And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 26 November 2015


Ten snapshots from Niagara, New York and Yellowstone, 1935
“Just sit back and let Mother Nature carry us toward her own.” 
Yogi Bear
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Yogi Berra

 In 1935 a family travelled from Canada to Yellowstone National Park, taking in Niagara Falls and New York along the way. They stopped at other sites, and may have gone further than Yellowstone (a photo not included is from Colorado), but these are the places in the photos that we have. Because these were bought in Montreal and because the inscriptions on the back are in French, we can reasonably assume the family came from Montreal or thereabouts. A pedant may clear his throat and beg to speak here but actually, we don’t care where they came from, only where they went.

 The unifying idea behind all the photos in the collection is that they are about bigness. Niagara Falls is massive, New York is huge and Yellowstone is vast, but that’s not surprising. In 1935 America was still a big country, metaphorically if not so physically. Niagara Falls is only the ninth largest cataract in the world – waterfalls being measured by the volume of water that pours over per time frame, not the height nor the width.  

 The Empire State from ground level. How many of us have visited New York, stood at the bottom of the Empire State and jiggled around, finding that perfect position from where the sides of the building angle in as they move up to a vanishing point? If you haven’t tried it you haven’t been a tourist in New York.

 New York was big; no one would argue with that, and whether it was the biggest city in the world was a matter of population or square miles, which again wasn’t so important. When this photo was taken from the Empire State Building, that , and the Chrysler, seen in the middle ground here, were only four years old and both were the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Interesting: whoever wrote the inscription on the back says this is Chicago, which it obviously isn’t. But what that tells us is that by the end our photographer was so overwhelmed by the experience he or she could no longer remember where the photos were taken. A common experience; usually indicating a good time.

 We have skipped large parts of America and find ourselves with the family at the top of a summit in Wyoming. Which mountain our photographer doesn’t say but obviously one that was accessible to children. If the children were exceptionally well educated they could read the detritus around them for evidence of the last ice age that affected this particular mountain. 

 And now we are in Yellowstone. You may have seen footage of what happened to Yellowstone within a few years of the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s. This photo gives you an idea of why they needed to be brought back. Before Yellowstone became a national park the vegetation had covered the slopes much more thickly. This prevented erosion, which in itself allowed more biodiversity. By 1935 there were no wolves in Yellowstone, the last being killed nine years earlier.

 The paradox of America’s internationally progressive national parks programme was that it wreaked destruction on wilderness areas, usually under the directorship of men who aspired to protect the landscape. The question of how to balance conservation of the environment against the commercial demand to make it available to visitors was impossible to answer given the knowledge and general ethos of 1930s. It wouldn’t get a proper response until Aldo Leopard wrote his report on wildlife management in 1963. In 1935 these falls would have been viewed from a specially constructed platform, with the photographer crowded by others trying to take the same photo. Experiencing Yellowstone wasn’t much different to viewing a patient in an incubator.   

 Her hat isn’t fashion. It is part of a uniform. She is unlikely to be a tour guide because the rest of her outfit isn’t suitable. By 1935 the New Deal was in full swing and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed thousands of workers to maintain the national parks, but the CCC only employed men. She isn’t part of that. She could have a trolley off camera and be selling ice creams or sodas from it. In any case, this is exactly the type of platform tourists would have observed the park from.


Old Faithful blows its stack every 35 or 120 minutes. There is a theory, part paranoid conspiracy, part science based paranoia, that the volcanic caldera, the same force that drives Old Faithful will collapse any day and being of such a size it will drag most of the U.S with it. Maybe President Trump’s last thought will be that all his billions of dollars are now worth nothing. Fortunately Canada and Mexico don’t appear to be affected so we can relax. 

Imagine travelling all the way to Yellowstone and not seeing a bear. Well, if you were Canadian you might have thought that was no big deal. Even so, Yellowstone didn’t have any wolves left but the bears had become emblematic, not just of the park but of wilderness. They were an apex predator and in the 1930s they were the animals that stood up to represent all others. Anyway, here is a photo of Wild America 1935; a black bear so inured to people that it knows how to perform for the camera.
We leave our holidaymakers here. They’ve shown us a fragment of America, from back when it was brash and self-confident and too obsessed with grand visions and great projects to be aware there was a concept called hubris. Still, there are glimmers in the darkness. Yellowstone is one.


Friday, 13 November 2015


Back stamps and design on cartes de visite and cabinet cards.
 “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”
Walt Disney

For some people, the pleasure in collecting cartes de visite and cabinet cards lies entirely on the reverse, in the stamps that identify the studio and sometimes advertise the range of services. This is understandable. The images on the other side are often commonplace and uninteresting while the back carries an intricate design that can also be a code. This stamp on the back of a cabinet card from the Phebus studio in Constantinople is dominated by Apollo, the god of the sun and of light – AKA Phoebus Apollo - an obvious choice for a photographic studio. Apollo could also be a god of truth, which again makes sense for a photographic studio, since that was what they purported to offer. Note the idealized Ottoman script at the top and the French Photographie. Without knowing who runs the studio we can tell from the French that he was Armenian, because French was the lingua franca of the Armenia business community in Constantinople. Sure enough, Phebus was run by Boğos Tarkulyan, one of the better known photographers in town around the turn of last century. The Art Nouveau pattern was a deliberate nod to contemporary ideas in Western Europe, identifying Tarkulyan as someone less, or even not, interested in Ottoman traditions. The choice of flower in the frames at the top would have been conscious too. It may be amaryllis, which has some connection with Apollo, but that’s only a guess.

 The study of the backs of CDVs and cabinet cards is a branch of iconography, specifically one that can trace its origins back to the frontispieces found in books from the sixteenth century through to the beginning of the nineteenth. The frontispiece could be a declaration of intent or an acknowledgement of a patron’s greatness but were never just random images. It was intended to be read in minute detail and required knowledge of biblical imagery as well as more demotic symbols. By the 1860s, when this carte was produced, the art and meaning of frontispieces had fallen out of use but Theophile Gastonguay evoked them with the image of a beaver. Although the beaver did not become the official emblem of Canada until 1975, it had been commonly used as a symbol of Canada since the seventeenth century.

 Archibald McDonald ran a photography studio in Melbourne throughout the gold rush. Like every other studio photographer in Melbourne at this time he came from another country, from Nova Scotia in fact, just a spit away (in Canadian distances) from Theophile Gastonguay. You might wonder why St George and not a kangaroo but there we see the difference a century and a half of colonization can make. Although by the 1860s people around the world recognized the kangaroo as Australian, it wasn’t a national symbol. Australia (AKA “The Colonies”) didn’t have such a thing, or if it did it was likely to be St George’s dragon, which, like Australia, was proudly British. Archibald McDonald: logic tells us he was of Scottish background and he might have been the type to give a Glasgow kiss to anyone who called him British, but St George here doesn’t stand for England so much as a landmark in Melbourne. Long gone now, once upon a time everyone in Melbourne knew where St George’s Hall was.

 A similar thinking may have been behind Louis of Paris’s depiction of the Porte St Martin, which then as today was close by the central shopping district. Firstly it told customers the studio was located in one of the more salubrious areas, and then it told them how to get there. Notice it was opposite the Theatre de l’Ambigu, a place made famous by Louis Daguerre’s set designs.

Migevant’s studio may not have been at such a desirable address as Louis’ but no Parisian had to ask where the Place de la Bastille was. When this CDV was produced in the early 1870s there couldn’t have been too many people around who remembered the Revolution and the storming of the Bastille in 1789 but enough would have recalled the glorious revolution of 1830, which the July Monument seen here honoured. Essentially the French replaced one monarch with another, which is a little like stumbling from one failed relationship with a drunken philanderer straight into another. Today the Boulevarde Beaumarchais is lined with shops selling antique cameras.

The back stamp can be evidence. In 1876 Alfred Mayman took over the Temple Photographic Gallery at 170 Fleet St in London. Two years later the City of London dismantled the Temple Bar on account of Fleet Street needing widening and the structure was dilapidated. The sections were carefully stored and in 1880 Henry Meux bought it and reassembled it on his estate in Hertfordshire. In 1984 it was bought back from Meux’s descendants and re-erected in Paternoster Square. All this to say that there was only a two year period between 1876 and 1878 when there was any practical purpose for Mayman to have an illustration of the structure on the back of his CDVs. We don’t need any other information to date the image.  

 Images of cherubs with cameras are common, as is the inclusion of an artist’s palette, but what does it mean? Strictly speaking, these round and flabby infant creatures are Putti: cherubs have several heads and bits of eagle and lion attached to them. The precise symbolic meaning of the Putti is not understood but since the late Renaissance they have had an association with the arts, and music in particular. Originally the true artist had his muse, a goddess, who inspired him and for whom he created. The little toddlers might have been intended to suggest the playfulness every serious artist needs but also, babies were the inevitable result of creative coupling. In the way that a red and blue barber’s poles once indicated a place to have a bit of bloodletting and these days means a haircut, Monge, and every other photographer who used the imagery saw it as an icon not a symbol.

 Just to reinforce the point (somewhat), we find exactly the same image on the reverse of a CDV by a studio located on Rue de la Sabliere. The companies that printed the blanks for CDVs usually have their name in small letters down the bottom. We don’t get any such on either Monge or the Sabliere studio card and while we could assume the same company produced the blanks, it is also possible that several bought their designs from another source. Somebody could have produced this image of the putto, sold it on to the printers who then customized it for the various studios who used them.  

This palette is also very common, with a fairly obvious interpretation although it ought to be pointed out that few commercial photographers thought of themselves as artists in the way that people used that word even in the relatively staid 1860s. ‘Artist’ was a kind of password for quality of technique rather than ideas. Apart from being a photographer, Camille Benoit was an art dealer, so he may have seen the image as a pun. 

 Harrison Nathaniel Rudd ran his studio in Costa Rica around the turn of last century, as board mounted photographs were giving way to postcards. Costa Rica was relatively prosperous and peaceful at this time, meaning an American could operate a studio with some confidence it would not be closed down or he would have to get out at short notice. This rather elegant design may have also come from a template customized to his requirements. Or not. There is a pun here as well, in the idea of the woman’s hand holding out a carte or cabinet card. A camera is depicted at the top of the crest.  Maybe Rudd also had cartes with the same back design that the hand holds out.


Friday, 6 November 2015


Snapshots of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s
 I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago... I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.”
Rudyard Kipling

People will tell you New York used to be the world’s biggest city, the richest or most beautiful, but also the most violent and depraved. It was the cultural capital of the world or its actual beating heart, and so on. One or two of these may have come close to the truth at some point. Chicago never attracted that level of hyperbole but what we were told about it made it more glamorous, in a tough, seedy way: the meatpacking district, the black sox scandal, Al Capone and the outfit, Memphis Minnie and Muddy Waters. If New York was an overdressed hooker preening under Neon lights, Chicago was the snivelling little pimp standing back in the shadows.

  Not that you’ll see that in this collection, centred essentially on this and the next two, being snapshots taken by the same person in 1943. This one in particular is rather special in that we get two military men framing a view down the sidewalk on Michigan Ave, the Stars and Stripes above them creating a triangle while on the right we get a line of Cadillacs under the Pabst beer sign. Pabst is horrid: you wouldn’t feed it to a dog, but the company did build one of the few advertisements deserving praise as an architectural icon. Note the time on the sign: it looks like 7 to 12.

  Which is about two and a half hours before this photo was taken. It’s a shame there aren’t more by this photographer of Chicago in the collection. He or she had an eye for the panoramic view. Consider the way your eye moves from the pole in the foreground to the one at the middle space, and then to the Pabst sign sitting between them in the distant background. Your eye is led in towards the sign; a trick that professionals don’t always understand.

 Okay it might be a fluke except that we see it again; less successfully if you want to argue that, but enough to demonstrate our photographer understands the interior design of a photograph. Janet Malcolm in her famous essay on vernacular photography, “Diana and Nikon”, struggled with the problem that an ordinary snapshot could be visually richer than work by professionals; the problem being that she wondered how to judge it without the standard parameters in place. And now the Pabst clock says it is 5:30.

 Chicago 1954: Syphilis took care of Al Capone some years back but the Outfit is alive and kicking. Whether Memphis Minnie knows it or not, her career is riding a steep slope downhill, but in a couple of years Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf will shake up England with the blues, and on June 19 the city, being several hundred miles from the coast, is struck by a tidal wave that kills eight people. Is our photographer here aware of any of that? Seems not.

 But he/she has time to visit the Chicago Zoo in 1954, and who wouldn’t? Opened twenty(ish) years earlier, it was revolutionary in the way it removed the bars between spectator and animal. All that separated some vicious, slow-witted carnivores from the furrier mammals was a moat and a low fence. We could wonder who benefited most from this – human or animal – and here we see two polar bears sans anything like a protecting fence or safe distance. In other words, we (the people) got to imagine animals as though there was nothing between us and them. What did the polar bears think of this? Who has the foggiest to be honest, but the stretch of lawn is a nice touch. Bet they never saw that on the ice floe back home.

 From the zoo to the aquarium, to the Shedd Aquarium to give it its proper monicker, despite ‘Shedd’ obviously being a thoughtless name for the world’s biggest aquarium and an institution that will boast of its size from the moment it was founded in 1930. Shedd was one of those figures common to America C1890-1920 who made a lot of money in ways only vaguely understood by the rest of us but poured a lot of it into public institutions like the eponymous aquarium, libraries and museums. One thinks of such entrepreneurs as being either great men or lesser men that have something guilt-like to deal with, but likable nevertheless for what they bequeathed. It’s possible the photographer wanted an exposure that filled the hall with light while showing the sea creatures floating about in detail but that could never be. What we get instead is something much better – a kind of modernist laboratory. What lies behind the glass in this scene? Something more mysterious than wrasse and perch. 


The visit to Chicago has been too short and too shallow. We barely get a sense of the second city. Back in the day, if we were to leave town, presumably because our luck had run out or because the local law enforcement officers encouraged us to, Union Station would be the place to head to. It was the kid of place that required a proper entrance, in a dark suit, grey rabbit fur homburg and a kipper tie. This view vanished years ago. That neo-classical thing in the foreground was replaced by an office tower seven times as high, four times as wide and twenty three times less interesting. This should come as no surprise. Like so many cities busily erasing their past, it is stuck back there and can never be genuinely contemporary.