Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Photography (3)

The credits for this book cover include a picture library and then someone else for ‘photo colorizing’.

Here’s a colourised postcard I bought (50p) in a market last week:

Just as the range of colour in painting was for centuries limited to the particular pigments available to artists, so also colour in photography and film was determined by the available technologies. The birth of photography is generally dated to 1839, when the daguerreotype process was introduced; colour photography wasn’t commercially introduced until 1907 (the Autochrome process, developed by the Lumière brothers); Photochrom, a printing process developed by a Swiss inventor in the 1880s and then commercially licensed, allowed the mass-production of many millions of colourised postcards in the early 1900s; but colour wasn’t generally available to amateur photographers until the mid-20th century. Colour was largely ignored by fine-art photographers (but not commercial ones: fashion, advertising) until the 1970s; it took until William Eggleston and Saul Leiter (both of whose photos are now often used on book covers) and certain others arrived.

The charm of early colour photographs and colourised postcards has to do with the lack of glare and oppressive shadows and the softness of the colours. Ian Jeffrey (in Photography: A Concise History; 1981, but still a lovely book) notes that the Autochrome process allowed Lartigue ‘to make photographs of great serenity. This seems to have been the strength of colour and also its flaw. Polychrome worlds are both radiant and genial. They easily imply atmosphere and suggest ready access to the place and its weather.’ Feeding on this – life used to be more simple, surely – are nostalgia and its seductions, which include the temptation to believe that the ways in which a past era represented itself to itself, ways determined by the available technology, actually showed how it was.

The past is a different country, but chiefly in its mindsets; its sunlight was no less bright, its skies no less blue and its fire engines and blood no less red than they are now. To reproduce the look of early colour photography – a look achieved by technology now redundant, a look that sways into fashion – involves effortful reconstruction (and in film the use of filters, I guess, after watching a 2008 film last night that is set in the 1920s and had its colour tones very managed), but is frequently used as a form of shorthand – because of its seductions, and because of claims to something that gets called authenticity. A colourised photograph on a book cover indicates that the book is set in the early 20th century. A book about the First World War will have a black-and-white or a colourised photograph, as above (unless there has been a recent film of the book, in which case there may be a still from the film, itself colour-manipulated). (Sepia and similar – those effects you can get at a click on the cheapest photo-editing programs – are used for the same purpose; the cover of a 2007 Penguin edition of Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party has a sepia photograph and a brownish-yellow sticker: ‘The book that inspired Downton Abbey’.) In fact, the subject matter of colourised photographs is shown not as the people of the time saw it but more as the cats, dogs and rabbits saw it (the picture below is from a website explaining colour to children). Our visual understanding of the past is cat-eyed.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Photography (2)

Henri Le Secq (1818–82) doesn’t feature in concise histories of photography because he wasn’t a game-changing artist. Possibly his best-known photograph is that of men (and one woman?) in a public baths in Paris:

It is monumental, informal, theatrical, narrative, and plays on binaries (light, no light; dress, undress; above, below; stillness, movement). This is not ‘typical’ Le Secq; he very rarely includes human figures. It’s a wonderful photograph, but it’s not the one that haunts me.

Le Secq was one of five photographers commissioned (by Prosper Mérimée) to compile a documentary record of French architecture; Le Secq covered the north and east. His churches and ecclesiastical statuary are dull (rightly so; it wasn’t part of his commission to be anything more). His bridges hold me for longer, the water beneath them as solid as the stone of the arches. Also dutiful, but to today’s eye moving out from the mere documentary, are his photographs of Paris buildings in the process of demolition in the early 1850s, making way for expansion and modernisation: their ruination – exposed chimneys, gaps, piles of rubble – appears as a form of deliberate architecture, the buildings and their destruction in complete harmony.

He moves out of the city. This:

Three massive waves tumbling forward: the bleak escarpments of quarries on the north-eastern outskirts of Paris; the buildings of the city are relegated to the upper left corner, in a dusty haze. This unregulated edge-land, neither urban nor rural, turns up often in literature and films, and maybe dreams too. Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film Taste of Cherry follows a man driving around all day in a very similar landscape (outside Tehran), asking people to bury him. He’s going to take a stack of pills and lie down in a hole beside a tree, and he needs someone to come at dawn and call his name and fill in the hole if he doesn’t reply. He is offering good money for just twenty spadefuls of earth, but the labourer threatens to smash his face in. The soldier runs away. The theology student listens but is bound to refuse. The Turkish man who works as a taxidermist agrees, but not before he has told the story of how he once climbed a tree with a rope to hang himself but the mulberries were in season and they tasted delicious.

For several centuries on the site photographed by Le Secq there was a gibbet on which the bodies of executed criminals were placed on public view. After 1760 the site became a dump for refuse and sewage, and a place for butchering horses. Limestone and gypsum from the quarries were exported to America. In the 1860s, after the 19th arrondissement was annexed to Paris, the area was transformed (gentrified) into a public park with terraces, a lake and a mock-Roman temple. Then they started making postcards.

Le Secq moved out further. Photographing trees, he’s interested in tangles and knots and limbs at odd angles; and just as he was drawn to buildings in the process of demolition, so too in his studies of terrain he looked to muddle and obstruction, disarray, things coming loose. This – below – is the one that haunts me. Below a cropped-off row of spindly trees, the champ des Cosaques in the forest of Montmirail has suffered flooding or subsidence: beneath a gash in its smooth, taut surface, the land has excavated itself, exposing a jumble of roots, soil and stone. I think this is what memory is: a hollowing out, a collapse. It’s not pretty.

Photography (1)

This is the first of three, maybe more, very different posts about old photographs. And memory. (All writers call in here at some point, I know; I have nothing original to add; but I’ve been doing a lot of gazing.)

First, one of those tucked-away little exhibitions in London of the sort that one stumbles into by accident: Usakos – Photographs beyond Ruins: The Old Location Albums 1920s to 1960s, in the basement of the Brunei Gallery at SOAS. Until 23 September.

Usakos is a small town in Namibia. According to Wikipedia, ‘Europeans’ (unspecified) bought the land around 1900, resold it to a railway company, and it is now ‘just a drive-through’, ‘riddled with poverty and alcohol abuse’. Ah, Wiki.

People live there. Among them, four particular women who collected things, those things including photographs taken (often by itinerant photographers) of parties, weddings, games, new babies. It was a thing that women did: keep, not throw away. Because the record was worth preserving, and handing down.

The other people who kept a record were the administrators of the apartheid regime of South Africa, who in the early 1960s decided that the blacks were living too close to the whites, so bulldozed the ‘old location’ and rehoused those who lived there in a basic, soulless new township in a separate location. The show at the Brunei gallery, chiefly drawn from the women’s collections, also includes the typewritten lists of the 700+ names of those who were compulsorily rehoused.

This is not a photography exhibition in the fine-art sense. The photographs are enlarged from their original size and I doubt the quality of their reproduction would win any prizes. That is not, of course, the point.

(Upstairs at the Brunei Gallery, running at the same time as the Usakos exhibition, are photographs of the extraordinary indigenous architecture of Yemen, a heritage that is currently being bombed to dust.)

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fergus Allen, 1921–2017

Fergus Allen – CBe's most senior author – died on 22 July, aged 95. His funeral was today.

‘To Be Read Before Being Born’:

No time is allowed for practice or rehearsal.
There are no retakes and there isn’t a prompter.
There’s only moving water, dimpled by turbulence –
And no clambering out on to the bank
To think things over, as there is no bank.

Fergus Allen: born 1921; father Irish, mother English; of a generation that largely subscribed to the view that the primary responsibility of a man, if that man chose to have family, was to work for the security and future of that family. (I may be assuming things here; but even if I am, I don’t think it’s a bad view.) He worked as a civil engineer, and when he retired from employment he was a first civil service commissioner; I too have difficulty in knowing from job titles what people actually do, but google it and you’ll find that no one gets to this job without a track record of long experience and deep integrity.

A perennial reader of others, he waited until his retirement to give his own writing the time and attention that it required. Fergus published his first poetry collection at the age of 72 with Faber; two more Faber collections followed before he was made, as he put it, to ‘walk the plank’; his next collection was published by Dedalus in Ireland, and then, from CBe, Before Troy (2010) and New & Selected Poems (2013). The latter has a foreword by Christopher Reid, who took on Fergus at Faber:

“… each new poem, each succeeding book, a fresh adventure. The vocabulary and diction have uncommon breadth, from the elaborately mandarin to the colloquial and slangy, and the range of voices extends from what we may – sometimes riskily – assume is the poet’s own voice to those of surprising personae.”

He liked Auden. He wasn’t far off being a contemporary of Auden. He spoke on Auden at the 2011 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and read his own poems (photo above) and was interviewed: they worked you hard at Aldeburgh, even if you were their first 90-year-old poet. In 2013 he read from his New & Selected to a packed audience in a café/bar in Brighton. Among others, he read the poem that begins ‘Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke’, and he read the early poem that retells the Fall as the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Guinness brewery in Dublin.

He was a poet acutely aware of pleasure and menace and mystery; a bracing tone, yes, but he laughed easily and well. Why is he not more widely known? Perhaps in part because he didn’t make a career out of literature; and when he did get noticed, there was too much attention to his age at the expense of the sheer excellence of the poetry.

Properly, 'Fergus Allen, CB, FRSL'. Establishment? He came to London for a lunch to celebrate his New & Selected; after the lunch, he and Joan, his wife, both in their nineties, scoffed at the idea of getting a taxi to the train station and insisted on getting the Tube.

Recordings of Fergus reading his poems are at the Poetry Archive.