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Friday, 9 January 2015


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.


Thursday, 18 December 2014


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.


Thursday, 11 December 2014


Rita Martin; a forgotten photographer
“These pictures are the acme of artificiality and as far removed from nature … as a hat trimmed with artificial summer fruits.”
Cecil Beaton

 All the photographs in this post are of Lily Brayton, the beautiful and celebrated star of Shakespearean drama in the Edwardian era, but she is not the focus. That belongs to Rita Martin, the London portrait photographer who was one of the best known in Britain at the time but is strangely neglected today. It is not unusual to encounter photographers who were household names in their time yet don’t crack a mention in any of the encyclopaedias, but what makes Ms Martin’s case special is that where she does get attention it is for the high standard of her work and her innovative techniques: two qualities you’d think historians would have picked up on.

 The facts are these: she was born Margareta Weir Martin in Ireland in 1875 and died in 1958. According to the photoLondon Database her studio was at 74 Baker Street, Marylebone, a mile or so away from the studio of her better-known sister Lallie Charles in Curzon Street, Mayfair. The addresses were in exclusive neighbourhoods. A photo by Lallie Charles in the National Portrait Gallery database shows the two women and their sister Bea in what was probably Lallie’s studio C1899. The furnishings and décor are what we would expect of a high-end studio of the age: a distinct oriental element in the screens, rugs and vases, potted ferns (or are they lilies?) and dark, elaborately tooled tables and chairs. The women have that dreamy gaze we associate with the late-Victorian era; as though life in this room is too achingly elegant to risk leaving it. In 1975 Cecil Beaton co-authored with Gail Buckland a personal history of photography, The Magic Mirror, to which he added an appendix; Commercial Photographers of the Victorian and Edwardian Era. Like the other appendices it accounted for photographers who hadn’t fitted with the general theme of the book. Rita Martin and Lallie Charles were given more attention than anyone else in this section. There’s a sense reading it that Beaton knew Martin - not Charles: she died in 1919 - particularly when he intimates that the sisters fell out. It reads like gossip he received first hand.  

 The quote from Beaton at the top however comes from his book British Photographers, part of the Britain in Pictures series published by William Collins during World War II. Each thin volume contained a short essay by a noted authority and thirty or so reproductions of artworks in colour and black and white. The topics ranged from butterflies to canals to a history of fashion: all of them intended to remind people of what was too precious to let fall into the hands of the Germans. Beaton’s contribution included one of his famous scenes of Saint Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz. Given the brief amount of space Beaton was allowed, that he would give more attention to Rita Martin than he would to Lewis Carroll or Roger Fenton may seem surprising, but when you look at his early work especially it is clear that Martin and Charles had defined for him what studio portraiture could achieve. For Beaton, artificiality is a compliment. In The Magic Mirror he says of both sisters that “they transcended the stereotyped (and) showed a tyranny over their subjects, who were willing to do their bidding, for they knew they were being beautified”. Beaton could be describing his own working methods. During the first decade of the twentieth century, photographic postcards of stage actresses were popular around the world. Most studios placed the subject before an elaborate stage backdrop, emphasizing the theatricality above the performer. Rita Martin preferred to place her women in a stark setting that obliged the viewer to consider their stage presence.

 Lallie Charles was a photographer of the royal family and made her name more as a society photographer. To understand how she and her sister developed their styles and reputations, we need to consider Alice Hughes, one of the most formidable presences on London’s late-Victorian photographic scene. She would not photograph men. You might think taking this stand at the beginning of the suffragette era would marginalize her, but around the turn of the century her studio was so popular with society women and stage stars that she employed up to sixty assistants; again, none of them men. Lallie Charles was probably one (this is unclear) but the more important point is that Hughes rejected the standard sepia, Pictorialist view for the very expensive, beautifully rendered platinum prints in sharp focus. One of the criticisms of Pictorialism, then and now, was that the photographers frequently confused artistic excellence with vapid sentimentality. A soft focus view of a society lady admiring a tulip might sound like a good idea in theory but the result could make her look as fascinating as a blade of grass in a paddock. Charles and Martin took Hughes’ ideas and when it came to publishing postcards saw the virtue in refining them, reducing background interference, or removing it altogether. Their success however owed as much to their ability to impart or inspire a performance for the camera, something few actors were seriously expected to do.

 According to Beaton, Martin had a contract with the theatre manager George Edwardes that gave her exclusive rights to photograph Lily Elsie and other performers once a month. This may not be entirely accurate, or may have only existed for a short time, because other studios photographed Ms Elsie. One was Foulsham and Banfield, whose work Beaton waspishly described as “rather quaint in their woodenness”. The general impression is that all power resided with management. Edwardes could agree to such a contract, as long as Ms Martin kept her fees to a figure he thought was reasonable. More likely, a successful performer like Lily Brayton had enough influence to ask for Rita Martin, and if sales of postcards justified her demands Edwardes would agree. 

 Although Ms Martin photographed several leading men of the stage, of the 322 prints held by the National Portrait Gallery, only three are of men alone, though a couple more are of men with their families. The number of prints is enough to be representative and suggests that like Alice Hughes, Ms Martin had principles she couldn’t be persuaded from. The first instinct is to say these were political, but on second thoughts it may have been that she was essentially interested in glamour. That wasn’t a word many male actors would have wanted to be associated with in the 1910s or actually applied to them. It implied an interest in haute couture and other womanly pursuits. When you look through lists of images of male Edwardian actors, they tend to go for either comedy or dashing but respectable, and were typecast as one or the other. Lily Brayton on the other hand could wear costumes from across the centuries and cultures and still transmit an aura of chic allure. For a photographer of the stage, male actors were boring.

 According to the NPG website, Lallie Charles photographed some of the suffragettes. Rita Martin photographed Rosamund Massy from the National Women’s Social and Political Union. What does this mean? Were they sympathisers? Were they asked to because they were well-known women photographers? Was it because, like Lily Brayton, the suffragettes were part of the cultural milieu? None of these questions cancels another so the answer may be all three but it’s worth remembering that while London’s theatre world might have been thought progressive, there wasn’t a huge amount of sympathy for the suffragettes. The actress and singer Anna Held complained that they went about slapping men and when they started setting fire to theatres and letting off smoke bombs inside that predictably turned people off them. Rita Martin may have believed that women had the right to vote and agreed to photograph some of the suffragettes but that didn’t mean she was obliged to like any of them.    

 Which brings us to the important issue of why she has been forgotten. It isn’t as though her work is hard to find, and she was well enough known in the 1940s for Beaton to assume his readers needed no formal introduction to her. It’s one thing to discover a previously unknown photographer, vis-a-vis Vivian Maier, but when a photographer has a substantial body of work in an archive the neglect is not random. Perhaps, like her sister, she’s seen as too establishment, too Edwardian, and her portraits of theatre stars don’t cast a challenging light on the social history. But the photo-historian’s first job should be to write the history, not re-write it and clearly there are spaces that need filling in. A common myth about early theatre portraits is that they were perfunctory commercial jobs and the genre didn’t take off until a handful of photographers in the 1930s (Beaton in particular) introduced an individual style. If that is the case, these portraits of Lily Brayton reveal a relationship between photographer and subject that was decades ahead of its time.