a certain persuasion these artifacts represent a moment when the camera and the gun become symbiotic.

From the very beginning when people were seeking metaphors to explain photography they turned, unsurprisingly when you think about it, to guns. So much of the language of guns fitted naturally into the new medium. You had to aim the camera, get the subject within range and you shot. Various dictionaries attest that the term ‘snapshot’ appeared around the beginning of the 19th century and meant a quick shot from a gun without taking aim. Writing in the Photographic News in May 1860, John Herschel spoke of his vision for photography: “What I have to propose may appear a dream; but it has at least the merit of being possible … taking a photograph, as it were, by a snapshot – of securing a picture in a tenth of a second of time.” Being one of the most respected scientists in Britain, Herschel chose his words carefully; he didn’t want people to think he was a crank, but he might have been aware that five years earlier Thomas Skaife had been arrested for pointing a device at Queen Victoria that looked (to the police anyway) like a derringer but was actually a camera, his pistolgraph.

Go forward to the late 1880s, to the first stirrings of the age of the amateur camera fiend, and the vocabularies for guns and photography have already become indistinguishable. Critics describe the amateurs as prowling the streets, tracking their victims and pouncing on unsuspecting strangers. The amateurs don’t appear too offended by anyone likening them to armed hunters. They boast of lying in wait for their prey, which may have been nothing so much as the dusk’s shadows reaching a particular intensity. Meanwhile the first magazines dedicated to hunting with a gun and camera appear. In their original incarnations the idea was to shoot animals twice, first with the gun then the camera but gradually the idea emerges that putting the rifle away is more thrilling. This doesn’t suggest a budding ecological consciousness so much as an ultimate challenge. It is one thing to shoot a lion with a well aimed rifle, quite another and a lot more dangerous with a camera. It was also technically near impossible until the 1920s. Today such ethically sound people as David Attenborough employ tricks learned from big game hunters, constructing camouflaged hides, using other animals as lures and lying in wait for the target to appear.

In the 1940s and ‘50s it was almost impossible to read about Henri Cartier-Bresson without some reference to his abilities as a hunter. Inevitably he was darting about like a wasp or stalking like a cat, always watching for that rustle in the bushes . He didn’t resile from these allusions, indeed more than any other photographer he seemed to encourage them. “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to "trap" life - to preserve life in the act of living,” he was quoted in 1952. And this: “The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” These days, photographers usually dismiss analogies between their work and hunting. It is an easy cliché but it also makes them sound vulgar and voyeuristic. Cartier Bresson incidentally spent some of his formative years in Africa and it was an image by Martin Muncaksi of African boys playing in the surf that made him see the potential in the camera.

Speaking of clichés, it is hard discovering which writer first thought up the idea of the perfect murder weapon being a gun disguised as a camera. Doubtlessly they congratulated themselves on their ingenuity for it’s a plot device that could only be taken seriously once and thereafter left to Get Smart or The Avengers to do what they chose with it. Predictable as the idea of the gun hidden in a camera may sound, it has become central to one conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Sirhan Sirhan, the argument goes, was only an accomplice. The real killer was a Pakistani/Palestinian/man of Middle Eastern appearance, who shot the senator with his camera. If it sounds feasible why hasn’t it been used more often? After all, if the Bulgarian secret service could kill dissident Georgi Markov with a poison dart fired from an umbrella, surely it isn’t too difficult to load bullets into a camera.

The image of the camera as a psychic weapon makes an appearance in Blow Up, the original short story by Julio Cortazar and the film by Antonioni, in The Eyes of Laura Mars with Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones and Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom. In each example the images of violent death that people see are their own creations. In their hands the camera is a gun.


Sunday, 12 June 2011


Four cartes de visite by William Friese-Greene

"You must be a very happy man"

Laurence Olivier to Robert Donat in The Magic Box, a 1951 film about William Friese-Greene.

It is easy to cast William Friese-Greene as the archetypal tortured genius; a man whose passion to invent first ruined him then sent him to the edge of madness and finally killed him. Pit him against a dull witted public on the one hand and a ruthless, monomaniacal tyrant in Thomas Edison and the tragedy is complete. A gerbil would have a better chance extracting itself from a python’s coils than Friese-Greene had escaping his fate. Or so it seems. There are other sides to the story of the man some people (British, usually) insist invented motion pictures. One is the utter lack of any self-discipline. References to the hundreds of patents he took out for photographic devices and machines might suggest a fervid imagination but equally they point to an unfettered mind, incapable of seeing work through to its proper conclusion, uninterested in the dry business of marketing and especially so detached from any sense of public opinion that he could never understand why no one was particularly interested in his inventions.

Actually they were; any blame for a lack of enthusiasm regarding Friese-Greene’s various patents ought to be laid at his feet first. Take for example the claims that he sent a letter to Edison outlining his invention for a motion picture camera, that Edison failed to respond, or rather, his response was to unveil his kinetoscope a couple of years later. Edison never acknowledged receiving the letter, which some see as a very likely explanation although it probably was just that. How many letters a week would Edison have received from inventors around the world convinced they, with the great man’s assistance, would make a fortune? It is easy to say this now, but since Friese-Greene’s invention had been reported on in the Scientific American, a smarter move might have been to work through an intermediary.

As a photographer, Friese-Greene was successful enough to open a studio first in Bath, then Bristol, the Brighton and two in London, although reminiscences left by his business partner, Arthur Esme Collings, and receptionist, Winifred Tagg, suggest he had problems even then. She describes a decrepit looking studio being something of an embarrassment for the society ladies who came to have their portrait taken, Friese-Greene frequently vanishing for the day without giving reason and bills went unpaid. He was one of the first in London to install electric lighting in his studio but when he couldn’t pay the bill the London Electric Light Company began court proceedings. Friese-Greene’s response was to counter sue, which was reckless – he was bound to lose – but also an omen. Most of his efforts at suing others, inevitably over copyright, would fail. Reports of his case against Charles Urban, who tried to block Friese-Greene’s Biocolour film process just before the First World War suggest it was easy for Urban’s lawyers to depict Friese-Greene as a shambling, misguided crank. (He later won some of his credibility back in an appeal.)

Soon after Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays in 1895 Friese-Greene was running a show at a London music hall x-raying various body parts of his audience. His quickness at seeing the potential in the latest innovations is admirable, the way he used them maybe not so. This story suggests that by the 1890s money, or more precisely, the fast buck, was the motive force in his work. With so many failures behind him, each attempt became more urgent, short lived and failed to give him any stability. There is a suspicion about Friese-Greene that more than anything he demanded recognition as a genius. Failure only pushed him further. While he was demonstrating x-rays to his audience, over in Vienna Freud was working on theories that in his terms would have described Friese-Greene’s problem as an aggressive battle between the ego and the id, with the superego, that part of his consciousness that might have restored some balance, being pushed to one side. In the end he got what he wanted - his headstone in Highgate Cemetery declares him the inventor of ‘kinematography’  - but his eccentricities overshadow his achievements. He is a case study in how not to go about things.

Portraits by William Friese-Greene aren’t that common although as artifacts these four CDVs are interesting only if you know something about their creator. You could otherwise be forgiven for assuming they are the work of an average portrait photographer. It’s the backs that tell us more. They come from that point when he was on top of his game, before everything started to unravel.


Saturday, 4 June 2011


Photo montage: from the sublime to the ridiculous

“Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.”

Arnold Newman

Oscar Rejlander is usually credited with producing the first photomontage in 1857. Thirty two negatives were used to create the trashy moral fable he called The Two Ways of Life. One the right a group of young women representing virtue prayed, read and worked while on the left their not so clean living sisters swanned around in the nude. At the centre an old man was leading two boys through a portal. Naturally, the boy heading to the bad side wore a huge grin, his  Christian companion appeared thoroughly disappointed with his lot. The point to the thirty two negatives was that Rejlander wanted to demonstrate that photography could involve the same mix of imagination and labour as painting but anybody looking at a print today could be excused for wondering why he wasted so much effort. All he had to do was build a stage, hire some models and set out the props and he would have achieved the same result. The seamless printing that disguised the edges of the negatives effectively hid Rejlander’s most sincere intentions. As a photograph it is historically significant but as photomontage it was a failure. Photomontage ought not be about fooling the viewer but impressing them with visual dexterity. It should obviously be faked.

Art historians talk of high points and golden ages because they are useful reference points for locating movements. Photomontage, which you could scarcely call a movement in itself, had three apogees. The first was in the 1860s, when the new wet collodion process and albumen printing freed photographers from the restrictions of the daguerreotype. Now they could splice in special effects, studios ran wild with gimmicks such as having someone sit in a chair then stand next to himself, or pose against the Egyptian pyramids. There was also the very popular idea of fitting as many portraits on to one carte de visite as possible. Eugene Disdéri, the inventor of the CDV, is also acknowledged as the creator of this form. It wasn’t difficult to achieve, involving nothing more than the careful cutting out of faces, remounting and then re-photographing them, the same process behind most future uses of the idea.

The third period began just after the First World War and extended into the 1930s, when artists like Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and John Heartfield experimented with images, text and graphic design. Most of us would recognize that period as the genuine high point of photomontage. The work was political, consciously avant-garde and visually compelling, pushing the definition of photography into an area most people hadn’t considered before. But it owed a large debt to the mass produced postcards of the early 20th century, when photomontage was at its height in terms of commercial popularity and, probably, experimentation.

We can say that because the studios producing the images not only used combination printing but brought various media like watercolours, oils, screen prints and text as well as scraps of material, glass and glitter. The skill lay in keeping photography integral to the image. Without that it was no longer photomontage but photomechanical printing, which offered nothing in the way of mystery or surprise. Photography gave the image the element of authenticity. When it could have easily become perfunctory design.

A century on, few people take these postcards seriously as works of art, which is no lapse in judgement, but to do so would also miss their point. More than showing off their creative abilities, the studios were interested in making money and that meant glamorous and beautiful women, cute children, flowers and sentimental clichés (all the better if they were in the same scene) for a popular taste easily swayed by such banalities. What we get from them now is something stranger than art and it’s no surprise the Dadaists and Surrealists scoured artifacts of popular culture like these for inspiration.

Authentic photomontage required cutting and pasting, when those terms involved scissors and glue, but there were other methods, such as this fairground snap from Bulgaria of four men in a biplane, that gave the same effect. Whatever the process, the result was always meant to be tongue in cheek. The best creators in the medium never expected to be taken seriously. If nothing else, photomontage was honest.