And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 28 May 2015


Discarded sequences
“Murderers will try to recall the sequence of events, they will remember exactly what they did just before and just after. But they can never remember the actual moment of killing. This is why they will always leave a clue.”
Peter Ackroyd

 Sequences of photos snipped from proof sheets, cut out of albums or otherwise cast off, leaving us with what may be mysteries, or not, or clues to a bigger story, or not. Murderers may always leave clues, but so do photographers. The problem is that they seldom tell us what to. Notice how these two images above move from a kind of order to a kind of chaos, suggesting some force outside the photographer’s control is at work.

 All of these were bought Turkey, which explains one or two details in the scenes. Other than for those however, they could have been taken anywhere. This zoo for example doesn’t look Turkish (except for the lion’s tiny cage). Sometimes we are able to read a very apparent narrative in a sequence, as with some below where people are playing for the camera, and then there are others like this one that tell a story like some French film from the mid-sixties; well there might be a plot and it could be logical, but should you care that much?

 So, is this five photos or just one? I say it is one because you can not consider any of the portraits here on its own without physically cutting it free from the others. 

 This one on the other hand is interesting because all snapshots taken at Giza are interesting, yet I think the middle photo stands up on its own and the two bookending it do not. Remove them and the surviving image is not diminished. 


Here the photos complement each other thanks to the way the child on the right looks at itself on the left. We can see how the photographer would have been pleased with either and printed the proof to compare them. The one on the right wins because of the balance between light and shadow.

Four photos – or do we mean two? – of the same three people. There’s a strong impression here that the three are actors, because they perform so professionally for the camera. The printing isn’t first rate but good enough to see how each frame has its own intriguing details, from the floating hat in one to the expression on the faces of the man and woman in another. 

It’s not rare to read that the source of many snapshots’ enigmatic quality is the absence of a surrounding context, without which we cannot understand the relationship between photographer and subject. Here’s a sequence that is all the more difficult to read because of its surrounding context. We get the three women sitting together, but what of the first photo in the sequence? The radio makes sense, and the book on the left is a medical encyclopaedia, which may help us understand the cut out naked woman on the right, but that is a mere assumption.

Back to a diptych from the same source as the first image, and a reminder of that brief era between the late 1960s and the mid 1970s when the combination of two images on the same panel was considered outré, or at least cool. Robert Frank is the best known exponent and he liked to include a cryptic text on one or both photos. What was good about this style, movement, genre or whatever word fits best, was the way it obliged us to look for and think about the connection. We ended up talking about it, and though the conversations could have been lifted from Annie Hall, their absence is noted these days. In this case we might note how the two women appear in both while the person in the centre is different. During the long and tedious 1990s-2000s the placement of two images together could only mean issues of identity or the self, but in the 1970s the photographer could shrug and say, ‘whatever you see is there’.


Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Canadian advertising photos from the 1950s
 “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”
William Bernbach

A collection of Canadian advertising photographs, of everyday household objects, of stuff. They were taken in the 1950s, something the packaging tells us at once. They tell us things we don’t think we need to know but are the very fine details without which we couldn’t understand the past, such as what products Mr and Mrs Average Canadian bought at the supermarket and what did they keep on the shelf behind the bathroom mirror. This is a world so ordinary it looks alien.

 Madmen was set in the same period these photos were taken, when the middle classes became prosperous in a way they hadn’t been able to for a generation, when ad agencies started making serious money, and when advertising became associated with a kind of ruthless creativity. At least that was the way it was in the top end magazines like Esquire and Vogue, who pushed the notion that brands mattered to the modern man and woman, as though they might as well be be naked without Johnny Walker in one hand and Philip Morris in the other. But same time, different world. Down in the real world of mid level incomes and struggling aspirations, advertising was still about product more than image. TV dinners, deodorants and lingerie could be depicted according to the same formulae because there was no need to vary. (Most of these photographs would have ended up in catalogues or newspaper ads.) 

 Whatever Madmen might suggest, the accounts that photographers have left us suggest most of them treated advertising as hack work, done only to pay the bills. A handful achieved a glamorous status but most disavowed the very idea. Technically all that was needed to fulfill the Bionet contract was knowledge of the basic rules, mainly what the lighting set-up should be. Madmen is actually about people in our contemporary TV world. Acutely, even cynically aware of how dull and shallow that place is, they are trying to sell the image of glamour, not to us but to themselves. 

 A stamp with the name Jack Markow appears on the back of two of these prints. The Markow studio address was at 1827 St Catherine St Montreal. The building still stands, now occupied by an art supply store and a martial arts gym.  Some quick research reveals that Markow was born in Montreal in 1921 and died there in 2001. As with a lot of commercial photographers, his legacy is scattered throughout various archives yet it tells us little about him. A man on hire who prolifically photographed medicinal products, bar mitzvahs, evangelical meetings, Quebec nationalists and new buildings in the CBD will tell us less about himself than someone whose output was narrower and in shorter supply. To understand Markow, we need to find the snaps he took of his family, but maybe they don’t exist. Maybe the busman’s holiday didn’t appeal to him; the mere thought of picking up a camera became physically painful for Jack Markow. Would you be that excited if you had just spent all week photographing diuretics.  

It is just coincidence that so many of the two dozen photographs bought in this collection are of pharmaceutical products, yet it may not be. The 1950s were the beginning of the modern age of the pharmaceutical industry, when there was not only a product for every minor complaint but it had the imprimatur of various government departments. This was a time when the side effects of drugs were often discovered once they had been on the market a few months. Today, conscientious doctors advise us that a little pain is not necessarily a bad thing but in the 1950s discomfort of any intensity was something to be avoided. We can thank the war for that. Firstly it had necessitated a series of pharmaceutical breakthroughs, and also the postwar peace encouraged the avoidance of pain. It was as though the Government was leaning over and asking, in a kindly voice, haven’t you suffered enough?


But back to the original point, the one about stuff. Those of us born too late to experience the 1950s can be persuaded that things were better back then, and by things we mean stuff, not politics or lifestyles. Well it’s true that in the 1950s cigarettes didn’t give you lung cancer and Coke wasn’t responsible for diabetes, and we’re always being told that a new packaged pie tastes like pies used to, which means like they ought to. When we look at the Steinberg’s ‘kitchen fresh’ (whatever that means) chicken pie, do we not wonder if it would taste more like a chicken pie should to our jaded senses? You can bet it was horrid: a sludgy confection of artificial pastry and gravy surrounding some pink cubes of former chicken, but at a time when the world feels harder, more insecure and less generous place than it was when these photos were taken, nostalgia for a non-existent taste sensation stands in for other illusions as well.

 So, did all the things we see here come about because we wanted them, or was it because advertisers told us that we did? Was BO a problem before deodorants appeared or did it become one only after a solution had been found? In 1957, contemporaneously with these photos, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, which didn’t just expose some of the tricks advertisers used but argued that the real danger was that political machines were beginning to use them. Half a century of wonder drugs and lotions later, the question is more refined: have we become inoculated?


Thursday, 7 May 2015


Postcard views and their written messages
 “I don't film messages. I let the post office take care of those.”
Bernardo Bertolucci

Usually the correspondence on the backs of postcards is perfunctory and not worth a second glance. Someone has arrived somewhere and the weather is fine, or not. (What is this peculiarly English compulsion to start a postcard by describing the weather?) The very public face of the postcard discouraged people from revealing too much and serious correspondence required the traditional sealed letter. Occasionally however a card turns up with a written message that enhances, contradicts or otherwise changes the way we look at the image. This one, to a Mr. T. P. Carson of Polk St in Minneapolis, was posted from Hague, North Dakota on the 14th of July, 1911 and reads:
Dear Brother;
I am sending you just a glimpse of myself, my old man and my buckskin pony. You must excuse me for not writing but I have been so busy. Will write you a long letter soon. Hope you are as well as we both are. Love to you from us both.
Your sis, Mrs J Berg.
We can hear a rural Midwestern accent in her phrasing, and that odd mix of familiarity – ‘Sis’ – and formality - ‘Mrs J Berg – is also found in the image. The photographer was most likely a friend and the Bergs look like they are on their way to church; all dressed up with the wide and empty plains of North Dakota behind them. Image and text tell us a lot about the relentlessly long and dull struggle the prairie farmers endured at the turn of last century.

Around the same time and across the Atlantic an unidentified woman wrote from West Hill House in Hastings to ‘A’. West Hill House is a listed building, which in the 1930s was occupied by the popular author Catherine Cookson. With the resources of the Hastings library at hand it wouldn’t be that hard to track down the author of our card, which reads:
Thanks very much for the P.C of last night it came as a pleasant surprise. I am sorry Eva could not see you last night I have not heard from her so I do not know if she has gone to her new place or not. I had a postcard from Frank (Eva’s brother) this morning he wanted to know if I got home safe last Wednesday night & said he was sorry he did not see me again (Don’t laugh) I am sorry it is ended with your girl through us but still if your not worrying it doesn’t much matter does it I’m afraid there’s not much love lost between you.
The absence of punctuation, the sloppy grammar and the catty tone point to someone in her late teens or early twenties. Note her acknowledgement, even the faint boast, of the part she played in breaking up the relationship between A and his girl. A few years later she could be cast as one of the flippantly cruel young socialites in Evelyn Waugh’s novels. Notice that ‘A’ sends her a P.C but Frank sends her a postcard. I suppose casual abbreviation was one way she distinguished friends from hopeless dolts. Note too the otherwise straight topographical view she has chosen. West Hill House is probably visible in this image, which is why she selected it, but she is unaware that her choice of image reveals how prosaic and suburban her outlook really is. 

 To Germany on September the 13th 1909, where Ella writes to Miss Alice Duvet in Dorchester and in three brief sentences tells us a lot we may one day find useful.
Wouldn’t this stop a clock? In 7 days we start sail for America and if possible will land in 12 days. Most likely it will be 14.
The expression, to have a face that would stop a clock, was current at the time and referred to someone who was particularly ugly. Ella sounds too polite to brand anyone else that bad looking so we can assume she is the woman in the photo. Is that her father with the camera? The person who took this was most likely another family member or a local photographer working the tourist market. The most interesting detail is in regards to the time needed to cross the Atlantic. There’s quite a discrepancy, a whole 48 hours between 12 and 14 days, even for the mechanized and technological 1900s. If a face could stop a clock, heavy fog and storms could halt an ocean liner. 

As previous posts have claimed, Fred Judge was the quintessential British photographer, meaning not just that he photographed the life and the land in detail but it is also hard to imagine him working anywhere else. A couple of sentences in a Hastings newspaper from the 1910s suggest he may have taken a brief trip across the Channel to Calais. That, for Fred, was about as exotic as the world got. The number of the card indicates the photo was taken circa 1910 and the scene is somewhere along the south coast of England, most likely between Brighton and Hastings. So far there is nothing remarkable to say. But read on …
Dear Femihan
I received your letter of April 9th and enclosed a page on May 3rd, yesterday May 27th. I am thrilled by this news! “CHEERS”! But dear, do come quickly, before I go … It will be tragic if you arrived when I’m gone!! … I leave Cairo for Dhour el Choueir, Lebanon; (that’s my address) at the beginning of July. Won’t you be here before? I hope & pray. I rang up the Diara (?) today, your uncle could not give me any news as he knew none! Hoping to see you with all the longing of “long absence” Yours, with love, Leila.   
Leila Mestrick has posted the card from Cairo, Egypt to Femihan, who lives in the Maltepe district of Ankara, Turkey. The punctuation and underlining for emphasis are all Leila’s. But how does a very English postcard get mailed from Cairo? Leila has also dated the card May 28th ’45, which helps explain things: this was during the weeks of progressive surrender by the German forces and Britain would have been in control of Cairo. Leila’s surname is also English, so presumably she married an Englishman. Notice how her English is impeccable though she emphasizes ‘cheers’, a very British idiom, indicating that English is her second language. Femihan speaks it too, demonstrating what we can already read; both women are from educated, prosperous families. Interesting that although we know the photograph was taken on the English coast there isn’t a single detail within it to indicate that. It could have been taken anywhere. Leila’s choice of card was deliberate. She didn’t want one showing a distinctly British scene, of castles or sheep in the fields. Is it too much to see the image of waves crashing on rocks as an allusion to powerful emotions that Femihan would get even if the English hubby didn't? And was there a newsagent in Cairo selling English papers, stationery and postcards or did Leila bring a supply of postcards over from England? Both possibilities tell us something about the British colony in Cairo during the war.