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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

WINGS OF DESIRE


Transgressive images from Weimar cinema
 "I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes. I do not wear them to be sensational. I think I am much more alluring in these clothes."
Marlene Dietrich


 Berlin in the Weimar years: a city rampant with leather wrapped, cross-dressing S&M fetishists, or not. Depending on whom you ask (or what you read), that image is either an invention or a conflation. There were bars like the Silhouette, where a customer could take a table and watch a parade of men in make-up and dresses and women in tuxedos, but reliable advice suggests most of the night spots were a lot tamer than that. Apparently we can thank films like The Night Porter and Cabaret for seizing on a rumour and treating it as fact. If the Nazis were perverts by definition, it was assumed that for night time amusements they’d prefer watching a couple of transvestites spanking each other rather than a blonde fraulein singing banal operetta, but when you think it through, the latter is darker, stranger and altogether more disturbing. One of the hallmarks of the Nazi leadership was an abject lack of imagination. These were people who dreamed of a world where everyone shared their passion for kitsch, which meant blonde girls in gingham singing folk songs, not sexual ambiguity. Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s original book on which Cabaret was based has no scenes set in a cabaret, but can we really blame Michael York and Dirk Bogarde for helping create the enduring image of Berlin C1930? Not entirely. Thanks to the Ross Verlag postcards we have thousands of surviving images that show the photo studios pushed the idea of a city where taboos were broken as a daily habit. Yet, coming from the cinema world, they were images of what the world could be, not what it was. Lya de Putti’s attire may have looked fabulous but it was impractical, and it was easier to imagine a world where women strolled along the Kurfürstendamm in sheer, glistening black rather than live in one where they actually did. After all, for a lot of ordinary citizens struggling with hyperinflation and massive unemployment, to dress like Ms Putti does in this photo was like waving a red flag at a National Socialist rally. The photograph is by M. I. Boris, aka the Bulgarian Boris Majdrakoff, who arrived in New York in the 1920s with a past respectable thriller writers would have dismissed as too unlikely. 

 
 Look at contemporary fashion images of women wearing suits and ties and we are meant to think of them as daring experiments in gender reversal, but so many of the Ross postcards show women wearing men’s clothing, or a close approximation, that we realize they were a trend back in 1920s and ‘30s Berlin. What makes us think they are about playing a game rather than making a statement is that so many of the actresses portrayed did not have reputations for challenging convention. From what we know of Carola Tölle, she played solid roles in films that are largely forgotten because there is no compelling reason to remember them. Her private life can’t be accounted for but it appears scandal free.

 
 Henny Porten’s fame and reputation have endured, for her roles as a gentle or long suffering earth mother type. Comparing the photo of her with that of Ms Tölle, we begin to see a pattern, or rather, a style. Only a decade earlier the notion of a woman wearing a suit and tie would have still caused a stir. In 1919 however, German women won the right to vote.  What had changed had less to do with Weimar Berlin’s free thinking than fashion designers’ understanding of how to accommodate radical into chic. Ms Porten’s sleeveless waistcoat has a decidedly feminine cut. She is not wearing a business suit. In the 1970s Diane Keaton revived the suited look in Annie Hall. If it didn’t make the jump to the pages of Vogue that was because it was too idiosyncratic: it was one thing to look like Diane Keaton, another to look like Annie Hall. And maybe the crusty old editors at the magazines took one glance, recalled their youth in Vienna wearing Papa’s silk ties and thought it had all been done before.

 
 Having never seen Marcella Albani in a film, commenting on her strengths as an actress is pointless, but in every other photograph of her in the collection she is portrayed as the embodiment of graceful elegance; a woman with a preference for haut couture and intelligent conversation. That doesn’t mean she lacked a sense of humour. When she fronted up to the studio on this particular day, she might well have been bored with the idea of yet another soft focus study suggesting she had just emanated from the mists. Perhaps Herr Binder was bored too and together they concocted an image the very opposite of what was expected. She was an actress; it was her job to be out of character. 

 
 Russian born Hella Moja dressed as a baroque era noble (or Mozart) looks to be having the last word on androgyny here, and in a way she is. We know from photographs by Walery and Reutlinger that the Ancien Regime look was popular around the Parisian music halls a generation before Karl Schenker took this portrait. So too were the matador, the Gypsy and even the blacksmith. They were too exaggerated to be subversive, more like fancy dress, and never began with the premise that other women might want to dress that way in the street. Also, it was always more acceptable for women to dress as men than the other way around. How many of the leading male stars were willing to don corsets and bustles?

 
 Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays famously turned up in the U.S and turned women on to smoking. He took his lead from home, where the habit was already associated with modern sophistication, added a bit of volume and general crassness and earned the undying gratitude of his employers. A lot of the Ross postcards show women smoking; by the mid 1920s a cigarette in the hand was a sign of elegance, of adulthood, but not necessarily of rebellion. Ms Haake’s forte was light comedies and socially concerned dramas and she’d go on to a long career, appearing in films into the 1980s. If the idea of a woman smoking was as scandalous in Germany as it was in America, she’d be one who’d put hers out before the photographer was ready with the camera.

  Not so Fern Andra, the great, unsung heroine of early cinema. American born but European by preference, she promoted herself as a woman who liked a cigarette and a stiff drink and would be disappointed by any man who did not offer her both. In reality she was an intensely serious worker who understood the dangerous gulf between public image and private life. She paid a price, but not for smoking or dressing in men’s clothing or any of the standard contraventions. As actor, director, producer and even photographer, she controlled her image so closely that when it began to fade no one was on hand to help her revive it.

 
 Which brings us to that most infamous figure of the early screen, the vamp. Her modern history began with the nineteenth century music halls, she came of age with silent film and died with its passing. It was difficult to be a real vamp in the 1930s. The Hays Code in Hollywood was very much opposed to any young woman who thought a man’s marriage was a speed hump not a stop sign. According to the new rules she had to pay for her crimes, which was an obligation no genuine vamp ever considered. The Nazis weren’t keen on her either. For all the bondage and S&M imagery bestowed upon them, publicly their ideal woman was blonde, virtuous and enthusiastic about the outdoor life. She could suffer but never inflict pain herself. The vamp was dark, saturnine and came alive when the sun went down, like Valerie Boothby in this image from Iris cards. Despite her very English name, Ms Boothby was German. Her career was short but included such titles as Girls on the Cross (1929), Adam and Eve (1928) Inherited Passions (1929) and Marriage in Name Only (1930); all which suggest some poor fool learns a lesson about love the hard way. 

  The vamp and the femme fatale were subtly different creatures; though the man who fell victim to either was seldom astute enough to know that. Both depended on exploiting male vulnerabilities but where the first was essentially amoral the second had principles and objectives. Sometimes she was looking for a way out and figured the man would lead her to it, and sometimes she was genuinely in love with him. If the last scene saw the vamp heading down the street with a man in her arm, you knew they were going back to her lair. If it was the femme fatale on the other hand, she may well have been persuaded that the path to true happiness lay in marriage, children and a home in the suburbs. Lissi Arna is one of the many German actresses of the silent screen forgotten now by all but the most devoted fans of the era, yet throughout the 1920s she was one of Weimar cinema’s most popular stars. Her reputation today, such as it is, rests on several films where she played the prostitute (hard hitting exposé) or the seductress (comedy, melodrama) but as it transpires she made more of the routine romances that were the bread and butter of the film business. The Kiesel Studio was located at Kurfürstendamm 11, meaning the address was fashionable but real information beyond that is hard to find. Alongside the celebrity portraits are many more showing children with oversized Easter eggs, or (that other inexplicably popular genre) dressed as their parents. What we see here is one of those minor shifts in the way women were portrayed that don’t raise the number of eyebrows today that they should. There is nothing vulnerable in Ms Arna’s expression. She knows what she wants and how to get it. 

  The secret had less to do with women discovering an independent spirit than technicians realizing the power of lighting. Photographers were learning that a shift in angle to throw a shadow could do more than animate a portrait. It could transform Elizza La Porta, generally sensible star of such morally didactic films as The Right of the Unborn and The Vice of Humanity (abortion and drugs respectively) into a siren of the night. Silent Hollywood gave the vamp fame and notoriety but in Los Angeles she was a European construction. Think of the number of famous Hollywood mantraps from the silent era, how many have ‘European’ names, and what their actual names were: Theda Bara (Theodora Goodman), Dita Naldi (Mary Dooley), Olga Petrova (Muriel Harding). She was by definition exotic because part of the danger of becoming involved with her lay in being unable to penetrate her closed, enigmatic mind. In Germany, America was a strange, distant land (witness the popularity of Karl May’s Native American novels), but so too were places just beyond its borders. The Balkans, home of the vampire, Oriental Turkey and the Arab lands, the Russian steppes; they were all breeding grounds for women who could crush a man’s soul with as much thought and effort as it took to flick a cigarette into the gutter. Romanian born Elizza La Porta may not have played the seductress on screen but she knew how to for the Manasse studio. Operated by Olga Solarics and Adorjan von Wlassics, it specialized in glamour photography and in surreal, modernist erotica. After years of relative neglect, the erotica was rediscovered and in the process became representative of decadent Berlin. The studio was equally adept at portraying actresses as sweet and wholesome as a strudel. But any fool with a camera can do that.

WINGS OF DESIRE

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

STORMY WEATHER


Postcards of bad weather
 There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
John Ruskin

 Canadians talk about the weather a lot, which in some peoples’ minds mark them as a dull breed, but when the temperature can drop fifteen degrees overnight and bring a metre and a half of snow with it you think they are entitled. Most of us don’t live in places with really bad weather (yet). Civilization has tended to settle the temperate areas. Even in the tropics with their seasonal cyclones and hurricanes, if you read about a high death toll the real story is about shoddy infrastructure and government neglect. That was what happened in Somerset earlier this year. Had government departments listened to professional advice given earlier, the flood damage could have been lessened. After all, it wasn’t as though the floods were a complete surprise. For centuries Somerset and the south coast of Britain has been subject to floods. The big difference is that a really bad one would occur only two or three times a century, time enough to recover, but just the year before serious flooding had affected Yorkshire and parts of the Midlands and meteorologists were knowledgeable enough about the behaviour of the jet streams to predict them. Climate change means the Somerset floods could become annual events. All it takes is an aberration in the atmosphere above the tropics in August for torrential rain to hit Britain in December, and postcards like the one above will lose their interest as they presage massive losses ahead.

 
The storms that used to hit the south coast of Britain every year were spectacular but less threatening than they appeared, being driven by high winds and thunderstorms rather than heavy rain. The photographer is not credited on this or the postcard above but though two likely culprits are Fred Judge and Henry Godbold it turns out that photographing the annual storms was a popular event. It was a test of the photographers’ skill in capturing the moment the wave crashed upon the promenade, and nerves because they had to get close enough to risk having their equipment, not to mention themselves, washed away. 

 
Here’s one we know is by Judge that gets the timing perfect but he must have been so close that it soaked him. Was it worth the trouble? Being a commercial photographer, he would have calculated that in monetary terms but when we look around and see the competition we realize how high the stakes were. Each postcard sold for a penny and if a good one sold 1000 copies (not unreasonable; popular postcards could sell in the tens of thousands) we start to see how a drenching could be a small price for a big return.



Here’s another, and a personal favourite from the Judge collection seeing as it is so dramatic. This being around 1910, probably just before, he would have used a tripod and possibly plate film, which meant he only had one chance at this particular scene. Of course another wave would come along in a few minutes but he would have missed the composition with the spectators. Notice, incidentally, how close everyone is to the breaking wave. It seems it wasn’t as dangerous as it looked, or else the good people of Hastings lacked something in the department of common sense.


 To Cologne, and the great flood of 1930. Being on the Rhine floodplain, the city has always been subject to flooding, but the events of November 1930 were beyond what anyone expected. Beginning with windstorms (sometimes incorrectly called hurricanes) the centre of the city was soon submerged as  torrential rain moved in. This is a reminder that there were really only two reasons to take postcards of wild weather. One was that they made for spectacular images and the other was that they were news events.

 
 But Cologne was not the only place to suffer. The floods of November 1930 affected all of Europe, across to the Scottish highlands. The list of damages reported in the press was staggering: seven dead in France, at least thirty in Germany, dykes bursting in Belgium and Holland, Russia cut off, ships run aground, all of Holland under water, power stations destroyed, the Spanish and Portuguese coasts awash. It would however be by no means the worst storm to hit Europe in the twentieth century, and as stories of European disasters in the 1930s it would soon be overshadowed.



 And oddly, it appears that is Cologne was where most of the postcards came from. There must be some from other countries but they are scarce. Even more oddly, most of the Cologne shots suggest peaceful vistas rather than scenes of destruction. In the end it depends on how you look at them. We have become so used to images of nature at its most violent that we easily overlook the possibility that in 1930 scenes like these from Cologne could have been read as documents of terrible destruction. What mattered wasn’t so much the intrinsic drama of the image but the sheer expanse of the flooding. Like the images of the Somerset floods earlier this year, the most remarkable weren’t of families in despair – we see that kind of thing every day from the press – but the aerial shots that showed whole villages under water. It seems however that before long we will become inured to those as well.

VIEW THE GALLERY HERE
STORMY WEATHER

Thursday, 2 October 2014

HORSE AND CARRIAGE

Wedding snapshots
“A man in love is incomplete until he is married. Then he is finished.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor



To be an army officer in Turkey in the 1940s and ‘50s gave a man more status than lawyers or doctors could expect. You might not have made more money but you were a defender of the nation, so when the time came to get married full military dress said more about you than any well-tailored suit could. It might have even been expected, since several of your commanding officers were obligatory guests and according to protocol you were not supposed to appear before them in civilian clothes. Having the groom in his military uniform does tend to add a slightly sinister quality to a wedding photo, but even if he were wearing standard black tie in this scene it would still suggest this wasn’t exactly the happiest day in a young couple’s life. Everyone, including the little boy in the left foreground, seems to regard the camera with suspicion, even hostility. It also looks like they have crammed into an office, or a back room at the registry. 


Ataturk made all Turkish marriages civil rites, meaning that religion was officially removed from the ceremony. The law still stands although people get around it by having two weddings, one official, one not, and so far as a lot of people are concerned it is the second that seals the compact. The first is just a piece of paper. You get an idea why from this scene. A crusty old clerk asks a few questions for formality’s sake before he hands over the documents to be signed. The couple look solemn and attentive, as befits the moment. The two men behind the couple are also looking at the camera with suspicion. The one in the hat bears an uncanny resemblance to an American gangster.


 But before we start thinking that the Turkish marriage is a dry, sombre affair, a farewell rather than a greeting, consider this snapshot. Apart from the fact that, finally, we get a smiling bride, there’s a suggestion the woman with her has donned a turban and applied some blackface. It’s the difference in shade between her face and her arm that make us think so, but could she? Would she? I don’t see why not. Weddings are usually supposed to be fun and it wouldn’t be the last time someone attempted to brighten proceedings with a display of bad taste. At least the bride is laughing. 


 Here we get a scene that suggests some ritual is about to take place. He appears to be a relative rather than the groom and it is possible he has decided to offer some prayers for the couple. Everything about the scene points to hasty improvisation; important details that were overlooked in the hectic rush of the last few days. He had a speech prepared but he left it at home, or thinking how quickly his daughter or his niece has grown up fills him with an existential dread. She wants him to know that everything will be all right, but actually, she’s used to his sudden spells. This is nothing, but she wishes her sister would put the camera down for once. 


 Let’s leave Turkey for a while and head to Canada, to contemplate for a moment how utterly boring it must be being a professional wedding photographer, heading out all day every weekend to take the same photos over and over. Professionals are paid to capture that special day but what they record is a formula. Only family and friends can photograph the day properly. Being the 1950s, this might have been taken at the bride’s home; which is to say her parents’. It’s a moment where past, present and future come together, for this being Canada in the 1950s she will probably have the same wallpaper in her new home, which will be a triumph of domestic taste and design. Mum would have taken the photo; Dad could have but he was in the kitchen knocking back his third bourbon of the morning, on account of nerves. 


 Another Canadian marriage scene; this one taken out in the rural wilds of Ontario. It makes you wonder why people hire professional photographers at all. A professional would have resisted photographing the couple with the farm as a background, preferring a studio setting with a neutral background, but the whole point of wedding photography is to preserve memories of the day. The only memory a commercial photograph would record is that of the experience of being photographed. Here we get an actual incident. The couple are already married and about to drive off for their honeymoon. They don’t look like a couple of farmers, but then women in wedding dresses seldom do. We can speculate on why they are out on the farm but we can’t deny this is a moment that will stay with them. 


 To England, and a photo that looks like someone’s attempt to create the studio look, with the blanket draped over as a backdrop. Everything about the scene is slightly ratty, from the man’s ill-fitting suit to the cheap blanket and the dingy doorway. They probably couldn’t afford a professional photographer, but they didn’t need one. We do hope he’s not a proper Jack the Lad, with a spare bird out in Chelmsford and a couple of geezers on his back for some readies he promised to cough up last week;  that would break her heart.


 Back to Turkey, and a moment that doesn’t look like one the bride would have wanted preserved, but then the other great thing about amateur wedding photographs is the haphazard ways they come together. Not much left to say about this one; it speaks for itself.


Another Turkish snapshot, that also looks like it was taken at the registry office. Notice how the bride and the woman to her right have their eyes shut against the flash. The boy next to the bride has covered his eyes. But then the woman next to him and the one above her have expressions of stark terror. The man just behind the bride has an inane grin. Others are trying to push into the photo or preserve their dignity. The man at the far left looks like he has just realized he left the stove on at home. Think of those millions of photos of everyone standing to attention on the church steps. This one is what a wedding photo should look like. 


 Apart from making marriage a civil ceremony, the Ataturk government tried to outlaw polygamy and arranged and consanguineous marriages, but these were rooted in long traditions and out in the hinterland people stuck to them. This photo was taken in the 1920s, not long after the birth of the Republic and it presents the image of contemporary Turkish society, or what it should have been: an urbane couple without a hint of religious symbolism in sight. The woman’s headdress suggests she is Armenian, so here we encounter one of the conundrums at the heart of Ataturk’s revolution. With outwardly western values, better connections with Europe, a higher level of education and, in urban centres, more prosperity, on the surface the Armenian community embodied the new ideal, but how could that be so much as suggested after 1915? Compare it to the top photo and we see how it is one thing to adopt the manners, quite another to accept the mores.

LOVE AND MARRIAGE