Mirror, Mirror

It is assumed that in our pre-history, man’s first means of observing a reflection was provided by small areas of naturally occurring still water, or perhaps water collected in crude, dark vessels. One can imagine the frustration when now and again early man tried to scoop the image from the pool.

A reflection, like the psyche, is fleeting, enigmatic and ephemeral, so it is unsurprising that people would infer these echoes of light might harbour the soul, and that their medium, the mirror, facilitated magic. Alice went through it; Dracula could not be seen in one; the Lady of Shalott could only witness the events of Camelot when looking in to one, before she looked out of the window.

The earliest manufactured mirrors were made of highly polished obsidian stone and volcanic glass, and were found in the Anatolia region of Turkey dating back to 6000 BC. Mirrors in myriad forms have been with us ever since. The modern mirror of glass backed by a thin layer of metallic silver was invented in 1835 by German chemist Justus von Liebig.

The first patented invention of photography would not have been possible without a mirror. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre patented the daguerreotype process in 1839. To make an image, Daguerre would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, which would then be sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine or halogen fumes. When posing in front of the Daguerre’s camera, although the sitter could perhaps not observe it, they were in fact looking directly into a mirror – ‘the mirror with the memory’. It struck me that a daguerreotype was exactly what the Wicked Queen in Snow White, written in 1812, was looking for – a mirror that was loyal to her youthful beauty. In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890, perhaps the magic mirror, in which the eponymous Dorian never grows old, was inspired by a daguerreotype.

A few years ago, I was travelling on a bus through the centre of London. There was a young woman sitting in the opposite row, about two seats down from me, putting on the finishing touches to her make-up. She was doing so by training the front facing lens of her smart phone on her face, and looking at her self ‘live’ on the screen. Her image was not being reflected but electronically re-rendered. The mirror, it seems, has crack’d.  

Nigel Shephard

Coin-op Diary

This set of photos comes from a collection that has been split up and sold as separate lots on Ebay. On the occasions I see this happening, I try to buy all the lots to keep the collection together. Sadly, this time it would have proved too expensive, but this small selection captures the atmosphere of the album well.

This is a peer-group album compiled by someone who was very enthusiastic about keeping photographic records. The woman who appears in all these images compiled the collection. She may have been a fashion designer, as there are a good many shots of women in newly tailored clothes, posing outside seaside boarding houses and the like. If she was not from Blackpool, it seems to have been her second home.

If one compares these 1960s photo-booth shots with those taken by their data-hungry 21st-century counterparts, these earlier images cast a flattering light on the scene and bring a little glamour to a weekend’s entertainment – the drapes hanging in the background invite comparisons with the stage. Judging by the differing tonality and light, these photos may have been taken in several different locations.

The eyeline and gaze in photo-booth group shots can be interesting. There is a higher degree of absorption when contemplating one’s reflection; on several occasions one companion can be seen looking at the other mirrored in the glass. The short three- or four-second gap between each shot can chivvy spontaneity out of the sitter, and catch them absent, off-guard or clowning about for the camera.

The vast majority of photo-booth shots are simply portraits of solitary, expressionless people taken for the prosaic purpose of identification. But shots like these are proofs of bonding – love of the gang and youthful romance inform much more our sentimental characterisation of the photo-booth adventure.

Such a shared memory is this – perhaps it’s a rite of passage.

Nigel Shephard

Over by Christmas…

This captivating album begins on the cusp of WWI and carries on through to its immediate aftermath. The first few pages show a wealthy family who seem to live in a carefree idyll of larks, picnics, sack races, apple ducking and go-carting. The photos of the family relaxing in the woods have the louche atmosphere of a French Impressionist painting. A consciously comic tableau shows two men holding two halves of a bicycle that has been sawn in half. There are three portraits – two of men in uniform, and the third, an interior shot of a middle-aged woman who looks dressed and steeled for a funeral. Unidentified bombed-out ruins, and the footprint of rebuilding, are also shown. In the wedding photographs, several of the women can be seen sporting bandeaux, increasingly part of the flapper uniform.

There are more than a dozen shots of the Peace Day Parade in London, held on 19 July 1919, the very first Remembrance Day. The temporary cenotaph made of plaster and wood, which was later replaced by a redesigned permanent structure in 1920, has been recorded. At the top of the photograph, the word ‘CENOTAPH’ is printed upside down. There are shots of military tanks, a bi-plane fly-by over Whitehall and a costumed women’s procession, all part of the pageantry of the day. Throngs of excited onlookers wave their fresh white pressed hankies at the motorcades, mounted cavalry, Allied troops and dignitaries parading past. On the same day, Luton town hall was burned down by rioters, many of them disgruntled ex-servicemen.

There is a photograph of four boys, dressed respectively in the military uniforms of Britain, France, Germany and America. Emerging from woods and thicket, they look like boy-soldiers who hadn’t been told the war was over.

Nigel Shephard

A British Family on the Rhine, Bunde 1964–1966 (part 2)

This second album starts again with confusing inscriptions. The first four photos are inscribed ‘Tidworth – March 1964’. All the images feature a multi-generational family gathering with a Christmas tree and decorations in the background. Tidworth is a garrison town on the eastern edge of Salisbury Plain.

By April, 1964, the family were back in Germany, now living in Bunde. On 13 May, 1965, their third daughter, Alison Teresa, was born. It struck me that Alison would now be 59 years old, younger than many of my friends and relatives. Why doesn’t she have these albums? Susan and Nicola are shown starting school at Tildonk, Ursuline Convent, on 1 September, 1965, spending half-term back at Tidworth.

With a growing family, the freedom and practicality of a touring caravan dragged along by a huge Volvo Wagon now suited the family’s needs. There are two pages of tourist postcards – a dozen or so photographs of picturesque German towns.

There are also 10 photos taken at an army training camp in Denmark, some showing soldiers peeling potatoes, a trope signifying punishment duty used in B-movie war films. There is one image featuring ‘”Baker” “The Accident Man”‘. A ceremony celebrating the Royal Army Service Corp becoming the Royal Corp of Transport is also shown. The album ends with the family taking a Christmas Day walk in the woodlands of Rhinedahlen in 1966.

Urgency, spontaneity and a spirit of adventure characterise the first album; there is a sense of security in this second one.

Nigel Shephard

A British Family on the Rhine, Sennelager 1952–1959 (part 1)

This album opens with a photo taken on Saturday, 24 October, 1953. It shows Susan Rebecca lying in her cot, four hours old. On the same page, her mother, Dorothy, is photographed briefly before and briefly after the birth. Some of the early images in this album were taken at such intimate moments I troubled over whether to publish them. I am still not sure if I have made the right decision.

This is an album belonging to a young military couple stationed in Sennenlager – BAOR (British Army on the Rhine) in the 1950s. Its name literarily means ‘camp on the Senne’, an area in military use since the 19th century. It is hard to know who inscribed the album, as the wife is varyingly described as ‘Dorothy, ‘Mummy’ and ‘My, and her husband only as ‘Daddy’, all in the same handwriting. Notes on the back of some of the photos point to someone trying to archive them; perhaps Susan Rebecca.

Susan is photographed first weekly, then monthly. At 10 months old, she is photographed in ‘Walton-on-Thames’; at 11 months, ‘In the park at Hackney’ and feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. As the album goes on it gets even more confusing. There is a photo of Susan under which is written ‘End of my first year’. The family had returned to Sennelager by 1955. Within a year or so, Dorothy had given birth to another daughter, Nicola.

Towards the end of the album, the photo format changes to a square with pretty crimped edges. The images depict our nuclear family’s trip to Africa. There is a photo taken in a marketplace where Dorothy and Susan are the only foreigners to be seen. The most striking image is of three-year-old Susan sitting in a classroom, her luminous little white face and golden hair bobbing in a sea of sun-burnished blackness. One wonders now whether its impact is aesthetic or political…

Nigel Shephard

The Ilford Moment

Written in biro and underlined on the first page of this album is the heading: ‘First film taken by Iford Sporti 4. Aug 1962.

The German-built Iford Sporti 4 camera was produced from 1960. It was made almost entirely out of plastic, apart from a thin metal ring around the lens area. It had two aperture settings: SUNNY and CLOUDY, took 127 film, and had auto-focus from six feet to infinity. It also offered synchronised flash. In recent years, the Sporti 4 became cool on the Lomography scene. The Ilford company started life in 1879 as the Britannia Works Company, manufacturing photographic plates. Despite objections from the council, the company name was changed to Ilford in 1902, due to its location. In the UK, if Kodak had a rival during its heyday, it was probably Ilford.

This is an album photographed and compiled by a teenage boy when he was between 15 and 18 years old. It is fair to say, he was an admirable enthusiast but not a great practitioner. Many of the shots are out of focus, badly framed and poorly lit, and his subject matter can be puzzling – the album is also cack-handedly arranged. For all these reasons, this is a fascinating album.

A number of the photos show someone who thinks about light, and culture. There is a photo shoot in the back garden where he uses his sister, Janis, as muse. One shot is composed so that Janis’s silhouette forms neatly on the white shed door. Another photo taken on the same day, entitled ‘Janis in Backdoor’, betrays the influence of  ‘Continental’ cinema beloved by proto-Mods of era – he is wearing two-tone Mod shoes in the Hawaiian/Mexican-themed Butlins’ souvenir photo, a shot in which ‘Ma and Pa’ can be seen smoking. There are several shots of  ‘Dozy Dave’. Dave may have been the photographer’s brother, or perhaps the family lodger. Dave is no muse – his attitude throughout is one of grudging forbearance. Or perhaps there was a little Mod/Rocker needle. There is one shot that could only have been taken by a 15-year-old boy, entitled ‘Mum and Nan coming out of the ladies’ and sadly out of focus.

Some of the internal flash shots of the ‘Boozy party’ have a kitchen-sink, fly-on-the-wall feel to them. These photos seem to portray a family which is poor; no pictures on the wall, no table for the glasses and booze, everyone perched on a 1930s couch. But their back garden is manicured to perfection, replete with lily pond, gnomes and fake stalks. It is at this ‘Boozy party’ that the photographer can finally be identified in the shot entitled ‘Gary and I’. ‘Cousin Gary’ is a five-year-old boy; the chubby-cheeked lad peering around his right shoulder is our photographer, hungry for the camera.

Four photos on one page depict the ‘Cold cruel winter of 62’. The winter of 1962-63 is known as ‘The Big Freeze’. In Hearn Bay, the sea froze for a mile out; one would have to go back to 1739 to find a colder winter. This bitter winter was relieved by a summer holiday at Butlins, where our photographer enjoyed crabbing excursions, attending wrestling matches and especially the dining hall. 

Nigel Shephard

Sonwyn

This album starts in the early 1940s and carries on through the 1960s. There are 200 photos in all. It features mainly Sonny and Wyn. It is touching to find out later in the album that they called their home together ‘Sonwyn’. Sonny and Wyn have style, which leads me to believe that the name of their house was influenced by the Hollywood movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Their home, a headline-grabbing star-studded cosmopolitan hub through the most of the 1930s, was called ‘Pickfair’.

This album begins like any couple’s album: the two betrothed on bonding holidays before they tie the knot — just the two of them appear in each shot. But you turn a page and they have a 16-year-old son. As you continue through the album, you begin to realise that, unusually, their teenage son, Henry, is the main photographer and the compiler of the album — the inscriptions are his.

My instinct is that Henry is a child from a former marriage. Family albums like this normally start when the children are much younger, and it is more likely that either one of the parents is chief photographer. There are many shots of just Henry and his mother together, looking relaxed, bonded. But there are only two shots of just Henry and Sonny together. In the first, they both look uncomfortable; in the second, they have their backs to the camera — always distance between them. If ever all three of them appear in a shot, Wyn is standing between the other two. I think Henry is the child from Wyn’s first marriage. This explains why, at the beginning of the album, Sonny and Wyn look like young lovers, although both appear to be in their forties.

As the album continues through the 1940s, people in uniform start to appear more frequently. About halfway through, the photographs change to a square, smaller, sepia format. Taken by a 21-year-old Henry, they document his tour of duty in bombed-out Europe in 1946. The journey across the channel, both there and back, is covered — from a battered troupe ship we see the white cliffs of Dover hove into view.

Later, the format changes again, to portrait shape this time, in true black and white. The album ends like a typical empty nesters’ album: an ageing Sonny and Wyn, enjoying their bucket-list foreign holidays. With Henry gone, Sonny is now the main photographer, which means that most of the closing shots are of his wife alone, or landscape shots that never manage to capture the moment. 

Nigel Shephard

The Camera Takes the Picture

This photograph was taken in the early 1950s, on a summer holiday at Warners Southleigh Holiday Camp, Hayling Island. The woman in the picture is holding a Kodak ‘Brownie’ X20 Model C, manufactured between 1946 and 1952. In the manual it says: ‘Do not stand closer than 10 feet unless you use the close-up lens.’  The reason for this advice is that, the closer one gets to the subject within 10 feet, without a close-up lens the more the viewfinder and lens function inaccurately. If one assumes that this photo was taken with a similar ‘Brownie’ to the one being held by the woman in the picture, which is likely, because this was the standard design for amateur cameras at the time, then this photo is an example of what happens when this rule is ignored.

Both the landscape and portrait viewfinders, the two white circles at the top of the camera in this photo are offset from the lens: in portrait orientation, the offset is 2cm; in landscape, it is 3cm. This means that, the closer you get to the subject within 10 feet, without changing the lens, the more the standard lens reveals what lies beyond the viewfinder’s right-hand border. It’s likely, when this photograph was taken, the woman with the camera was perfectly centred in the viewfinder, but because the photographer is standing too close, the picture has revealed the ruddy-cheeked man over her left shoulder, possibly drunk. The only areas of the photo actually in focus are the matronly looking woman in the checked coat, and the boy in trunks who looks like he’s about to leap from a roof, both some way off in the distance.

We have one of these cameras in our collection. The shutter button is toward the front of the camera, on the right-hand-side at the bottom. By the way the woman in the picture is holding the camera, with her right index finger tensed, she is not just posing with the camera, she is operating it. The woman in the picture and the photographer arranged to take a photo of each other simultaneously. This adds another chance element; neither one of them would have been looking in the viewfinder at the moment the photos were taken.

The first time I viewed this photograph with the realisation that I was standing in the position of the subject, I wondered, momentarily, whether my image wasn’t trapped inside the box.

Nigel Shephard

A World Beyond the Picture

This is an album from the early days of amateur photography, compiled in the 1890s. At first, I thought it was Edwardian, but the women sporting ‘lamb chop’ sleeves date it earlier. With this knowledge, other signs fell into place. Women’s fashion in a picture is often the best gateway to dating old photos.

The album has space for 200 photos measuring 4.5cm x 6.0cm. This is such a rare format size for the time that there is only one camera that could have produced these pictures — the Photo-Jumelle made by French camera-maker Jules Carpentier for the London Stereoscopic Co., 106-108 Regent Street, London. Introduced in 1892, this very popular camera looked like a pair of binoculars, the first camera of this design. One lens was the viewfinder/focus and the other was for taking the exposures. From 1895, it offered pneumatically-operated variable shutter speeds. Unlike the Kodak box cameras of the time, the Jumelle operated at eye level.

The first 10 pages of the album full. If you turn it over and upside down, it starts again from the back for another 10 pages. There are 112 photos in all. The photographs show a well-to-do family, with access to foreign travel, new culture and the arts. In later decades, the amateur camera, for many, evolved into a communal object that could be picked up by anyone in the family – a household appliance almost. This happened much less in the early days. One person has taken all the photographs here — this is a sole-user album. It is not just a collection of mementos; it is a means of self-expression.

Like in many albums of the period, there are a number of ‘pictorial’ photos of mountain canyons, waterfalls and winding country roads, likely a result of the many manuals available at the time on the right subjects for photography. There are also many shots taken on board a yacht. In albums like this, horses often appear, as status symbols — as property. In this one, they also appear in action, wild and riderless – as nature. My guess is that a woman, perhaps around 20 years old, collated this album.

Although it was compiled at the end of the 19th century, the album takes us much further back, through the photograph of the high-Victorian grand old man, with his magnificent grey whiskers. He may have been born as far back as the 1810s, certainly before the birth of photography. In the same picture, possibly due to some trick of chemistry, a disembodied hand, palm facing out, emanates from the wall in the background. A charismatic woman, with unusually uncovered hair for the time, appears in two group shots taken only moments apart. Playing up for the camera, in the first she is Thalia, in the second Melpomene. The children playing in the distance put one in mind the Cottingley Fairies.

A group shot shows a young man and two women in a steam-powered, switchback gondola, a recent innovation and ‘a highpoint of early fairground art and aesthetics’. It is transporting to think that, while to us, this scene looks quaint, floral and Victorian, the people in these photographs were revelling in the up to date.

With thanks to Jos Erdkamp in the Netherlands for his expertise on early cameras. Visit Jos’s excellent website here: Kodaksefke.

Nigel Shephard

The Big Day

This set of photographs depicts the wedding day of a young couple from Aldridge in the West Midlands. The chemist E.V Davies, at 47 Birchills Street, Walsall, processed the photos in the mid-1960s. The official wedding photographer has not taken these images; in fact he appears in one of the shots. They have been taken by a friend of the couple, possibly the best man’s groomsman, who has left a far more intimate and detailed account of the day. The whole event has been captured, from the arrival of the best man at the home of the groom early in the morning to the reception in the late afternoon.

The best man and groom pose at the garden gate with the poise of men who wear suits only occasionally — the groom looks like he’s concealing playing cards up his sleeve. When the family leave the house for the church, Auntie instinctively crooks her left knee slightly for the camera, in a 1940s glamour pose. As the guests arrive at the church, a male member of the congregation, with a mischievous smile on his face, rubs his hands together, possibly to ward off the morning chill or perhaps in anticipation of the wedding feast. Someone has certainly just cracked a joke. Four women outside the church, with the regimented workers’ houses in the background, look like characters in a Ken Loach film waiting out a scene.

A proud dad is shown with his daughter, arms linked for the bride-to-be’s final journey down the aisle. In the shot of the newlyweds, the photographer’s blurred-out finger passing accidently across the lens has dissolved into a shaft of light that could be radiating from the stained-glass windows. As the day closes at the reception, the groom looks like the cat who got the cream, while his young wife, as she has done throughout the day, looks somewhat coyer.

Thanks for the invitation…

Nigel Shephard