And furthermore ...

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Friday, 27 January 2012


Some more negative paper prints

“Ghosts are a metaphor for memory and remembrance and metaphorically connect our world to the world we cannot know about.
Leslie What

In a previous post on negative paper prints I described the process as an extension of the original calotype process, where a negative print was made, a chemically treated paper was placed over that and exposed. Sean Foley at the Afghan BoxCamera Project pointed out another method still used in Afghanistan. The negative paper print is made in the camera then replaced in the camera with another treated sheet and the negative re-photographed. In Afghanistan, where supplies of film are in short supply (when they are available at all) photographers have adapted and done away with them altogether. They also build their own filmless cameras by cannibalizing parts from others. This is interesting enough but more so when you realize that in the 1940s and 50s it was common practice across West Asia, from India and Afghanistan through Iran and Iraq to Turkey. In small towns and villages, the photographers had limited access to materials and the way to make prints affordable was to cut down on them. These strange and ethereal negative prints are the cast offs from the most practical form of their trade.  

Building your own camera wasn’t as hard as it might sound. All you needed was an old bellows camera like an early Kodak and a lightproof box, which could be constructed from the panels off fruit crates. Remove the back of the camera and fit the bellows and lens to the box. A few experiments would tell you where to set the focus and what the exposure time should be and once they were sorted there was no need to make another adjustment. Maybe the hardest part was making sure everything was lightproof. Even a gap a fraction of a millimetre would be enough to spoil the print. Once the machine was in working order it was low maintenance and most repairs could be carried out with glue or tape. Sometimes these cameras turn up in second hand shops around Istanbul. If the lens mechanism still works the whole apparatus should. Unfortunately, they are big and can look impressive and because the shop owners regard them as antiques (well, some of them are) they attach a price more applicable to a factory built machine.  

A history of West Asia’s itinerant village photographers deserves to be written but it probably can’t. The businesses were often ephemeral, just one in several other services on offer unregistered and they didn’t keep records. All we have are a few of their photographs and maybe some villagers’ memories of the days when the photographer turned up. Maybe history is the wrong word. What we really want to describe is an entrepreneurial spirit in the face of adversity, human ingenuity and the vast and scattered records of others’ existence these people left behind. The photo above is the only one in the collection that shows the studio’s name. ‘Foto Ṣen’ translates as ‘the cheerful photo studio’. The camera might have been brightly painted and dressed with ornaments and amulets and the photographer’s shop was too small to have a studio.

There are a couple of ways to identify the positive prints. The white borders are often irregular because the print didn’t fit neatly into the bracket. The focus is aberrant because the original negative or the paper used for the positive print was slightly warped. The positive prints are often a muddy brown or splotchy because the developing was quick and slipshod, the idea being to get a print out for the customer as quickly as possible. Quite a few of the prints have the sitters’ faces tinted red. This was because the positive print, being itself a negative image, recorded the face as a neutral grey so if the exposure on the background was out, the face could still be printed with reasonably accurate tones. 

A ghost is defined as the apparition of a dead person and in that sense a lot of photographs are ghosts but especially negative prints. They aren’t portraits. They don’t reveal anything about their subject, rather the opposite, abstracting them to a ghostly reflection. They become anti-photographs, only hinting at the image we are supposed to see. And they can elevate the image into strange places. This postcard comes from Bulgaria and was probably taken in the 1940s or 50s. The positive print would be a utilitarian photo of a group of soldiers without much aesthetic interest but the negative is spectral, unearthly and much more compelling.


Saturday, 21 January 2012


More untitled film stills

“Love is being stupid together.”
Paul Valery

Reach out and touch
Just realize; a week ago you were looking at the clock and thinking that it’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and what do you have to look forward to for the next couple of days but two hangovers and the bleak realization on Sunday that the routine was about to start over again. Then it all changed, in a matter of minutes when you think about it, and now she is asleep in your bed, the most beautiful woman in the world; well, there’s no other way to put it, that’s exactly what she is. Statistically speaking, if this relationship doesn’t crash on the rocks in the first few months it will survive long enough for the two of you to find contentment sitting together in the evenings, watching television and discussing finances. You have friends who are doing that already and, admit it; you’ve felt pangs of jealousy overhearing guys at work discuss weekends taking the kids to piano lessons or driving out to the suburbs to buy a new barbecue. Sure, you tell yourself, watching two flies climb up a wall is more interesting than that. So, what’s it going to be? Which form of spiritual death is the most comfortable?

Love is two hearts beating as one.
This isn’t the right time, but there is so much you want to tell him, like how you felt butterflies in your stomach the first time you met, about that way he moves his head that sets something off in you, about growing up in a small town and coming to the city every summer, how you wanted a pony but your father insisted on a dog and you called it Bubbles until the day the truck hit it. It’s so strange. You don’t normally feel this way but something about him just makes you want to tell him everything about yourself. Is it love? Is this what happens when you find the real thing?

As long as we have each other …
They’re watching. Ignore them. News travels fast and everyone has been waiting to see the two of you together. They all say the same thing; what wonderful news, how happy they are, how beautiful she is, what a catch he is – all of this on first impressions alone. You wish the way you announced your couple-dom could have been different, not so public, perhaps introducing one friend at a time. You feel a whole new pressure in your life. ‘This is great,’ they all say, leaving out the next part: ‘Don’t screw it up.’ You want to say, ‘listen everyone; thanks for all your good words but can I just say it is early days right now? Yes we are happy but we’ve only just met so let us develop our relationship in peace. What happens if it does go wrong? How will we look then?’

The heart says yes but the head says no
Some things are best left unsaid. Her taste in music is as interesting as an old cucumber sandwich but his tobacco stained teeth takes nerves of steel to handle. Her best friend is intolerable for a variety of reasons and his is too, but only for one; he’s a drunken boor with the emotional age of a six year old. They have been together six weeks. She already wants to know where the relationship is going while he’s content to let things unfold of their own accord. She has a list in her head of things about him she can change and others she just has to live with. He knows he has no reason to be unhappy but if that’s so, why does he still talk with his ex? Both of you are in love, both happy (so you tell everyone but especially each other) and yet there’s this feeling you share that you are a couple of boxers, the first bell has just rung and you’re circling each other.

We need to talk
How did it happen? You were at your friends’ house for dinner. The food was good, the wine not bad and the conversation bubbling along harmlessly. Then he said something. What it was you can’t remember exactly but suddenly you saw him without your blinkers on. No, it wasn’t a jolting revelation. It was more like a violent attack of nausea. ‘My god,’ you heard yourself saying. ‘He’s really no different. How could I have fooled myself?’ You leave the table and hurry to the bathroom where alone you unleash the demons. When they have passed and you are splashing water on your face you are astonished at how strangely unchanged the room is. You feel as though a tornado has just blown through.

It’s not you, it’s me
What a deplorable situation, and yet, as the truth comes out about the other man, you know the signs were always there; you just chose not to read them. That curious forced laugh she developed, the times she disturbed routines you took for granted so that suddenly you were no longer meeting under the clock tower any more but making your own ways home. Last Sunday was perfect yet on Tuesday night you felt her lying awake and thinking. And the worst of it is that you’ve just realized the mistakes you made. That tone in your voice when she asked if you liked the dress was the wrong one. And that time you were walking along the street and she stopped to pat the little tortoiseshell kitten, you didn’t need to snap. You weren’t in a hurry. Think again. The real worst of it is that as the litany of missteps and faux pas becomes apparent, you know that no single thing you did was that bad that you deserve this.

Love means never having to say sorry
So, I guess this is it. Do we have anything to say? Of course we do, quite a lot but it will have to wait and may remain unspoken. There’s a moment as they look at each other when both believe that the right words will change everything, restore order and bring back love. The air is heavy with the tension of what must be done but then neither of them really know the words and in the end both lack that strength of purpose to find them. He starts to say her name, she shakes her head and like a light going out the moment vanishes. When they look at each other again it’s with the knowledge the link is broken. When he leaves the strongest sensation she has is his presence.

Things happen for a reason
Well, what if it had worked and you married each other? Isn’t it clear now that eventually you would have found yourselves in the divorce court dividing up property and, yes, even children, as though these were objects in a game and you just lost? Well, before that there is the other hall of justice to contend with - trial by friends. She’s sitting in a café being grilled by hers, repeatedly cutting her off mid-sentence to admit what they’d always suspected about him; self-centred deadbeat and emotional cripple. He’s in a bar, on his fourth scotch and soda. His friends have a solution to his problem. There’s a party tomorrow night where they know there will be loads of beautiful women. What he really feels like doing is breaking down and telling the lads how he failed but he knows they won’t stand for that. Meanwhile she is scraping a teaspoon over the remains of a carrot cake and wondering why, if her friends had seen everything so clearly and for so long, they never spoke up before. It is a Saturday afternoon in autumn. Outside the sky is grey and leaves slowly drop from the trees. She thinks she should have brought a shawl. He thinks he just wants to be alone, with a bottle for company. Right now, they don’t know it but what they really want is each other, even if it were only for an hour or two, for support against the harrowing good intentions of friends.


Saturday, 14 January 2012


Postcards of Egyptian monuments
“He died in great agony, raving of mummies, pyramids, serpents, and some fatal curse which had fallen upon him.”
Louisa May Alcott, Lost in a Pyramid (1869)

 Little Women would make Louisa May Alcott famous and relatively wealthy but while she was writing it she needed money so she pumped out some lurid tales including Lost in a Pyramid, which some critics credit as the first story about an Egyptian mummy’s curse reaping what it had sown. By 1922, when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb the idea was already a boilerplate so when people associated with the discovery started dying off others took it for granted that ancient curses existed. The finger of suspicion regarding Tutankhamen’s curse is often pointed at Arthur Weigall, a respected Egyptologist who was offended that Lord Carnarvon had given the story to the London Times and not to him. Weigall was also a journalist and theatrical set designer so he knew how to spin a convincing story. He didn’t have to try hard. Back in 1909 newspapers around the world had speculated on the strange events around mummy case number 22 542 held at the British Museum. Several people who came into contact with it, whatever that exactly means, suffered horrid fates. It was claimed that a photographer who photographed the casket killed himself after his developed plates revealed the cold, hateful face of an ancient priestess staring back at him.


 Before Edward Said got hold of the word, an orientalist was a scholar interested in ancient Egypt and the Near East. An authentic orientalist was supposed to be fluent in several dead languages and an astute art historian as well, able to date artifacts at a glance and spot anomalies. Despite having one of the most exotic job descriptions on the planet, orientalists spent a lot of time painstakingly deciphering fragments of papyri and if they were good enough to be given charge of an excavation that meant months in the disease ridden desert caught in the negotiations between British and Egyptian authorities. Given a limited season to work, they often had to call a halt to the excavation and wait for some detail to be worked out in London. The images of the orientalists as either toffee-nosed eggheads in linen suits or rugged adventurers in khaki shirts are wildly wrong. Most of them came from the epicentre of the middle class and their interest in the ancient world reflected a quiet alienation from the mainstream. Weigall’s story of Tutankhamen’s curse was scurrilous but he believed that Egypt’s antiquities should remain in the country and fought for that. Carter was also fired from his job as inspector for the Egyptian Antiquities Service when he took sides with the Egyptian guards against foreign visitors. They were also in the habit of upsetting long held biblical doctrines and weren’t to be trusted.

Too little is known about Mohamed Aboudi. He was one of the few Egyptian orientalists working in the 1920s. His guidebooks to the ruins of ancient Egypt carry a scholarly authority, well mapped and frequently advising the visitor to pay attention to small details whose significance could easily be overlooked. A photo online suggests he came from a wealthy family, which is a given since only very wealthy Egyptians could afford interest in ancient history. Also, the British authorities kept Egyptians at a distance in case they got any ideas about national rights.  He was also a photographer and used his images to illustrate his books. It can seem sometimes as though it was impossible to take a bad shot of an ancient monument, or an original one. Lehnert and Landrock produced photos of this statue of Rameses II at Luxor taken from almost the same position as the one above. The emphasis in photographs of ancient monuments was always on size and scale. The figure just behind Rameses is of his most beloved wife, Nefertari. She is probably twice the size of an average person so does it need to be said that Rameses had a high opinion of himself?

In the 1920s orientalism was still a highly regarded discipline, people were making discoveries that rewrote history, several important languages still required decipherment and governments and educational institutions weren’t yet infected by the doctrine that business was their sole raison d'être. So what did orientalists think of all the European studios setting up business in Cairo and photographing the ‘essence’ of Egypt for customers back home? As long as romantic interest in Egypt was sustained the orientalists kept their prestige, but then they also had to contend with tourists who were often both bored and amazed by how tedious the work of an archaeologist appeared in real life. Lehnert and Landrock never produced an image that wasn’t a cliché. You couldn’t seriously consider them great artists, not against some of the photographers who had already documented Egypt nor against the standards of what was being produced in Europe at the time, but the point of clichés is that they meet assumptions. They depict what people want to believe in. The photo above came from the Scortzis Company, preceding Lehnert and Landrock by a decade though the work of both companies is almost indistinguishable. In the popular imagination, Egypt was a land still dominated by ancient mysteries. A study of a shepherd and his flock resting at an oasis with the pyramids in the background said it all.

Osiris, god of the underworld, was killed by Set, god of the desert and of chaos. Isis gathered all the remnants of her late husband - except his penis, which she threw into the Nile – and assembled Horus, the falcon headed god of the sky. For centuries Horus was the chief deity of southern Upper Egypt and Seth of the northern delta -Lower Egypt, and the two gods engaged in a long metaphysical war. Around 3000 BCE the two states united, which finally brought the gods to the negotiating table. The temple to Horus at Edfu was completed during the reign of Ptolemy XII, making it one of the last great monuments of ancient Egypt. The figure in this photo is usually reckoned to be Ptolemy, It is on the entrance wall to the temple, a building which, in photos at least, could pass for a late 20th century government office block.


Saturday, 7 January 2012


A La Franga in Turkey and Bulgaria

" What, do you mean a little fellow, with double whiskers, and blue spectacles?"
" Yes, sir, the photographer."
" Oh, he's a good little Ghiaour enough. He always takes off his hat to me, a la franga, in the street. I thought he was a Frenchman."
Ivan Vazov; Under the Yoke, a romance of Bulgarian liberty, 1888

At first glance these photos might look like typical studio portraits from the turn of the last century, no different to what you would find in any western country at the time. In Constantinople and Sofia, where they were taken, they could be construed as political statements; not radical or explosive by any standards, more subtle perhaps than flaunting a ‘vote Teddy Roosevelt’ button though they were just as unambiguous.

In the 1880s women in Bulgarian and Turkish cities began wearing a la Franga fashions – broad brimmed hats, furs and gowns especially – as a way of identifying themselves as having French, which is to say Western, attitudes. It was more than a conscious rejection of Ottoman values; in a way it disparaged them, implying they were backward and unsophisticated. In Constantinople a la Franga belonged to the Armenians, the Levantines and Greeks, in Sofia, Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo it was the style of upper middle class Bulgarians. It was politics without a manifesto or even an ideology, more like a common act of self-expression. One thing everyone had in common was that they anticipated the imminent collapse of Ottoman rule.

The relationship between the Armenians and the French goes back centuries, to the first crusade to be precise, when Christian towns and forts offered sanctuary to crusader armies. For some French intellectuals Armenia came to represent a hopeful bastion of Christianity in a region surrounded by Muslims and other infidels. By the late 19th century French had become the language of business in Constantinople, which explains why so many Armenian photographic studios adopted French names (Phebus, Abdullah Frères) and French Christian names were popular among Armenians (Pascal Sebah). Any studio in Constantinople with a French name was almost certainly Armenian (one exception being Photo Francais, run by the Jewish Romanian émigré, Jean Weinberg) and no tourist or non-Muslim resident of Pera ever called its main street by the official Ottoman name, Cadde Kebir. It was always La Grand Rue de Pera. Armenians living in Constantinople regarded France as the pinnacle of culture, and they weren’t alone in thinking that. When Abdülmecid I wanted a new residence to replace the Topkapi in 1843 he had the Dolmabahçe Palace built. To realize a home befitting a Sultan the architects looked to the baroque extravagance of Versailles for inspiration. Even the Ancien Regime was trés chic.

In Bulgaria a la Franga had different connotations. Rural Bulgarians were every bit as nationalistic and independence minded as the urban intellectuals but if pretensions to Frenchness weren’t exactly a betrayal they did seem to be replacing one set of foreign values with another. The A La Frangistes became objects of ridicule and satire, seen as too precious for their own good. In Ivan Vazov’s novel quoted above, a la Franga isn’t really to be trusted. Assuming a man is French implies he isn’t a true Bulgarian. Not that the haut bourgeoisie of Sofia and Plovdiv were too bothered by what rustic bohemians thought of them. A la Franga wasn’t just about wide hats and long gowns. It was a lifestyle encompassing household furniture, interior design, table manners, even toilets because in a country long used to the squat hole, an actual seat was a sign of  wealth and elegance.

In Constantinople during the First World War ‘a la Franga’ was a snide remark aimed at anything suspiciously European. German military officials turned up with ‘a la Franga attitudes’ the Turkish soldiers wouldn’t buy into. Across the border Bulgaria was in a mess. Having declared its neutrality the Government found itself obliged to form an alliance with the empire it had just spent most of a century trying to be free from. After the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1919 when Bulgaria was forced to hand over its Aegean coast to Greece and other territory to Serbia, a la Franga didn’t sound so good there either. Still an image of French culture as sophisticated and worth aspiring to persisted. What killed it off wasn’t so much anti-French feeling as the shift in cultural attention that regarded America as the repository of all things desirable. Mind you, in the 1920s the place to see the hottest acts from across the Atlantic was Paris.

A la Franga belonged to that period around the turn of the century when people were conscious that the new century would be different, more technological, more modern, but they weren’t sure how that would be manifested. Looking around, France was the obvious model for culture even if by then its place as a centre for science and technology was over. As a fashion statement it managed to be contemporary and anachronistic at the same time.