And furthermore ...

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Wednesday, 15 October 2014


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.


Thursday, 2 October 2014


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.


Friday, 5 September 2014


Minimalist snapshots of the landscape
 “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment. ” 
Ansel Adams

One of the several annoying things reading Ansel Adams is that he basically thinks there is only one way to take a photograph. If you don’t have a certain lens, with a particular filter attached, and you are not shooting on 4x5 sheet film or larger, forget it. Your picture might be pretty, but that’s all. It’s a bit like sitting at the lights in your Fiat Bambino when a guy in a Bentley pulls up alongside, winds down the window and tells you your car is crap because it doesn’t have multi point fuel injection. As the lights change and he roars off, you’re left wondering how it is some people know so much and get so little.
 Scattered throughout the collection are snapshots of the landscape with a particular quality that Adams would have dismissed without a second glance. It isn’t that they are pretty pictures; some of them are that but what makes them work may not be what the photographer was hoping for. In their minimalist aesthetic they are all about space and light, the two qualities Adams believed were sacred to landscape photography, and the most elusive. 

 One of the general assumptions about landscape photography is that everything in a professional’s image is there by intention, while in an amateur’s it only may be. Professionals don’t make happy accidents. Here’s a snapshot taken in Canada, which has more than 31 000 lakes, so forget about exactly where. We can see why the photographer might have taken this; the scene has a still, quiet atmosphere, but we cannot be absolutely sure that he or she met the intentions. On the one hand it is a non-image; it looks like a random shot. On the other, the placement of the figures, especially to the left, is almost perfect. The image has harmony and balance. 

 Another from the school of less is more. Without the car the photo would be boring. If the car had been framed properly, it would be too perfect. In the middle foreground, and too small to be seen without zooming in, is another car crossing the open ground. Just above the main car, also only obvious by zooming in, is a barn or stable. A fence runs alongside the trees at the right foreground and some indeterminate object is emerging from them. How much of this the photographer was conscious of doesn’t matter. An apparently empty scene reveals a wealth of detail. 

 If you asked Ansel Adams what he thought of this photo, he may just deign to give an answer but it would be rude. If you asked Robert Adams, he might pause and contemplate what would have transpired had the photographer used a decent camera. Being a photographer who likes symmetry and the absence of it, he might approve of the way the three important elements, the power pole and the two kiosks, are framed, barely nudging the bottom of the image. The photo was taken at Port Noarlunga, a resort on the outskirts of Adelaide (Australia, if you need to know). At the time holiday towns like Noarlunga amounted to a scattering of fibro and asbestos shacks, a shop that sold fishing equipment and a milk bar. Not much else was needed. The kiosk on the left advertises Alaska and the one on the right Amscol, the two big rivals for South Australia’s ice cream market in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. More poignant to anyone old enough to remember is the sign for pies, pasties and cool drinks on the side of the Amscol kiosk. Some people lived through the summer on nothing else. 

 Big oil. Robert Adams almost certainly would approve of the ethereal, discarnate appearance of the rigs; Ansel Adams might too. There is nothing accidental here. The photographer was struck by the number of oil wells receding to the distance and that the only way to distinguish the water from the sky is the thin ribbon of land at the left. This was taken in North America in the 1950s or 60s, when oil was cheap, everyone was told it would be around for years and concerns about pollution were only mentioned in passing. To the photographer, this scene was not only visually beautiful, it represented American power. Today, a photographer like Richard Misrach would look at the scene from a similar vantage point but emphasize the sickly yellow taint of the water or the gathering rust on the rigs.


This photograph comes from the same set of Mississippi landscapes posted a few months earlier.  I said then that the photographer had the eye. This photo confirms that. The composition can’t be improved on. The barrier and the ground in front occupy precisely the space they ought to. The atmosphere with the heavy clouds moving in from the sea speaks of an uncomfortable but not oppressive humidity. Like some of the other photos here, ultimately what makes it work is its sense of quiet solitude. There could be a tiki bar full of raucous Americans in Hawaiian shirts and a car park lined with Cadillacs and Thunderbirds just behind the photographer, but you would never know it.

 Alaska in the summer is said to be wretched; stifling heat, and swarms of mosquitoes and black fly bring no relief from the long winters. What it does have going for it, apparently, is spectacular light. Filtered through the polar atmosphere, it possesses qualities found nowhere else. This actually befuddled early photographers. They wanted to record the brilliant sunrises and sunsets and all they got was a disreputable mess of blurred outlines and muddy tones. We can say our photographer understood how they felt. Technically, this is a failure, but so what? If our parameters for success include the rendering of the landscape into abstract patterns of tones, this qualifies. 

 Funny how some critics have to defend accusations that Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes are boring by admitting first off that they are, only to contradict themselves and insist that they are not. By any intelligent person’s judgement the works are boring or they are not. Vacillating is a sure sign said critic is in the wrong job. This writer has seen a few in real life and thought they were mostly beautiful, but there are many beautiful photos out there. He prefers this photo to any of them. The problem with the Sugimoto seascapes is that they are contrived to the degree you sense he looks out upon the sea and feels, well, nothing much, beyond a calculated understanding of how to render the scene in ways that appear delicate and fragile. With this photo on the other hand, we have the feeling our photographer was genuinely moved. In the process he or she took a photograph that is banal yet visually compelling.

  How many of us have stood at the sea’s edge at sunset and wished for a camera? There are approximately 7 billion people on the planet. If we say (a random guess) that a quarter live by the coast, that roughly a tenth of them have access to a camera or some kind of recording device, then we are still talking millions. Somebody with more time on their hands could work out a more precise figure, but we get the picture, right? This snapshot was taken in Turkey in 1933. Historically, Alfred Stieglitz took the last of his cloud studies known as the Equivalents series just two years earlier. What would he have thought of this one; that he had wished he had taken it himself? It is old and a bit knocked about but the clouds have a muscular power.

 Another Turkish snapshot, and one that reconciles everything this post has been about. It was taken from a moving vehicle, (car, bus or train) and again it is a technical failure, again it transmits something that may have fallen short of the photographer’s intention yet holds our eye. I am reminded in a way of the vast abstract paintings that hang in commercial offices. The streak off light at the left (it could be the galvanized tin roof of a building) is not meant to be there, but only a painter with an eye on the market would think of putting it there. At first glance we see shapes, at second they begin to form into vaguely recognizable objects. Like all the photographs here, what’s interesting about it lies in that space between what the photographer saw and what he or she wanted to say.