Photographs Found in Books: After The Edwardians

early 20th century britain 01

Bookseller Steerforth handles a great many old books in his line of work. Often he’ll find old photos amongst the piles of mildewed tomes, snapshots of lost worlds and forgotten lives. Continuing the series in which he shares some of the more interesting, surprising and moving discoveries, he finds a vivid portrait of a post-Edwardian family…

One day another photograph album appeared in the office. Almost as if it was continuing a narrative, the photos began in the Edwardian age, where this post ended.

The people featured in these images are more solidly middle class, but their story is no different to that family. Born in the Victorian age, they grew up in the cosy complacency of the fin de siècle, unaware of the catastrophe that was about to change their world.

In these photographs, it is the women’s fashions that are the most telling indicator of social change. The contrast between the impractical, ‘feminine’ outfits of the Edwardian era and the more austere, utilitarian clothing of the 1920s is striking. It’s as if 50 years have passed rather then ten.

When my father died I inherited a lot of papers, including an unfinished family history project. I probably won’t complete it, as my family isn’t terribly interesting (even to me), but I did gain an important insight into the impact the First World War had on my ancestors. Reading between the lines, it was quite clear that my grandmother had had a nervous breakdown after her older brother went ‘missing’ after the Battle of Loos. It was never acknowledged as a breakdown, but she was unable to work for six years.

Much has been written about ‘shell shock’ but what was the psychological impact on a generation of women who lost brothers, fathers, husbands, sweethearts and friends? (I think it’s time to read ‘Testament of Youth’)

In the meantime, here are the photos:

early 20th century britain 02

This woman features in many of the pictures. I like her intelligent, enquiring face and clear eyes. She looks like someone who would have been worth meeting. I wonder if our lives overlapped?

Here she is as a teenager:

early 20th century britain 03

This is a wonderful picture of three generations and I felt that it deserved to be enlarged:

early 20th century britain 04

I know exactly how the girl feels, but I now also empathise with the father. I like the way the grandmother is ignoring the photographer and continuing to write her letter.

early 20th century britain 05

If I had a time machine, I’d type in the coordinates of this scene and join them. I particularly like the straw hamper and boater.

early 20th century britain 06

early 20th century britain 07

early 20th century britain 08

This gentleman seems remarkably sanguine, given that he’s sitting directly underneath a raw sewerage outflow pipe.

early 20th century britain 09

This Wild West picture was turned into a postcard. On the back, it mentions a photographic studio in Clapham. As usual there are few names, dates or places in the actual album (I never discovered the name of the woman), but I found one reference to a street in Raynes Park. By a strange coincidence, their family home was in the same road as my father-in-law’s house.

early 20th century britain 10

This photo reveals the gulf between the older and younger generations. I wonder, which of these men returned from the Front?

early 20th century britain 11

This man is named in the album as Harold Duncan-Teape. A quick Google search reveals that he was a major in the 4th battalion of the London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers during the First World War. According to another reference, from the Illustrated London News, Duncan Teape died in Croydon on October 23rd, 1929.

early 20th century britain 12

The fashions are clearly different in this photo – less florid and more practical, striking a stark contrast with the clothes of the previous decade.

early 20th century britain 13

early 20th century britain 14

early 20th century britain 15

I have no idea what this occasion is – the first Rembrance Day, perhaps?

early 20th century britain 16 19

early 20th century britain 16

early 20th century britain 17

early 20th century britain 18

‘Uncle Jim’

early 20th century britain 20

This isn’t a young David Cameron. Apparently he’s called Ian. The young woman’s name isn’t mentioned, but I expect she’s called Pam.

early 20th century britain 21

Here’s Ian again, enjoying the nautical life. It looks like a cruise ship, but I suppose it could be Bournemouth Pier.

early 20th century britain 22

We like to complain about the sexualisation of children these days, pressurised by the media into growing up too soon, but what about these girls, forced to dress up as ‘flappers’? I’m sure they’d rather be riding ponies and solving mysteries.

early 20th century britain 23

By now, the stuffy world of the Edwardians has vanished and no-one stands still long enough to remain in focus. And isn’t that Ian in the background, enjoying it all?

I don’t want to over-egg the ‘World War One as an agent of social change’ pudding – Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published in 1909 and the evidence suggests that the First World War was a sympton rather than the cause. But if the status quo had remained, would Western society have undergone the huge seismic shift that took place in the 1920s?

The album ends in the late 1940s. The woman with the beautiful eyes lost her looks and became overweight, Uncle Jim disappeared into the ether and the group photographs suggest that the Victorians were no longer around either. But there are lots of photos of children playing and laughing, breathing new life into the sleepy suburb of SW20.

Photographs Found in Books: The Edwardians

edwardian 1

Bookseller Steerforth handles a great many old books in his line of work. Often he’ll find old photos amongst the piles of mildewed tomes, snapshots of lost worlds and forgotten lives. In this new series he shares some of the more interesting, surprising and moving discoveries, beginning with an album of Edwardians…

One day, hidden in a box of spore-infested reprints of Dickens novels, we found a small album of photographs from the Edwardian era. The photos were in poor condition: badly faded, scratched and covered in marks, but I hoped that I might be able to retrieve some of the ghost-like images from oblivion with the help of Photoshop.

I was pleased with the result. Above is the original image, and here’s the restored version:

edwardian 2

None of the photos were accompanied by any names, places or dates, but I’m pretty sure that I can place them within the Edwardian era rather than the Victorian.

Here’s the evidence :

edwardian 3

edwardian 4

It’s not conclusive, but from the brief amount of research I’ve put into this post (i.e. 10 minutes), the vehicles make it unlikely that these pictures were taken before 1901.

The following photos have a beguiling innocence about them that belie the dark social and political uncurrents of the times. As has been mentioned before, there’s something terribly poignant about the image of a smiling Edwardian boy, unaware of what’s in store for his generation in a few years time.

edwardian 5

edwardian 6

edwardian 7

edwardian 8

edwardian 9

edwardian 10

edwardian 11

edwardian 12

edwardian 13

edwardian 14

(Note the telephone line and gasworks in the background)

edwardian 15

(The original image was so badly faded, I almost threw it away. I’m glad that I didn’t)

edwardian 16

edwardian 17

edwardian 18

I love this image, with the bare trees and the woman’s reflection in the water. Here is a close-up:

edwardian 19

It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to rescue these images and give them a whole new lease of life on the internet. They may just be family snapshots, but they give a tantalising glimpse into a world that, superficially, seemed at ease with itself, but was actually about to change beyond all recognition.

Within a mere 20 years, the smiling young boy in the fourth photo would be living (if he survived the trenches) in the age of Freud, Vorticism, Webern, Freud, Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses and jazz.

Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.

A Way Of Seeing

vivian-maier

Mahlerman combines sublime music with the work of great female photographers…

Around the middle of the 19th Century, Robert Schumann’s wife Clara, a brilliant pianist and sometime composer, gave up writing music because ‘no woman has been able to do it’, which, broadly speaking was true, and has remained so to this day. This misogynic view of women stemmed from the notion that they were (and are) commanded and controlled by their emotions and were thus incapable of abstract, objective thinking – and as painting, composing music and poetry, philosophy, and even the higher reaches of science require a certain objectivity, does this not go some way to explaining why almost all the great masters in these disciplines have been men?

However, an art-form where men have dominated, though not by any means completely, is the art of capturing light upon a sensitive surface (or nowadays an optical sensor). It is called photography and, over the span of the last one hundred years women have made an indelible impression, often post mortem.

The extraordinary life and work of Vivian Dorothea Maier [above] only began to emerge as she lay dying, unknown, following a fall, in a nursing-home outside Chicago in 2009. Little is known of the early life of this working-class American woman, save the fact that she spent much of her childhood in France, before working as a nanny for almost 40 years in Chicago, taking hundreds and later hundreds of thousands of photographs on her days off. This trove was auctioned in 2007 when Maier fell into penury and was unable to pay the modest storage charges to house the vast collection. The bulk of it was acquired by a Chicago property speculator and collector John Maloof, who quickly realised the artistic value of his purchase and set about first trying to find out who had created this mountain of mostly black & white images, and then making some sort of order from the jumbled chaos. This took several years, and was the inspiration for the film on Maier’s life ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ that followed in 2013. I watched the movie in stunned silence the other day, and what struck me most forcibly was the way that this modest woman, armed with just a Rolleiflex (ideal for sneaky shots) was able to capture the quiet essence of her subjects when, seemingly, standing right next to them. Was it a sort-of magic?

The music is the opening Prelude from the suite taken from the film music for Alfred Hitchcock’s creepy film Vertigo, composed by the brilliant New Yorker of Russian extraction, Bernard Herrmann. The now-famous falling two-note motif cleverly imitates the two fog-horns located at each side of the Golden Gate Bridge, forming an integral part of the labyrinthine story.

Another Dorothea, born in the 19th Century and therefore well placed to record the poverty of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, was Dorothea Lange. Her first marriage to the painter Maynard Dixon produced two sons, but after fifteen years she divorced Dixon and hit her stride after a second union, with the economist Paul Schuster Taylor, the pair setting out to record the desperate plight of the homeless and unemployed heading toward California in the hope of a better life. Her extraordinary picture of Florence Owens Thompson, ‘Migrant Mother’ is one of six exposures taken when Lange stumbled upon the family in Nipomo Mesa. The blend of dignity and stoicism on the 33 year old face of this American/Cherokee woman (looking, perhaps, 20 years older than she was), makes words seem rather trite. She died, aged 80, in 1983.

The gentle musical number is by the South Carolinan Samuel Beam, who trades under the name Iron & Wine.

In 1945 the landscape pioneer Ansel Adams invited Dorothea Lange and Imogen Cunningham, to become faculty members of the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Lange was just 50, but Cunningham was in her early 60’s, and a revered master in the fields of portraiture, nudes (often of friends) and, principally, a series of amazing studies of plant-forms. Her detailed scrutiny of Magnolias and Calla Lilies began in the early 1920’s and quickly made her name around the world. They are usually formalised as Silver Gelatin or Platinum/Palladium Prints, as in the short video.

These breathtaking images are perfectly partnered here by the intense beauty of In Pace in idipsum (In Peace Itself I Will Sleep), a motet by the 17th Century French master Guillaume Bouzignac, a predecessor of Charpentier and Lully, and a contemporary to Descartes. Music to stop the clocks, I feel.

Dabbler Showcase – Andrew G Fisher

Dabbler Showcase is a new feature aiming to promote contemporary visual art. Our first featured artist is the Liverpool-based photographer Andrew G Fisher…

Bleak, ghostly British seaside resorts feature fairly regularly on The Dabbler, they’re our sort of places. Canadian commenter extraordinaire Peter Burnet once remarked:

Over here, we love beaches, but we know what they are for–getting fried, parties, playing with children, hitting on babes, etc. Our dissenters may look wistful, but they are very functional too–they like to look for whales while contemplating how America is destroying the planet. But it is never clear to me why you go to them or what you get out of them. You seem addicted to extra sweaters, turbulent skies, cold seaspray and prepared sandwiches.

Well, perhaps this project entitled Beside the Seaside – featuring images from South Shields, Llandudno, Redcar, Rhyl and Morecombe – helps to answer Peter’s question.

Andrew says of his art: “Photographs freeze moments in time…In capturing these moments, the concept of how time moves and changes people and places can be recognised and explored. Each of my projects seeks to identify the relationship between time, place and people.”

You can view the rest of photographs in Andrew G Fisher’s Beside the Seaside collection, as well as other excellent works and more information about the artist at www.andrewgfisher.com.

If you would like to suggest an artist, perhaps even yourself, for the Dabbler Showcase feature, email appropriate links and info to editorial@thedabbler.co.uk

Creepy and Freaky: Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island emerged from a bank of fog and I suddenly realized why it’s known as The Rock. Stories of ancient curses, military fortresses and its designation as a National Park are not why visitors flock by the ferry-load to this tourist attraction in the Bay of San Francisco. The reputation of the former Federal Penitentiary as one of America’s most notorious prisons from 1934-1963 is what attracts more than 1.3 million people to this curiously fascinating relic each year.

Once on the island and in the thrall of a personal audio-guide, I was transported far away from the queuing tracksuits and baseball caps by a soundtrack narrated by former inmates and guards. Despite legions of tramping trainers, an eerie emptiness pervades the corridors. I kept looking over my shoulder, but no one was there.

The peeling walls harbour a stronghold of iron bars and bedsteads: Cell upon cell of three storey incarceration. On one side of the main prison building sunlight floods in, though the likes of Al Capone and Robert Stroud (aka The Birdman of Alcatraz) would have been lucky to catch glimpses of the outside world from the tiny slits that masquerade as windows. Alcatraz housed over 1500 of the USA’s most troublesome citizens – those whom other prisons wanted done with. People like Alvin ‘Creepy Karpis’ Karpavicz, who spent more time on Alcatraz than any other inmate, from August 1936 until April 1962.

Apart from the regulation bed, bog and prison rulebook, the caged inhabitants had limited space for personal items – though some crocheted their own blankets, painted or wrote poetry.  A sparsely furnished library of around 15,000 volumes (mainly philosophy, fiction and educational books) and concrete exercise yard were seen as sufficient reward for well-behaved inmates. Rehabilitation was unheard of – this was all about punishment.  Isolation in D Block – ‘the treatment unit’ – was reserved for unusually dangerous or violent inmates. Men were confined to their cells for 24 hours a day for up to several years, depending upon the offence.  The six closed-front cells were used for the most severe disciplinary problems. Treatment in ‘the Hole’ sometimes included total darkness and a restricted diet.  This usually lasted for several days, but never more than 19.

Attempts to break free from confinement (as seen in films) are largely fictitious.  The few who managed to escape their cells were either shot by guards, or in the case of five infamous prisoners, presumed drowned…  This being the subject of Escape from Alcatraz, where the prisoners in question chipped their way through cell walls and escaped up a service shaft onto the roof, never to be seen again.

The guards’ and prison warden’s offices had views over the bay to San Francisco, as well as fridges full of Coca Cola. There’s a tiny window, through which visitors could see a convict – and a hole (perhaps illegal?) which looks just about big enough for rubbing noses. The glass is cracked.  Kitchen knives were housed in a way that made it obvious if one were missing  – and tear gas canisters were mounted on the canteen ceiling, though these remained unused until their removal upon the prison’s closure in 1963.

A disturbing vision of life for disturbed people is immortalized on this small island – through buildings, bullet holes, blood stains and the strange sensation of simply being there.

Vintage Jubilee Style at the Chelsea Flower Show

The temperature in London rose dramatically on Tuesday, and not simply because the Chelsea Flower Show was such a hot ticket. Walking through the teeming crowds became quite an ordeal in the heat. Despite the ongoing hosepipe ban, nannying announcements were made regularly over the tannoy to remind visitors to keep hydrated. I took the advice given and stopped for a long break at the Laurent Perrier champagne lounge…

Here are some photographs of quirky British style at the show – unsurprisingly in great abundance for the Diamond Jubilee year.

Dead Sea Dreams

 

An old photograph leads Worm to go poking around an old scrapyard in search of the possible inspiration for a twentieth century masterpiece…

Last week I happened upon this photograph of WW2 Blitz wreckage (click on it to enlarge – it’s from this terrific set of photos), and immediately wondered if this was in fact a ‘real life’ picture of the aircraft dump that inspired Paul Nash’sTotes Meer’. Unfortunately I couldn’t find out the location of the dump in the photo, but it did sufficiently stir my interest to seek out some more information on one of one of the most famous British artworks of the Second World War.

In 1940, soon before the start of the Battle of Britain, Nash had found himself employed as an official artist of the RAF. Totes Meer has its origins in a set of photographs taken by Nash at the Metal and Produce Recovery Unit at Cowley, near Oxford. Cowley was the site of the Morris car factory, where wrecked aircraft of all nationalities were recycled into aluminium alloy and other scarce materials to be hastily rebuilt into more planes. In reality the Cowley Aircraft dump contained as many British planes as German ones, but it is the German ones Nash has chosen to represent in his picture, as well as bestowing upon it a conspicuously German title.

On 11 March 1941 Nash wrote to the Chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, Kenneth Clark, describing the nightmare vision of the aircraft dump that had come upon him as he wandered around taking pictures:

‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel – under certain influences – a moonlight night for instance – this is a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage. It is hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores. By moonlight, this waning moon, one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. A sort of rigor mortis? No, they are quite dead and still. The only moving creature is the white owl flying low over the bodies of the other predatory creatures, raking the shadows for rats and voles.’

 

Paul Nash ‘Totes Meer‘ 1940

In Totes Meer the detritus of Nazi hubris smothers the gentle moonlit landscape, setting the global conflict against a dark and surreal English pastoral. The twisted wreckage of Totes Meer has come to represent an easy visual analogy of the pointless waste of mankind’s wars – and is the kind of ‘simple message’ picture that history teachers love to wheel out at every available opportunity – much like Nash’s other famous war painting ‘We Are Making a New World’… However, the intended meaning behind this picture is not as simple as history teachers would have us believe.

Inwardly, the cynical pacifism displayed in his First World War paintings had changed – for Nash, his WW2 art had a strongly defined aim – the defeat of Nazism itself. “I want to use what art I have and what I can make as directly as possible into the character of a weapon”, he wrote. As an official war artist, Nash produced first a collection of paintings depicting British aircraft as glorious aerial sprites, followed by a series showing mangled German planes smashed like bugs. Intending Totes Meer as a piece of propaganda showing the Luftwaffe’s total destruction against the immovable wall of Britain’s military might, it is ironic that Nash’s efforts to produce a patriotic painting to spur-on weary Britain seems to instead inspire in us an oppressive feeling of shame at our rapacious industrialised ugliness.

 

The Art of People Watching

Some people pose naturally. Others go out of their way to pose for certain reasons – to make money, for fame, for art, to be noticed for a cause. On the Continent, the poseurs’ evening stroll along the main street, or promenade, is something of a national sport. Then there is voyeurism. The art of being watched.

Reality TV has people fighting and fornicating before our eyes… and George Galloway on all fours, slurping milk in a feline frenzy from the floor. As I watched the Sinking of the Concordia: Caught on Camera on Channel 4 earlier in the week, I couldn’t help thinking how fortunate it was that the brave souls on the sinking Titanic weren’t being filmed.


Although we live in a surveillance society, we wouldn’t want to discover that someone was taking our photograph without us knowing. Or would we? As we go about our daily business, how many of us are being monitored, spied upon, or recorded on camera? Perhaps by Estonian artist Marko Maetamm, like these shots taken for his Postcards from Paris series. Each has a caption, added by the artist (click on the image twice to read).


And here are some photographs I took a few weeks ago. What do they say about people? What do they say about me? And what are these people saying?

Fox Talbot’s Dream Square

Bryan ponders a ‘troubling dream’ of a photograph…

This is William Henry Fox Talbot’s Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, April 1844.  It is a photograph that has haunted me for some time.

The Met’s commentary says it ‘marks the beginning of a new, photographic way of seeing’ which, I think, is right. The composition is strange and unbalanced,  containing St Martin-in-the-Fields, the raffish Morley’s Hotel and the column itself, startlingly cropped, in an uneasy spatial relationship. This is not just about getting everything in because, if that had been the intention, then the top of the column would have been included.

Perhaps, as the Met people say, it’s about ‘a fascinating intersection of the religious and secular, the historic and present-day’. But that sounds just too curatorish and falls far short of the eerie feeling I get from the picture. This, I now think, springs from the fact that the square is deserted, a fact made more poignant by the billboards which nobody is reading.

This could be a post-apocalyptic vision in which the scaffolding signals not work but abandonment. And that, combined with the soft, misty effects produced by Fox Talbot’s camera and paper, turns the whole thing into a troubling dream, if not a full blooded nightmare. Or, I suppose, it is just very early in the morning and the city is still sleeping. It remains a dream, but a more benign one.

Either way, it’s a great photograph, a moment of discovery, beyond which, almost 170 years later, few snappers have progressed.

Bryan’s latest book is The Brain is Wider than the Sky. You can read Brit’s Q&A with Bryan here and his review of the book on Bryan’s website, where this post originally appeared.

I am a Camera

This week Mahlerman turns his attention to the visual arts – the work of great photographers accompanied, as you’d expect, by some remarkable music…

Although all Dabblers dabble under the banner of Culture, an almost complete absence of it here in costal Spain invited me to consider what Culture actually is. As our strap line hints, is it everything? Or is it, as I had high-mindedly imagined, much closer to one of the many dictionary definitions that try to grasp this ball of mercury – ‘excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities’?

It was the death of the great American photographer Eve Arnold a few days ago, just a few months short of her century of years, that set me thinking about the broader brush strokes of our culture which, after all, only exist in each of our minds. And if I could move on, and suggest that the photographic image is as much a part of our culture as Madonna’s conical bra, then I would further suggest that here at Dabbler HQ we have sold this art form rather short. Today, a small corrective.

The Poet of Prague and The Poet of the Piano in six minutes. The great Czech photographer Josef Sudek was a shy, retiring soul with an iron artistic will. The loss of an arm in the First World War would have finished lesser men, in an age when cameras did not fit into the palm of the hand but had to be dragged around. And if photography 80 years ago was about the play of light upon light-sensitive paper, then this little magician was surely the master of it, his night-scapes and impressionistic studies of his beloved Bohemian woodland bring to mind Cezanne, another post impressionist. The almost orchestral Nocturne No 13 in C minor by Chopin is played with extraordinary feeling, not by the great Pole Arthur Rubinstein as I had thought, but by Daniel Barenboim, as near to a musical genius as makes no difference.

From a musical Pole to a modern Polish master of light Andrzej Dragan, still in his early 30’s and happy to travel and work with one camera and one lens. Currently teaching quantum physics as a professor at Warsaw University, he brings a startling intensity to his portraits, and gives the lie to the notion that you need a bag full of kit to produce memorable images. The Adagio in C minor is by the virtually unknown Venetian polymath Alessandro Marcello.

Starting with a simple Kodak Brownie Box Camera, the great American pioneer and environmentalist Ansel Adams brought a musician’s sensitivity, and discipline, to a photographic career that endured into his eighties. Working mostly ‘out-doors’, and usually with Continue reading