And furthermore ...

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Friday, 1 June 2012


Snapshots of interiors

“Step right up, come on in. If you'd like to take the grand tour, of a lonely house that once was home sweet home. I have nothing here to sell you, just some things that I will tell you. Some things I know will chill you to the bone.”
George Jones ‘The Grand Tour’

Seventy years ago, the largest piece of furniture in the living room was likely to be the radio. It was also the centrepiece. To own a polished mahogany valve wireless set bigger than an armchair said a few things about you. One was that you had a little money; though the radios weren’t prohibitively expensive they were a luxury. Another was that you had enough time to afford leisure and taste. Most of all it was a focus of your social life. Whether the family sat around listening to the hiss and crackle of thrilling dramas, if your friends came over to listen to football matches or you sat alone with the classical hour as your only company, the radio reflected what you valued about your home. It was probably a good thing radios quickly began to shrink in size. They never needed to be that big and once television came along there was a crisis of competing interests.

Anybody who lets themselves be photographed is obviously lending some part of their identity to the photographer, which is why they so often affect a mask. But something more happens when they allow themselves to be photographed at home, surrounded by their possessions. Even, or especially, if they are playing a game for the camera, the objects around them give away much more about their inner lives than they might want to admit. You might look quite the house-proud man of means but that hideous lamp in the corner wasn’t just a lapse in judgement, it is proof that behind your calm façade lurks a desperate and vulnerable social climber. The furnishings look grand but the wallpaper is cheap. The people you work with have no idea how many books you have on your shelf and that far from the impression you give them, your idea of a perfect night is a glass of wine by your side and a heartbreaking romance in your hands. 

If you can’t let your guard down at home, where can you? Left alone in the refuge of your own house, it won’t be long before you do something you’d rather others didn’t see. The telephone, the push button ashtray and the modular chairs date this photo to the mid to late ‘60s. So does its sparseness. For her parents, the signs of middle class comfort were dark stained furniture and fittings, with cabinets and shelves filled with sentimental objects. The 1960s were a minimalist age. The modern home had aluminium frames on the windows and sliding glass doors and the sunlight streamed in through polyester net curtains. The ambience worked against excessive decoration. A cheap Matisse print mounted on cork or chipboard was enough to bring life to a room and it probably set off the Pyrex dishware and Marimekko tablecloth quite well. She has her purse and sunglasses ready. They’re off to an event that will also be spare in detail or description but intellectually satisfying.  

And here we have another bare looking room in an image full of details. Isn’t it great? The cigarette hanging casually from the mouth of the woman on the right, the look of concentration on everyone’s faces, the purse, the bowl; this is bridge night, or it could be poker. Whatever game they are playing, you know it’s a regular event, a ritual and men aren’t allowed anywhere near it because it’s part of the glue that holds these women’s marriages together. You also know it’s been going on every Wednesday night for some time and will continue into the future. That’s why somebody thought it important to capture on film. 

Every room is a work of art. Stripped bare or full of clutter, cheap or expensive furnishings, plain white walls or something more elaborate; the self-expression of the occupant is on display. Everybody has an idea of what their ideal home should look like inside. Sometimes it becomes an obsession as they neurotically shift the furniture about from one part of the room to another or consult coffee table books on Mexican or Neapolitan style, the paradox being that the Mexicans and Neapolitans who could afford those interiors are looking to New York or Paris for inspiration. Sometimes we get it but more often we accept a compromise. What we want is often at odds with who we are.

The bedroom, we’re told, is where a lot happens, but it doesn’t really. We sleep, which is hardly active, and sometimes we lie there reading a book. It’s the place we go when we are so exhausted that we have no other choice. Mostly the bed is the best place to think. 

You can see why the photographer took this snap. He or she was standing in the living room and suddenly struck by the afternoon light filtering through. The glimpse of a light fitting tells us it is the ceiling reflected in the mirror but it could almost be the sea with waves quietly landing on the shore. A professional would have fixed things to remove any anomalies but the result wouldn’t have been so strange or felt so empty.

We have countless photos of people in the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, the study but photos from the bathroom are rare. No doubt there were couples who shot off rolls of film of each other sitting on the toilet or taking a shower but they tended to be very private and kept away from the regular photo albums. It’s too bad really because in a lot of countries the toilet is the only room a house must legally have. The closest we have here is a woman washing her hands in the bathroom. This being a typical Turkish apartment bathroom the toilet is probably right behind her, though it may not be the reason she came in here. Note the tin on the soap dish. If it wasn’t here this photo would be missing something.

The concept of the home bar was as American as a Chevy in the carport. No other culture really thought it necessary that the man of the house ought to have his own space to entertain his golfing buddies, but like a lot of things American in the 1940s and 50s it caught on like syphilis and spread quickly. By the 1960s a proper home bar had to be built entirely out of Swedish pine, which didn’t mean the timber came from Sweden, just the look; a cross between a sauna and the sleeping quarters in an expensive yacht. Most likely the bar has only recently been installed; said Man on the House hasn’t had time to put up any tacky decorations, and he shouldn’t either. With a home bar built from Swedish pine and a glamorous wife/girlfriend to occupy a stool, he has everything he needs for the perfect life. What’s that drink by her side? It could be a white wine though the point of the home bar was to serve up cocktails.


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