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Saturday, 28 September 2013


Six hand-coloured studies of a house

"I don't divide architecture, landscape and gardening: to me they are one."
Luis Barragan

I bought these six postcard sized photos about six years ago in Perth Australia. Though I doubt they were taken in Perth, certain details make me think the house is, or was, in Australia. The most convincing is the corrugated tin water tank attached to the side of the house, something so typically Australian we could call it vernacular. Another is that the trees on the distant horizon in this image have the distinct appearance of eucalypts. This is one of those details you can’t really call evidence but as with some species of pine and fir, you get a feeling what the tree is from a distant silhouette. It’s a very Australian house, which is to say it’s also very English.

The house is built in the classic arts and crafts style known in Australia as Federation, which would put it anywhere between 1895 and 1920. As the name suggests, it was the prevalent style around the time of federation in 1901, which was British in outlook with some native improvements. One of them was the verandah, essential for keeping the sun out, but note the timber facing in the Tudor style. Well into the 1940s Australia was still measuring itself against the old country and to build a mansion meant building something British, especially if it sat on a couple of acres. 

The hand colouring is exact, indicating a trained colourist or artist was responsible for that. Most likely, once the garden was established, which could be a couple of years after the house was built, a professional photographer came in to take photos for a presentation album. These in the post might only represent a portion of the photos in that album, which would be kept in a cabinet and brought out on special occasions. 

If I were a botanist I could identify the plants here, say more than they were trees and ferns and possibly give the house a precise location. What matters more to us however is the Italianate - we could go further and call it faux Italianate – scene here. It tells us a lot about the owner; a person (the man of the house may have had the money but the woman was as likely to hold power when it came to issues of design) for whom that all important word ‘culture’ belonged anywhere but Australia. They wanted it all. The house would be British, set in a landscape of cultivated lawns and rose gardens, but it would have annexes devoted to those elements a cultivated mind should turn to: the Italian Renaissance being an obvious inclusion. I once read an account of the house the American tycoon Leland Stanford built, with its Middle Eastern room, its Chinese area and French quarter. In designing the house, Stanford and his wife consulted a Sears catalogue and so the Persian carpets, Ming vases and Italian brocade wall hangings arrived on the same day, which was convenient. That statue of the girl in the hood? There were probably thousands of casts scattered around Sydney and Melbourne suburbs.

Full marks to the photographer and the colourist, but I think gnomes placed around a fountain say as much about the house owners then as they would now. This wasn’t just a place for a family to live; it was a fantasy, a weirdly romantic English pastoral set in the Australian landscape. Le Corbusier famously said that a house should be a machine, a functional organism whose primary purpose was to make the lives of its inhabitants easier. Frippery only distracted from that. I think the occupants of this house would have disagreed.

And this? A whole space given over to a ceramic fantasy of England? Well, not entirely. Another detail that makes me think this is an Australian house is the white cockatoo. In fact I’d say it establishes beyond doubt it is Australian, but the hunting dogs and deer? The issue of feral deer is a lesser known fact about New South Wales but they were introduced so wealthy settlers in love with home could carry out one of their essential pastimes. This last photo really brings home the image of a homeland the house’s inhabitants may never have visited.


Monday, 23 September 2013


13 snapshots of Mississippi C1950s
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi”
William Faulkner

The context of one of Faulkner’s most famous quotes is probably important but in any case, Mississippi wears its history like a millstone. Slavery (the state only signed on to the 13th Amendment that formally abolished it this year; 2013), the Civil War, the Klan, segregation; it’s not that Mississippi is responsible for all that is ugly about America but it has always resisted disavowing it. Culturally, Mississippi also gave the world more than anywhere else in the States, New York included: the Delta blues, country music, Elvis, Tennessee Williams, and I could go on but it would quickly become tangential to this post.
Quite a find, if I may say so: 13 standard 3½ square snapshots taken in Mississippi in the mid 1950s, lying together in a pile of mostly pedestrian snapshots in a shoebox at the flea market in Montreal. The detail and tones suggest the camera used was better than average, the composition and overall quality indicates the photographer knew what he or she wanted. 

Mississippi and photography usually means three names: Walker Evans, William Eggleston and William Christenberry. Of the three, these photos probably have more in common with Christenberry’s work than the other two – he has tended to be more interested in the idea of place without its inhabitants – but what caught my eye was an aesthetic that belonged to others entirely removed from the deep south. The square format helped but I was reminded more of western photographers like Robert Adams. Mr or Ms X shares - we could say anticipates but it is a dubious word – some of the same concerns with the human presence. What’s more, we can argue that these are intentional.

Not knowing who the photographer was puts us in the swampy world of speculation. We can’t say whether X was a professional or strictly amateur but there is a consistency to these scenes that makes it apparent he or she considered and composed the scene before pressing the shutter. More than that,
X was after images that placed the subject in the geographical space of Mississippi. This is rarer among amateurs than we think and more likely to come from somebody who photographed with an intellectual interest: an English professor who wanted surface impressions of Faulkner’s (or Eudora Welty’s) Mississippi or a historian or architect thinking about the relationship between habitation and space. Alternatively X could have been a serious amateur who wanted a personal response. This isn’t a photo of a tree or of a house but of the relationship between the two that made an impression on X.  Whoever X was, photography involved searching, looking and thinking. 

Another case in point is this photograph from a cemetery. We would expect an average tourist in Vicksburg to visit the National Memorial and photograph monuments to the Civil War. An average tourist might also visit a smaller cemetery and photograph the tomb of someone famous or a striking sculpture. This scene however is nothing of the sort. It’s not a record but a study of a columbarian wall. It doesn’t matter who is buried or cremated here. The photographer is more interested in the structures.

Here’s another example. Anyone familiar with the history of American photography over the last fifty years is probably inured to the combination of the roller coaster and the car; two iconic images of post-war America and something of a cliche now, but in the mid 1960s this was still interesting, still relevant. There is nothing accidental about it either. Our photographer had plenty of other vantage points to photograph the roller coaster from but chose this one because of the car. It broke up the composition and gave the viewer something to think about.

We can identify these photos as coming from the Vicksburg thanks to this photo. The Sprague was the biggest steam powered towboat in the world when it was built in 1901. Decommissioned in 1948, it became a museum on Vicksburg’s waterfront until it was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. Since we know these were taken in the 1950s (thanks to the cars) it was operating as a museum when this photo was taken. Notice how the photographer was as interested in the jetty, and possibly the rock in the foreground. X wanted an image that included the Sprague but not one of it.

Another photo from Vicksburg: Judge Lake House, also known as Lakemont House and reputedly haunted by the ghost of Judge William Lake’s widow, killed by the same cannonball that shattered the gate in 1863 – two years after her husband was killed in a duel. The house was built in 1830 and though not as grand as some of the plantation mansions is still a Vicksburg landmark. It is quite possible that these photos don’t represent the complete collection, that X took dozens of others now scattered about that if brought together with these would cast them in an entirely different light, but it is interesting nevertheless that of all the photos this is the only one that explicitly refers to the Civil War, and that the real focus of the image not the house but the sign out front.

Walker Evans took some of his most memorable photos in Vicksburg, but of monuments and the decrepit black slums. I don’t think he photographed this church though as soon as you see it he springs to mind. Here we might indulge ourselves in imagining how Evans would have photographed this: much tighter and with a rectangular portrait format, but if he did that he would have probably waited until the cars cleared and he probable wouldn’t have taken it at 1:45 but earlier, when the sun hit the front full on. Still, the cars add to this scene, giving a sense they are related to the church in some way. 

Because these were bought in Montreal it’s reasonable to assume though not conclusive that was where X came from. Something about them tells us the photographer was an outsider seeing Mississippi for the first time rather than returning to old ground, though I can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me think that.


Sunday, 15 September 2013


10 snapshots taken with a 127 camera
 "Attend to your configuration."
Edwin A. Abbott. Flatland.


The square is the most self-contained shape. Unlike the circle, the triangle or the rectangle, it makes no allowances for anything that exists outside its perimeters. Whatever intrudes is welcome but it has no extension, no existence really, beyond the square. Maybe that is why square was always regarded as a format for amateurs. Few professionals specialized in or preferred the square format, mostly because of its limitations. If editorial work required a square frame it was just as easy to photograph using a standard rectangular format and crop as it was to shoot square.

In 1912 Kodak introduced 127 roll film for its folding vest camera. Originally it was in a rectangular format measuring 3x4 cm, which was smaller than more common formats such as 120 but still large enough to get a decent contact print. All Kodak cameras were designed for the amateur market and 127 was always regarded as an amateur format. Though some later cameras might have sophisticated features such as a focusing ring or a choice of three aperture settings, a 127 camera would always be identified by its contemporary design and the materials it was made out of – Bakelite, die cast metal and moulded plastic. For some collectors, 127 cameras like the Kodak Brownie and the Ensign Ful-Vue rank among the most beautiful cameras ever built, regardless of their technical shortcomings.    

One of the perceived disadvantages of 127 was that in its rectangular format it only allowed for 8 frames. By making the cameras square format this allowed for 12 frames, or four more photos. Manuals were full of advice on how to compose a photo for a rectangular format; use the rule of thirds, make sure the background is interesting and so on. With square format it was simple. So long as the subject was in the centre, or close enough, it was hard to go wrong. 

Most 127 cameras relied on a single meniscus lens, usually made out of plastic. Rather than just bad, results tended to be variable. A camera that functioned well in bright daylight failed that test when a flash was attached to it. Sometimes one frame came out with perfect clarity while the next was ruined by light flares or poor focus. Two models of the same camera could have different qualities, one getting the background in reasonably sharp focus, the other recording it as bleached and muddy. This is of course why devotees still love the 127, and not just for its unpredictability, it gets effects they couldn’t emulate in the darkroom. 

During the 1980s Hong Kong companies began producing Holga cameras, essentially exercises in nostalgia. What people liked about them; their abberant focus, the way some colours were saturated and others washed out and the effect that produced a dark vignette around the border. The camera manufacturers started building these features in so the photographer could always be guaranteed of getting the Holga look. Later, photo editing apps like Creative Kit offered the Holga and Lomo options. This involved ramping up the contrast, softening the appearance, saturating reds and adding the vignette. This can make ordinary images look more interesting but Holga, Lomo and the editing apps miss one point; the real magic of amateur cameras lay in their unpredictability. To be assured of getting the Holga look is self-defeating.   

The photos in this post were taken with a 127 format camera in Quebec sometime between the mid 1940s and ‘50s. (The church is identified as being in Ste Victoire, between Montreal and Quebec City.)  The shots using flash in particular show up the camera’s limitations but they also have an atmosphere we couldn’t get from a better machine. We couldn’t get it from a modern toy camera like a Lomo either. That comes down to the difference between being natural and self-conscious. The photographer may have known some photos wouldn’t record the scene as he or she saw it but that was no reason not to take a photo, the point being to record a moment. Half a century on, Holga and Lomo photographers know what they are after and arrange the scene to get it. When you look at several of them at one sitting you can leave with the feeling they are not celebrating anti-professionalism or even a considered aesthetic so much as a visual pretence.


Saturday, 7 September 2013


  Itinerant film still photographers
 “The film drama is the opium of the people…down with bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!” 
Dziga Vertov

There’s a long history of commercial street photographers who worked city centres taking candid snaps of pedestrians and selling them the prints, and it’s only just started to catch the attention of photo-historians. As a genre it is related to restaurant photographers, who the historians have also only recently begun examining. In both cases the photographs themselves are rarely as interesting as the idea that semi-itinerant photographers were shooting the inhabitants of our cities as they walked to the office or the department store or sitting down to dinner. A vast record of our parents and grandparents lies scattered and underappreciated among collections and archives. If you want to know what Dublin was like in the mid-20th century, you could look in a lot of places but the photos of Arthur Fields, who hustled on the O’Connell Bridge for fifty years, might tell you more than a selection of beautiful prints of beautiful buildings (You can see some of his work at Jacolette here). Within that huge and unruly world there is a sub-genre that deserves its own place in the history. Working alongside, even competing against the regular street photographers were a small group carrying portable 16mm cameras who set the shutter on single image and took ‘movie snaps’. There are only two examples in the collection and an envelope advertising the service, but they come from Istanbul, Perth Australia and Toronto, so we know the idea was worldwide.

This one is credited to the Filmograph Company, located at 378 Murray St Perth. A quick look on the internet reveals similar photos from the same company being taken in Brisbane and Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1930s. It’s hard to believe a company survived let alone conquered Oceania on the singular idea that people would want a candid sequence of themselves walking along the street. The feeling is this was just a sideline and the real business was probably in film processing or editing though we’re ready to stand corrected. After all, some of the street photographers in the US were operating franchises for national companies. 

This is the front of the envelope from Movie Snaps in Toronto. The phrasing; ‘As you walked along we have just taken a moving picture of you’ suggests it was spontaneous and the subject had little idea they were being filmed. On the back it reads, “Remember, your photo has been taken.” Is it just our age of CCTV cameras on the street corner and internet surveillance or would that have sounded just a little like a threat back then as well? The company is reminding potential customers that we don’t just have your image; we have your movements on our files.
There’s also the reminder that the print will be ready in 48 hours. As a commercial proposition this sounds risky, relying on pedestrians to first of all be interested and then care enough to turn up two days later. 

Note how the price on the front is 25 cents and on the back we find that a postcard enlargement costs 35 cents. There’s a little bit of deception going on here. The 25 cents print is probably small and cropped. The 35 cents postcard is the one you would really want, plus the copies. It wasn’t a huge amount of money back then, according to records 35 cents could get you a sandwich or a cup of coffee at a diner in the mid 1930s, but that was enough to pass on the offer if things were tight.
These companies didn’t offer portraits. They are so small and indistinct that when the clients turned up two days later they could be forgiven for wondering if that was actually them under the big hat.  Movie Snaps’ language implied that you might not get to Hollywood though here was an idea of what you’d look like if you did yet that is just sales pitch. The idea, the gimmick of sequential images only worked so long as motion pictures were still mysterious and exclusive. People still found them fascinating. Standard 8 home movie film was around in the early 1930s but that was about people having fun at barbecues and distant fuzzy figures chasing footballs on a school oval: home movies weren’t really popular until the 1960s when Super 8 was released. When these were taken it was a little like the early days of photography. The customers found the process fascinating because they didn’t quite understand it.