29th July 2014
Read the first part of Chapter 3, ‘Sweet it is to scan…’ by Patricia Holland, in ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’ (pp.117–52), subtitled ‘Personal Photographs and Popular Photography.
How do the aesthetics of some of the early portraits in this chapter differ from today’s digital colour prints? What, if anything, can you take from this early work into your own practice?
With the introduction of the Kodak ‘Box Brownie’ photography became the province of all those with even modest means although, contrary to the assertion in the text, I doubt very much that it encompassed the working class who toiled on the coal-face or shop-floor simply because even the ‘modest’ cost of such an item would not be recognised as a necessity on the low family incomes of the time. More likely the ‘working class’ meant those who had white-collar occupations and as a result somewhat better paid employment and resulting higher disposable incomes. Personal images of the other working classes that survive from that era are more likely to have been produced by itinerant photographers who visited the working class areas with the sole intention of attracting business which they would probably allow their customers to pay for over a period of time. It would be difficult for mothers at home, with much larger families than we experience today, to stop the children, who invariably played outside, unsupervised, in the street, from becoming the unwitting targets of these photographers and then, not wanting to declare their poverty due to their innate pride, they would have the resultant image for their mantelshelf. The surviving images of Edward and May Bond indicate that this practice was familiar as one shows them in their street dress, made by the itinerant photographer, and the other in their ‘Sunday Best’, made in the photographic studio, (Liz Wells, 2009, p. 140-141), although this family must have been slightly more affluent than the norm as they have two images from roughly the same point in time. This practice continued into the second half of the 20th century, as I well remember from my childhood.
The Kodak sales drive extolled the ease with which these new cameras could be operated. Targeting women especially from the belief of those times that the female had problems with anything too technical, the ‘Box Brownie’ became a part of the domestic scene. The fact that no training in the art of photography was deemed necessary did a great disservice to the public as the resultant images show. It can’t be overstated how many rolls of film must have been wasted with images that didn’t result in something worth keeping as a memory of the time and the learning curve for those willing to continue must have been very steep. From personal memory of our family owning such a camera in the 1950’s and 1960’s, film wasn’t something to be wasted on the irrelevant, and as a result a film could languish for a very long time inside the camera waiting those special moments before the finished film went for the relatively expensive process of development and printing.
This lack of practice virtually ensured that images had many heads cut-off or people from groups only half in frame, over and under exposure and full-length bodies too small to be recognised by anyone but the immediate family. Great for film and processing sales, but hardly conducive to continued and regular practice.
The subjects of this somewhat haphazard photography were generally close family and friends at various highpoints in the lives of the ordinary. Children were, and still are, a favourite subject and it’s easy to see the different attitudes toward children from male and female relatives of the period. Women tended to be shown in much closer proximity to their offspring than the male who, it would seem, had the opinion that children should not be brought up to their eye-level, or indeed for them to stoop to theirs, for the photograph. Women on the other hand were entirely the opposite and appeared to have no problem of sitting, standing or any other posture with children, a domestic relationship that was probably encouraged at that time and is now practised by both sexes.
It would appear that within the family circle the making of images actually showing enjoyment was frowned upon, although it’s also probable that the cameras and film weren’t capable of capturing movement accurately and so semi-formal pose was inevitable. It’s also probably very true that no mother would want to make images of her children as anything but looking their best, and so it seems that children of that period, unless photographed by one of the itinerant photographers, appear in the best clothes, clean and with their hair brushed or combed correctly, how different from their true selves and their street clothing and appearances.
Today, with digital technology, many, many images are made as and when the moment arises and no-one shuns the capture the child covered in chocolate, the drunken revels on a Friday and Saturday night or the so-called ‘selfie’. Casual now seems to be the byword for all genres of image making, including those from the professional studio, or at worst more relaxed than the early 20th century examples.
Whilst early 20th century images of the individual, made for the album, still seem to follow the stiff poses of the previous century, the group images of family life have a well-planned and aesthetic appeal that can be translated into an image of today. The formal image of teams and military groups unfortunately seem to still imitate their earlier counterparts where people are arranged in heights order and pose with their bodies all exactly the same and one supposes that this will not change for the foreseeable future. Although these images are found in those photograph albums that have survived the years, today not many people keep such things and the digital counterparts as printed material, preferring instead to save them on computers and electronic picture frames. This leaves us with the dilemma that future researchers and historians may have less readily available material to work with as how many of the stored images will be kept intact by the generations who follow the image makers?
The more relaxed and casual approach of modern images is a sign of the way society sees itself now, and the rigid adherence to social standards and class structures are something that is largely ignored, although still there in the background of any socio-political discussion. The fact is that image making today is of such proportions that the pendulum has swung to the opposite apogee, undertaken by nearly everyone in every society, that it has become normal to make images of things that are mundane and as a result of superb, instantaneous communications around the world our lives are flooded with the meaningless trivia of anyone who considers it important to show the world what they’re currently doing, seeing, participating in or plain just nothing of interest to anyone other than themselves.
The aesthetic of such images, when compared to the clumsy approach taken at the beginning of the 20th century, is manifestly much less, when one considers the numbers of images produced in one minute today worldwide has been estimated to be more than the entire number produced in the 19th century and therefore the sifting that needs to take place before one finds an image of sufficient merit to make it a worthwhile example of good photography is possibly beyond the attention span of everyone but the most ardent photographic student. It will be necessary for a more educated approach to be fostered to ensure that future generations are not convinced by the plethora of meaningless photographs that our generation wasted an opportunity to record the present accurately enough, with common sense and care for the aesthetic.
Liz Wells, M. H. P. H. M. L. D. P. A. R., 2009. Photography A critical Introduction. In: L. Wells, ed. Fourth ed. New York(New York): Routledge, pp. 140,141.