The Post-Victorian Eye

In the influential Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art,written in 1889 byPH Emerson, the eminent Victorian photographer and writer is at pains to make the reader aware of the difficulties in trying to distinguish between the ‘professional’ and the ‘amateur’ in the field of photography:

“There is one obstacle that we must clear from the students path in this introduction, and that is the confusion of the terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, as used in the photographic world, for in this world it must be understood that these terms exist as in no other world.”

The point being made is, it was not necessarily those who earned their living from photography that were making advances the field, but more so, the free application of dedicated minds upon which the history of photography is built. Although when making these statements, Emerson had in mind the polymath fraternity to which he belonged, I feel a similar caution may be exercised in the snapshot era – a visual culture that barely existed when Emerson was writing.

This album was compiled some 20 years after Emerson’s book was written, and many things were different. Victoria was dead, and the maudlin shadow that she had cast over the period had lifted, which, along with the growing movements for social justice, the arrival of the tabloid press, galloping consumer technology, automation, cinema and recorded sound, all added up to an air of change.

This is a family album, pure and simple. It shows the family on their holidays: at the beach, along the prom, having picnics, taking boating trips. Although this is all common amateur fare, this album could not be described as and amateur’ effort. In the first half, all the photos are landscape orientation; in the second half, beginning exactly in the middle, they are all portrait format. Each shot is beautifully composed and all the photos are nicely rendered; it is rare to see photographs from this period with so little sepia tone in them, a varying hue resulting from chemicals added to protect the images from fading.

One may be able to see the influence of Emerson’s teaching in this album, in the shots of yachts and seascapes, perhaps. Yet the formal gaze is constantly interrupted by candid photos of people in unusual or ungainly poses: perhaps people reduced to dotted rhythms across the sand, or people simply there to frame space. Their humanity is temporally sidelined to preserve the beauty of the composition. The album is curated to juxtapose moods and atmosphere. There is an action shot of the little girl, turning around, joyous and playful. In the shot next to it, she sits stock still on a bench, deep in thought, pensive and vulnerable. In many of the images, no one is looking directly into the camera – a circumstance guaranteed to encourage sentimental detachment. There are several tableaux with the idyllic iconography of a proto-Norman Rockwell painting, a look seen in Kodak advertisements of the day.

In the 21st century, the distinction between the amateur and professional in photography is far easier to discern than in Emerson’s day; the dedicated colleges to the teaching of photography that he so longed for in his book now exist. And yet, arguably, the ‘selfie’ is the first form of new photography for 160 years. It can still take the amateur to switch up the game.

Nigel Shephard

Sun Print

‘Sun Print’ experiment with a negative and 70-year-old photographic paper found in a Johnsons ‘home photography’ kit

I have recently been working on an exhibition, part of which includes photographic equipment made by Johnsons of Hendon. The roots of the company can be traced back to the 18th century and the assayer John Johnson, whose Johnson & Sons firm would go on to provide chemicals for the Fox-Talbot calotype photographic process from around 1839. In the period prior to WWII, the company was providing many of its chemicals for military photography, but also for the new ‘Home Photography’ kits that were being aimed at the amateur market. After WWII, under its new name of Johnsons of Hendon, the firm began selling its own complete ‘Home Photography Outfit’ kits.

These kits came with developing tank, mixing flasks, developing trays, thermometer, contact printer, other paraphernalia and several boxes of photographic paper. I am a novice in the photographic arts, but was informed by those more knowledgeable than me that the paper would be desensitised and useless. By accident, I recently left a sheet out and noticed later that it had turned black. One of the Johnsons’ printing frames that I had bought still had a negative in it, so I put the negative in to the one of the printing frames, placed a sheet of 70-year-old photographic paper on top of it, and set it face up on my windowsill in the blazing midday sunshine.

After 15 minutes, I took the paper out of the frame. With no stop bath, or any knowledge of what one was, I quickly took a photograph of it, and this is the result. Before printing, I had held the negative up to the light. I could make out the general tableau and see that there were figures, but the vitality that the final print revealed was startling. Such a romantic and magical experience was this that I fancied I felt some of that wonder the early 19th-century pioneers must have felt when viewing their first experiments.

Nigel Shephard

American Gems

In America, where tintype photography first took off in the 1860s, tintypes represent an important national record and cultural bond. Their rise in popularity coincided with the desire for durable keepsakes prompted by the upheavals of the Civil War, which began in 1861. The hold they have on the American imagination is evidenced by the fact that more than 10 craft tintype portrait studios have opened up across the country since 2010; in 2019, the director Greta Gerwig had the entire cast of her film Little Women photographed in tintype. Yet in the UK, this form of photography has been almost entirely forgotten.

American Scott Archer announced his wet-collodion positive technique in 1852. By 1856, the first US patent had been granted and, by the end of the following year, ferrotype plates – the technical name for tintypes – were being commercially manufactured. The tintype trade in America was pursued with great vigour and acumen, but in Britain, to begin with, the attitude towards it was wary. The most influential British Victorian photographers at the time regarded themselves on a noble quest for the advancement of the arts and the sciences, and therefore felt that any commercialisation in their field diminished not only their profession but also their social standing. As a result, the tintype trade in the UK did not get going until the 1870s, and even then, this was only as a result of American agents travelling across the Atlantic to set up shop in Regent Street, London.

Although the trade survived for 100 years, and fine examples still exist, tintypes were always regarded in the UK as the cheapest and lowest form of photography. The photographers themselves were seen as no more than hucksters and drunken ne’er-do-wells peddling cheap tat to undiscerning punters; like silhouette cutters before them, they thought nothing of setting up shop alongside a pub. Tintypes could be produced ‘while-u-wait’, with the rapidity of a Polaroid, which was all part and parcel of the quick thrills tintype experience available at fairgrounds, wakes, village fetes and bustling beauty spots. While it is true to say that many tintypes are low fidelity, they can nonetheless hold interest and great charm.

Tintypes typically ranged in size from full plates measuring 6½in by 8½in, descending down in fractions to the smallest size available, the ‘American Gem’. American Gem plates measured 1in by ¾in. As their name suggests, this was a style of tintype imported from the US. Their diminutive size and lower fidelity seems to have been compensated for by the sheer variety and attractiveness of their decorative mounts. At 36 for 2s 6d – less than a ‘penny a pop’ – they represented the cheapest portraiture on the high street.

Nigel Shephard

Long Shadows

Pasted on the last page of this album is a map. A thick red line runs across the map from west to east, beginning at Istanbul on the Black Sea, travelling across the Middle East and ending at the Taj Mahal in Delhi. During the 1960s and 70s, this alternative, down-to-earth tourist trek was known as the ‘Hippie Trail’. The word ‘hippie’ is derived from the 1950s word ‘hipster’, an epithet that still signifies a fashionable coterie of hirsute handicrafters.

The first edition of Lonely Planet, a series of budget travel guides with a current annual turnover of $85 million, was written about the Hippie Trail. ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’ was published in 1973, written by Tony Wheeler. He had made the trip with his wife, Maureen, in 1972. The first edition was a zine stapled together at their kitchen table. It provides many valuable insights, but the most entertaining aspect of the book is its attitude toward smoking dope. In a chapter dedicated to this, the sole advice is to stay stoned and out of prison (a ‘short-haired wig’ is recommended at one point for crossing borders) for the entire 2,826 miles journey, or more. The photos I have picked out here are the best in the album; most of the others are of distant, blurry, ancient ruins, and the odd snake charmer.

For the photographer, the guide had this advice:

 “If you are a camera fan, take plenty of films. It is incredible how much film you will get through on a trip like this and between South East Asia and Europe film is chronically expensive. If you are travelling up from Australia the best idea is to take enough to get to Singapore or Penang then stock up on the duty free stuff. We used 5 reels of 36 exposures film and if we had had more we would have used it too. Don’t worry if you do run out of film as you can get major brands easily throughout Asia and the Middle East, but once again, it costs. Be cool in who you point your camera at, if they seem disturbed by it, don’t. Especially be careful about photographing women in the strongly Moslem countries, cameras can be a major cause of hassles. In general you will find that people are quite happy to be photographed. I took a photograph of one of the fascinating little open air bakeries in Afghanistan and the whole staff were up and posing. You are probably best advised to take your exposed film with you and get it developed in Europe, except in Singapore where the local developing is fast and good. If you decide to mail film ahead to be developed, or back home, take care. Little packages, especially from places like Afghanistan, are treated with suspicion by customs – x-raying a film to see what is inside doesn’t do the pictures any good.”

Under the heading ‘VISAS’, there is a note on photographs:

“Raid the piggy bank, rush round to your favourite photo booth and get dozens. Three dozen might not be too many, every visa seems to require two or three plus you’ll want others for I.D. papers, passport, driving licence and student cards. Asians are very big on photos and you may feel obliged to present a photo of your own sweet face to someone who has been particularly nice. So take photos, they’re cheaper now than later.”

Experts did not write this book; it is an example of peer-to-peer learning, something that is common now on the Internet. The demise of the Hippie Trail was also prescient. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, an event that steers geopolitics today, was to end it.  

Nigel Shephard

War Babies

The cover of this album is bright red. When open, it measures 2½ft x 18in. It weighs about 2kg and is packed with photos. On the inside cover, is a blown-up newspaper photograph of the Kray twins with their mother, Violet, beaming with pride in her boys. Throughout the entire album, there is no indication of any personal connection with the Kray family, or that world. It must simply be there for reason of their celebrity, or maybe the owner of the album just liked Vi’s smile.

This is essentially a courtship album. The woman is Spanish, the man English. The album is decorated throughout with Spanish and English stamps, all of which have been franked, which means they must have been steamed off posted letters. The earliest frank mark is dated 1952, the latest 1966, the year of their marriage. Perhaps they came from the letters they sent back and forth during their courtship. The album proper begins, as you would expect, when the couple meet, then continues through their courtship, wedding and honeymoon. But on the first five pages, they have combined their childhood photos, which show them growing up in the 1940s. Perhaps some of these photographs were also exchanged in those letters.

As the 1960s get going, photos in colour and larger formats start to appear. This chapter of the album mainly shows their days out together. There is one shot of the woman with a huge parrot perched on her arm, and her fiancé with his camera dangling at his side. Later, the woman is again photographed cradling a parrot like an infant, with a white dove perched on the top of her head this time. Professional souvenir photographers who operated at popular tourist spots would at times have exotic animals to lure the punters in.

Their wedding photos are snapshots taken by a friend of the couple, not the official wedding photographer – a gesture in keeping with the 1960s youth rebellion, which eschewed traditional practices, the staidness of which had been accentuated by 1950s austerity and their war-weary parents desire for a quiet life. The war babies favoured a fresher, more ‘happening’, more ‘with it’ vibe – the future was theirs to inherit.

Nigel Shephard

Gevacolour

This collection comes in three volumes, each with a heady smell of damp. The earliest album starts in the 1930s, but most of the photographs date from the 1950s. There are more than 40 colour photos, which, for albums of this period, is an extraordinary amount. Occasionally, some 1950s albums could, perhaps, contain three or four colour photos, if you’re lucky. Judging by the quality of the black and white photos, and the albums dedicated arrangement, it comes as no surprise that this photographer was an early adopter of colour.

Practical colour photography appeared in the UK in 1907, with the introduction of Autochrome Lumière plates. Twenty million were produced and lovely examples still exist – the photographer Etheldreda Laing was an English exponent – but their use seems to have faded out by the early 1930s. From the mid-1960s, colour photos were commonly found alongside black and white images, and by the mid-1970s they are the norm. Yet the colour photos in these albums represent the true birth of colour for the amateur. They were processed by the Belgium company Gavaert, founded in 1894. Gevacolour colour film was produced from 1947 and available in the UK from 1953. The Gevaert colour service operated in the same way as Kodak’s; the exposed film was sent of to the Gevaert Company, which would return prints to the customer some time later. There were several formats sizes available: the smallest measuring just 2¼ inches square; the largest 6 x 4 inches.

The Riviera shots, taken on board a yacht, show the merriment of a harpoon-fishing trip. One man can be seen ironically brandishing the fearsome weapon in one hand, with a minnow in the other. The lithe youth over his right shoulder has an expression that seems to announce a wisdom beyond his age. People from the 1950s in swimming costumes always look under nourished; the lack of gym bodies is striking. The photos of the little girl and young woman, both in their blue dresses with the stylish cars in the background, wouldn’t look out of place in Paris Match. One well-turned-out lady, with a little girl at her side, looks dressed for a wedding but steeled for a funeral.

There is something that distinguishes these early 1950s photos from those taken less than a decade later. By the late 1950s, rock and roll culture had made its mark, and street fashion began to have an influence. But these photos come from a time of sartorial elegance and old-school cool, when you dressed for every occasion.

Nigel Shephard

A Long Way from Home

Job Lot of Found Photographs, Jenskittens, Ebay seller

When someone dies and professional house clearers empty a property, they sell off all the larger, more expensive items for which they know they have a market at auction, while the smaller, cheaper items – ornaments, books, cheap trinkets, etc – are collected together in to ‘lot boxes’. These lot boxes are also sold at auction, split up by buyers in to what they can and cannot sell; any remaining items are then collected together in further lot boxes and sold again at auction. And so on. This is how albums normally arrive at The Family Museum, with almost every trace of provenance obliterated. Once parted from the hands of their original owners, these images rapidly disperse across the country, across the globe and across the Internet.

One link in this chain is E-Bay seller Jenskittens, who has been selling found photographs online for 18 years – a business she took over from her father. When I spoke to her she was a new mother, so making money from home in this way suited her situation. The albums come to her, more or less, as I have described above. She takes the photographs out the albums and collects them together in to groups of 100, or sometimes smaller numbers. If there is any notation underneath a photo, written on the album page, she will jot it down on the back of the photo. Although this is a business venture, she still feels a sense of custodianship. On Ebay, these job lots are arranged so that each image among the 100 photographs can be seen. One can spend time scanning over her arrangements. They present the viewer with puzzles to ponder, trying to make connections of resemblances, reasons and meaning. In just one job lot, the photos can date from the 1890s to the 1970s, presenting a potted history of formats in the genre of photography, and changing styles and values.

As an example of just how far these photos get disseminated, Jenskittens, who is based in Halifax in the UK, currently has around 1,000 Japanese family photos for sale.

Nigel Shephard

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