And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 29 May 2016


Panoramic postcards of Egypt by Lehnert & Landrock
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.”
Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

 When Rudolph Lehnert and Ernest Landrock moved their photographic studio from Tunis to Cairo in 1924 they were announcing to anyone listening that Egypt’s capital was also the cultural capital of the Middle East. Not that they decided this: the year before, Howard Carter and his team had broken into Tutankhamen’s tomb and Ancient Egypt had once again become the most exciting idea on the planet. In far off Hastings, builders excavating a basement discovered some odd glyphs in a dingy tunnel and for a moment the theory that ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians had visited the place was kicked around. The place called Ancient Egypt, or at least the idea of it, had seldom been out of fashion’s eye in the last fifty years but now it was back centre stage. There were at least half a dozen other companies in Cairo producing real photo postcards for the European market but Lehnert & Landrock would become the best known.

 Lehnert, the photographer, had certainly worked in Egypt before the company opened shop there but once it did, business flourished. We can think of its halcyon years as coming between 1924 and the beginning of the war. Although a great enthusiasm among the British for German product seems unpatriotic, even love of country has its limits. There was a booming international market for shots of L&L’s most renowned genre: nude Bedouin women, and the British were driving demand as much as anyone else. But anyway, we’re not here to talk about that, or even more dubious genres the company marketed but rather the flip side; Egypt as a phenomenon of cultural sophistication.  

 From the beginning, postcards were the familiar size by which we know them, approximately 3½ x 6 inches, because they fitted the standard envelopes for informal correspondence. In some countries the laws sounded specific; the post card had to be ‘no more than’ or ‘less than’ or ‘at least’, but this only meant that anything that fitted within the required dimensions was legitimate. Publishers produced midget size and giant size postcards but the most common irregular format was the bookmark size, and though bookmarks of stage stars were popular, landscapes and street views have become the most enduring, especially the bookmark postcards from Cairo that Lehnert and Landrock produced.

 One of the company’s achievements was that it managed to make Egypt look how everyone imagined it to be; a land still touched by its ancient past, with oases of palm trees providing shade from which to contemplate the pyramids, maze-like souks, the stalls piled high with ornate rugs and silverware, and watched over by hawk-eyed Muslims. One hundred years ago, the abiding image of Muslims was of devout, silent and impassive people. Of course, not long before in the Sudan and southern parts of Egypt Muslims were fanatics who needed to be suppressed with violence if necessary, but that was now the past. In popular culture the siege of Khartoum was just another heroic chapter in the history of the British Empire.  

 From 1882 until 1922 Egypt was officially a British protectorate (and less officially into the 1950s). This explains why Cairo, a city inhabited by Egyptians since 969 CE would have a ‘native quarter’.  This was both a ghetto and a slum – neither being necessarily the same thing – separate from areas occupied by Europeans, Armenians, Alexandrine Greeks, Jews and Ottoman Turks. Egypt at this time, well, until 1914, was also a khedivate of the Ottoman Empire. The condition for Egyptians was something like being the child of two parents whose contempt for each other was outmatched by that for their offspring. Said children are usually destined for a miserable adulthood.

Cleopatra, Khartoum, The Greatest Story Ever Told: in the 1960s Egypt became the canvas for epic visions, though ‘bombastic’ might be a better adjective. There’s a suspicion, and maybe nothing more, that one influence was these panoramic views; well they share the same format and there is something about the panorama, no matter how small, that speaks of the vast – in time as well as space. To create this image the studio simply took a standard format negative and cropped what wasn’t needed. There isn’t the distortion a genuine panoramic camera would produce. Still, removing whatever was extraneous and leaving the palms, the camel, the cart and the porter suggests a scene that could take place anytime in the last 200 years. Interestingly this is titled Kasr el Nil Bridge but it may be the one it replaced in 1931, the Kobri el Gezira. Photos of that one have the palms but they are absent in views of the later bridge. 

 The Orientalist argument says that these views tell us more about the consumers than the place, which should be beyond dispute by now, but what after all do they tell us about Cairo? Where, for one thing, are the crowds? Today the city is so densely packed that a view like this one seems impossible even at unlikely hours. Was it really so magically empty in the 1920s? No. As far back at the 1500s, when Europeans began arguing over the biggest, the richest and the most powerful cities in the world, three were inevitably ignored: Peking, Bombay and Cairo. As engines of civilization they were derided, despite the monumental evidence opposing that, and despite the popularity of Ancient Egypt stemming from the great desire of London, Paris, Rome etc to be seen as the inevitable heir to its culture. So no; this is not the vast, hectic and noisy city tourists encountered but somewhere ancient and austere: the place they came to find.


Saturday, 14 May 2016


Snapshots, postcards and miniature views of Percé Rock in Quebec.
“I don't see the point of photographing trees or rocks because they're there and anyone can photograph them if they're prepared to hang around and wait for the light.
David Bailey

350 million years ago, as the Devonian period drew to its end, taking with it various armour plated fish but giving the world forests and reptiles in return, a limestone scarp emerged on what was then Euramerica, a landmass to the northwest of Gondwanaland. Earth was still poorly defined although many of the sea creatures are recognizable as ancestors of our sharks, newts and eels. 

 Go forward a few hundred million years, to what is known as the late or Pennsylvanian era of the Carboniferous period and something roughly resembling North America is taking shape. The scarp is made of limestone, itself the product of billions of dead shellfish. Unlike granite it is made of organic, once living things, but like chalk, which is a form of limestone, and sandstone, which is another sedimentary rock, it is easily shaped by wind and water. 

  As this thing called North America finally emerges from the water, shaking itself dry like some shaggy hound, a small promontory near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River breaks away, or more accurately is severed, from the mainland. Storms being considerably more powerful in those primeval times, this could have happened overnight. The arches however were the result of gradual erosion and took more time to appear.

Jump forward to 2500BCE, around the time Gautama Buddha is preaching in India, and the Mi’kmaq arrive in the area. By now the Gaspé Peninsular has the same shape it does today. No doubt the Mi’kmaq give the rock a sacred status. All over the world, from Uluru to Kilimanjaro to Angel Falls, distinctive natural features develop sacred status. In the case of Percé Rock, this would have something to do with its appearance, but with the arches already formed it gave the Mi’kmaq a more tangible benefit. The currents circling the rock and flowing through the arches would have attracted certain types of kelp, which in turn attracted one kind of fish that became prey to another. In other words the fishing would have been excellent, for humans and birds. Depending on the season, ducks, geese, pigeons and gannets were in abundance. Why would a Mi’kmaq move? 

 In 1534 French ships under the command of Jacques Cartier appeared. He was probably not the first European known to the locals. Fishermen from Bristol and the Breton coast had been working in the vicinity for at least fifty years and it is possible that Vikings had been in the area before that. The site at l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland was a relatively short distance by boat.  

 There is a particular legend associated with the first French settlers at Percé, a rather unimaginative one about a too sensitive young sap and his lost love, but the story of Marguerite de la Rocque may not be legend at all, or only bits of it are. In 1541 she was on the expedition to settle New France, as the French called Canada, led by her uncle Jean-Francois de Roberval. Having offended him by her carry-ons with one of the crewmen, she, said crewman and her nurse were cast off on the so-called Island of Demons. This is generally considered to be Belle Island, further along the coast off the Newfoundland Coast but the point to think about is not the precise location but that name; Isle of Demons. One explanation for it is that during the autumn intense fogs blew down from the arctic and to French sailors the calls of thousands of gannets piercing the mists sounded decidedly demonic by anyone’s reckoning. The coast down to Percé was considered supernaturally dangerous, which it was given the extreme weather visited upon it. You can see why the French colonists kept pressing in until they reached what became Quebec City. Before that it was a coastline of madness.

Up until 1848 visitors to the rock saw two arches. The pinnacle at the back was attached to the main body until it crumbled that year. Because limestone is so soft the features could be said to be in a constant state of change. During World War 2 Andre Breton stayed in Percé and described the rock as “a razorblade rising out of the water … a marvellous iceberg of moonstone”. Although its sheer cliffs stop any major assault by tourists, it is likely that soon the only way to contemplate it will be from a safe distance, like Breton did. Not that the government is so concerned about protecting the rock but rather its soft texture and fragility will sooner or later seriously injure someone, which inevitably turns into legal suits.

 Finding photographs in Canada of Percé aren’t hard. It is one of the most photographed sites in the country and has become iconographic of Canada’s east coast the way that Uluru has come to be an emblem of Australia. The images in the gallery include snapshots, a postcard, miniature views and one panoramic view of the rock and the village, possibly taken on behalf of the Quebec or Canadian Government.