And furthermore ...

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Friday, 22 August 2014

LONDON BELONGS TO ME


Judge’s postcards of London
 “I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” 
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet


In 1908, Fred Judge travelled up to London to make his first postcard views of the city. Three years earlier, Baedeker’s had published the fourteenth edition of London and its Environs. Ever since the first edition dedicated to London had come out in 1878, the Baedeker’s guide was considered the most thorough guide to the city. Typical city guides listed the main sights and provided some background to them. Baedeker’s went further, providing essential information regarding entry points, hotels and restaurants, bus and train timetables and recommended shops, including bookbinders, engravers and gunsmiths. It was the first modern guidebook and because the tourist market at that time belonged to the relatively wealthy it assumed that money was no object. Its readers wouldn’t be interested in discovering that little restaurant tucked away in an alley behind Covent Garden or a small hotel that offered surprisingly good value. The East End was left out; only a madman would risk wandering through the slums, and there wasn’t much to look at in the first place. Still, the 1905 Baedeker’s guide tells you things about the city historians tend to overlook. Though English food had a poor reputation internationally, the standard offered in London was much higher than that of local French or Italian restaurants. They tended to get things wrong, no doubt because essential ingredients like herbs and sauces were hard to come by. The guide also has a separate listing for oyster bars, a distinctly though not uniquely American fashion. Among bookshops, Hatchards still exists at the same address (187 Piccadilly). Foyles doesn’t get a mention, possibly because it was only two years old and Baedeker’s liked places with established reputations. It also lists a couple of still active legal publishers, Kelly’s and Reeves & Turner, which tells us what kind of tourists were expected to buy the guidebooks. Among recommended photographers are Mendelsohn at 14 Pembridge Crescent, Elliot & Fry at 55 Baker St, Ellis and Walery, two doors down at 51 Baker St, Mayall & Co at 126 Piccadilly and the London Stereograph Co at 106 Regent St and 54 Cheapside.

 You sometimes read that postcards belonged to the very middle classes, a rung or two down the social ladder from the ideal Baedeker’s readers. This isn’t quite true; there are well known collections in archives that once belonged to prominent lawyers and surgeons. Also, from a commercial point of view, Baedeker’s would have failed if it saw itself as only belonging to the privileged classes. When it came to the listings of prices for restaurants, a teacher or clerk from Edinburgh who had saved up enough money for a few days in London could rely on the book as well, noting which places fell within his or her budget and what buses were best to catch, since a hansom cab from the British Museum to Charing Cross cost 1 shilling and sixpence whereas a bus cost about a penny. Irrespective of income, there were also sights every tourist had to witness. Anybody coming to London for the first time would want to gaze upon the broad panorama of the Thames with Tower Bridge in the distance. Baedeker outlined a route, photographers like Judge provided the evidence. For a lot of visitors, a scene like this would have encapsulated their image of the river but they could hardly hope to record it so perfectly with their little Kodak. 


 What’s interesting is when Judge presents a scene at odds with the Baedeker view. The latter is neat, well organized and makes no effort to capture the physical life of the city. The publishers no doubt thought that last bit wasn’t part of their job, and besides, how could they? Theirs was a guidebook, not a collection of poetry. Baedeker’s ideal tourist visited the sites in a sensible order, heading to the British Museum in the morning (the guide book comes with a plan of two floors) then the National Gallery to contemplate selected masterpieces before, time permitting, making Saint Paul’s in the late afternoon. In Baedeker’s world, the elements that would slow the most conscientious tourist - crowds, traffic jams and bad weather - don’t exist. In the 1930s Judge would describe how when he first came to London he liked to sit on the top of the open double-decker buses and photograph the streets. In this scene of Fleet Street we have a view of St Paul’s – as emblematic of London as Tower Bridge – and something every tourist would have experienced; a crowded street jammed with buses and pedestrians. If Baedeker never warned them, the journey nevertheless is the point of reaching a destination. Good tourists would have found scenes like this endlessly fascinating, even if it meant their itinerary was thrown out of kilter. The ‘real’ London was discovered on noisy, vibrant streets, not in quiet meditation on some Italian painting in a gallery.



Speaking of St Paul’s, and quietude, Judge’s scenes of the cathedral interior are among his very best work. When he took this, (undated but certainly before 1914) photographing church interiors required skill and a sophisticated camera. Tourists carrying nothing better than a Box Brownie and some enthusiasm were guaranteed to be disappointed by their efforts. They depended upon professionals to record not just the evidence but the experience of visiting the cathedral. Designed by Christopher Wren, the final resting place for Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, John Donne, J. M. W. Turner and Wren himself, it isn’t an exaggeration to call it the spiritual centre of the empire. Any commercial photograph of the interior had to possess the correct gravitas and impart a proper sense of majesty. Compare this image to the work of the best known photographer of church interiors at the time, Frederick Evans, and its remarkable to think that back in the 1910s, photographs of this standard were being published as postcards.


 Still in St Paul’s, and a view of the tomb of Lord Leighton, a name that meant nothing to me though it turns out he was one of Britain’s most respected artists between the 1850s and the 1880s. Most of his work looks to be typically academic: sentimental scenes drawn from classical literature and mythology, a lot of naked women with alabaster complexions; eroticism for people who had never experienced the real thing. But he was also what you might call an ideal Victorian, being a soldier as well as an artist and a stout defender of the empire. Judge had studied at Wakefield Art School in the 1880s so would have known of Leighton and his work. He may have photographed the memorial out of respect but just as likely he was struck by the atmosphere created by the light. The effect is sombre without being gloomy, the light evenly diffused from the ceiling. Unless people were specifically looking for Leighton’s memorial, the image works just as well as a typical monument found in the crypt. Judge isn’t telling us that we need to know whose it is. According to Baedeker’s, the crypt was one of the highlights of a cathedral tour. This was an era when Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the Great Man in History still held sway and for visitors Saint Paul’s crypt was the pantheon of British history. 


 In 1855 the Comte de Montizon, alias Juan Carlos Maria Isidro de Borbón alias Charles Monfort, claimant to the thrones of Spain and France, took one of the most famous English photographs of the 19th century, of the newly installed hippo at the London Zoo. It has attracted some overheated analysis, some declaring that the Count’s decision to include spectators was a dramatic revelation and a moment when the whole idea of photography took a sudden shift. The Count probably thought it was a logical place to stand. For Baedeker and Judge, a visit to the London Zoo was not to be missed. Opened in 1828, it is the world’s oldest public zoo and in the 1910s was home to the largest collection of exotic animals any city had. Though according to the guidebook “the unpleasant odour (of the monkey house) is judiciously disguised by numerous plants and flowers”, it was guaranteed to have a crowd passing through. Four years after the Count took his photo, Charles Darwin made monkeys fashionable. Like the other houses at the zoo, the building was as much an attraction as the animals. It looked like a small version of the Crystal Palace. The interior of the reptile house could have made a satisfactory lobby in a French pretender’s chateau. When Baedeker’s published their guide, the polar bears lived in a basic cage between the camels and the aviary, their water provided from a narrow drain. In 1913, not long before Judge took this photo, the Mappin Terraces were built. Featuring an artificial cliff, a ledge and a pool, they were innovative in attempting to recreate the physical environment the animals inhabited in their natural state. When the Baedeker’s was published, visitors were still expected to feed bananas and peanuts to the monkeys, poke the lions with long sticks to make them roar and generally behave like, well, animals. When Judge took this photo, the male polar bear was called Sam, the Female, Barbara. Her death in 1923 made the papers. I’m not sure how you tell who is who.


 According to Baedeker’s, Holborn got its name from Hole Bourne, a tributary of the River Fleet, which still runs underground. It was also part of the route that prisoners walked from Newgate Prison to their execution at Tyburn, near Marble Arch. The most salient detail for tourists however was that the row of Tudor buildings  at the right of this photo, known collectively as Staple Inn, were among the only buildings in central London to survive the Great Fire in 1666. They had been built in 1585, the year the ill fated colony at Roanoke was established, or not, and the eighteenth year of Mary Queen of Scots’ imprisonment. If Judge was thinking of either the Stuart queen or a group of lost colonists, or for that matter some bedraggled prisoners being marched down the street, he hasn’t shown it. Instead we have what looks like a Rover 6 parked on a nearly deserted street. The number plate beginning with MX indicates it was registered in South East London. Roneo at the top and on the facade of the building in the middle ground refers to an early mimeograph machine. I think Judge was impressed by the nearly empty street, presumably around dawn, and thought that if it moved him it would similarly affect his customers. Using Google Maps, you can position yourself pretty much where Judge took this photo and discover that apart from the Staple Inn and the Holborn Bars at the left, little else remains. Near where the second light post stands there is now a monument to the Royal London Fusiliers who fought in World War 1. 


 The Royal Exchange and the building beside it are still standing though the one at the rear has been replaced by a glass and concrete office block that no doubt appals Prince Charles. But enough of him. Much more interesting are the details in this scene. A few London bobbies here, including one just by the ‘ch’ in the caption, who looks like he’s just spotted some rum goings on in the side street. The men wearing boaters might be clerks. The man in the top hat crossing the street at the left has no doubt just left his stockbroker well pleased at the morning’s results. Speaking of social history, the mix of horse drawn omnibuses and automobiles reminds us that the 1910s were a decade of profound change, more so than the preceding one. The way history is often presented, Victoria drops dead, her drunken glutton of a son assumes the kingship and everything changes, like a sunrise. Not quite; technology didn’t give a toss who was regent and this scene would have existed had she lived a few years more. For me, the advertisements for Horlick’s malted milk, Nestles milk and Dewar’s scotch are among the most vivid details in this scene. When Judge took this he was probably thinking he’d captured the Exchange with some of the hustle and bustle outside. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that one hundred years later we’d be drawn to the tiny, peripheral details. 


 Finally, a view that reminds us why everyone with a Baedeker’s in their pocket needed postcards, and why a sensitive observer like Judge would be in demand. Technically speaking, the idea of using the mast of the barge to frame St Paul’s was hardly new, though we can see how carefully Judge composed the shot so the tips of the mast and the spire balance each other. It is a seemingly everyday scene but what Judge has also done is take the essential elements of the Thames, the river traffic and the skyline, to present a view that defines the city. What is more, it is a scene that many tourists would have passed without stopping to contemplate. Only when they got home would they remember the barges lining the banks and the cathedral in the background. For us, St Paul’s gives the image substance and interest but it is the barges, the evidence of a lost way of life on the river, that matter. Today some old relics are moored to the banks but most river traffic belongs to ferries and RIBs, the inflatable boats that travel at high speed up and down the river, giving customers an experience that is as over priced and viscerally disappointing as a Bulgarian strip club. Ask Mr Judge; the only way to appreciate London through the Thames is to walk slowly, observing the details of the skyline, not its organic shape. It must be said that Judge rarely examined the social energy of London, that most of what he reveals is already taken for granted, but in its few, sparse elements this is an image of a city at work.

LONDON BELONGS TO ME

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

NORTHERN EXPOSURE

A Baltic cruise on the RMS Viceroy of India
 Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.
Zora Neale Hurston



When she (ships are always shes) was launched in 1929, the RMS Viceroy of India was the pride of P&O’s fleet. The sinking of the Titanic and then the Lusitania had hardly made a dent in the cruise ship industry, the construction of them and the sailing on them. Like the Titanic, the Viceroy of India was intended to have the last word in luxury travel, with an indoor swimming pool, banquet halls and even a museum. The vital statistics of this ship probably interest specialists but the detail that she was driven by two turbo alternators and the steam powered by six boilers rated at 350 psi means little to me. It is clear from this photo, probably taken as she was sailing through the Clyde after leaving Glasgow, that she was an impressive symbol of the new century. The photo is the first from a presentation album created for a cruise of the Baltic by a group of Rotarians sometime in the mid-1930s. With a cover of faux-leather and a gold embossed stamp of the ship, and most of the photographs 5x7 and hand printed, it was a fairly expensive item to produce, even without the standard paraphernalia such as menus or maps showing the route. It isn’t clear whether this one was produced for a particular Rotarian club’s records or if the passengers could buy it. In any case, the cruise ship album has a place in the history of photography. Granted it isn’t always a prominent one but this is a good example of a vanished world. It shows us the places visited and gives us glimpses of shipboard life.  



Although the Viceroy was built specifically for the route between Britain and India (RMS meaning Royal Mail ship), she was as well known as a cruise ship. On this cruise she carried a group of British Rotarians. Here they are; the heart and soul of middle England. Despite rumours, to be a Rotarian in the 1930s did not make you a rabid anti-socialist or a freemason. On the contrary, Rotarians, as this photo succinctly demonstrates, were rather ordinary. Of course, you had to be a solid and respectable member of society, so anyone who believed in a socialist utopia would be unlikely to join, and women could not officially become members until the 1980s. The Vatican banned priests from joining Rotary in the 1950s on the grounds it was a secret society but passed no edicts regarding laity. In the 1920s, before this photo was taken, Rotary banned recruiting from freemasons’ clubs, probably because it aspired to be secular and non-discriminatory and associations with masons would have tarnished its reputation. This group look like the types who’d provide schoolbooks to economically disadvantaged areas and make donations to villages struck by natural disasters. Both are commendable activities.



To be a cruise ship photographer can’t have been a bad job. You got to see the world and no one asked for originality in the photos you took. Maybe that’s why, despite the privileges, it was never considered a very prestigious occupation. If you had real ambitions, the magazines were what you’d set your sights on. This is the Kungsgatan in Stockholm. The towers, the Kungstorn, were designed by Sven Wallander and when they were completed in 1925 were officially the first skyscrapers in Europe. Presumably our Rotarians disembarked at Stockholm and went on a short tour, in which case a stop to look down Kungsgatan would have been on the itinerary.



Here’s a group of them. It’s hard to say whether the people at the back are part of the same cruise. No doubt that a stop in Stockholm involved a meeting with members of the Swedish branch of Rotary. There would have been a table laid out with teapots and cups, and possibly Danish pastries, which oddly enough were called Viennese pastries in Denmark, because that’s where they came from.



This is Helsinki’s Central Railway station, designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919. It is described in some books as belonging to the National Romantic Style, expressing ideas from Finnish folklore and national heritage. From here it looks like a fine example of Art Deco; what we tend to think of as typical National Romantic resembles more Victorian Gothic, with an emphasis on turrets and spires - think of an ice castle from a Hans Christian Andersen story. In any case, our visitors would have been impressed by its modern style. Interesting that the caption reads ‘Helsingfors’, which is, or was, the Swedish for Helsinki. This suggests our photographer may have been Swedish, a small but important detail. The cruise management would have wanted a local photographer, if only because someone who turned up fresh out of Glasgow might not know the sights and would miss some important landmarks. Also, the photographer could have boarded with a portfolio of previously taken images. The captions are only on the building and street views, indicating they may also have been published as postcards.


 I'm guessing the man on the left was known to everyone as ‘the Major’. 



The tower in the background looks more National Romantic than does Helsinki’s train station. It also looks old. It is the spire of Saint Nicholas’ Church, originally built in the 13th century. The spire was built in 1909, replacing a ruin that had been around since a fire in 1795. This in effect is the essence of all national romantic movements; build something modern intended to evoke a glorious past.



We usually associate scenes like this with more southern areas of Europe. Not because we assume Finland doesn’t have markets but because since World War 2 the Nordic countries have successfully promoted themselves as contemporary: contemporary design, contemporary architecture, contemporary ideas. Nordic is a euphemism for new and progressive. Old doesn’t get a lot of attention. Notice again this has a caption, and is taken from a high point from the harbour, meaning it was taken from a ship. Possibly it was the Viceroy but again, our photographer could have taken it months earlier.


 She looks a touch too young to be part of the tour group. She also looks Scandinavian.Did the cruise elect a Rotarian queen?



This and the next two images belie the case that Rotarians don’t know how to have fun. Of course they do. Never mind that ‘fun’ might involve countless cups or tea and singalongs, and we feel obliged to put the word in inverted commas, it is still defined as ‘fun’. These images are the centrepiece of the album. We can’t be sure what they were celebrating; obviously not the crossing of the Equator and the cruise went too far south to cross the Arctic Circle. What I suspect is, the cruise had a very tight schedule of activities arranged and one of them was some kind of on board party, a celebration of all the good work the Rotarians had done. 



Is he supposed to be an Arab, or a shepherd from a nativity scene?



From what we read, life on board during a cruise in the 1930s actually sounds a bit dull. Between meals, one lay back in a deck chair reading cheap thrillers or wandered to the lido bar on the off chance there was a game of bridge or baccarat to join in on. In the evening one dressed, had a cocktail, ate, played more bridge then went to bed. The kind of activities that gave some more innocuous sites sordid reputations seems missing. Of course, this was a tour by Rotarians and we’d hardly expect much in the way of shenanigans. Still, the presence of a spy could have spiced things up a bit.


 Ahh yes … 


 We know we are in Scandinavia … 



Interesting, but only a few years after this photo was taken a statue to the fishwives of Copenhagen was erected near this spot, and soon after the market closed down. Somehow the long history and tradition of the Copenhagen fish market gets neglected but it obviously mattered enough to build a monument to its women; a response perhaps to the more famous statue of the little mermaid. This, I also think, doubled as a postcard.



Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen. Grundtvig was not a saint but a nationalist poet, philosopher etc who also was a pastor, hence the legitimacy of building a church in his honour. Designed by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint in 1913, it was still being finished when our visitors arrived in Copenhagen. Though there are no apparent clues to its use, no crucifixes or statues, you know at one that it must be a church. Notice there is no caption. Possibly the building was still covered with scaffolding when our photographer last visited. This would therefore have been taken on the cruise. The photos here are from an album of 36 and are placed in the order they appear.
The Viceroy had a short, tragic life. In 1940 she was converted to a troop carrier and two years later was sunk in the Mediterranean after a U-boat torpedoed her. Four crewmembers were killed. Everyone was rescued but the ship lies rusting in the deep off the coast of Algeria.

RMS VICEROY

Saturday, 28 June 2014

GOING BACK TO MIAMI

Some snapshots from Miami, 1942
 Second only to the sea, the Miami sky has been the greatest comfort in my life past 50. On a good day, when the wind blows from the south, the light here is diffuse and forgiving.
Iggy Pop



Photography being a relatively simple skill to pick up, it’s rare to find photos by someone who really has no idea of the basics regarding composition, framing and so on. So rare in fact that the photos can be more interesting than they would be had they been taken with a little care or knowledge. Such is the case with this group of snapshots, taken at Miami Beach in March 1942.



Our photographer really didn’t get it. If he or she – on gut feeling alone the handwriting makes me think it’s a he – had picked up a ten cent Kodak manual, (one probably even came with the camera) basic advice like keeping the horizon straight, finding a point of interest, applying the rule of thirds, would have improved the images. But here’s the real difference between a photograph and a sketch: once the snap has been taken it can’t be improved. You can’t go back and erase the tree. You are left with what you did. All that can be done as compensation is take another photograph. Frankly, I don’t think our photographer cared that much. He was like a kid with a new water pistol; point in this direction and squeeze, and now point this way and do the same. Don’t bother aiming; it’s a water pistol, not a real gun. Don’t bother with that manual. You’re not a photographer; you’re a tourist.



It isn’t that uncommon to hear people complain they aren’t good photographers. Usually, what they mean is that they can’t take photos that look like masterpieces. They tried taking a shot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but though they had Ansel Adams in mind, they got back a flat, muddy looking image. They sought the decisive moment but it always seemed to be thirty seconds ahead of them. Here’s the thing. I’m sure that had I been standing next to our photographer on the beach at Key West that early Spring day in 1942, I would have seen the point of interest in this scene and moved in. What I would have taken would be a shot of a girl in a short skirt bending over – a classic, or typical, human interest scene showing the humour in daily life, or some cliché along those lines. Instead what we get is girl in short skirt bending over, boyfriend with towel over his shoulders standing next to her, another man walking away, a fairly well populated beach and a jetty, to start with. If the camera is an eye, our photographer observes more than most professionals.



Miami Beach, March 1942. The date seems important, especially when we know that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour just three months earlier, and in February 1942 the Miami Beach Training Center opened. That might explain what our photographer was doing there, but what if it didn’t? Thanks to a mass media that finds nuance annoying, or downright subversive, we tend to think of the U.S.A post Pearl Harbour as behaving like a single cell organism. The profound shock of the event, the realization that America is now at war, the man looking at his wife as they both become aware that their world has changed. What if it wasn’t like that? What if our photographer had worked so hard the last year in the Detroit car factory or the New York law office, been so rattled by his divorce or the death of his mother, or just come from Minnesota where the snow was still two metres high, that, frankly, so far as Miami in March was concerned, Pearl Harbour might as well be on Mars? Recall September 11, 2001: for all the pieties we read about how the nation had changed, how a threshold had been broached, what we saw was a government behaving in unsurprising ways and a country that quickly reverted to type. What had changed was usually so subtle that it was hard to discern. The crime, the birth, marriage, divorce, economic parity and other vital statistics weren’t fundamentally altered. Our photographer may have resolved to offer his life to his country if it asked, but that wasn’t going to be revealed in his photos.



So let’s think about Miami, not the national state of mind (a fiction) instead. What if you had spent your life in Detroit or on a Minnesota farm or a New York suburb and you went to Miami in 1942; what would you find? Well, the Olsen Hotel for a start. It was one of dozens of Art Deco, or Streamline Moderne hotels that had been opened on the beachfront. Miami had embraced the moderne style like nowhere else in America, and today we are grateful for that (and to the conservationists who have fought for the preservation of buildings). Art Deco is to Miami what the skyscraper is to New York, the minaret on the skyline to Istanbul, the art nouveau portal to Budapest; it defines the city. All physical descriptions start from that detail. In Miami, Art Deco wasn’t just an architectural style; it spoke of a culture that was distinct from New York and other northern cities on the Atlantic seaboard. In Miami, where it was summer all year round, people dressed to fit in with the buildings, in white linen suits and floral print frocks. They nodded smugly when Minnesotans talked of the blizzard or when New Yorkers tried to introduce formality to the proceedings. Geographically, Miami was closer to Havana than it was to any other state in the U.S. It was like another country.



Here is a view of the Casa Marina, one of the best known resorts on the seashore, and one quietly muses on what happened when Robert Mitchum and a busload of starlets turned up. Yes, it was that kind of place, back when excess was considered both interesting and healthy. Rough and disorganized as this photo is, it tells us a lot about Miami, 1942. The building still exists, still as a hotel, with a long palm tree lined promenade leading up to the entrance. If that was in place in 1942, what we have is a tourist approaching tentatively and reaching a polite distance, accidentally cropping the bottom that would show the path. This is a Miami landmark, a place no tourist should avoid, even if the experience is as vicarious as viewing it from a safe distance. Of course we only have a few photos from the collection and don’t know that our photographer didn’t venture downtown to document Miami’s flourishing skyline. 



In the 1940s Key West was on the cusp of a boom. It wasn’t yet the retirees’ paradise, nor a refuge for Cubans, though anyone with foresight could have seen those on the horizon. I’m assuming Ocean Beach Cottages was an official name, although Googling it brings up a variety of places that are more prestigious than these places. Here, Ocean View Cottages look like the types of cottages more budget minded tourists would rent for a few days, have barbecues, run down to the beach, meet like minded folks and agree that when they hit 65, this was the place to set up camp. Behind the roughness and disorder of these images is a view of Miami more considered photographers would miss.

MIAMI