And furthermore ...

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Friday, 25 January 2013


Studio portraits from around the world
“If you understood everything I said, you’d be me.”
Miles Davis

Reading American histories of photography can give the impression that not much happened beyond the borders of the US. In particular there is a persistent line that vernacular photography is somehow indigenous to the U.S. Luc Sante says as much in Folk Photography, it is an underlying argument in The Art of the American Snapshot and these are good books by respectable scholars. If you accept the argument that it is indigenous then everything is framed within an American consciousness (whatever that is) but if you say it isn’t, it is global, things become much more interesting. Why, for one, did everyone behave the same way in front of and behind the camera? And despite all the work scholars put into identifying national characters (especially in countries like Australia where the notion is extremely fluid or possibly never existed) do photographic portraits expose the futility of the project? The above portrait comes from Cuba, but you wouldn’t know that unless you read the inscription on the back. It was bought in Turkey. The family could easily be Turkish.

Here’s one from China. Obviously the man is Asian and there’s a banner with Chinese script around the tree but if you consider just his posture and the other details in the backdrop, you couldn’t say for sure this wasn’t taken in San Francisco or London or some other western city with a high Chinese population. The painting might look Oriental though I’m not sure we would think that if the subject was European and the script on the banner was Cyrillic. Then you have to ask what difference that would make.

A case in point: The backdrop in this Bulgarian portrait is just as elaborate and what might first appear to be a mountain in the background is a village. There’s one in the Chinese postcard as well. Both men have a poise that suggests they want to appear relaxed but can’t quite get there. Perhaps the backdrop affects them; it does give an air of artificiality to the scene that they might have found absurd. 

There has been a bit of work in recent years analysing posture and gaze in studio portraiture. A lot of it is unconvincing. Americans might assume the real photo postcard is indigenous but they don’t get into the same difficulties as people trying to find cultural or ethnic distinctions in portraits. They make the same mistake; excluding examples that sully their case, but also they are frequently reduced to taking into account other details such as dress to make their point. Gesture and gaze are too ambivalent. This one is from Australia. Because of that, I’m inclined to think her muff is made from kangaroo pelt. It helps identify where she comes from, because nothing else in the photo does.

Position in photographs is important. In April 2012 the Turkish newspaper Aydinlik  ran two portraits side by side under the headline “Bize Hangisi Yakışır”, or ‘which suits us best?” One showed President Kemal Ataturk and Prime Minister Fethi Okyar standing stiffly behind their wives, who were seated. Next to that was a studio photo of President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoǧan sitting, tieless and relaxed while their wives stood behind them. The article was obscure in its intention. The newspaper is associated with left wing trade unions and critical of the present Government. It is also worth recalling that Ataturk extended many rights to women, including the vote, while under the AKP, the status of Turkish women according to international indexes has noticeably diminished, yet the comparison appeared to suggest that Gül and Erdoǧan were comfortable giving power to their wives. The suspicion is that the newspaper tried to take a swing at the Government and missed; nevertheless the example shows how important position and posture can be in formal portraits.

According to these codes, the person in the highest position, the woman in this American portrait, has some dominance over her husband, but from the looks of things he’d disagree. There’s a sense, and you get this from his posture, that he knows where the power ultimately rests.

And what about this one from Canada? Does it actually say something about marital relations in Canada in the 1920s, or is it only about the marriage between these two? It was bought in Montreal and might have come from Quebec but in that case bear in mind that while in most Canadian provinces women got the vote around 1918, in Quebec they didn’t until 1940, well after Turkey. If we want to take the point of view that position and posture in photographs reflect social standing across the whole society, this image messes things up. If we consider it instead as reflecting the situation of two individuals, we have to wonder how much we can attribute to position and posture. (You’ll notice, by the way, how most of the men have similar moustaches despite coming from different countries. What could that mean?)  

So, a Romanian boy …

Is not that much different to a Turkish boy …

Whose mother could be French …

Or German …

Or Filipino...
Whatever the case, American claims that there is something indigenous about vernacular photography are false but so are notions we can divine any implicit cultural meaning from gesture, position or posture. If these portraits reveal anything it is not what we are looking for.


Saturday, 19 January 2013


Erotic postcards
 “An intellectual is a person who’s found one thing more interesting than sex.”
Aldous Huxley

 A scholarly history of the erotic postcard would be an admirable undertaking, particularly as it is full of problems obvious before even beginning. One is that actual facts are rare. People didn’t keep open and detailed records, so the statistical data that would reveal how popular or lucrative the market was doesn’t exist. Another is that most photographers didn’t identify themselves on the cards and the best known studios, Julian Mandel and Yva Richard, didn’t have a look they could call their own. Also, it’s hard to find information that isn’t weighed down with ideological encumbrances. Not being a topic for polite society, it’s no surprise that the greatest amount of information comes from the organizations dedicated to suppressing the trade. The various committees against vice found in America and Europe were good at accounting for the number of magazines and photographs they had destroyed in the last month. A problem is that their definition of pornography was broader than the general population’s, so a lot of images considered filth in their eyes were mild by most other standards. The example above by Reutlinger wouldn’t have survived the flames. When Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice announced it had put 5000 photographs to the torch, how many of those would have met the definition of depraved in most people’s opinion? And let’s not forget, these societies worked on the message that the country was under assault by pornographers dangerously close to corrupting the entire society. When it came to publishing figures, exaggeration was required. They not only had to give the impression that a wave of obscenity was sweeping the country but that despite their best efforts they were in imminent danger of losing the fight. In that situation big numbers would get reactions even if they were completely false. 

A place to start might be to ask who were the photographers behind the trade. The answer appears to be pretty much all of them. Anybody who ran a decent sized studio in a major city regarded the erotic postcard market as a legitimate aspect of their business, well, so far as they were prepared to take it on. There must have been some who considered it a matter of principle not to get involved but generally speaking, whenever the archives are investigated it isn’t long before the erotica comes to light. Some companies, like Reutlinger, made it a stock in trade but it sat alongside their chaste and sentimental line in portraits of children and animals. Basically they responded to customer demand, whatever that meant. The photographer dedicated to manufacturing pornography, inevitably a man of dirty appearance and habits (and frequently a foreigner), was an image concocted by moral guardians. What we know is that some of the most respectable studios in Europe ran a sideline in erotica, and some of those were operated by women.

So what about the women who posed? First hand accounts tend to come from two sources. On the one hand there are the women like Kiki of Montparnasse who not only openly admitted that they posed but knew it added another frisson of scandal to their reputations. A typical story from the age is that the woman arrives in Paris – having been deserted by her lover from the ranks of the minor nobility – and desperate for some money takes on a bit of work that in normal circumstances she thinks is beneath her. Either that or, yes, before she became recognized across Europe as a great dancer she too was forced to do things she is not proud of. It might have sounded like a chapter from a cheap novel but terms of self-promotion it only added to her allure. 

The other side of the coin is the model as innocent victim. Oddly (not really), this one tends to emerge in court trials where the vice committees had a hand in the arrest of the photographer. Apart from protecting society against pornography, one of the self-appointed jobs of the vice committees was to save young women from its clutches. Typically, she had arrived in the city with no money or friends and soon felt the wicked grip of the unscrupulous photographer. Given the attention some of these trials attracted, it served the woman well to also portray herself as victim, especially if family, friends or her official employers were likely to read about it. Sometimes a small detail muddies the story; it emerges that she has form, she assaults the police when they barge in, some point between the original account of the arrest and the trial she undergoes a transformation of character. There are reports of women turning on their so-called saviours, of being taken to a safe location only to escape at the first opportunity. What bothered people then, and still does, is that being an artist’s model might not have been respectable but that didn’t mean women were unwilling.

What about the customers? In his book, Erotic French Postcards, Alexandre Dupony says that a lot of cards were sent by French women to their boyfriends at the front during World War 1. This sounds so typically French; it’s difficult to imagine Australian women doing that, still there’s a hint that Dupony might be trying to let the customer off the hook. It is rare to find these postcards with messages on the back, such as you would therefore expect: “Tu me manque, Pierre”. Not that we can base much of an argument on that but we do know that companies usually advertised their photos for sale in magazines using language that made it obvious what was on offer: ‘artist model photos for sale’, that sort of thing and it was normal, or common, to buy them in sets. That leads us to think the standard customer was a man looking to add to his collection. He was probably married, with children, wore a bowler hat and handlebar moustache and considered himself an aesthete. The really expensive stuff, the limited edition large format photogravures, was beyond the reach of his wallet.

You might wonder why Paris was the centre of the industry. There is plenty of evidence to support the usual arguments that it was a more liberal city than London or New York but there’s a couple of things to consider. Firstly, there’s a point where ‘liberal’ and ‘exploitation’ start to merge. Paris was also famous for its human zoos, where under the guise of education the citizens could go and stare at African villagers who were literally behind cages. And there’s a reason why Nazism and fetishism became entwined. The upper echelon of the party was dominated by men with stunted attitudes to sex; the type who watched porno films but couldn’t look a real woman in the eye. Also, it’s easy to think of the Casino de Paris and the Moulin Rouge and forget that most Parisians didn’t set foot in those places. On Sunday mornings they were more likely to be on their way to Mass than nursing a hangover with some chorine they’d met backstage. What it might be about isn’t Parisian openness so much as strident prudishness in other places. America in the 1920s had prohibition. People could be forgiven for thinking anything went in Paris. 

If you have seen Auguste Belloc’s stereographs from the 1860s you’ll think this one from the 1930s is moderate, even discreet (If you haven’t, go to Courbet’s Origin of the World, painted at the same time. It is tame in comparison.). You will also realize that any talk of historical development in photography of the nude is largely ephemeral; Belloc’s work is as hardcore today as it was then. The notion that the real photo postcards that flourished in France between the 1900s and the 1930s represent some kind of shift in aesthetics is nonsense. The only shift to speak of is commercial, which is a problem if you were writing a serious history because it wouldn’t be long before you found yourself examining technical production, modes of transmission and economic processes, all of which, your viewers would agree, are beside the point. Not that they’d mind if the book was lavishly illustrated.


Saturday, 12 January 2013


Six cinematic scandals and tragedies
 “It is a public scandal that offends; to sin in secret is no sin at all.”

Long ago, some time in the early 19th century, impresarios discovered that a scandal could fill theatre seats. Tragedies were different. If the actor died young the curtain came down and that was that, though an untimely death helped sales of cartes de visite. There are reports that the demand for portraits of John Wilkes Booth went through the ceiling after he was shot following the assassination of Lincoln. Things changed with cinema. Now a tainted or tragic star’s greatest scenes could be recycled ad nauseam and the myth kept the tills turning. Eva May was the daughter of Joe May, one of Germany’s most popular directors in the silent era, and Mia May, the even more popular actress. Appearing in her first film when she was twelve, her way up the ladder was swift and easy, but she had problems. By the time she was twenty she had been married three times. She first attempted suicide in 1923 after her fiancé Rudolph Seiber left her for Marlene Dietrich. A year later she succeeded. She was twenty four. Born under a bad star, you could say.

Nita Naldi … The name sounds exotic and there was something oriental, Turkish or Indian perhaps, in her eyes … Actually she was born Mary Dooley in New York in 1894, the daughter of an Irish father and Italian mother and despite being typecast as an elegant seductress she was as famous on set for her coarse language. When Theda Bara retired from acting in 1926 Hollywood needed someone to fill the role of the vamp and Naldi, who had already appeared in Blood and Sand and The Ten Commandments, stepped in. Film titles include Don't Call It Love, The Lady Who Lied, The Unfair Sex, La Femme Nue; you get the picture. In his 1985 sequel to Hollywood Babylon, called not surprisingly Hollywood Babylon II, Kenneth Anger reproduced a 1963 photo of Naldi outside an LA cinema. Haggard and vacant, with kohl blackened eyes, the vamp had left her coffin for a spot of fresh night air, and within a few hours of the photo being taken she would die, though no one would realize that for a few days. Leading into the chapter of the book, ‘Hollywood Drugstore’, the implication in the photo was that Naldi was a heroin user. This was unfair if not actually dishonest. If Naldi had a drug problem it was more likely of the prescription variety, to deal with dramatic fluctuations in weight: there was nothing apart from her appearance in that one photo to suggest she was an addict. In the late 1920s she played the vamp for real when she ran off with the married millionaire J. Searle Barclay. Their lives together were a model of gratuitous self-indulgence, and when the money ran out he disappeared. During her last years she lived in a once chic hotel gone to seed, surviving on welfare. The real story, you sense, was darker than anything Anger and the gossip magazines realized.

In 1938 Austrian born comedienne Jenny Jugo was fond of playing such jokes on her boyfriend as slipping a rubber sausage on to his dinner plate. She also enjoyed putting on impromptu revues for him and his colleagues and then there was the film she made for him, in which according to a housekeeper’s report she stood around for a while then performed calisthenics in the nude. The boyfriend was Adolf Hitler. Among the gifts he was said to have given her were a mink coat, a villa and a four-seater aeroplane. Popular, though never a major star, her most productive years were during the silent era but she continued to act through the 1930s, during the war and intermittently into the 1950s. Despite being close to Hitler for a short time, she does not appear to have suffered the recriminations other actors supportive of the Nazis did after the war. This may be because the relationship occurred in 1938 so in the scheme of things was before that period the Allies were interested in, but more likely she was not considered that important, either as a political or cultural figure. These days you can’t talk about Jugo without mentioning Hitler. As far as her reputation stands, she might as well have contracted leprosy.

Think Berlin in the 1930s, think cabaret, and if your grasp of actual history is tenuous, Liza Minelli. Her character in Cabaret was based on Sally Bowles in the Christopher Isherwood memoir Goodbye to Berlin and Bowles, Isherwood assured us, was based on a real person. She wasn’t La Jana but for all intents and purposes might as well have been, or more accurately one of the dancers in the preliminary act. For a while Henriette Hiebel, which was probably La Jana’s real name, was one of the most thrilling dancers in Germany. Wearing the minimum attire, if anything at all, her performances were erotic and made men regret they wore wedding rings. But for a few years difference and a change of cities she might have offered a challenge to Josephine Baker. That said, one critic complained; “She had as much interest for sex as Immanuel Kant." (Once again, I’m very grateful to European Film Star Postcards for information in this post.) In 1940 she contracted pneumonia and died. She was 35. Mystery and rumour continued to haunt her reputation. It was claimed that she had helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and that she’d caught pneumonia after Goebbels forced her to perform for soldiers in mid-winter. Both are possible, neither can be confirmed.

The Rose Ballet scandal blew up in Paris at the beginning of 1959, when Le Monde published allegations that a highly ranked political figure was involved in procuring young girls for orgies. It was revealed soon after that the culprit was André Le Troquer, war hero and President of the National Assembly. It was further claimed that his wife, more accurately his partner, a former actress now high society portraitist, had choreographed performances using girls as young as 13 that quickly descended into depravity. She was Lithuanian born Elisabeth Pinajeff. As with the Profumo affair in England four years later, the substance of the allegations is generally accepted; what’s questioned are the motives behind them – sincere moral outrage or political opportunism. Either way, Le Troquer was jailed for a year and Pinajeff’s second career as an artist was finished. In Germany she had been a moderately successful actor during the silent era, though her reputation is more through association with some of the big names of Weimar cinema; director Carl Theodor Dreyer and performers Liane Haid, Ossi Oswalda, Evelyn Holt and Henny Porten. When Alex Binder took this portrait of her they were probably married, or certainly were soon after. 

Whether what happened to Henny Porten in 1944 was a scandal or a tragedy depends upon your politics. If you were a Nazi with a soft spot for Germany’s best known actress it was probably both, though you would not have admitted so much in public. It’s astonishing to realize that Porten’s first film appearance was in 1906, before many countries even had cinemas, and her last in 1955, the year East of Eden won the Oscar for best film and Cannes awarded the first Palme d’Or. Not only that; she wrote and produced many of her 170 films. When Hollywood next indulges in one of its tiresome roll calls of the greats, ask yourself why her name is left out. In 1916 her first husband, director Curt Stark, was killed in the trenches, which was tragic enough, but in 1921 she married physician and producer Wilhelm von Kaufmann, who was Jewish. In 1933 Goebbels refused to grant her an exit visa so she could travel to Hollywood and thereafter did his utmost to finish her film career. That was difficult. For one thing, Porten was excellent in the kind of light comedies the Nazis needed to keep the German people distracted, so like a lot of people in cinema she found work hard to get though it did not completely vanish. In 1944 her apartment was destroyed in an air raid. Denied shelter because of Kaufmann’s ethnicity, the couple remained homeless and on the streets until the end of the war. Remember, if you ever see a former Hollywood celebrity on the street and holding out a cup, give them a coin, then remind them there is such a thing as the deserving poor.


Saturday, 5 January 2013


 Disasters, natural and otherwise
“It’s a recipe for disaster when your country has an obesity epidemic and a skinny jean fad.”

Everybody knows about Vesuvius blowing its stack in AD79 and burying Pompeii under lava. In 1944 a smaller eruption wiped out several towns in the foothills and killed 28 people. It also destroyed or damaged 88 US aircraft at a nearby base, which in military terms was a catastrophe. Planes still airworthy were sent up to photograph the eruption. This photo was probably taken after the eruption but while Vesuvius quietly smouldered away. 

Mount Asama on Honshu Island blows up so frequently no one bats an eyelid if a chunk of molten lava lands near their feet. In fact there is a museum near the base full of cute and furry Japanese characters ready to explain the science of vulcanology in their high-pitched electronic voices. This stereocard is copyright 1904 but the photograph could have been taken in any year back to 1899, when Asama had an annual eruption. Before then it was approximately every five years. The man on the left is described as ‘an English friend of the photographer’s’. He is carrying a large stereographic camera. Back then, the only way to really understand volcanic eruptions was to get as close as possible to the vent, and a relatively moderate example like Asama was considered safe. The big risk everyone up there faced was suffocation by sulphuric fumes. The actual photographer of this image isn’t named but presumably everyone got back to ground level as there are several stereographs available from the series of close up scenes of Asama.

In 1909 Nampa was a middling sized railroad town in Idaho. On July 4 that year a fire that started in a warehouse gutted the town centre and destroyed 60 buildings. Lee Jellum was a well known Nevada photographer so it would be fortuitous that he happened to be in Idaho that day. Of course, he may not have been but merely licensed this image from the photographer and applied his name to it. Whatever the case the scene is full of detail. We can see a fire truck in the far background with men feeding a hose and the workers in their bib and brace overalls who have come out to watch the drama. Of special interest is the woman just behind the crowd who appears to be sitting on a chair near the sidewalk. You couldn’t call it entertainment; some of these people were watching their livelihoods go up in flames, but it was a spectacle and she has taken a front row seat so to speak.

Disaster scenes are one of the features that distinguish early American real photo postcards. The photographers really regarded it as their job to record the big news stories of the day and while that may have mostly been town parades or the school’s annual theatre performance sometimes it did involve news that reached the outside world. In other countries it seems postcard photographers thought more money was to be made out of charming views. Only occasionally do you see the calamities the Americans recorded as though they were news photographers. On March 30, 1912, the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers broke their banks. The waters in some parts were said to rise thirty feet and the town was almost literally washed away. There are several photos from the aftermath in Nebraska’s archives, possibly taken by the one photographer though it is just as likely that numerous people grabbed their cameras and went out to record the scenes.

There is a documentary about the Pryor Tornado of 1942 on YouTube. Witnesses describe the sudden rise in air pressure followed by a loud bang. One woman recounts how she was taken to a hospital and left for dead in a room. Fifty two were actually killed from what was a particularly powerful and acute twister. It ripped apart the main street but left houses only metres away intact. Martial law was declared. The aftermath of the tornado was one of the most thoroughly documented local disasters at the time. Apart from photographs there was extensive news footage, detailing the destruction that occurred over just a few blocks.

Blizzards happen every year and most of the time so long as you are indoors you are safe - most of the time, because a blizzard can knock out electricity and make access impossible. Occasionally, as happened in Iran in 1972, the snow is so heavy it buries homes and people freeze to death; 4000 in that case. In this scene we have a rotary snowplough attached to a locomotive. Not surprisingly, the inventor of the rotary plough was a Canadian; well why would a Hawaiian invent one? They are still used in Canada and Alaska though they must have been much more impressive in the age of steam when the train belched clouds of white vapour in the air as it rammed tons of snow off the tracks. What you’d get was a photo like this; a cross between J. M. W Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed and Kasemir Malevich’s White on White. 

As museum staff around the world are well aware, the centenary of the beginning of World War 1 is almost upon us and commemorative exhibitions have already been planned down to the least significant artifact. This photograph was taken in France around the time of the war but does it show an actual scene or simply some military exercises? If it is only a scene from some exercises it has the blurred intensity of actual war. The figures in the background are over-exposed but they appear to be dissolving under the cannon smoke.

The caption reads: ‘Long queues of sickly and starving people waiting for assistance’. It comes from a wallet of 20 miniature snapshots showing scenes of India and sits alongside images of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. If India’s starving weren’t considered a tourist attraction in the 1950s they had come to represent the country with the same immediacy as the landmark buildings. Every traveller who returned from India with a book in mind described the magnificent temple architecture, the mystical allure and the extreme poverty. One effect was to inure outsiders so Indian famines were thought to be as cyclical and inevitable as the seasons. Whoever published these miniature albums might have assumed customers wanted an authentic photo of India’s poor. Looking closely, it is clear the people are lining up for something but it isn’t necessarily for welfare. They could just as well be buying bread off a street vendor.

Forced relocation

On the back of this postcard it reads: “S.S Sakarya/ Selanik Rihtimi/ Aralik 1923”, which translates as “SS Sakarya, Thessaloniki pier, December 1923”.  The battle of Sakarya was a turning point in the war between Turkey and Greece that had ended a year earlier and led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic. In July 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne was signed between Turkey, Greece, Britain, France, Italy, Romania and Japan. It laid out the peace terms including the borders of the new Turkish state. Part of the treaty included the notorious Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed between Greece and Turkey. It was agreed that Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece would be repatriated. This was supposed to keep the peace. What actually happened was that more than 1.5 million non-Muslims were expelled from Turkey, which received about 500 000 Greek Turks in return. Not that Turkey was the only ruthlessly opportunistic party involved. The League of Nations was behind the deal and like the later UN, once the treaty was signed it stood back and watched the disaster unfold. Most of the Greek families expelled had been living in Turkey for generations and while Greece might have been a homeland of the mind it was no more a part of peoples’ personal experience than distant America. The refugees who arrived in Piraeus were called Turks and treated accordingly. The refugees who arrived in Constantinople were suspected of being secret Christians. You can still see the legacy today in Istanbul. There are hundreds of ruined properties in the city centre that legally still belong to expelled families.