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Thursday, 18 December 2014


Snapshots about photography
“It is not reality that photographs make immediately accessible, but images.” 
Susan Sontag

Early editions of Susan Sontag’s On Photography featured a now famous image on the cover of a couple taken in the 1850s holding up a daguerreotype of three other people. It was unbeatable for a book devoted to the photograph as object, memory, and a concept that was not Sontag’s originally but may have been first proposed by Baudelaire, that the photograph represented a form of death. Clearly, the man is holding up a portrait of three people who are no longer with them. This little snapshot is just as powerful. If at first glance, it appears as though someone has simply taken a snap of an existing photo, look again. Someone did that and pasted the photo in an album, and then someone else photographed the album page. My guess from the clothes and the faces is that the family is Armenian and the original photo was taken around 1915, the year of the genocide. That being the case, if there was only one existing print of the original, what required preservation wasn’t the physical object but what it represented; the memories it contained, not just of the family but also their fate. 

Sherrie Levine became a post-modernist darling in 1980 when she re-photographed some of Walker Evan’s work, an act considered daring in its conceptualness and which asked whether, in an age of mechanical reproduction, original art mattered anymore. Given the choice between visiting a Levine exhibition and one of Evans’s originals most people would choose the latter, if only because, despite what theorists may claim, we not only still care about the original but we can tell the difference from the copy, and Levine’s work was only a comment on that. This snapshot is much better than anything she produced for After Walker Evans and it raises a more subtle and pertinent question. Can we improve on the original by reproducing it without altering its surface? There is just enough detail in the original for us to recognize it as a portrait of a young woman, but showing the white border of the original held at an angle was inspired. Without it we might think it was simply a badly focused photo. Instead the original becomes something else. If the photographer decided the result was a failure, anything better would be a disaster.

A photo isn’t automatically interesting just because someone in it is holding a camera. It needs some intangible quality. Here the tight composition gives nothing away. We have no idea what the subject is that has given the man on the right so much cause for thought, but it has been important enough for the man on the left to walk a distance and get sand in his shoes or aggravate his bunions. They may be press photographers for a small town newspaper; the man on the right has the hat for the job but if they were professionals we’d expect them to have more professional equipment. It’s that look of concentration on his face. Something is about to happen and he needs to be ready for it. That something could be as ordinary as his son’s baseball game or it could be an event the rest of the world needs to know about.

We’ve all done it. That day we brought the new camera home. flicked through the manual and loaded the film, then we looked around for a good subject for our first photo, and spied the mirror. Nearly two centuries after photography was invented, we still find the idea of photographing ourselves with the camera pointed at a mirror strangely compelling. Diane Arbus described the camera as a defence she hid behind; it protected her against the external world. With somewhat less dramatic emphasis, that’s what happens when we take a photo of ourselves in the mirror. The camera helps us assume a role. That’s not him taking the photo but his reflection.

The next three photos are all about someone else photographing the photographer; fairly common in the world of snapshots. What’s intriguing about this one is that the photographer is playing a game but he is in the middle of a scene we can bet is more interesting than the one he is photographing. Here we have a group of people somewhere in Turkey; a variety of expressions on their faces, some old cars (always good) and apartments in the background. There’s life here, things to look at, whereas we imagine his photo will be of his friend taking a photo. It’s a problem that goes back to Levine, to all those questions about originality and intent: yes, that’s fine, but is the artist missing the big picture?

The analogy between cameras and guns goes back to the early days; John Herschel used the term ‘snapshot’ decades before it took on its present meaning. Here we have what looks like a face off: duelling cameras. It would be great to hunt down the opposite to this photo, and other pairs like them, and exhibit them in a gallery. The best way would be have them face each other, with the viewer caught in the middle. The result would almost but not quite create a three dimensional relationship between the two subjects but more importantly we’d get, something metaphysical; two diametrically opposed views recorded at the moment their photos were taken. 

Another Turkish snap. One of the rules of snapshots of people taking photographs of each other is that one camera in the picture must face the viewer otherwise it is simply a photo of people using cameras, not the relationship between photographer and subject that becomes a game. The position of the boy’s fingers as he holds the Brownie suggests he may not be taking a photo, but that is a minor consideration. What makes this so good is the confluence of the subjects. If it is not immediately obvious, the boy with the camera is sitting on a donkey. The man on the right is carrying a rifle over his shoulder. There’s the tight composition of the motley group, with everyone somewhat roguish, as though the photographer stumbled across a gang of good-natured cattle rustlers in the Anatolian wilds. From the boy’s expression he looks like he doesn’t want his photo taken but he’s going to reciprocate with the best defence he has. And then there’s the photographer’s shadow.

Thanks to countless manuals advising us to always photograph with the sun behind us, snaps including the photographer’s shadow are very common. In the best of them the shadow creates tension, and in the very best the shadow actually transforms the photographer, usually into a sinister presence. The composition in this photo is perfect; all the elements have a balanced, harmonious relationship. Aeroplanes are always excellent subject matter for snapshots but if the photographer’s shadow wasn’t here the result would be unremarkable. What makes the whole thing work however is that the photographer is wearing a trench coat and Homburg, the international uniform of the secret agent. It’s like a scene from a Hitchcock thriller, where the sudden appearance of a shadow on the tarmac ramps up the drama.


Thursday, 11 December 2014


Rita Martin; a forgotten photographer
“These pictures are the acme of artificiality and as far removed from nature … as a hat trimmed with artificial summer fruits.”
Cecil Beaton

 All the photographs in this post are of Lily Brayton, the beautiful and celebrated star of Shakespearean drama in the Edwardian era, but she is not the focus. That belongs to Rita Martin, the London portrait photographer who was one of the best known in Britain at the time but is strangely neglected today. It is not unusual to encounter photographers who were household names in their time yet don’t crack a mention in any of the encyclopaedias, but what makes Ms Martin’s case special is that where she does get attention it is for the high standard of her work and her innovative techniques: two qualities you’d think historians would have picked up on.

 The facts are these: she was born Margareta Weir Martin in Ireland in 1875 and died in 1958. According to the photoLondon Database her studio was at 74 Baker Street, Marylebone, a mile or so away from the studio of her better-known sister Lallie Charles in Curzon Street, Mayfair. The addresses were in exclusive neighbourhoods. A photo by Lallie Charles in the National Portrait Gallery database shows the two women and their sister Bea in what was probably Lallie’s studio C1899. The furnishings and décor are what we would expect of a high-end studio of the age: a distinct oriental element in the screens, rugs and vases, potted ferns (or are they lilies?) and dark, elaborately tooled tables and chairs. The women have that dreamy gaze we associate with the late-Victorian era; as though life in this room is too achingly elegant to risk leaving it. In 1975 Cecil Beaton co-authored with Gail Buckland a personal history of photography, The Magic Mirror, to which he added an appendix; Commercial Photographers of the Victorian and Edwardian Era. Like the other appendices it accounted for photographers who hadn’t fitted with the general theme of the book. Rita Martin and Lallie Charles were given more attention than anyone else in this section. There’s a sense reading it that Beaton knew Martin - not Charles: she died in 1919 - particularly when he intimates that the sisters fell out. It reads like gossip he received first hand.  

 The quote from Beaton at the top however comes from his book British Photographers, part of the Britain in Pictures series published by William Collins during World War II. Each thin volume contained a short essay by a noted authority and thirty or so reproductions of artworks in colour and black and white. The topics ranged from butterflies to canals to a history of fashion: all of them intended to remind people of what was too precious to let fall into the hands of the Germans. Beaton’s contribution included one of his famous scenes of Saint Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz. Given the brief amount of space Beaton was allowed, that he would give more attention to Rita Martin than he would to Lewis Carroll or Roger Fenton may seem surprising, but when you look at his early work especially it is clear that Martin and Charles had defined for him what studio portraiture could achieve. For Beaton, artificiality is a compliment. In The Magic Mirror he says of both sisters that “they transcended the stereotyped (and) showed a tyranny over their subjects, who were willing to do their bidding, for they knew they were being beautified”. Beaton could be describing his own working methods. During the first decade of the twentieth century, photographic postcards of stage actresses were popular around the world. Most studios placed the subject before an elaborate stage backdrop, emphasizing the theatricality above the performer. Rita Martin preferred to place her women in a stark setting that obliged the viewer to consider their stage presence.

 Lallie Charles was a photographer of the royal family and made her name more as a society photographer. To understand how she and her sister developed their styles and reputations, we need to consider Alice Hughes, one of the most formidable presences on London’s late-Victorian photographic scene. She would not photograph men. You might think taking this stand at the beginning of the suffragette era would marginalize her, but around the turn of the century her studio was so popular with society women and stage stars that she employed up to sixty assistants; again, none of them men. Lallie Charles was probably one (this is unclear) but the more important point is that Hughes rejected the standard sepia, Pictorialist view for the very expensive, beautifully rendered platinum prints in sharp focus. One of the criticisms of Pictorialism, then and now, was that the photographers frequently confused artistic excellence with vapid sentimentality. A soft focus view of a society lady admiring a tulip might sound like a good idea in theory but the result could make her look as fascinating as a blade of grass in a paddock. Charles and Martin took Hughes’ ideas and when it came to publishing postcards saw the virtue in refining them, reducing background interference, or removing it altogether. Their success however owed as much to their ability to impart or inspire a performance for the camera, something few actors were seriously expected to do.

 According to Beaton, Martin had a contract with the theatre manager George Edwardes that gave her exclusive rights to photograph Lily Elsie and other performers once a month. This may not be entirely accurate, or may have only existed for a short time, because other studios photographed Ms Elsie. One was Foulsham and Banfield, whose work Beaton waspishly described as “rather quaint in their woodenness”. The general impression is that all power resided with management. Edwardes could agree to such a contract, as long as Ms Martin kept her fees to a figure he thought was reasonable. More likely, a successful performer like Lily Brayton had enough influence to ask for Rita Martin, and if sales of postcards justified her demands Edwardes would agree. 

 Although Ms Martin photographed several leading men of the stage, of the 322 prints held by the National Portrait Gallery, only three are of men alone, though a couple more are of men with their families. The number of prints is enough to be representative and suggests that like Alice Hughes, Ms Martin had principles she couldn’t be persuaded from. The first instinct is to say these were political, but on second thoughts it may have been that she was essentially interested in glamour. That wasn’t a word many male actors would have wanted to be associated with in the 1910s or actually applied to them. It implied an interest in haute couture and other womanly pursuits. When you look through lists of images of male Edwardian actors, they tend to go for either comedy or dashing but respectable, and were typecast as one or the other. Lily Brayton on the other hand could wear costumes from across the centuries and cultures and still transmit an aura of chic allure. For a photographer of the stage, male actors were boring.

 According to the NPG website, Lallie Charles photographed some of the suffragettes. Rita Martin photographed Rosamund Massy from the National Women’s Social and Political Union. What does this mean? Were they sympathisers? Were they asked to because they were well-known women photographers? Was it because, like Lily Brayton, the suffragettes were part of the cultural milieu? None of these questions cancels another so the answer may be all three but it’s worth remembering that while London’s theatre world might have been thought progressive, there wasn’t a huge amount of sympathy for the suffragettes. The actress and singer Anna Held complained that they went about slapping men and when they started setting fire to theatres and letting off smoke bombs inside that predictably turned people off them. Rita Martin may have believed that women had the right to vote and agreed to photograph some of the suffragettes but that didn’t mean she was obliged to like any of them.    

 Which brings us to the important issue of why she has been forgotten. It isn’t as though her work is hard to find, and she was well enough known in the 1940s for Beaton to assume his readers needed no formal introduction to her. It’s one thing to discover a previously unknown photographer, vis-a-vis Vivian Maier, but when a photographer has a substantial body of work in an archive the neglect is not random. Perhaps, like her sister, she’s seen as too establishment, too Edwardian, and her portraits of theatre stars don’t cast a challenging light on the social history. But the photo-historian’s first job should be to write the history, not re-write it and clearly there are spaces that need filling in. A common myth about early theatre portraits is that they were perfunctory commercial jobs and the genre didn’t take off until a handful of photographers in the 1930s (Beaton in particular) introduced an individual style. If that is the case, these portraits of Lily Brayton reveal a relationship between photographer and subject that was decades ahead of its time.


Monday, 8 December 2014


Three postcards and nine snapshots of New York
 “I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air you breathe, but this is where it’s happening.” 
John Lennon

When this postcard was bought from the top of the Empire State Building (as it says on the back), New York was the centre of the world. This was a fact. Only a few Parisians and Londoners who had failed to notice the lights change would have contested that. These days the city is like an old actress who totters about the streets in a fur stole and pillbox hat, defiantly oblivious to the whispers and stares from passers-by. Age and the times have robbed it of something it can never get back. Today, someone could get in a helicopter and take a photo from exactly the same spot but the idea isn’t interesting anymore. It would be like taking a photo of our actress just to tell her how old she looks. 

 The three postcards and nine snapshots are all about power. For the postcard photographers the best vantage point for revealing that and the sheer intensity of existence at the centre of the world is from above. The snapshots were taken at street level, looking up They tell the same story as the postcards, only from the point of view of people willing to accept the status quo. The Statue of Liberty doesn’t have to be in focus or the exposure correct to transmit that idea of power. 

 Here’s an even more technically challenged view. It looks like a plastic model, but the most important reason for taking snapshots of famous landmarks is that they are a confirmation you have seen them. The second is that they are usually irresistible.  Imagine going to New York in 1952 and not taking a photo of her. There were certain things you had to do if you were a tourist in New York in 1952 and catching the ferry to circumnavigate her was one of them. If for no other reason, it was an act of homage to everything that mattered about America in those times. 


‘Iconic’ being a much abused word, it is hard to use while keeping a straight face, but some cities do have iconic skylines. Remove the Eiffel Tower from a view of Paris, or St Paul’s from one of London and what remain are quotidian views of what could be any large city anywhere. Here however, you don’t need to identify the Empire State Building to know at once that this is an American city, after which New York would be most peoples’ first guess. It was views like this, probably from the North Williamsburg wharf, that made urban planners and architects conscious of the importance in a city’s silhouette. The outlines of buildings were not just distinctive; they were part of a city’s identity. Notice how the people appear to be gazing at them, at a scene that doesn’t change but still holds their attention. 

 The best snapshot in the post, it looks like it was taken from the Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn, sometime in the 1940s. Notice how the RCA Building, the Empire State and the Chrysler give the skyline a distinct pyramid shape. New York used to dominate the statistics. Whether it was the tallest buildings, the most art galleries per square mile or the most murders, it was always up the top. Today it is only one of the most expensive, no longer even in the top ten when it comes to the most dangerous, and in the rankings for most culturally exciting (however they are determined), Miami, Santa Fe and even Boulder Colorado come out ahead. People used to acquiesce to New York. When they heard ‘New York is on the line’, you could see their Adam’s apple pulsate. Now the call is likely to come from Beijing or Bahrain. What happened? 

 The economists have an answer, but they can make the barroom drunk sound interesting so let’s skip the theories and return to these snapshots instead. When I try to think of great New York novels from the 1950s it turns out to be a bit of a struggle. Only one comes to mind: John Clellon Holmes’ Go; the book Kerouac could have written if he had sobered up and stopped thinking about his mum. The genuine beat novel – people actually smoke tea, sleep around and hang out in jazz clubs, whereas in On The Road they just talk about doing them – it is set entirely in the city and one of its lasting impressions is of a greyness; not the dismal weather of London but of an ingrained smog. People catch the ferry past the Washington Bridge and instead of pausing to make some claim on the greatness of New York they hurry inside because it is cold and bleak and they don’t have enough cash to think about how great the city is, except that it is obvious they wouldn’t live anywhere else. 

 Because Beau Geste was released in August 1939 we can assume this photo was taken around that time. Did New Yorkers think they were living at the centre of the world in 1939? The energy in the photo suggests they had to. My guess is that, if you had a job, money and an education, you sat around talking about Europe as though it was an older brother who’d gone off the rails. Those German intellectuals and artists who had managed it had got out and a lot of them had come to America. New York was the first port of call but most kept travelling westwards, to LA and Hollywood, to Boston, and quite a few skipped America altogether for Canada. Not everybody thought New York was where it was at. This is an excellent scene. At first glance it looks like chaos unleashed but on closer inspection you realize there is a very precise order at work. These days Times Square has those temples to corporate blandness, McDonalds and Starbucks, and little else.

 Yankee Stadium in the 1950s, the capital city of baseball. Paris had Picasso, but New York had Joe DiMaggio. My guess is that our photographer took a river cruise and passed a landmark. He (Can we assume that it was men who’d be interested in the Yankee Stadium?) had to photograph it from the ferry because, for various reasons – wife, kids – the chances of actually getting inside and watching DiMaggio play his final season or Rocky Marciano bash some palooka to a bloody mess were slim. We know the feeling. This is an image of desire, not nostalgia.

 Another from the same set, all taken from the Hudson River and by someone who owned a cheap camera but had a feel for what mattered about the city. Again, the greyness. New York is like London. Who’d want to photograph it on a bright, sunny day? The results would look drab.


Today the Empire State Building and the Chrysler are ranked 25 and 65 respectively in the list of world’s tallest buildings but that is just a statistic. The competition doesn’t matter. Who can seriously get excited about the Burj Khalifa or the Shanghai Tower? Critics may dribble mindless platitudes about those pointless monuments to competition, but who will ever feel the same rush of excitement everyone does when they first set eyes on New York’s finest? 

 I recall watching a TV documentary in the 1980s about organized crime in the U.S that began with an aerial view like this as the narrator solemnly intoned; ‘everything you see here is controlled by the mafia’, or words to that effect. We knew then that corporate America was corrupt but the speed and ruthlessness with which it has broken the nation has been astonishing in its self-destructiveness. If there is nostalgia in this image it is for that idea most people in the world ascribed to in the 1940s that American power was fundamentally good. That might have technically died not so long after this photo was taken but the illusion was on sale until recently.