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Thursday, 5 February 2015

MEET THE ANCESTORS

Postcards of Edwardians at play
“The English are not happy unless they are miserable.”
George Orwell

 Barely a week goes by without the BBC trotting out some sentimental panegyric to the Edwardian era; documentaries about the grotesque excesses of the royal family or the precarious health and hygiene of the working class, soap operas about life at Carbuncle Manor and dramatisations of classic novels, where actual drama was often in short supply. The crusty old stereotypes are rarely disturbed. Upstairs, there will be one sexually repressed woman and one cad, usually her brother. Downstairs, a scullery maid will have to leave paid employment on account of getting pregnant to person unacknowledged, while a footman regularly spends his half day off getting plastered with one of a dozen girls down in the village. But the most predictable element is that the middle classes will scarcely get a walk on part. Office clerks, schoolteachers, nurses etc aren’t considered to have anything interesting to contribute to our knowledge of that period between the death of Queen Victoria and the First World War. It seems their lives were monotonous but neither sufficiently horrid nor indulgent to hold our attention. Fortunately, we have thousands, possibly even millions of postcards that tell us otherwise. The Kodak was a social machine. Dressing up suddenly became a lot more fun with a camera on hand, but wherever there was a party, an outing or anything more interesting than the day job, the Edwardians were diligent about recording themselves.

 During the 1900s photographic companies and department stores regularly held competitions for amateur photographic postcards. It isn’t unusual to read of organizers overwhelmed by several thousand submissions. Kodak was after sales, the department store wanted customers, and the photographers wanted to see their work on a wall. Call that ‘everyone goes home a winner’: high art was never the point. Cute kittens, flower arrangements and what we think of as human interest were more likely to catch the judges’ eyes. They would have jumped at a scene like this; People sitting outside of a bandstand at a seaside resort: the young, the old and the in-between. Several people dozing, one woman knitting, another reading, a boy looking bored as, like everyone else, he waits for something to happen; it’s a snapshot of English society. The curious thing here is how everybody has turned up to hear the band. It seems that taste in entertainment had little to do with age back then, but maybe the music didn’t matter. Heading off to the bandstand after lunch was one of those things you did as a matter of ritual.


  Every town and village had its amateur dramatic society. In the popular imagination the local ADS was a beehive of eccentrics and misfits, any one of them mad enough to kill, and consequently a staple for writers of stolid whodunits. This was taken by Arthur Burgess of Folkestone. An Arthur Burgess worked as a wood engraver for John Ruskin in Folkestone during the late 1880s and it could be the same, but we are more interested in the result rather than the photographer. It looks like a dramatisation of Kipling’s Kim or another of his stories set in India. At the time this was taken Kipling was probably the best known writer in Britain and adaptations of his stories a natural choice for dramatic societies. The Indian tales were colourful and exotic and he was the unofficial voice of Empire, which in the first decade of last century was widely predicted to go on long into the future. Later scholars would realize Kipling was one of the few who foresaw that cruelty and ignorance would hasten the demise of the British Raj but such nuanced thinking was probably lost on the Folkestone Amateur Dramatic Society when a stirring tale of spies in far off India guaranteed an audience.

  The girls look to be in their final year at a ladies college, with a headmistress very proud of her charges, and her terrier. One of the persistent clichés of contemporary cinema is that during the Edwardian era ladies colleges produced just that; girls whose education was dedicated to French, poetry and the cello and who wandered about the schoolyard in a haze of ethereal loveliness. Crass behaviour of any description never reared its ugly head. Look at the student wearing the kimono in the middle. She has applied tape to her eyes to orientalize them. This was acceptable in an age when the British were told they owned half the world.

Another cliché of the era is that work was all drudgery and employers were nasty and uncompromising. All the evidence describes a much more complex society but social complexity rarely makes for good television, or more likely there aren’t that many in the business with imaginations sophisticated enough to pull it off. We can’t say for certain that either of the two women front and centre are employers, but clearly the female staff in this household were expected to have fun now and then, even if a couple look like they’d rather be scrubbing the floor with caustic. The back of the card has a stamp for Polden and Hogben, 16 Tontine St Folkestone. Research indicates that Polden and Hogben did not call itself a studio but a ‘postcard gallery’, whatever that was.

Let’s leave dressing up and head to transport, and one of the great romances of the age: the love affair between the bicycle and the camera. The development of the safety bicycle occurred as the Kodak was coming on to the market, a coincidence our ancestors were not slow to pick up on. On weekends during the 1910s groups of bicyclists swarmed across the countryside in search of picturesque views to photograph. The ruin of a Norman church outside a small village – snap! A creek slowly meandering through the marshes – snap! The chaps having breakfast before packing up and pedalling off in search of that day’s discovery – snap! To think of amateur photography back then without the bicycle is to think of, well, the cowboy without his horse. You’ll notice that everyone is wearing ties. They really were a different species back then.

What was Edwardian leisure without the charabanc, the most bombastic road vehicle ever built? From the beginning the intention behind the charabanc was recreational. People piled on – there are nineteen on this one, which was not overcrowding – and head off to the seaside or the village inn, not to church. Postcards of people in charabancs are common enough, and all of them tend to suggest a journey undertaken in great disorder. If you wanted a quiet ride admiring the spring flowers you bought a bike. The name Barrington’s indicates this one operated out of Southport Lancashire. Though a seaside town – it has the second longest pier in Britain – apparently one of the big attractions in Southport was the Leeds to Liverpool Canal that passed through Scarisbrick, about five miles distance inland. That was probably where this was taken. Why would the Edwardians be interested in a canal? They were all over the place by then. More likely it was a useful distance from Southport for a day trip. Canals were great because you got to make a lot of noise on the way out to see them and a lot more on the way back when you’d stopped by the local for a couple of hours.

Another fun activity at the seaside was the ferry trip. Along with the concert at the bandstand and the obligatory walk along the promenade, this made for a full day of action. The pier in the background is long enough to also be at Southport though Southend Pier in Essex (one and three quarters of a mile long) would be another candidate. Everyone is looking at the camera. The photographer has it mounted on a tripod and when they return a batch of postcards will be ready to buy for a penny a piece. Ferries always went to a place, not simply out to sea and back, and this one could be going out to the end of the pier. The piers were long because the water was shallow. Still, you read of ferry disasters in the 1910s and dozens drowning, you look at this photo and you can see why. Fortunately the pilot and his young son look like nothing much would bother them. 

  During the first decade of the twentieth long rambles were as popular as cycling. Some rambling clubs could have a hundred members wandering across the countryside on a weekend. In this card, postmarked October 6, 1906 and sent to a Miss K Fernie of Jerusalem Cottage in Falkland, Fifeshire, a J Page identifies the man second from the bottom as her brother, the bottom one a friend she stayed with in Glasgow and the other two “belong to Glasgow”. It is postmarked Menstrie, a village just outside of Stirling. They are out on a walk in the country, and the fact that they are wearing three-piece suits and watch-chains should not persuade us otherwise. It seems a lot of men during that era did everything in a three piece, from ploughing fields to entering accounts in ledgers to wandering along muddy paths and climbing rickety stiles. What makes the image is that none of them are smiling. Fun is always best when taken seriously. Ms Page writes upside down, a common trick to deter postal workers from reading cards. 

Finally, one of those photos where nothing special is happening yet it hints at a lot. The woman in the middle has her coat, scarf, hat and gloves on: she is leaving, not coming, and her long coat was the fashionable wear for driving long distances in the 1900s. The woman at the right, let’s call her Mother, will go back inside once she has said her goodbyes. The woman at the left also has her hat and scarf on, which would suggests she is also leaving except that she is sitting. Before we read too much into that, it’s important to remember the other person in the picture: the photographer. The photograph was taken for his or her benefit, not ours, but knowing who it was could change the whole reading. There’s a difference between a photo taken by someone who is staying and one who is leaving. There are other things to think about. It’s doubtful the two younger women woke up one morning and thought, “Victoria is dead, Edward is King and it is the beginning of a new century”. If anything it was: “I shall turn on the electric light, call Mother on the telephone and drive down to see her in my motor car. Tonight we may go into town and watch a moving picture, and thank God we have a cure for smallpox.” They are well off and the problems that bothered them were largely in the abstract, and in a real way distant: Germany was a danger, anarchists were about in London’s East End and the economy was weak but not crippled, but these were all troubles that a good government could sort out. They have cause to relax, or more accurately, they don’t have cause not to. To be comfortably well off and living in the south of England in the 1910s was sufficient to be convinced you were among the luckiest alive in the world at that time.

MEET THE ANCESTORS

Friday, 9 January 2015

IMAGE/TEXT

A (very) brief history of typography, design and real photo postcards
“Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated.” 
Paul Rand


A statistic from 1903 tells us that an average of 1 446 938 postcards were mailed in Germany every day that year (You have to love German precision). Basic maths tells us that was in the vicinity of 376 203 880 for that year, and given a certain percent of the population of 56 000 000 were too old, too young or had no interest, clearly some people were very busy. Not all the postcards were photographic but 1903 was also the year that the real photographic postcard emerged as the latest fashion in mail culture. It seems that images of stage actresses were the most popular but so were postcards that amateur photographers made themselves, and then there were images like these, where studios and publishers took current ideas in design and transformed them into photographs. It’s not hard to see why: the only reasons a studio wouldn’t embrace the new process were that it was too expensive or that the studio had established some success with the half-tone process, and neither made much sense businesswise considering those figures from Germany. This card with its obvious religious message comes from an unidentified studio. Though the message is in French the studio could have been based in Germany: studios were never constrained by political boundaries. It could have been running a profitable line in soft porn images as well. With the kind of money involved in the photographic postcard trade, it paid to be pragmatic. If there were a market across the border for Catholic imagery a hard headed Lutheran in Berlin would have no trouble responding to it.

 
John Beagles & Co was one of the most prolific publishers of photographic postcards in Britain up to the 1930s and specialized in stage stars. This was published before World War 1 so the idea of remembrance is uncertain. The tulips (?) generally refer to love – which makes sense in an image filled with beautiful women – and the horseshoe of course means luck, but ‘remembrance’ normally implies mourning and while it wouldn’t be strange to publish a series of cards intended to be sent to the recently bereaved it would be odd to design such a card filled with a collage of famous actresses. Possibly it refers to John Beagles himself, who died in 1909. The company could have produced a series commemorating its founder showing portraits from some of its best known cards.


 Barnstaple is a small town in Devon, which at the beginning of the last century only had a developing reputation as a tourist destination. The postcard was published by J. Welch & Sons of Portsmouth. If the publishers were using templates sourced from elsewhere they may have had little to do with the design of the finished product and may not have even supplied the scenes of the town. The motifs could have been used for any town in Britain and it is also possible that the letters with their collages of women and girls were created elsewhere. The price for a photographic postcard in England was a penny and even though some are on record as selling in the hundreds of thousands, it’s unlikely that Welch & Sons would invest any time on the typography for a card selling in small town Barnstaple. Note the collage of the girls and women. It is a feature that can always date a postcard to being pre World War 1; not because the war had anything to do with it but because fashions changed.

 
 No account of typography and design in photo postcards can be complete without examples from the Reutlinger studio. They produced the most sophisticated examples and dominated the French market. A comparison with the Barnstaple card is enough to show why. Even though the studio mass produced images and recycled the photographs - this portrait of Gilda D’Arthy would appear on at least half a dozen other designs - there was always a sense that if the postcard wasn’t unique it was different. This comes from a series employing the Art Nouveau typography and featuring a woman against the backdrop of a lake. Together the letters spell out ‘Reutlinger’ and the idea was for people to collect the full set. Another statistic from 1903 indicates that of the nearly 200 000 000 postcards bought in Britain that year, only a quarter were posted. The real market lay with collectors and the trick was to make sure they always returned to buy more. 

 
 Postmarked 1930 but most likely produced in the 1920s, this Freudian double entendre urging Dad to use his cane and repopulate France was a response to the huge loss of life in the First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic, which together accounted for over two million deaths, or around five percent of the population. Even before the turn of the century, France’s population had been considered too low for full economic prosperity. It wouldn’t fully stabilize until the 1960s, when with independence millions of immigrants from former colonies in Africa and the Middle East arrived. We don’t know how successful this campaign was but it’s doubtful Mum would have been too thrilled at the prospect of thirteen children. 

    
 The Rose Stereograph Company was founded in Melbourne in the 1880s by George Rose, a man who realized that for a stereographic company to thrive it needed international scenes and the best way to get them was to do the travelling himself. By the 1920s the market for stereographs was in decline and the company turned to producing postcards. Mostly, it appears, the postcards were standard topographical scenes but this is an inspired example of what could be achieved with a little imagination. I can’t say I’ve seen anything else quite like it and the inclusion of the waratah with the eucalyptus flowers suggests the template may have been particular to the company and not sourced from elsewhere. Note the sign on the building at the right for Martin and Pleasance Homeopathic Pharmacy. Like the Rose Postcard Company, it is still in business.  

 
 From the 1930s onwards the strongest challenge to the real photo postcard came from brightly coloured linen cards and in the U.S the Curt Teich Company ruled that roost. There’s good research on the company with stories of a small army of salesmen travelling desert highways and offering lonely gas stations and motels such tempting ideas as the addition of a couple of girls in bikinis to the image at little extra cost. The large letter linen postcard with the name of the place, town or city writ large is a distinctly American vernacular. Large letter photo postcards are not as common though in some ways they are much better. The photos in this postcard were taken by the Nevada Photo Service but we are more interested in the illustrations. Lew Hymek was a newspaper cartoonist in Reno during the 1930s and 40s, the era when the town suddenly boomed on account of relaxed gambling, and divorce laws before mob town Las Vegas took all the attention. Obviously there was a collaboration between Hymek and Lawrence Engel, who operated the Nevada Photo Service, and because this is a photographic postcard it could have been produced and published by the Nevada Photo Service. A linen card version would need to be sent to somewhere like Curt Teich that had the printing technology. This is better than a linen card because it displays Hymek’s skills and it has that cowboy glamour we associate with Reno when North Virginia St was still worth visiting.

IMAGE/TEXT

Thursday, 18 December 2014

SNAP!


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.

PHOTOGRAPHS OF PHOTOGRAPHY