And furthermore ...

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Saturday 30 July 2011


Passport and other ID photos

“I loathe my own face.”
Francis Bacon

Here’s something you can think about in a quiet moment: is there anyone alive right now who hasn’t been photographed? Deep in the Amazon there are tribes that have had little contact with the outside world but we know about some of them because we’ve seen photographs of groups of villagers taken from helicopters or else anthropologists have managed some furtive snaps. There are groups like the Amish who reject modern technology but in order to live in the US they need to have their identities recorded somewhere and that involves a camera. Billions of people around the world have access to cameras but when it comes to documenting citizens, states have vested interests in seeing everyone photographed. Take a country like North Korea where it’s likely very few people own cameras; the government has doubtlessly made sure that every citizen has been thoroughly documented. As a rule of thumb; the more authoritarian the state, the more photographs it has on file of its citizens. In Turkey a few years ago, any foreigner applying for a residence permit had to submit 16 photographs that were then distributed to various ministries. Today 4 is sufficient, which doesn’t mean the state has become less vigilant, rather its bureaucracy has become more streamlined. 

The realization that photography was useful to the state for monitoring citizens occurred pretty much immediately the collodion process was invented and photographs could be reproduced ad infinitum. There are accounts from the early 1860s of police departments in the US photographing everyone they had arrested. This was for identification only and only for local use. Transmitting photographic records of felons to other police departments was either impractical or unnecessary and the images could not yet be reproduced on posters.  Still, it’s interesting (maybe not surprising) that the first people considered for this type of documentation were those perceived to be enemies of the state. It shows that the camera was always perceived to be an authoritarian’s tool.

In 1863 a Manchester man, a Mr McLachlan, wrote to the English papers with a proposition. Every photographic studio in the UK should photograph every notable citizen and submit the results to the National Portrait Gallery. The NPG had opened in 1856 and Mr McLachlan’s idea was that to be a genuine portrait gallery it needed to be a storehouse of the nation’s identity, not simply a repository of fine art. The NPG didn’t take up McLachlan’s idea though over a century and a half it has become something like what he envisioned. There are very few notables from the era who don’t have a CDV in the collection though quite a few studios are missing. 

In 1871 London’s police department wanted every criminal arrested to be photographed. Some what had a bit of previous were clever enough to take the issue to the courts and convinced a few magistrates that a man’s portrait was his personal property so they ought not sit in front of a camera until they had at least been convicted. It is probably thanks to them that in most countries now people aren’t photographed until they have been formally charged.

If you think the fax is an invention from the 1970s you are out by about 100 years. In December 1876 Police in Lyons transmitted a photographic image of a wanted man to Paris. As the man alighted from his train gendarmes holding a paper copy of his portrait moved in an arrested him. From about the same time – dates need to be confirmed – an American journalist attended a prizefight in Paris and like everyone else was asked to present his photo as proof of ID. Incidentally there is a whole other history of the display of photographs of executed criminals, not so the public could identify them of course but so their extinction could be celebrated. 

For a lot of people a trip to the studio for an obligatory passport photo is no light matter. Considering the sole purpose of the portrait is to provide a reasonable likeness for identification purposes, taking time to apply make up, choose the right outfit and attend to the hair – especially that – the time spent can seem excessive. Then again, there are people haunted by their passport photo. They cringe when they hand the document over to the customs official, strangely unaware that if they look that hideous in an instant photo they probably don’t in real life. Fortunately, in Turkey photographers are an understanding lot. The studio always has a small table with a comb, a mirror and a few small items to patch up any potential mistakes. The photographers are always considerate and give the subject a couple of minutes to prepare themselves.


Sunday 24 July 2011


The mystery of a married couple’s snapshots

 The past is never dead, it is not even past.”
William Faulkner.

The photographs in this post are a perfect example of the paradox of using photography as social history, namely, the more evidence accumulated the more uncertain the proof. Originally it was three images taken at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931 that caught my eye, and then a few more showing the same couple in the box. Over the following months more turned up in other shops across Istanbul so it became a project accumulating as many as possible with the idea I was building up a picture of a marriage. But as photos emerged so did more questions, none with any answers. One photo showed the woman holding hands with a child about four or five. Was it hers? If so, why hadn’t he or she appeared in earlier photos? This wasn’t a case of discovering a skeleton in the closet so much as a jumble of bones in a museum’s crate and realizing some long departed curator had mislabelled them.

Why the photos turned up in so many shops was another of the mysteries. Clearly, they hadn’t been sold to one dealer as part of an estate. Possibly a descendant had unloaded them on the shops but it’s doubtful anyone would go to the effort of visiting so many stores and negotiating for what would have been a few lira at most. More likely they fell into the hands of an itinerant junk dealer who tried to get what he could.

There are now somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred photographs of this couple in the archive, and as the gallery indicates, there are ID, photo-booth and studio portraits mixed up with the snapshots. One small, intact album has photos of a man who is clearly the brother of the husband, and his wife living in Germany. The backs of the photos are stamped Frankenthal. Like the couple they were obviously well off and cultured. There are almost no handwritten notes on the backs of the photographs though a few have Ottoman script, suggesting they were Turkish citizens. Or at least the man was. There are a few of the woman with another woman who could be her mother and they appear to have been taken in France. It’s just a hunch but when I say they are Turkish citizens I mean they may be Armenians. It fits with the diaspora; a lot of Armenians left Turkey for Europe, then again there are a lot of hunches in this story.

It is obvious from the photographs that theirs was a happy marriage. The first photo in the gallery shows the two of them sitting in a garden. You will note that though they sit together she occupies a higher position. This may be a small point but in Turkish photos from the era it is more common for the man to stand behind and appear taller. In this shot there doesn’t appear to be any issues of ownership or dominance. Another detail is that the marriage is documented over at least a couple of decades. We watch the couple ageing together. The variety of types of photographs is also a good sign. They didn’t just take pictures of each other; they collected them.

Obviously (and speaking as a collector, this is a bit of a shame really) most people don’t make a point of recording the low points and moments of tension that are part of a marriage. What we get from any album is such a selective account it is almost fictional, in the sense anyway that we understand we are getting a highly edited version. Were we to take photo albums as any authoritative evidence of peoples’ lives we would be left with the conclusion that existence is a happy, quiet thing, a bit like a cat sleeping in the corner. 

At a point about the couple’s late forties the photos stop. It’s natural to speculate on the worst – death, divorce – but this is a common situation. There comes a stage when people step back from documenting their lives and the job falls to a son or daughter who are staring their own family and beginning the process again. Maybe it also has something to do with vanity; after a certain point what we are recording now is ourselves growing older. Perhaps the marriage reaches a plateau where we no longer need any evidence to substantiate it. That though implies that the act of photographing is a kind of neurosis where we can’t rely on memory alone as proof that something actually happened, an idea most of us would naturally resist. 

If these photos had been found intact in one album I would have considered them interesting though not necessarily special. That they were scattered about the city gives them their poignancy. At some point the record of two people’s love and marriage fell into the hands of somebody else for whom they were merely a bunch of old photos. Their dispersal became as effective an annihilation as tipping them into an incinerator. This raises another issue. By collecting the photos I was in effect perpetuating the memory of a marriage that meant nothing to me but in its way became important. Is that what we do when we collect old albums? Do we feel we have some responsibility to the dead? 


Sunday 17 July 2011


Bad photographs

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”
James Joyce

Perfection is a pain in the arse. People expect it from you, you try but come up short and in the scheme of things you haven’t done well, you have failed. Perfectionism in some people’s eyes isn’t about delivering the goods but doing it in a certain way, no matter how illogical or contrary to your nature the results are. Sometimes perfectionism is also a lot easier than making mistakes.

It is easy for example to take a perfect photo. Follow a couple of basic rules such as keeping the sun behind you and placing the object of focus in the centre. Set the exposure – if your camera has a light meter it will do that for you – and adjust focus. Press the shutter. According to every manual ever published you now have a perfect photo. It wasn’t difficult. Now, try taking one of the photos in this post, the one above for example. How did the photographer get that odd in the top half? I have no idea but I know this; he or she created a singular and unrepeatable image. Given the challenge of replicating the effect, most professionals would resort to cheap tricks or give up.

Mistakes in photos can be wonderful things. They liberate the image and make it completely new. I was discussing this with a couple of colleagues recently and it occurred to me, later on, that we train ourselves to remove errors so a photograph that doesn’t come out exactly as intended becomes a failure. Mistakes can however be a path to discovery. They suggest we stop seeing the photographic image as a formal representation or evidence and take it as an object on its own terms. The strange patterns of light or poor focusing that theoretically destroy an image turn it into something else. Perception is a part of experience so anything that broadens one does it to the other.

Searching through the archive for mistakes you realize that a lot of snapshots are flawed; the composition is askew, the shutter speed a trifle slow, the usual mistakes. These photos take the mistake and turn the photograph into something else. As a social worker might say; they’re not bad, they’re different.


Saturday 9 July 2011


 Why do we hate Pictorialism?

"I don’t know anything about art, but for some reason or other I have never wanted to photograph the way you paint.”
Alfred Stieglitz

 “Pictorialism,” the narrator of the BBC’s 2007 series, The Genius of Photography declared, “was photography at its most po-faced.” Well, yes, but so what? Artists frequently take themselves too seriously and become the butt of jokes. The Pictorialists were a sombre bunch. They also believed they were at the vanguard of modern art when what they produced often looks to us like cheap copies of the worst that came out of the academic painting salons. Still, dismissing them as dull and humourless is unfair; a little like saying that Dostoevsky would have been a great writer if he had cracked a few more jokes. He didn’t so regretting their absence is beside the point.


One problem with Pictorialism is that it very quickly became associated with a handful of categories, landscapes and nudes especially, as though art was still about natural beauty at a moment when genuinely progressive artists were thinking about machines and technology as the defining characteristics of the future. Another is that it outlived its welcome by much too long. Into the 1940s and ‘50s some photographic magazines still judged the artistic qualities of photographs on their Pictorialist elements. It’s hard to look at some of that work now without wondering if there was a deliberately perverse decision to stay behind the times. A third problem is that it was never about revealing some essential truth in the subject. That idea is perfectly acceptable now but during the Pictorialist era the entire point of photography was it revelatory power. Even the rawest Kodak amateur in the 1890s seemed to be saying more about the real world than the most seasoned Pictorialists.  

The really great thing about Pictorialism is that 20th century modernist photography couldn’t have existed without it. Most of the Americans who became associated with Modernism; Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier etc, began as Pictorialists and the shift wasn’t that profound or disruptive. A more obscure photographer to look up is Marjorie Content, whose work from the 1920s comes from the moment one movement was evolving into the other. It’s as though a fog is lifting and the world is gradually coming into focus.

There are some classic examples but no great Pictorialist works in this gallery. Not surprising really; although quite a few historians dismiss Pictorialism as conservative, authoritarian and vapid, they’ve obviously had little influence on the art market. The 2006 sale of Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight for nearly 3 million US broke records and inevitably dragged up the value of his contemporaries. No one really believes the upper echelons of the art market are inhabited by people of good judgement and taste but they do have power and they have decided that Pictorialism really matters after all.


Saturday 2 July 2011


Edwardian photo postcards of women in bathing costumes

“There are two kinds of bathing suits, those that are adapted for use in the water, and those that are unfit for use except on dry land. If you are going to swim, wear a water bathing suit. But if you are merely going to play on the beach and pose for your camera friends, you may safely wear the dry land variety.”
How to Swim, Annette Kellerman, 1918

In the summer of 1898 Paul Martin was wandering along the crowded Yarmouth beachfront with what looked like a box wrapped in brown paper. Every so often he’d stop, idle about then continue on, barely noticed by anyone. The box was actually a camera and he was after candid shots of the holidaymakers. What he caught on film should put to rest any notions the late Victorians were a prudish bunch. He caught dozens of couples groping in the sands, inevitably still wearing their suits and skirts but unabashed in their pursuit of flesh. The British seaside was a place where social mores were suspended. People could be themselves or, if this was what they really wanted, someone else; Still a timid bank clerk or a straitlaced domestic perhaps but let off the leash. No one cared, or if they did not too many were listening to their objections.

Go forward a few years. Victoria is dead, Edward is King and bank holidays at resorts like Brighton and Blackpool have become part of Britain’s cultural identity. In France people head to the Mediterranean. The beachfronts already have somewhat salacious reputations and many of them have partitioned areas where ladies and gentlemen may stroll without needing to encounter more unruly citizens. The postcard has taken off and some of the most popular are comic pictures of fat men and women at the seaside mouthing bald double entendres. Certain resorts like Brighton are notorious as places to conduct affairs and private detectives can make some easy money tracking errant husbands or wives. The seaside is one place where a woman may appear showing her bare upper arms or her legs below the knees. Heady stuff and no wonder there is a market for real photo postcards of young ladies in swimming costumes.

Sharp-eyed observers will note none of the women here are actually at the beach. The term ‘fashion photography’ didn’t exist in 1910 although fashion photography itself did, albeit with picture editors still using photographs as the basis for pen and ink sketches. Fashion as it was understood belonged to the privileged. Only the well off could afford the dresses and accoutrements that people like Leopold Reutlinger photographed. The rest had to do make do with cheap copies but they could probably afford a swimsuit. During the Edwardian era it was woolen, loose and covered the upper arms and just above the knees. Since women weren’t expected to swim but sit in a wooden bathing machine that washed seawater over them, you could say it was adequate. Although segregation of swimming areas had ended a few years earlier and the bathing machine was being phased out, for some men these postcards were the closest they’d get to seeing a woman in a swimsuit. Photographers were cluing on to a principle of fashion photography. The market wasn’t gender orientated. Put a young lady in a swimsuit, the women would admire the costume, the men her body and everyone could appreciate the photographer’s good work.

In particular ways these postcards already resemble the fashion photography of the 1940s and ‘50s much more than they do the era that immediately followed them. During the 1920s and ‘30s the ideal model was a creature of high and unreachable elegance, enhanced by dramatic lighting that cast parts of her face or figure in shadow and usually provided the background too. Postwar she descended earthwards, a little, and might be photographed at a suburban cocktail party, playing tennis or at an actual beach. The lighting was flatter and the settings more adventurous. You can’t trace a direct line between these postcards and the work of photographers like Richard Avedon but you could say they share elements that had been neglected in the interim. There is so much in these images that became integral to fashion photography they would have to be included in any authoritative history of the genre, which, when you think about it, is strange. Somewhere in the dim and foggy place where fashion photography was born there is a link to the shameless behaviour of the unsophisticated at the British seaside.