Photography is the visual medium of the modern world. As a means of recording, and as an art form in its own right, it pervades our lives and shapes our perceptions.
(From the General Introduction to the 55series of books, published by Phaidon Press, London.)
A couple of weeks one of the guys in the pub produced a real nostalgia trip from his coat pocket. He was showing us a Kodak camera, in a brown leather case, dating from the 1960s. It was a nostalgia trip because Dad had had one just like it when we were young.
I remember as a child being fascinated and baffled by it at the same time. The profusion of dials and sliders made it seem like an impossibly complex piece of equipment. There was a flashgun which mounted (somehow) on the top, and took bulbs which we never had. It seems that Dad had bought the best gear he could afford, but (as with the rest of my immediate family to this day) had never really come to terms with it. (See Granotechology.)
It was too advanced for me to even bother trying to find out how it worked, or what everything did. All those f stops and aperture settings and time settings seemed way too much like hard work at the time. Nevertheless, Dad (or one of our relatives, as I don’t imagine it had a self-timer) had clearly used it many times. There are black and white photos of us as kids, and they must have come from somewhere.
Going further back, there are photos of Dad with his father, who died before I was born …
… Dad as a very young child, with his older brother Pat, his father and stepmother …
… and Granddad himself, photographed in 1920.
If proof were needed that there’s a very distinctive ‘Irish’ set of facial features, I think Granddad, his sister, and his brother-in-law were perfect examples of this, especially in later life.
Here’s Granddad again, with his second wife Ellen (Nelly). She died when I was a baby, so I never knew my Irish grandparents.
Here’s Dad, probably in his mid to late twenties.
It’s interesting to see how the formalism of the earlier photographs gradually gave way to the candid casualness of my baby picture. As the technology improved, the subjects were able to relax and move naturally, rather than sitting or standing stock-still while the exposure was made. Faster films and automated shutters made it possible to take photos in real time. Here’s a great example. When Dad was in London for a furniture trade show, he caught this lovely shot of the famous comedy film actor Terry-Thomas riding his horse along Rotten Row.
The remarkable thing about most of these photos is that they measure little more than three inches square. But the detail is as pin-sharp as it was when they were taken. By the time I was old enough to explore Dad’s old camera (which is long gone, alas – it would probably be quite collectible today) the technology had moved on again.
The first camera I can remember us using as a family was one of the Kodak Instamatic range. It used the revolutionary flash-cube, a single-use mixture of chemicals which threw out a dazzling blast of white light as the shutter opened. It must have been the camera which recorded our birthday parties and seaside holidays in full colour.
By the early 1980s we’d upgraded again. The party we hosted to celebrate the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer (see The Folks Who Lived on the Hill) was recorded on a set of sadly-fading photos in Mother’s house. They were taken with a Polaroid camera which utilised the very latest technology as far as the average user was concerned – Instant Film! Thinking about it now, Instant Film (or something like it) must have been available for years. How else did the photo booth on the staircase in Aberdare’s Co-operative House work?
But now, the technology to make instant prints was something that the home user could own. Just like the photo booth, the pictures were available in minutes. You didn’t wait for the little strip to drop, still wet with chemicals, from the slot at the front of a huge box, though. Instead, the camera ejected a rectangle of white plastic immediately the shot was taken. Within thirty seconds, the ghostly outline of the subject would loom through the white fog, growing ever clearer until the picture was developed and fixed before your eyes.
It did away with the hassle of going to the Co-op Pharmacy, or Emrys Evans’ shop on Victoria Square, with a roll of 24 exposures (probably taken over a period of months), waiting nearly a week for the prints to come back, and then realising that about a third of them were crap anyway – underexposed, overexposed, blurred, or with the subject cut off by the frame edge. Or, like this great family shot, with everyone crammed into one corner …
With this new consumer technology you could see what a crap photograph you’d taken within a minute or so. It had its uses, mind. I remember the cartoonist Ralph Steadman appearing on Channel 4’s music show The Tube. He was showing Jools Holland how he used Instant Film to make what he called his ‘Paranoid’ photos. He’d take a shot of someone, and as the emulsions were still wet and the image was starting to consolidate, he’d scratch away at the surface to create a warped image, like this.
I bought my own camera in October 1984, in Argos in Uxbridge, out of my first student grant. (Note for younger readers: the UK Government used to give you money to go to university. Imagine that!) It was a Halina 110 point-and-shoot with a built-in flash and a choice of normal or telephoto lenses. Its exposure time and focal length were fixed, and the only way to alter the picture quality was to buy a faster film. After playing with it for a while, I discovered that 400 ASA gave the best results I could hope for indoors.
I bought it with the best of intentions – to take photos of the bands I was seeing at the time – which I did, with varying degrees of success. Considering its limitations, I got some pretty decent photos at Nick Cave’s gig in the Electric Ballroom, when I was wedged at the front next to a very pretty Japanese girl. (Nothing changes, does it?)
I got less impressive results at New Order’s gig at the Michael Sobell Sports Centre (no, not the one in Aberdare, the one near Arsenal’s football ground). I was too far from the action.
I had far better results at smaller venues, where I was able to get up close.
I didn’t even bother trying to snap the Sisters of Mercy at the Lyceum. There was no point. All that anyone could see was a couple of pairs of Raybans, a guitar headstock, and the brim of Wayne Hussey’s hat occasionally breaking through the dry ice fog they surrounded themselves with.
That camera served me well until the summer of 1989, when I decided it was time to move up to 35mm. I treated myself to an entry-level compact from Boots in Pontypridd, and went on tour that weekend. The first photos I took were of Merthyr Vale Colliery, which had closed a few days earlier. I think that first expedition to a doomed relic of our industrial culture planted the mustard seed of an idea which later germinated into my ongoing Vanishing Valleys project. (See Where Do We Draw The Line?)
As time went by, I traded up gradually, but never actually took the next step to buying an SLR. I think that early encounter with Dad’s dials and sliders had scared me off the idea of going outside my comfort zone. Of course, I was still limited by the technology. I had to wait until I’d completed a reel, and either send it to one of the processing companies who dealt by post, or take it into one of the pharmacies in Aberdare. Over time, my discard rate went from about a third to about half that. I even bought myself a tripod. That was serious gear by my standards. I quietly got the hang of composition and exposure, and fiddled with the settings on the flash occasionally.
Finally, about eight years ago, I took the plunge into the ‘new’ technology of digital photography. (Except, of course, that it was far from new. The Kodak company found itself in big financial difficulties a few months ago, and the Daily Mirror ran a feature about its history. I never knew that Kodak had developed – but failed to capitalise on – digital photography in the mid-1970s. By the time they decided to run with their own invention, it was too late. Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Olympus and a dozen other manufacturers had left them at the starting blocks.)
That took my discard rate to zero. If I didn’t like the photo I’d taken, I could just delete it and start again. I could take a handful of photos and within minutes I can put them on Facebook or Photobucket for anyone to see. I’ll be able to start doing it again tomorrow, when I pick up my new camera to replace the one which Stella and I killed while walking behind Sgwd yr Eira during the winter.
I’ve been thinking about the advances in photographic technology for some time now. The little piece I quoted at the top of this item appears in a book about the pioneer US photographer Mathew Brady (1823-1896), which I picked up at Barbara’s stall in Aberdare Market a little while ago.
The earliest of his surviving daguerreotypes date from the mid-1840s. Later subjects include many notable figures of the times: Abraham Lincoln, photographed in 1860, just as he embarked on what we’d now call his ‘Presidential Campaign’; the rival Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (the latter gracious and dignified in defeat); Samuel Morse, most famous as the inventor of Morse Code, but also Brady’s mentor in making his early daguerreotypes; Pauline Cushman, actress and Unionist spy; Hole in the Day, Chippewa Chief and land-rights negotiator, clearly out of place and uncomfortable in his three-piece suit; and Edwin Booth, actor and brother of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Photography seems to be such a Twentieth Century art form that we often forget it’s been around since the early Victorian era. I stopped in my tracks on first reading Thomas Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure, at the point when the young Jude Fawley is given a photograph of his cousin Sue Bridehead. I don’t think it had occurred to me that photographs were around that early. In The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes reminds us that as photography moved on and became started to compete with painting, artists were forced to adapt their styles to survive.
[A beautiful and timely digression: No sooner had I typed the list of Brady’s subjects than Rowland strolled into the pub, accompanied by his nephew Brandon. Brandon was raised in Houston, Texas. He’s as familiar with the names of these long-dead Americans as the average Briton would be with those of Charles Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, or Charles Darwin. I showed them the Mathew Brady book. To see the faces of such well-known figures from his country’s history knocked Brandon sideways. We were wondering why everyone in the UK knows what Dickens, Brunel and Darwin looked like, yet a born and bred American had never seen photos of such key figures in that country’s history. It’s a mystery. I’ve sold hundreds of copies of The Scarlet Letter over two decades, but I never knew what Nathaniel Hawthorne looked like – until I bought the Mathew Brady book. Hawthorne’s there, with his books and top hat at his side, that fantastic bushy moustache, untidy receding grey hair, and grim eyes fixed on the lens. I told Brandon that it had cost me a mere pound. He was flabbergasted that such an amazing book had come his way – particularly on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of Aberdare.]
I love General Grant’s naturalistic, almost laid-back, pose in this photo, compared to the studied formality of Brady’s other subjects. If anything, portrait photography was essentially the same as portraiture as it had been practised for centuries. There’s little difference between Hawthorne’s photograph and this portrait of Samuel Johnson, dating from nearly a century earlier. It took a long time before they developed in different directions, as Robert Hughes highlights in his book.
According to the foreword to this little gem, Brady first came to international prominence in 1851, at the ‘Fair of All Nations’ in London (better known as the Great Exhibition). The new technology was in its infancy. There are precious few photographs of the event. Most of the visual evidence exists as etchings made from one-off photos, or sketches drawn for the newspapers.
Imagine a Time Traveller visiting Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which at the time stood in Hyde Park. He wanders through the showcases of the British Empire’s industrial, political and cultural achievements, maybe allowing himself a wry chuckle at the very latest in steam-driven machinery, or the earliest attempts to harness electricity on a grand scale. Eventually he arrives at Brady’s medal-winning photographs. Then he probably allows himself a belly laugh. The very process of recording a ‘moment’ in time is unheard of. Even though it’s much less time-consuming than portrait painting, it still demands a fair commitment of the subject’s time in order for the photograph to be taken.
Bear in mind that Edward Muybridge won’t take the first time-lapse photographs (his ground-breaking pictures of a galloping horse, which settled a bet about whether its legs are splayed when they’re all off the ground) for another twenty years.
Now, our fictional Time Traveller (pre-dating Wells’s character by some decades) announces that in a mere fifty years’ time, it will be possible to record moving pictures using the same basic technology as Brady has employed. He goes a step further – not only will it be able to record them, but people will be able to go to theatres in their thousands and watch these moving pictures for themselves. I’ve little doubt that the police will be called and the dangerous lunatic hauled off to Colney Hatch. Yet, in 1901, that is exactly what happened …
At the funeral of Queen Victoria, our Time Traveller pops up again. This time, he approaches the crew using the new technology. When the cameraman stops cranking his handle, the Time Traveller blows another security leak from the future. In fifty years from now, he tells him, people around the country will be able to watch black and white moving pictures, with sound, transmitted as they happen. Once again, the police are called and our unfortunate Time Traveller is carted off to the funny farm.
Yet, in 1953, that’s exactly what happened. The new mass medium of television enabled a nation to watch – not read about, not listen to, not to see in the cinema a week afterwards, but to watch, in real time – the coronation of a monarch in the UK.
And up pops our Time Traveller again. He tells the assembled crowd that in twenty-five years it will be possible to watch full colour live broadcasts, with stereo sound, anywhere in the British Empire which has access to mains electricity. Once again the police are called, and he’s injected with enough Thorazine to fell an ox before being taken to Broadmoor. Like the flash-forwards experienced by Sarah Connor in the Terminator films, his delusions continue to trouble the medics for years, until 1977 …
At the height of the Silver Jubilee celebrations he turns up again, on the lam from a low-security unit, having convinced the authorities that he’s actually sane enough to require only minimum supervision. The TV crews are there, of course, just as he predicted, streaming full-colour coverage across the world in (very nearly) real time. Meanwhile, ordinary people are lined up by the thousand with Instamatic cameras, taking colour photos for posterity.
The Time Traveller decides to keep quiet this time. Instead, he types out a 3,000 word article about the coming technology, and posts Xerox copies to a hundred newspapers and magazines across the English-speaking world. The only one that picks it up is OMNI, a US monthly which juggles science fact, fiction and fantasy in equal proportions. He predicts a scenario when every single person in industrial cities will be able to send full-colour moving pictures, in (more or less) real time, visible by anyone who has access to the necessary technology. Ben Bova, the respected SF author and OMNI‘s associate editor, decides that it’s worth publishing. He runs it under the heading FICTION – it’s way too far-fetched for the factual section.
Thirty-five years on, Queen Elizabeth II is about to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee – sixty years on the throne. The airwaves, satellite feeds, mobile networks, and internet servers will be chock-a-block with full-colour, stereophonic, real-time feeds of this historic event. My new digital camera (which I don’t even own yet) has already been dashed to pieces by the technological tsunami rolling across the world.
What will next month’s Time Traveller predict, I wonder. This time, will we lock him away again, as we have with visionaries through the ages? Or will we flock to buy shares in his hi-tech company while they’re still at rock-bottom prices, realising – finally – that he might be worth listening to?
Meanwhile, in the year 2012, we no longer need instant film to produce distorted images. Free software such as GIMP enables us to work digital magic with our photos. I often wished I’d experimented with Ralph Steadman’s technique while you could still buy film for our Polaroid camera. A couple of months ago, I achieved the same effect with a few controls. After all, I’ve always thought Helen’s nose was too small …
HUGHES, R. (1991) The Shock of the New: Art and the century of change. London: Thames & Hudson.
PANZER, M. (2001) Matthew Brady. London: Phaidon Press.