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Saturday, 25 February 2012


Six subversive portraits of Turkish women

“A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks.”
Richard Avedon 

 You’d think that a collection of close to 1000 studio portraits from Turkey in the 1920s and ‘30s would give you some knowledge of the society or at least a clearer idea than most people get but it can also confuse the picture. The six portraits here challenge some essential stereotypes about Turkish women, or they only look like they do. Missing from all of them is some basic information that would provide a context. Are they evidence that the society was rather more complex than we’ve been led to think, or are they the exceptions that prove the rule? These days, everyone agrees that the notion that a photographic portrait imparts a truth beneath its surface is wrong yet we can’t quite shake the idea that it should so therefore it might. We can guess why the woman above posed in a folk costume; it was either for her benefit or the photographer’s, but once the studio props were introduced the image became a fiction. In earlier times photographers like Pascal Sebah would hire models to dress as dervishes or street vendors but we weren’t supposed to know they were only actors. Here the pretence has been dropped but that only makes the intentions more obscure.

We have no idea who this woman is or what she went on to do in her life but in 1923, the year the Turkish republic was founded, universities across the country were made fully co-educational. L’Aigle was a prominent studio in Istanbul at the time and this woman would have been one of the first female graduates. She received her education in an era when, compared to most countries in Western Europe, laws regarding the status of women in Turkey were fundamentally more progressive and enlightened. Not that her degree or the voting powers she was given in 1935 would have necessarily helped. 90 years on and Turkey is ranked one of the worst countries in the world for women’s rights; proof, if you need it, that legislation achieves little without the support of popular will. Still, in one area the country is ahead in Europe. As a percentage - approximately 47% - the number of female academics employed at universities is higher than it is for France, Holland and Italy and only just behind Germany and the UK. So, what did she do with her education; go on to a professional career or end up back at home taking charge of the kids and the domestics?

Looking at film footage shot in Constantinople in the 1910s, it becomes apparent that as crowded as the streets and waterways are, very few women are evident. Research into women in the late Ottoman Empire invariably focuses on Muslims and their cloistered lives, but Christian and Jewish women didn’t have things any better. They also spent most of their lives indoors, dedicated to the home, with no say in civic society and if they did venture outside were expected to cover themselves. There wasn’t that much for a young bride to do, not when she had her new extended family of in-laws on hand to help with the cleaning, cooking and the endless cups of tea. No wonder that so much time was devoted to grooming. A lot has been written about the erotic significance of hair but for whom would a woman lavish so much attention to her tresses if not herself; especially when she was expected to keep it hidden in public? She is clearly not a Muslim but this is also a private portrait. No way would she have gone public with her hair down and her arms exposed. Note the wedding ring on her left middle finger. That appears to be more a Jewish than a Christian tradition although the subject of wedding rings and which finger they should be placed on is one cultural historians can’t seem to agree on.   

The inscription on the back leaves no doubt this photograph was taken in the Ottoman Empire, and the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception were a prominent Catholic order in Constantinople at the turn of the century, but does that information help? From high art to lowbrow, in Christian art nuns are usually young, beautiful and faintly glamorous but in reality they were expected to be dowdy, almost sexually repellent. It isn’t entirely clear if she is wearing make-up, if so it is very lightly applied but she has devoted a little attention to her eyebrows. She may have been a model for a holy picture, in which case whoever commissioned the portrait ought to have been sued for false advertising.

One statement you can make about Turkish society after you have seen enough images is that the women are much more physical with each other than most Europeans. They wrap their arms around each other and nestle into one another’s breast in ways that would get an implicitly sexual interpretation if they were English or American. It is especially true when they are sisters. That’s merely a cultural difference though it can obviously elevate the intrigue a photo holds. Still, this portrait wouldn’t be so interesting and the connotations not so strong if the woman on the right wasn’t wearing a very manly uniform. In the 1920s Ataturk pushed for women to have the same place in the armed services as men but met resistance from military commanders, who used the international argument; women were too important for the future of children to have a place on the battlefield. Ataturk did manage to have his adopted daughter Sabiha Gokcen entered into the air force where she became the world’s first female fighter pilot, but the most women in general achieved were expanded roles in the military bureaucracy. That sounds like a very logical, sensible and placatory interpretation, but that doesn’t mean it is correct. First impressions don’t always require deeper analysis.

Just to reinforce notions of complexity and equivocality, here she is again, with another friend, and if you wanted to argue that her uniform in the first photo was sufficiently ambiguous to be possibly non military, here there is no doubt. Note that again neither of them wears insignia so they probably have office jobs. There are a few accounts of Turkish and British women taking up arms in the First World War but a common thread is that they arrived at the battlefront as nurses and fought out of necessity. There is also a long tradition of women warriors in Turkish history but they turn to defending the village or the town when the army is absent or in retreat and are not part of the official military. So why should this image be so striking? Possibly because we are so unused to seeing women from that era in military uniform that we assume there is a deeper story attached to it, and then because they are from a society we assume was more conservative than the West’s. Yes, there’s that but more to the point, this is probably not an official portrait. The women went to the studio, chose the backdrop, the setting and the props and then posed, as themselves, self possessed and fully aware of the image’s incongruity. This is a photograph that could only be taken in the midst of revolution, when they both know their traditional roles are being overturned.

Friday, 17 February 2012


10 vignette portraits from the American Civil War era

"Do you only fix your glance upon it and leave your features here. Thus he spoke and he shut up the mirror with the picture trapped inside."
Statius; The Silvae

During the Civil War, Michigan sent 90 000 soldiers to fight and 14 749 died. The first figure must account for virtually every able bodied man in the state; the latter doesn’t include the war wounded who died later. Even though no one wears any obvious militaria such as a uniform or badges, the war informs all the portraits here. Given the numbers above, it is difficult to imagine any of these people lived through it without suffering personal loss. Take the woman portrayed here. The CDV can be dated to between 1862 and 1865 and she is probably in her early twenties. You can assume she lost brothers or friends. Partly because no one is identified in any of the portraits, because we don’t know anything at all about their lives, but also because they are ordinary citizens, death and tragedy are the things that come to mind first.

In the 1860s the U.S was a bit slow in cottoning on to the new technology available to photographers. In Europe the carte de visite and the collodion process rapidly made daguerreotypes and ambrotypes redundant so by 1861 they were scarcely in demand but in the US they remained as popular as CDVs. War usually hastens technology so if something is faster, cheaper and easier to use people jump on it. Maybe it was their singularity that preserved the daguerreotypes’ popularity. In the midst of war, the gift of a unique portrait would have meant much more than something replicated a dozen times.
For photographers however the arrival of the CDV overturned everything they’d been trained in regarding the production, economics and aesthetics of photography. A CDV could be reproduced ad infinitum, even if most sitters were happy with a dozen. Whereas the studio had once been a room with the only requirement that enough light was provided for the camera, with the CDV it became an integral part of the image. Studio props and backdrops were rare in daguerreotypes but with the new cartes they were considered de rigueur. To survive the studios had to adapt but that didn’t mean they had to abandon their old ways entirely or at once. The vignette portrait with the gold border was fashionable between about 1861 and 1865, the years when the daguerreotype was being phased out, and it owes something to its predecessor, especially in the way the focus was on the face. Extraneous details such as clothing weren’t that important to daguerreotypists or their customers, particularly if the portrait was to be put in a locket.   

They also owed a lot to the commercial art of portraiture that flourished in painting, intaglio and lithography before photography, when the vignette and the cameo were the most popular ways to present portraits. In the carte above the photographer added a pink blush to the woman’s cheeks and lips and dabs of black to her pupils. These techniques were widely used by daguerreotypists to give the illusion of colour. Done well, as here, they were barely noticeable. What is going on here isn’t so much a claim for photography to be recognized as art but a response to customer demand that it ought to look like it. These vignette portraits don’t attract anything like the attention other CDVs get but spend a bit of time studying them and they reveal a lot more about the sitter’s emotions. She has a sad weariness about her that doesn’t look staged.

Among the six studios identified in these cartes, John Carbutt is the best known, though not for his portraits. He was an early landscape photographer and one of the first in America to produce stereoviews. A lot of his work was on commission for the railways. He was also experimenting with dry plates and magnesium flash when they were still strictly theoretical for most photographers. Born in England in 1832, he was photographing in Canada in the 1850s and in 1861 he opened his first studio in Chicago, where, according to some sources, he introduced cartes de visite. This portrait was taken about 1867 or 68 when he had a studio on Washington St in Chicago. In 1868 he wrote a panegyric, Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago, that included 93 of his portraits. Unfortunately the copies online don’t include the photographs so it is hard to say if this man was one of them. He has the look and demeanour of a leading citizen, in commerce you would think, rather than government, religion or culture. Carbutt may have been an excellent photographer but his writing was a deep tone of purple.

A contemporary of Carbutt’s, Gottshalk Grelling was born in Berlin in 1826 and by the 1850s was working as a daguerreotypist in Chicago, where he ran the “Gallery of Arts”; a common name for daguerreotype and photographic studios in the US. We know a little more about him – he married Adaline Byram, they had a daughter, he died in 1888 – but it’s the portrait rather than the photographer that gets our attention. Daguerreotypes tended to capture the detail in people’s faces better than the early CDVs and typical for the time, this one might have undergone some retouching. Still, part of the effect of vignetting is to leave you nothing but the face to contemplate and here we have a boy who almost certainly joined the 90 000 and possibly the 14 749. He doesn’t look like a shirker. Maybe it’s the suit but he appears destined for a life in commerce or banking, which in those days meant keeping a lot of figures in your head and a practical, unambivalent attitude to life. That’s all speculation of course. We have no idea who he was or what happened. He could have headed west and become a lawman.

In the 1860s. Chestnut St in Philadelphia was lined with photographers’ studios and Montgomery Pike Simons ran one of the better known establishments. He was producing daguerreotypes in Philadelphia in 1842 so was one of the earliest working photographers in the United States. Like Carbutt, he was interested in experimenting with technique and technology and published manuals on ivorytypes, colouring photographs and in 1859, Photography in a nut shell; or, The experience of an artist in photography, on paper, glass and silver. Despite the record, he appears to have slipped into obscurity compared to other American pioneers like Jeremiah Gurney and Charles Frederick. Sometimes you pass someone on the street and you think they have a face straight out of the Florentine renaissance, the 1920s or some other period. This man works the other way. He looks like people I know. He could be alive today.

The major studios aside, it was more common than not for photography to be part of a mixed business. Usually there was a connection so a lot of photographers were also jewellers, engravers or printers. Combining photography with upholstery and a furniture store was unusual. D. A. Simons, who did not appear to be any relation to Montgomery, ran his studio from his furniture store on Smyth’s Block in Manchester, New Hampshire. The D is for Darwin. An online gazetteer from New Hampshire in the 1860s reveals there were at least three other men in Manchester with the first name Darwin. He was on record as a daguerreotypist in the late 1850s and the furniture and upholstery store was still in business twenty years later. During those years Simons was elected to various committees and boards of trade. You think he did alright for himself. So too his subject in this study; he looks into the camera with a practised gaze. He has also done alright for himself in business.

So far the portraits show people apparently in the best of health - which seems remarkable when you read about the number of diseases wafting about the industrialised landscape - but that was thanks more to the skill of the retouchers than any lifestyle choice. Scars, wrinkles, moles and other appurtenances tended to vanish before the client received the mounted portrait. This woman has a face that appears unravaged by either experience or illness yet is afflicted nevertheless. In the late 1860s neurasthenia was diagnosed as a peculiarly American disease and specific to women. Its usual symptoms were fatigue, apathy and social withdrawal but so was any odd behaviour not covered in the textbooks. Cures ranged from enforced rest to induced orgasms, and that was before doctors began toying with electricity. If her family had money, this woman’s shadowed eyes would have marked her out as a neurasthenic. If they didn’t, her eyes were probably taken as clues to loose morals.

Randall of Detroit was the photographer but who was his subject? The beard required cultivation and regular grooming and you couldn’t really afford one like it unless you occupied a respectable position in the city. He looks self possessed and aloof, as you would if you’d inherited the family business or made your way through Harvard Law School and couldn’t see why anyone would settle for less, but that’s unfair. We really know nothing about him. Stockholder or stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, Know Nothing, Northern Republican, Southern Democrat or none of the above; someone with a practiced eye for discerning the codes of dress and appearance during the war could probably identify his background, politics and his profession. The rest of us are left with guesswork. It’s a rather excellent photograph, so finely produced it could have been done in inks.

Speaking of faces that belong to a certain time, there is something vivid and modern about this woman yet her expression immediately suggests the 19th century school teacher. The pleasure in these vignettes lies in not knowing anything about the people; having no more clues than the face to go on and nothing at all biographical. The internet has made it possible to sit in another country and construct skeletal biographies from birth, marriage and death registries, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If we knew her name and read that she lost a husband or a son in the war we’d be tempted to see tragedy when at the time she sat for the portrait it may not have happened yet. On the one hand you are curious, on the other it’s refreshing to realize she will remain a mystery. It’s a paradox really. These portraits are the most tangible proof we have these people were alive but anything they tell us depends entirely on our imaginations.


Friday, 10 February 2012


 Night scenes in real photo postcards
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.” 
Vincent Van Gogh

 Even though night photography was commercially feasible by the 1880s, you get the impression it didn’t catch on because photographers weren’t particularly inspired until the beginning of the 20th century, when skyscrapers were lit up from within and floodlights illuminated their surfaces. Something profound had happened in the interim. The lighting of the city at night went from street level to several storeys above. What it radiated down wasn’t light so much as vision. Cast against the darkness, towers appeared as majestic monuments to the new age. Evelyn Waugh hated the Senate House in Bloomsbury when it was completed in 1937 and George Orwell imagined the Ministry of Truth in 1984 was housed there. Waugh made a point of hating everything modern and if Orwell didn’t go so far he also regarded its imposing presence on the skyline as a threat. This postcard of Senate House was posted on the 18th of June 1939. Just over a year later the lights across London would be switched off and the city returned to darkness as the Blitz began.

 The Nazis had already left their mark on Berlin’s Skyline. In 1933 they set fire to the Reichstag. Otto Junga Verlag published the postcard around 1928, when the dome was still intact, and when the company was producing several series of Berlin by night. Though it is a photograph the lighting is odd and unnatural. Both the moon and the lights emanating from the building would have been too weak to give detail to the façade and there is no evidence of any other outside light source close enough. It wasn’t difficult to concoct a night scene. A dark filter over the lens and the moon and clouds added in the darkroom were the only requirements. The effect in this study is almost anti-modern. The Reichstag looks gothic and ominous.

In 1910 Georges Claude gave night photography its greatest gift, though it couldn’t be properly appreciated for another decade. His original neon lights glowed red and orthochromatic film, the cheapest and most practical stock available couldn’t register them correctly. In the 1920s panchromatic film became more accessible and argon and mercury vapour were being used in neon lights to give more colour. Even better, the neon tubes were being twisted into letters and shapes and avenues like Kurfürstendamm in Berlin were ablaze with them. A photographer could stand across the street, snap at the cafes and bars on the other side with a hand held camera and get something like this; a patchwork of electric words suspended against the darkness. It looked like art. Café des Westens had held some of the earliest cabarets in Berlin and was a haunt for Hugo Ball and other artists. By the mid 1920s when this photograph was produced it had a reputation as one of the fashionably hedonistic centres of Weimar culture.

 If Vienna’s moment as a centre of modernist ideas was passing by the 1920s it still had the artifacts and one was the Reisenrad, the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater. Ferris wheels were elemental symbols of early modernism. Their skeletal frames and engineering appeared impracticable and the inventor, George Ferris, had to fight hard to convince the committee overseeing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that something so enormous yet insubstantial looking could actually work. When the Reisenrad was built in 1897 it wasn’t as big as Ferris’ original, the Grande Roue in Paris or the Great Wheel in London’s Earls Court but by 1920 those had been dismantled or demolished so it held it’s place as the biggest until the 1980s. It became a symbol of Vienna the way the Eiffel Tower was of Paris and was recognizable even using a favourite trick among commercial photographers of slowing the exposure to reduce the wheel to ribbons of light.

In 2010 a book of Pierre Yves Petit’s photographs of Paris was published carrying the recommendation that he was the equal of Atget, Kertész and Brassaï when it came to capturing the atmosphere of Paris. Working under the studio name Yvon, he took thousands of photographs of the city, preferring the dawn and early evening when the fog clung to the streets, searching for that essence even people who had never visited the city would recognize as Parisian. Naturally, the Eiffel Tower made a regular appearance. When it was built for the 1889 World’s Fair the electric illumination of cities was just becoming realizable but still confined to the exteriors of buildings where it had the most dramatic effect. The Eiffel Tower carried electric lighting early on though it wasn’t until in the 1920s that the entire façade was dressed in lights. The claims the book makes don’t ring true. Most of his photographs are too impersonal, but when you see details like the silhouetted statue of the bull at the bottom here you know that words like genius or master don’t matter.

In 1938 it was Glasgow’s time to host an international expo and the centrepiece of the Empire Exhibition was Thomas Tait’s Empire Tower. Tait was one of Scotland’s leading modernist architects, designing significant art deco buildings such as Kodak House in London, Saint Andrew’s House in Edinburgh and the pylons on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Built on a hill, the Empire Tower stood 91 metres tall, had three observation decks and was intended to be a schematic image of Scotland. The construction from steel represented Glasgow’s place in the shipping and steel industries, which were then the backbone of the UK’s industrial economy. The exhibition ran from May to December 1938. A year later Britain was at war with Germany. Because the tower was considered an obvious target for air raids it was demolished. The Valentine Company produced dozens of photographs of the tower. Their attempts at hand colouring , this one anyway, can be considered a failure. The tower deserved better.

Back to the streets, to the Thames embankment sometime in the 1930s. Authentic night photography spurned the flash or any other form of artificial lighting. The idea was to use available light either to abstract the image or make it as naturalistic as possible. Technically, to capture this scene the photographer required an open aperture, a slow film and a shutter speed somewhere around 1/15th of a second. Anything slower risked reducing the lights from the traffic in the background to streaks. It also required a time at night when there weren’t likely to be many pedestrians. It’s an entirely posed study of course but there’s nothing wrong with that. It gets something of the desolate mood and the mystery of London away from the life and noise of Piccadilly and the West End theatres. In the 1930s Patrick Hamilton wrote the trilogy of novels collected as Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Mostly they were located in bars and cheap boarding houses and though none of the major characters tried scratching a living as a street artist, in their most dejected moments, as they shuffled past the river, cap down and collar up, they probably passed this figure, oblivious to his own straitened circumstances and stoic forbearance.


Saturday, 4 February 2012


6 real photo postcards from a lost 1903 film
“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
Napoleon Bonaparte
    In 1903 Lucien Nonguet was at the beginning of a prolific if undistinguished career as a film director, working for Pathé Frères, French rivals to Edison who were producing dozens of one and two reel films a month while securing their place as the largest producers of film equipment in the world. The cinema was still a novelty and audiences paid for the experience and the spectacle but already they were demanding more than three minute dramas and city scenes. The year before, Georges Méliès had released A Trip to the Moon, which set new standards not just in special effects but also in plot and, at 14 minutes, length. To compete, Pathé Frères began producing a series of epic tales from history. Napoleon was an obvious subject and Nonguet was given Épopée napoléonienne - The epic life of Napoleon – to direct. The film is all but lost. The Sulphur Springs Collection at SMU has a 33 second fragment of Napoleon crossing Mt Saint Bernard. Apart from that, these real photo postcards published by Rex for Pathé Frères may be all that remain of a film so vast in scope for its time it needed to be released in two parts.   
Nonguet was becoming a specialist in historical epics. That year he also made a film about the life of Jesus, and what might be considered an early documentary, except that Massacres in Macedonia, concerning recent Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, was filmed entirely in a Paris studio. Two years earlier he made a one minute version of Quo Vadis. For his historical epics he dispensed with plot, structuring the films around a series of tableaux with no continuity except that in overall time frame they moved from their subject’s childhood or youth to death. There were 15 chapters in Épopée napoléonienne. The IMDB page for the film lists At school in Brienne, On the bridge of Arcole, The campaign in Egypt, Passage of the St. Bernard Pass, The Coronation, The battle of Austerlitz, Soldier sleeping during watch, The burning of Moscow, Waterloo and The Emperor's death. Two of the scenes posted here, Napoleon wounded at Ratisbonne (Regensburg) and the abdication at Fontainebleau aren’t credited and two scenes, one involving Napoleon’s son, the other Josephine are mentioned elsewhere, which suggests the six images here don’t tell half the story but at least we get the picture.  
In constructing his tableaux, Nonguet turned to well known history paintings by Horace Vernet and Jacques Louis David. In composition the coronation scene is a faithful reproduction of David’s painting of the same event and though in Vernet’s painting the positions of Napoleon and the man he shakes hands with are reversed, the overall structure with the flanking soldiers and the raised banners is almost identical. Nonguet was born in 1868 and grew up when dioramas and moving panoramas were still popular entertainment so might have envisioned his film as a series of moving paintings. That made conceptualizing of the scenes easier and if enough of the audience were familiar with the paintings or their various reproductions it saved detailed explanations.   
Napoleon and the sleeping sentry was one of two exemplary tales used in the film intended to demonstrate the great man’s humility and why his soldiers were so loyal. Inspecting the guards one night, Napoleon discovered one asleep, a crime punishable by death in most circumstances. Saying nothing, Napoleon took the sentry’s rifle and kept watch all night. When the sentry woke the General quietly chastised him, guaranteeing the soldier’s lifelong devotion. The other is the snowball fight that began the film and heads the images here. Apparently, while having a snowball fight at school, the young Napoleon showed a natural ability for martial strategy. Maybe these events actually happened though they have more than a suspicion of the apocryphal and hagiographic to them.   
In the first decade of the last century somewhere in the vicinity of a dozen films were made about Napoleon although the precise figure is vague because of some murky practices concerning copyright and the tendency among early studios to cannibalize films. The list includes one reel comedies involving Napoleon and Josephine and reconstructions of the battles of Waterloo and the invasion of Russia in 1927 with Abel Gance’s 330 minute extravagance. Why he should be the focus of so many films is something of a mystery to non-French people. If our knowledge of Napoleon came only from English sources he was a tyrant best known for his catastrophic defeat at Waterloo and for his even bigger failure in Russia. The British depicted him as undersized, which he wasn’t, and the state of mind where a short person needs to dominate everyone else is known as the Napoleon complex. There is also the sporadic debate among historians as to how or if he compares to Hitler. Arguably, the French have even less reason to love him but the ongoing fascination probably has less to do with his historical record than his complex image; the dictator who introduced one of the most admired civic legal codes, the imperialist invader who brought a small army of scholars to Egypt and opened up the study of antiquity and lead actor in one of the mythic romances of the 19th century.   
The information on Nonguet is sparse, his most notable successes being a series of silent comedies starring Max Linder, also for Pathé Frères. Likewise Napoleon is not considered a great film or its loss a particular tragedy so far as enough of Nonguet and the Pathé Frères films demonstrating the tableau style of film construction are extant. Nevertheless when it is estimated that 75% of silent films are completely or partially lost then whatever survives becomes valuable in filling in the details.