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Saturday, 29 October 2011


Reading 6 cabinet cards

“Photograph people as they really are - do not dress them up”
Henry Peach Robinson

1:What we see isn’t always the whole picture.
There are probably hundreds of thousands of cabinet card portraits taken in studios using elaborate backdrops. The photographer, Whittemore, went to a lot of effort or expense with his studio stages; note the fake grass and the landscape behind disappearing into mist. Still, it’s not that remarkable, except that Whittemore was based in Ashland Nebraska, about as mid-west American as you could ask for in the 1890s. Reading Ashland’s local histories it quickly becomes apparent that the chroniclers struggled to come up with anything interesting to say. This was a farming town, hemmed in by snow in the winter, prone to unpredictable weather the rest of the year, a place for sodbusters who wanted to do it hard. Even at its height, when the railroad brought in more trade, the population barely exceeded a thousand. This cabinet card is a portrait but it is also a highly contrived fiction. From the cheap plaster plinth and faux moss on the wall to the woman’s elaborate hairstyle, it is a fantasy about a world far removed from Ashland. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of information about a photographer called Whittemore in Ashland though a Frank Whittemore ran a saloon in town and the name crops up in 19th century Nebraska registries, suggesting the family were early settlers or at least were successful in business. 

2: We are not always sure what we are looking at.
Is this a man or a woman? His or her face is sufficiently ambiguous and though the hands look more masculine than feminine it is the hairstyle that begs the question. Note the painted art nouveau dresser on the left, the floral decorations and the bust on the table. If it is a he then he is stating his position as an urbane sophisticate, an arts student possibly and nothing too remarkable about that. If it is a she then the implications are obviously much more subversive. Note the ring on the middle right finger, or don’t. Some brief research via Google indicates that for some people a ring on this finger is a sign the wearer is gay. There are just as many who see no significance in it. There does not seem to be any evidence it was worn as a symbol of sexual preference in turn of the century Germany but there is a tradition that when a woman bought the ring herself this was the finger she should wear it on. This is a photo you could look at for hours, analysing the significance of every detail without being confident you had arrived at an answer. It is of course possible that this was what the photographer and the sitter wanted.

3: The devil is in the details
Here are late 19th century Balkan politics boiled down to less than 100 words: four empires, the Russian, the Ottoman, the German and the British, have their own motives for maintaining influence in Bulgaria, the only common ground two of them sharing being a desire to keep the other two out. Serbia and Greece want a say in affairs too. The Bulgarians meanwhile want their own state, which the four powers are very keen to see happen, but on their individually specific terms. One sop to this mess was the Principality of Bulgaria, established in 1878 and nominally subject to the Ottoman Empire, a situation that satisfied no one.
The capital of the short lived principality was Turnovo, which was where Adolphe Bornfen set up his studio some time in the late 1880s. He probably took this photo in the early 1890s. At first glance it follows all the rules for a typical family or wedding portrait but several details are important. The first are the crucifixes the women wear. In opposition to the Ottomans who had ruled Bulgaria for 500 years, Christianity was inextricable from the Bulgarian National Revival. By wearing the crucifixes the two women appear to be making a quiet though pronounced stand. The woman on the right, presumably the man’s wife, also wears national dress, not something she’d put on in daily life. Is it a wedding dress? The man’s costume is typically Bulgarian though it is borrowed heavily from Ottoman traditions. This may not be a political image though its politics are everywhere.

4: Or not, as the case may be.
Another cabinet card by Bronfen. It appears to have been taken a few years later. To call yourself supporter of Bulgarian independence might not have been such a big deal in the 1890s. If you were Bulgarian you were, the only issue being which faction you supported; populist and democratic or a sympathiser with more militaristic ideals. We can’t say what side Bornfen belonged to. Though the man on the left wears a sword he doesn’t appear to be a soldier; an aide de camp perhaps or a government man in ceremonial dress. If so, the man on the right would be a politician or bureaucrat. Once you start looking for political meaning it crops up all over the place. The clouds could suggest some celestial ideal, but then they may just be a studio trick. 

5: Truth is stranger than fiction
Henry Peach Robinson is one of the most significant photographers of the 19th century. His composite images such as Fading Away and When the Day’s Work is Done are considered landmarks and he is credited with coming up with the term ‘Pictorialism’. The several books he wrote on photography were manifestos for establishing photography as a fine art, but like thousands of others in Britain his main business was in the studio. Interesting, you might think, that for someone famous for using a battery of special effects, this portrait relies on entirely natural props. Information on the back dates this as post 1878, a period when Robinson was at his most dogmatic in declaring how and why photographers should aspire to art, but then his theories were always somewhat anachronistic. He still believed for example that art should reflect truth.    

6: Less is more.
At first glance this woman appeared to be in the throes of emotional disturbance but it was her dark velvet top with its sharply angled shoulders and her somewhat aversive posture that gave that impression. She doesn’t look entirely comfortable with being photographed, otherwise she seems the image of the prim and respectable teacher or governess; someone well versed in Latin or French history and worn down by a succession of pupils who couldn’t care less. If this were a standard carte de visite, about a third the size, certain details such as her pince-nez and the texture of her clothes would be lost. The large format of cabinet cards gave us more information, in this case just enough to want to look twice.


Saturday, 22 October 2011



The fez in photographs

“In Bulgaria you still see the local Turkish peasants working in the fields in the Turkish traditional costume – the red fez with the embroidered yellow scarf wound round it – and it is curious, when you enter Turkey, to see this familiar figure of the Turk, as you know him, suddenly disappear from the landscape.”
Arnold Toynbee; A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, 1931

On November 25, 1925, Kemal Ataturk, first President of the two year old Republic of Turkey, delivered a speech in the small town of Kastamonu with far reaching effects. “This is a hat,” he said, holding up a Homburg. “It has a brim.” From now on, wearing the fez was outlawed. His reasons for prohibiting an internationally recognized symbol of Turkey had to do with its historical connotations, though whether as some people say he saw it as a symbol of submission to Islam or more a very obvious artifact of the Ottoman Empire isn’t clear. It could have been both.  There is a story that as a young attaché in Paris, Ataturk was approached by a French official who pointed to his fez and asked why he wore such a ridiculous accoutrement. That sounds suspiciously apocryphal; as though Ataturk carried the official’s words in his heart for years when he would have heard far more stinging insults directed against his decaying nation.

Like the burqa, the fez is implicitly associated with Islam and variations on its design are found from Morocco to Indonesia though it is most strongly identified with Ottoman Turkey and Egypt. There is some dispute as to its origins, with some scholars pointing to the Balkans, but the hat as we know it really began its life in 1829, when Sultan Mehmed II decreed that it become part of a civil servant’s uniform. One reason given for the decline of the Ottoman Empire was its absurdly over managed bureaucracy, which meant – among other things – that in Constantinople close to half the men wore fezzes. That is also why, despite its religious significance, Armenians, Greeks and Jews appear in photographs wearing the fez. It identified them as respectable members of the middle class; in the same way the black bowler hat became a symbol of the professional classes in England.

As hats go, the fez is supremely non-functional. It does not protect the wearer from the sun or keep him warm but Ataturk may have overlooked something Mehmed II realized. A man in a fez looks dignified and urbane. This isn’t simply the effect of looking back on the past from a safe distance. Something about its elemental design added gravitas in ways denied to more elaborate headwear. The top hat for example really needed an overcoat and ideally a cane to mark its wearer as a man about town. The fez needs nothing more than a jacket.

Ataturk might not have realized this either; as far as Hollywood was concerned, the fez came to represent something a fair distance from religion, piety anyway. Think of any film from the 1920s onwards that featured a Middle Eastern type wearing a fez. Always sinister yet undeniably elegant, he was the one who knew the secrets and just what was at stake for the naïve American or British hero. The most famous wearer of the fez in Hollywood was Boris Karloff in The Mummy; 3000 years old and filled with the wisdom of the ages. Glancing through a list of other Hollywood actors in roles that required a fez – Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca, Victor Mature in something called The Shanghai Gesture (“People Live in Shanghai for Many Reasons... Most of Them Bad!”) – we see that they were inevitably on the wrong side of the law, either swarthy Middle Eastern types who dabbled in crime or Westerners who’d fled south and embraced dissipation. You didn’t need much in the way of character development when a simple fez said it all.

In a way that still holds true. It is all we require to understand an image in the context of time and place and it can turn an otherwise straightforward portrait into something exotic and mysterious. In Turkey, the fez may have gone the way of plus fours, the corset and the tricorn, a fashion item no one sees any good reason to resuscitate, but it still exerts a strange power, a key to the intangible heritage of cultural identity.


Saturday, 15 October 2011


Miss World and Miss Europe in the 1930s
"My greatest ambition is to make my mother happy. I will not go on the stage or screen. Just a few week ago I saw a large city for the first time—Paris!"
Jeanne Juilla, Miss Europe 1931: Time Magazine, Feb. 16, 1931

In 1928 the French journalist Maurice de Waleffe, a fashionable type who favoured a return to knee breeches, hit upon the idea of a Europe wide beauty pageant. He had been having success with the Miss France contest he had set up a couple of years earlier and this sounded like a good idea. The organizing committee wasn’t in the business of predicting the future but it didn’t take a lot of foresight to realize that the world was in a parlous situation. Germany’s economy was gutted, the Communists had taken power in Russia, from China to Egypt another war looked imminent. No matter how lecherous the organizers’ motives were, any international competition that put beauty above politics would get popular support. A judge on the first panel was Paul Chabas, a member of the Légion d'honneur, (or he became so that year) known for his paintings of young, naked women in idyllic surroundings. September Morn was his most famous work, thanks only to the scandal it created in the US. Self respecting critics were of the opinion that whatever it evoked really should remain locked in the minds of pubescent boys.

Being a contestant for Miss Europe was tough. In the countries that already had pageants, the girls (No one would have suggested they were women, yet.) began in small contests and worked their way up, from local cantons to provinces and finally the capital, all the while maintaining their poise and dignity in front of judges who imagined themselves to be, if nothing else, astute connoisseurs of feminine mystique. The contestants had to possess those genuine, innocent yet sensual charms that could make an old playboy giddy at the knees. Some entrants came from privileged backgrounds, where they had been taught the etiquette of table manners and the art of small talk from an early age, but the judges could also be touched by a young lady’s journey from small town baker’s daughter to culture symbol to the metropolis. Such a girl had led a
wholesome, positive life, a role model you could say for a post war world.

The Miss Europe contest was avowedly non political though governments weren’t always aware of this. In 1934, the German ambassador to London, Leopold von Hoesch, turned down an invitation to judge the contest in Hastings because the German entrant, Emma Kant, was the grand niece of Immanuel Kant and not considered Aryan enough. At the same time, the Russian ambassador, Ivan Maisky, was fuming that his countries entrant, Yekaterina Antonova, wasn’t a true Bolshevik but a Kulak. The contestants remained diplomatically silent.

Meanwhile in Galveston Texas a group of businessmen had decided to expand their annual “Miss Splash” bathing beauty contest and make it international. The new name they chose – the International Pageant of Pulchritude –sounds like a marketing disaster and at first it only had moderate success in the States. Outside, in South America especially, it became huge, so much that the failure of Miss Brazil to secure a finalists position in 1929 created a brief but intense diplomatic spat. That same year Miss Austria, Lisl Goldarbeiter, became to first foreigner to win the title, which entitled her to be called “Miss Universe’. In 1932 the contest moved outside of America for the first time, to Spa in Belgium.

Around 1930 the Turkish chocolate company Lion Cikolatasi began inserting photographs of Miss Europe and Miss Universe contestants in their bars. Like the Ross Company in Germany, Lion sourced its images from well known studios in Europe who followed current fashions in glamour photography. Lighting was soft and full, eliminating shadows but also any blemishes. As with the contestants, the photographer’s look was lifted straight out of Hollywood. Unlike the case with fashion models, whose job was to advertise a product, the camera’s full attention was focused on the contestant’s face and she generally smiled straight back into the lens. More enigmatic expressions were the reserve of certain German actresses. 

Lion was one of several companies in Europe with rights to publish the photographs. One difference was Lion’s distinctive narrow, rectangular postcard format (140 x 75mm). Other sets were produced about the same size as a cigarette card and were often roughly cut with uneven borders. Like all the companies with the licence, Lion never mentioned the contestant’s name, only her country, with one exception. Most of the cards here are dated 1932, the year Keriman Halis became the first Turkish contestant to win the Miss Universe contest. 

The Pageant of Pulchritude closed for a couple of years during the Depression and beauty contests around the world took a hiatus throughout the Second World War. When they started up again things a lot had changed, including the idea of beauty. In none of the photos here is the woman’s body on display; beauty is reflected in the face. Glamour photography would never be the same either. A new generation of actresses, models and rich European aristocrats would determine tastes and they weren’t afraid to shock. The domestic housewife would become glamorized too. Miss Universe was still expected to be virtuous and healthy but she also had to look great in a swimsuit; the scandals involving drugs, nude photo shoots and single motherhood lay in wait. 

 Tracing what happened the various contestants after they won turns up precious little. A few moved on to acting or modelling careers, usually short lived and unspectacular. Some married into royalty. Aliki Diplarakou, winner of Miss Europe in 1930 died as Lady Russell having married a British lord and earning an international reputation as an expert on classical art. For most the beauty pageant was their one brief brush with fame. No idea what happened to Miss Russia, Miss Germany or any of the other Misses from the wrong side in the war and afterwards. Keriman Halis was still alive in 2007, aged 94, and no obituary has since been posted. She may still be with us.


Thursday, 6 October 2011


Humour and other oddities in photos

Why should a clergy man always wear well-fitting clothes? Because he should never be a man of loose habits?
Why are stutterers never to be relied on? Because they are always breaking their word.
Edwardian jokes

 Step off the straight and narrow road of the established history of photography and you quickly find yourself in a place where received ideas have to be suspended. Words like ‘art’ and its even more vague corollary ‘genius’ are meaningless, as are some fundamental terms for describing things; ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sound hollow. There are photographs for which the only category they belong to is ‘strange’.  It isn’t always easy to pinpoint what that is. Would it make a difference if ‘the girl who wouldn’t’ was better printed and if she wasn’t blurred? Possibly, though improvements might also reveal its essential mediocrity. The photograph of two lovers on a sofa would have been sentimental and uninteresting except the attempt at colouring the champagne glasses was so inept it placed the image on another plane, maybe not a higher one but it has become something else.

These photographs aren’t snapshots. They were taken by professionals who were certain of what they wanted and a few were produced by studios that had the facilities to create various effects. One thing they share is that somewhere between thought and expression, something went askew. The postcard of the woman in the dirigible was always intended to be odd but in others the romantic looks creepy or there are details that maybe shouldn’t be there. It’s a bit like laughing at a joke and realizing afterwards that you didn’t really get it.

In the 1860s photographers realized that now they could mass produce images they weren’t limited to famous faces or views. There was a whole new market out there for people who wanted to indulge their sense of humour. The first efforts were tableaux vivants with a message at the bottom and composite prints where the fakery was obvious enough for anyone to get the joke. The usual formats were cartes de visite and stereographs. By the turn of the century, as the postcard took off, more and better techniques became available. The only limits for a photographer or publisher were imagination and skill, and the second wasn’t necessarily expected to be of a high standard.

Bad art is always bad but bad photographs can take on a new life It’s hard to figure out exactly what the person behind the photo above was thinking when he or she decided that a moonrise over a gloomy sea was suitable as a Christmas card and two angels carrying a banner would set things off nicely. The angels haven’t improved the image but they have made it more disconcerting. Another postcard with a religious theme is the one below, and though the thinking behind this is easier to follow, somehow the girls’ poses are all wrong. The taller one clutches the crucifix a little too desperately and why the photographer, a Mr W Greaves of Leicester, should think the image looked better if the other girl clung to her skirts is something only he could explain. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this photo but it does suggest the girls have a somewhat nervous relationship with their faith.

All of these photos come from that vaguely defined period immediately either side of the First World War, when the real photo postcard was coming into its own and photographers used every device and technique available to make their images different. It was also a moment when photography was being taken seriously as an art form. Portraits were meant to reveal something deep within the sitter, landscapes were meant to inspire and magazines were full of tips on fine printing and customized darkroom recipes. These photographs on the other hand are either wilfully ignorant or dismissive of the standard ideas of the day as to what good photography was but they remind us that photography could also be fun.


Saturday, 1 October 2011


Anthony Comstock and erotic photography

No sect nor class has ever publicly sided with the smut dealer, except the Infidels, the Liberals and the Free-lovers"
Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock cut a formidable swathe through New York Society between 1873 and 1910. Being a postal inspector he had some idea of what was passing through the city’s mailrooms and as head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice he was given the power to clean them up. In 1873 he announced that over the previous two years, alongside more than five tons of books, 21 000 impure song sheets, 5000 obscene microscopic watch and knife charms, 5 500 obscene playing cards and 30 000 immoral rubber articles, he had overseen the destruction of 182 000 obscene photographs. That suggests there was a fair amount of salacious photography in circulation, and or Comstock had a broad definition of pornography. It’s unlikely he would have been persuaded that a flesh coloured body stocking protected anyone’s virtue. A nude was a nude no matter what she wore.

Comstock argued that anyone who photographed a nude was a grubby and seditious pornographer, the type of character who skulked around back alleys and seldom washed. After several raids and attempts at entrapment of Weil’s studio on Broadway, he uncovered a portrait of the photographer’s naked infant son, which was enough in Comstock’s opinion to call in the police. One could never underestimate the cunning of a smut dealer or the vulnerability of young minds. Comstock’s witch-hunt extended to photographs of artworks even though the originals were on public display in museums. Many, probably most of the photographs circulating through the city actually originated in Europe; the number of New York photographers active in the porn trade was lower than Comstock wanted people to believe. 

He also insisted that the women who posed nude for a photographer were innocent victims and cruelly exploited. The same idea would get some traction among feminists in the 1980s though in Comstock’s late Victorian world view suffragism was an evil on a par with pornography. Any woman who dared challenge his concept of marriage or suggested women should establish more economic independence was also a target. The New Woman movement emerging towards the end of the century had no fixed manifesto but its members tended to be straitlaced when it came to theories of work and economics. By ‘profession’ they meant law, medicine, business or education. Being an artist’s model was a little frivolous. 

It followed however that if men like Comstock were as virulently opposed to suffragism as they were pornography, then eroticism could be used as a form of protest. For some performers it was definitely liberating. The photos of ballerina Regina Badet on display here are relatively chaste; she was not the slightest bit ashamed at undressing for the camera and whenever she did she appeared to be cocking a snook at someone. Women didn’t have to take off their clothes to rile the Comstockians. Smoking, drinking, dressing as a blacksmith or even just implying lesbianism, any behaviour that transgressed the image of the obedient woman was subversive.     

Most of the women in this gallery are anonymous and we can’t be absolutely sure what their intentions were. They don’t look like victims. A few of them would be aspiring actresses, which has always carried a sense of being exploited, but appearances are everything, as Comstock well understood. It is enough to look like you enjoy breaking the rules to become dangerous to certain eyes. We could consider these photos as exploitation of women’s bodies but they could also be act of defiance.