Making a Mark

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 8. 2014

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 1. 2014

These extraordinary pictures are by Caroline Fellowes, an artist who lives in France but is represented by a gallery in Derry, in Northern Ireland.   They are wonderful things, and I post them today because they happen to sit right in the middle of a number of conversations I seem to be having with increasingly frequency of late. Fellowes’ series here is made to face a perennial challenge in photography — one which I have approached from different angles on this blog several times in the past. Fellowes’ pictures (they’re called Animal Vegetable Mineral) record the marks made on her windows by a number of different agencies: heat, plants brushing against the glass, cold, limescale, water, the tracks of various kinds of animals, fingers… Naturally, they are visible only in certain lights, at the right angles, and for a particular time. They come and go, too: smear marks in condensation today will re-appear in tomorrow’s condensation, even though they seemed to have gone when the pane was dry. Not only are they photographs in fact — beautiful fancy digital prints on water-colour paper, since you ask — but that temporary quality makes them wholly photographic in conception, too. So much photography is about seizing what will not otherwise stay, or seeing what cannot otherwise be seen.

Yet the pictures in Animal Vegetable Mineral are in one other important sense antithetical to core photographic values, too. These take great store by the business of mark making which is normally absent in conventional photography. To that extent, they have more to do with painting, and indeed Fellowes is a distinguished painter as well as a photographer and knows very well what she’s about in that regard.

In Fellowes’ AVM series, the marks are made by outside forces. I believe some of the footprints are of frogs. In other work the artist often makes them. My colleague at the University of Brighton, Johanna Love, gave a brilliant seminar presentation on these kinds of ideas the other day. Love is a print-maker in various different kinds of process (including photography). She’s interested in the variety of marks that can intervene even in a carefully controlled sequence: she has photographed pencil markings at huge magnifications to see the landscape of pits and peaks which make hand-made marks so attractive. She draws on photographs and likes the way that when the light strikes the greasy pencil markings you can’t see the print beneath. She grew interested in the dust that interposed itself between scanner and subject if the subject was raised a little from the scanner bed — until that dust could itself be a legitimate subject. She had tracked the antecedents of some of this thinking in close detail: I’d not come across an interesting book of Xerox ‘drawings’ she mentioned by Ian Burn, for example, in which the marks are the marks of the process itself. When she referred back to Duchamp and Man Ray in regard to dust, I was on familiar ground. She made a lot of reference to Helen Chadwick, whose combination of machine-made and hand-made was absolutely pioneering.

Ian McKeever. Shade and Darkness-Evening 1983. From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Ian McKeever.
Shade and Darkness – Evening 1983.
From the series Traditional Landscapes.

Not long before that I took part in a round-table discussion at Somerset House, one of a series leading up to the PhotoLondon fair in May 2015. It was led by the artist Ian McKeever. His title? Against Photography. He meant it in both senses: against meaning leaning against or next to, as well as counter to or opposing.

McKeever with impressive articulacy laid out some of his own trajectories to and from photography. McKeever is a wonderful painter, taking as much pleasure in the physical acts of painting as he does in any communication that results from it. The discussion was driven mainly by a very fine publication (half-way between catalogue and monograph, the first of a new series called Imprint) produced by McKeever’s gallery, HackelBury, in West London. McKeever was outspoken in some of what he had to say.   He has no doubt about the intrinsic primacy of paint over photography as a vehicle for thought. Given that he is a long-time and highly skilled practitioner of photography (and one who has written on it very well) I was surprised by how categorical he was. But he was, and mainly because of the fundamental importance to him of making marks. He had other arguments: he stressed that painting takes time and that time allows the painter to distill thought into the artefact, something that cannot be done at the 125th of a second at which photography operates.

“A photograph”, said Ian McKeever that day, “is at its maximum position at the very moment it is made. [Afterwards] it can only ever be less than that…so a photographer is left with a dilemma: how to extend the language. The painter has a year or two in which to inflect meaning into what he’s doing. The question becomes how does the photographer bring that to the photograph?” And McKeever’s answer, clearly felt, although never in fact stated outright, was that he can’t.

It was a terrific performance, and compelling.

I remain unconvinced, I must say, by this notion of painters ‘inflecting’ meaning into what they do. They’re supposed to, sure enough. But many inflect only their own interest, their enthusiasm or their patience. If the formal instant of making ( or taking ) a photograph is too short to allow for much of that, the ancillary processes, of editing and arranging and printing in different ways allow for just as much. At one point McKeever contrasted painters trying to slow the world down against photographers trying to speed it up. The surfaces of photography are – I have written it before ­– skiddy, slippery. The eye tends to bounce off a photograph, having seized what quick meaning it can on the way. I’m not sure conventional photographers try to speed the world up – but they certainly make objects which are consumed at lightning speed. Photography is very good at making posters. One message: get it, and go. Contemplation, a combination of multiple meanings or the enjoyment of multiple – maybe even contradictory – sensations are not readily included in that.

Gerhard Richter.  Firenze 2000

Gerhard Richter.
Firenze 2000

John Stezaker. Mask XLVI, 2007

John Stezaker.
Mask XLVI, 2007

My own take on it is not quite so simple as a direct contrast between the marklessness of photography and the richer textures of paint or other systems which reveal the hand of the maker.   Gerhard Richter worked all around this question: he did blob paint on the surface of photographs, with wonderful effects on each, but it was not his only solution. Lots of photographers have found ways to build illusions of depth or surface texture without any physical lilt to the surface at all. It has been one of the challenges that photography has faced best and longest. Montage, double-exposure, collage: all of those can do it. Part of the problem is that photographs are so often reproduced and that somehow we don’t think that makes any difference. See a Monet reproduced and you know that you’re seeing a shorthand version of the thing. A re-photographed John Stezaker will have an unbroken surface throughout. The ‘originals’ of such things as his have physical shifts to the surface: jumps and cuts and bumps and ruts where one surface meets another or overlays it. Such pieces are very often re-photographed. Sometimes they lose a lot, sometimes they don’t.

Sohei Nishino. Jerusalem,

Sohei Nishino.
Jerusalem, 2013.

The dioramas of Sohei Nishino definitely lose something in their re-photographed editions. The whole point is that they were not made by a single glance. Seen as hundreds of little views, they compete to tell their little stories, but also add up to more than the sum of their parts. They’re like a mediaeval map, slipping from one perspective to another, jumping from middle-distance to near and from scale to scale. Seen as a single slick carpet, they lose a lot of that jostling energy: they become more like a page of results from a Google image search, flat, with less connection from one picture to another.

Jorma Puranen. From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Jorma Puranen.
From Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing, 2010

Santeri Tuori.  Sky #7, 2011–2012

Santeri Tuori.
Sky #7, 2011–2012

I’ve written before about Jorma Puranen’s wonderful series of old masters – Shadows, Reflections and all that Sort of Thing – in which the slicks of light that get in the way of seeing the whole picture all at once become themselves a subject. Puranen reflects on reflection. His fellow Finn Santeri Tuori does something parallel when he builds up his skies of dozens, maybe hundreds of layers piled up electronically, in imitation of the hundreds of thousands of separate condensation events that go up to make each cloud. Puranen’s series works all right in reproduction, and therefore on screen, too. Tuori’s makes almost no sense unless you can see the print itself.

Elsewhere, but still on this blog, I wrote about the marking James Newton found on the backs of Ford Transit vans (and – credit where credit’s due, it was pointed out that Adam O’Meara had done something pretty similar before).

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Calum Colvin, Cupid and Psyche 1986

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011. By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge Styling Robbie Spencer Artwork Maurizio Anzeri Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada Casting Edward Kim at House Casting It's a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri's work.  He's done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.  All those other  people are hitching a free ride on that one person's work.

Miles wears T-shirt and Sweater by Galliano. From Dazed and Confused, 2011.
By Maurizio Anzeri. In point of fact, and lest we forget how absurd the fashion industry often is, here are just some of the credits we are asked to acknowledge in connection with this photograph: Photography Richard Burbridge
Styling Robbie Spencer
Artwork Maurizio Anzeri
Hair Duffy at Tim Howard Management
Make-up Francelle at Art + Commerce using NARS Cosmetics
Model Miles at Root, Photographic Assistants Jeff Henrikson, Kim Reenberg
Styling Assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Daniel Edley
Hair Assistants Peter Matteliano, Yoko Sato
Make-up Assistants Hiroko Takada
Casting Edward Kim at House Casting
It’s a picture whose entire appeal comes from Anzeri’s work. He’s done it many times to just as good effect upon pictures picked up more or less as junk.
All those other people are hitching a free ride on that one person’s work.

Julie Cockburn.  An Inkling.

Julie Cockburn.
An Inkling.

Calum Colvin has been working his whole life at a lovely waltz between two dimensions and three. Much later Maurizio Anzeri and Julie Cockburn are doing something connected to that.

I’ve argued that the whole Pictorialist tendency contained at root a kind of campaign for viewers to be held longer on the surface of photographs than has been the norm in news, or advertising or topography or any of the one of the dominant zones of photography. Maybe it was not always mark making, but certainly mark-imitating. Interesting surfaces will do, if you can’t have marks upon them or seemingly upon them. Anything which counters the tendency in viewers to see a photograph as a single rectangular frameful of information can help to slow the viewer’s mind within a photograph. Come to think of it, I suppose that’s what’s at play with a really fine print, too, even if it has the most traditional surface, acting merely as a window does. A great print has depths. It gives to the view it contains a quality which I can describe only as ocular weight. That’ll hold you there a while. We all know the feeling of finding a really great print more interesting than the scene within it. Reproduce it, in print or online, and that is destroyed.

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere,  2001  From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean. The Wrecking of the Ngahere, 2001
From The Russian Ending

Tacita Dean’s Russian Ending – a series I keep coming back to and which has slowly crept its way up my own internal league tables of photographs – has lots of things about it, but in this context it has both the careful ( and appropriate ) attention to surface (they’re photogravures) and the hand-written notes apparently carved into the surface. They are layered intellectually, seemingly physically, too; they’re even layered as narratives or pseudo-narratives. You may or may not like them as much as I do, but you won’t just glance at them and go.

That is the challenge for photographers. I’m coming around to thinking it a far more central challenge than I had realised. If you’re a jobbing photographer or a craftsman or a ‘professional’ or what I have begun to think of as a camera operator, you want to make crisp clear messages that are simple and linear. Those can be grasped as quickly as you like, and their surfaces can be slick. Christiano Ronaldo scores a goal. The graduating student in a rented gown. No complex messaging needed, or even welcome. But any photographer who wants to send out more complex messages has to find a way to keep the eye of the viewer on the surface of that print for longer. That’s what every single one of the people here is doing. It’s plain. A photograph which offers no solution to the problem of the eye sliding off it will never be capable of transmitting very sophisticated or complex messages, however much its maker tries.

Solve that, in whatever way that you can, and a photograph can bear as much ‘inflected’ meaning as any other medium. But since that eye-retaining or eye-detaining surface is so much at risk in reproduction, it becomes easy for an Ian McKeever to say photography can’t do what other systems, more recognized for mark making, can do.

Michael Wolf. Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Michael Wolf.
Tokyo Compression Revisited.

Richard Learoyd. Harmony White Shirt, 2011

Richard Learoyd.
Harmony White Shirt, 2011

David Hockney.  Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1985

David Hockney.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1985

There have been hundreds of solutions. I wrote once about Michael Wolf’s Tokyo Compression series, in the best of which the condensation on glass acts as a surface, which is readable two ways: metaphorically, it looks like the spirit of the crushed commuters, weeping and seeping out. Practically, it reminds us that tropical climates are physically hard to endure. At his best, Richard Learoyd achieves with his hand-built cameras an incredible trick of imitating the act of looking very hard. He seems to make pictures which have peripheral vision built into them, as if he had already committed you to staring at the bits he cared about. Katerina Jebb achieved something similar by a wholly different technique in her show at Arles in 2014 – when she found depth of field enough by using a hand-held scanner to move around her sitters, making a sort of haze of doubt which became a haze of wonder. David Hockney spoke very clearly in his Bradford lecture long ago about how his Joiners imitated the staccato jumping of the eye within the frame that is standard in paint but rare in photography. Indeed, he has gone on exploring that same idea for many years; the gridded-videos moving down the lanes in East Yorkshire do much the same thirty (or whatever it is) years on.

Mining in the Ore Mountains,  by Josef Koudleka. From the Black Triangle, 1992

Mining in the Ore Mountains,
by Josef Koudleka.
From the Black Triangle, 1992

Lee Freidlander. Montana 2008. From America by Car

Lee Freidlander.
Montana 2008.
From America by Car

Even with no such complexities of surface, a photographer can do things with composition itself to hold the eye in place: the classic example would be Josef Koudelka’s panoramas, which seem almost to build a maze or circuit of blocks of darkness that we cannot pass except in an order chosen by Koudelka. But a panorama is peculiar anyway: it is rarely possible to see a whole panorama at once: the shape itself holds the eye there a while. Friedlander’s tour-de-force pictures through (and of) car windows do it in a completely different way.

It may be that one of the reasons we ( or certainly I ) enjoy battered old photographs is wrapped up in this same connection. A picture, which shows upon itself the marks of how it got to be what it now is, has acquired another layer. That layer may be no more than survival: but that’s not nothing. Even a trivial survivor has absorbed a certain amount of time. That’s what we mean by patina, and it’s partly why the myriad examples of re-mining or repurposing old archives going on at the moment are so interesting: old vernacular has depth, just by dint of that battered surface.

Sooner or later photographs will become rare as physical objects. On screens, photographs never have those marks: unless … somebody has put them there on purpose. And that’s where we began. It’s not really about mark-making as such. It’s just making marks or finding ways to imitate them is one of the very best ways to keep the eye of the viewer where you want it. And once you’ve done that, you can begin to say whatever it is you have to say. But you’ve got to find a way to keep the viewer from sliding off your photograph.

Caroline Fellowes. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Caroline Fellowes.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral 7. 2014

Who Speaks for Photography?

At the ceremony on 18 September 2012 to mark the start of construction by which the former Commonwealth Institute in High Street Kensington will become a new Design Museum, Sir Terence Conran used the opportunity to once again “persuade government of the importance of design in this country”. Ed Vaizey, the Minister of Culture, replied by saying “Government has taken note of Terence’s comments, and I’ll take back what he said and see what we can do.” Sir Terence is the founder of the museum, and a generous patron. But he is also the owner of a number of businesses whose profitability might well be affected by the government’s response.

Lord Rogers of Riverside, whose 1997 book Cities for a Small Planet (based on his Reith Lectures of 1995) established his credentials as an advocate for sustainable and liveable cities, has advised both Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Boris Johnson on urbanism. Lord Rogers has designed a number of very private buildings in London whose contribution to the liveable city is to say the least open to question. It is not plain, for example, that the great corporate monuments which are 122 Leadenhall Street (known as the Cheesegrater) or the Lloyds Building do anything very much for ordinary citizens, for permeability, or for the small planet, come to that. Lord Rogers got himself into a mildly embarrassing pickle earlier this year when he drew attention to the large number of empty homes in the most expensive sectors of the London residential market, only for it to be pointed out that he himself was the architect of the luxury apartments at One Hyde Park, which were easily predicted to become, as they almost all have, second homes owned by non-residents and most of which are used only a few weeks per year.

Even Sir Paul Smith ­– a man who once reacted to Prime Minister David Cameron’s horribly self-promoting down-with-the-guys public dithering on whether or when to wear a tie with the terse fly-swat “the political arena is not the place to make fashion statements” – has been known to appear at industry gets-together with Business Secretary Vince Cable promoting UK textile mills or that more nebulous something called ‘creativity’.

Creative industries in the UK have a number of leading figures who can routinely be called on to provide a headline or shape a point of view. Sir Martin Sorell, CEO of WPP, the largest advertising agency in the world, has been a frequent voice for years. He gave a famous speech at the D&AD in 1996 which made broad claims on behalf of the industry: “What we sell are pearls. Whether we are designers or planners or writers or art directors or corporate strategists, our raw material is knowledge. We turn that knowledge into ideas, insights, and objects that have a material, quantifiable value to our clients”.

Another such voice has been that of Sir Nicholas Hytner, outgoing director of the National Theatre. (“Sir Nicholas Hytner: Arts are Economic Gold for Britain – The Daily Telegraph, April 2013).

Some of these figures carry a more or less official appointment (Lord Rogers, for example, as well as setting up the Urban Task Force at the request of government, held for a number of years a role as Chair of the Greater London Authority Panel on Architecture); many others do not. Some speak ex-officio: the Director-General of the BBC, Director of the Tate, and so on. But most do not. In a very British way, speaking up on behalf of a whole cultural industry is part of a position among ‘the Great and the Good’ ; that may well carry fringe benefits, but these voices are not really being heard for the money, or at least never directly. Crucially, too, these spokesknights and spokeslords are not by any means specifically limited to pronouncing on their own particular area. Across a broad swathe of the cultural industries and the creative industries, these voices form a ready-made and fairly establishment lobby.

Nobody really cares about possible conflicts of interest in these circumstances. A sound-bite, a photo-opportunity, are not to be seen as audits. Just an opportunity to scatter a little business, promote a few of the good guys.

Most of the people I’ve listed here are in design fields. Design has become a shorthand way of referring to a supposed way of thinking, and claims are routinely made for design that it lies at the heart of the creative industries. I’m rather sceptical about all of this. I think design in its contemporary incarnation is often largely an advertising word, a weasel-word. Design at its worst is a pseudo-culture that can be painted onto almost any activity the easier to sell it. Quite often, ‘design’ has been the camouflage for a very Thatcherite agenda whereby the shareholding has been kept in one set of hands, based or at least serviced in the UK, while the labour of making things has been exported to cheaper markets elsewhere. Dyson, for example, the design-branded electrical-appliance company, has steadily moved production from its base in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, to Malaysia while keeping research and development mainly in the UK. It is naturally no coincidence that the production was mainly done by people who were members of trade unions; the R&D is done mainly by people who are not.

Similarly, while a wide range of businesses thrive in the UK for whom some part of their assets are creative thinking and creative practices, a lot of blather about the ‘creative industries’ refers to a sector in which many of the participants would not recognise those with whom they are supposed to share the label, let alone acknowledge any common ground. We may be world leaders in computer aided graphics effects for films, for example, but I doubt that the people who work doing that have ever felt close cousinhood with those who run market research companies for advertising. Sometimes it would be better to think of the creative industries as just one sector of the new European reality that says we are better at services than we are at goods.

There is a huge culture of design, of course, and very important and serious it is, too. But it is not that which is under discussion when a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge chair sells for £1 million at auction, nor when the word ‘designer’ is used as a kitemark for aspirational and safe and expensive. Designer handbag. Designer restaurant. Design in fact is very like photography: long history, wide spread, deep range from vernacular or applied to wholly self-conscious. But somehow design has been actively marketed and lobbied-for in the last half-generation, with predictable increases all around. Design is booming. Auction houses now have glamorous sales of design quite separate to the sales of furniture or print or clothing (or other designed stuff) they used to have. University courses in design areas are multiplying by the year. And at the upper end of all of that, lots of designers are quite regularly asked to speak on behalf of the whole pack of cards. So are TV people, people in theatre, music, publishing, architecture…Universities of course relentlessly lobby government and bend the ears of the upper reaches of the press corps. It works. It makes a difference.


Design makes the interesting contrast to photography. Who has the equivalent role for photography?   If a museum needs to campaign against the cuts, or a change is mooted in the curriculum for ‘A’ Level study, or a failure in intellectual property law cries out for lobbying in Parliament – who speaks for photography?

Silence. Resounding, echoing silence.

There are plausible systemic reasons for this, or at least one could argue so.

The first is the sheer breadth of photography. It is naturally very hard to find a strategic or policy stance which might sensibly apply to photography as a main driver of contemporary fine art, photography in advertising, photography as a tool of memory (or group memory), journalism, scientific photography, photography in education, photography as just another of the many ways a modern person has of expressing herself …. Some of the members of each of those sectors actively despise the members of the others, and few of them know enough about each other to feel any shared social connection simply by their shared ownership of an extraordinarily diverse practice which is hardly recognizably the same for all of them.

For a long time I have been writing that the fact that we all own cameras and can use them at the drop of a hat not only to take pictures but to disseminate them, too, does not make us all photographers. We need a new vocabulary. The estate agent who routinely makes and disseminates photographs as part of his work is not a photographer. I’ve suggested that we use the expression camera-operator for all those uses, and reserve photographer for those who self-consciously expect some appreciation of what they do as connected to previous photographs.

That’s problematic enough. Who can speak for photography as a whole if we’re already hiving off great chunks of photographic activity as being non-photographic?

There’s another way of looking at it. With only a small shift of mindset, photography is not a sector or a sub-sector of the creative businesses. Photography dates from a long time before bicycling, but it helps to think of it in the same way. Both are tremendous Victorian technologies which triggered social change far beyond the expectations of the pioneers who launched into them. It is a romantic thought but hardly an exaggeration to say that the bicycle was the single most important factor in the liberation of women, in particular. The stifling conventions of British industrial towns were broken down partly by the two genders sharing long cycle tours – the first affordable individual transport for ordinary waged people. And if it should so happen that a lady and a gentleman should be delayed by a puncture, well, that happened, and the rest of the club would wait for them at the chosen campsite or Cycle Touring Club hostel further on. Courting would never be the same.

This simple machine, readily affordable, mendable, adaptable, light in the resources needed to make it and slow to decay helped to defeat the trillion-dollar US army in Vietnam and powered the Chinese social uplift in its early phases. In countries which have embraced it – in the Netherlands, say – you no more call yourself a cyclist than you call yourself a trainist because you use a train to get from one city to another. Everybody uses a bike, granny or schoolchild, to go about business. She does it in normal clothes, without feeling the need to adhere to a sect of activists to do it. The government sees that cycling is a universal good, and facilitates it, by policy and by funding and by administration in its favour. There are certainly racers and mountain-bikers and long-distance people, too. But they choose to identify themselves: they are cyclists. Everyone else is just a citizen, who will be, many times a week, upon a bike.

Precisely the same can be said about photography. Photography has been for years a universal tool. It too is a wonderful Victorian technology that has spread far beyond its origins. The successive democratisations of photography have had their effect. Of course there are some enthusiasts who want to think about photography and photographs. I’m one of them. But the vast majority are just citizens, who many times a week want to communicate or be communicated to through photographs and their derivatives. We’re mostly not photographers. We’re consumers of photography on a huge scale, and some of us are camera operators.

So another parallel seems to fit. Photography is like gardening. It’s something which tends to the common good, but only a tiny proportion of those who do it would regard themselves as ‘serious’ and an even smaller number earn their living from it. Yet that is enough to make a large interlinked group of professions depend on gardening. No doubt gardening between all its aspects represents a share of the balance of trade. Huge numbers of people are passionately literate in gardens without for a moment considering it even among their specialist activities. But people speak for gardening all the time. Gardening permeates our culture. Design is beginning to. More specific cultural activities like cinema and literary fiction and opera have disproportionately huge broadsheet coverage, funding and numberless hordes of spokespeople. Yet photography, which is really the shared culture of all of us, has none of that. There are few photography writers and fewer photography sections in the papers. There is no administration to facilitate it, no policy.

Photography is not really defined as an industry in quite the same way as the (pop) music business or advertising or television or even architecture (with its direct connections to construction). In contrast to other creative industries, photography as an industry is actually rather diminished, now. Where fashion can still be more or less be quantified by pounds spent, even if they are now spent online, photography no longer has huge factories churning out film or cameras. The former manufacturing base has been disseminated through a wide range of digital hardware and software manufacturers few of whom now think of themselves as mainly in photography . Much of the online practice of photography is free. Getty Images in March of this year made the final price reduction – to £0.00, free to use ­ – on thirty-five million pictures. Photography departments in museums are tiny groups of four or five people.   The truth is that photography remains, in spite of one or two massive attempts to aggregate it into corporate blocks, essentially a group of interlinked cottage industries. One of the salient facts about photography is that nobody controls it in the way that the music business or the film business or even the big-bucks sectors of publishing are controlled by corporate entities. That militates against one voice speaking on behalf of the whole of it.

Photography tends to show a remarkably wide range of business models corresponding in some way to a wide range of forms of expression. The guy who rents out his drone-helicopter with a number of rotors to act as a stable platform for aerial photography may not feel that he has much in common with Miss Cara Delevingne. One can see that it might be hard to find representative voices for both of them, and then to multiply that out by hundreds of sectors. It would be fun to map the readerships of the various magazines which are based upon photography. Is there any single person with a subscription both to Esquire and to Railway Modeller? Yet both are in a real sense photo-magazines.

There are Getty Images, of course, and Corbis. But I have never been made aware of any public pronouncement from either which had any claim to broad general application. They are companies, and when they speak they speak in the interests of the shareholders or owner. Maybe they are too young still to feel any public responsibility for ‘the field’ or the business’. Or maybe they just stick to their onions.



There has only ever been one holder of the position of Photography Officer at the Arts Council. Barry Lane held that job from 1973, and oversaw a specialist photography sub-committee which carried on throughout the 1980s allocating grants and also purchases into the Arts Council collection by acquisition. But, as David Mellor’s 2008 touring show No Such Thing as Society so vividly demonstrated, there are enormous gaps in the Arts Council collection, notably after Barry Lane left. Photography was then subsumed in the wider visual arts as far as the Arts Council was concerned, there to sink or swim as it might. Lane was anyway more concerned with documentary than with other practices, and the Arts Council never really even glanced at the wider photography world. With tiny budgets, incomprehension if not downright hostility from those who might have helped, an impossible task in a dozen different ways, Lane tried to speak for the whole and within reason made a good job of it. Could one envisage his post being re-created? I think so, although Lane’s own struggles go a long way to showing that it can’t be done without structure, strategy, and support.

There is no national ‘home’ for photography. The museum in Bradford deliberately (and disastrously) abjured the role when it changed its policy from being the museum anchored to collections in photography, film and television, to being a museum anchored in something weaselly defined as media, in which it still holds no serious collection and likely never will. There has never been a BBC strand devoted to photography — and I continue to be amazed that there has not. Given that photography stretches from high art to high vernacular, it would be hugely popular. The BBC should at the very least have a photography correspondent, to be wheeled out across their various platforms when photography comes to be at issue. That might be for the release of a new set of Abu Ghraib pictures or potentially trumped-up phone photos from the ISIS insurgency in Iraq or it might be for the latest papped picture of documents carefully-carelessly exposed by ministers rushing in to Cabinet or to analyse satellite pictures of pollution in the Western Approaches.   The UK is actually falling back in photography. We’re falling back in the museology of the thing, in commerce, everywhere. We have had (although at the moment the UK lags far behind other countries in this area) absolutely world-leading creative directors and art-directors, but they don’t act in concert. We have lost a number of photographic festivals, and although there are new ones in the pipeline, the catch-up to the Rencontres at Arles or Paris-Photo is dauntingly far. We are especially bad at promoting our own: in the UK excellent photographers routinely fall into obscurity for lack of that proud national conviction that they should be honoured, whose equivalent is so visible in other countries with a comparable photographic culture.

The great national museums do what they can, but not one of them has at the moment a charismatic leader in the photographic field. Excellent departmental curators, certainly. But national figures? Probably not. We have museum practitioners, itching and twitching to do more than they can. Yet who in the wider public has ever heard a word pronounced by John Falconer, devoted and long-term head of photographs at the British Library? The British Library is headed by Roly Keating, who grew up in the cultural reaches of the BBC. You can bet your bottom dollar that he has been heard arguing for books, literacy, culture in general. He is the head of one of the great photographic collections in the world. Has he ever said a word in public even about his own holdings, leave alone photography in the wild?

There are really no voices on the model even of the people I opened with above. The day when a government minister can say with a straight face that ‘Government has taken note..’ of a spokesman for photography will be the day that the tide will have turned. We have in photography our share of time-servers and officials in the Ministry of Circumlocution, of course. No doubt even as you read this, somebody is including photography in a seven-point plan or a ‘downwardly reassigned budgetary solution’. But that’s not speaking for photography. That’s merely trying to manage it.

When there were more physical photographic products to be advertised than there are now, there was no natural place in the mainstream media to advertise them. The Sunday supplements, photographic papers in the very fibre of their bones, never made any attempt to seduce the industry. My own specialist corner reveals the same picture. I review exhibitions and sometimes books for a broadsheet audience. But I have suggested for years that I be allowed to review advertising campaigns, news photographs, scientific pictures… I want to write obituaries of great picture editors, write about how estate agents use photography. Zilch. Zip. No interest. Photography, which could be as widely discussed (I was tempted to write ‘is as important’) as food, is still kept in its little marginal corners.

We used not to have a culture ministry, deeming it a rather threatening, European, slightly rum sort of thing. We had a Reithian BBC and an Arts Council which was once run on the principles laid down by Jennie Lee. We had heroic short-cutters of museum directors like Kenneth Clark or Roy Strong. But in 1992, the day after the election, we got a ministry, (perhaps partly because some civil servants had looked with envy at the centralised, almost imperial, cultural regime run – with a gap – by Jack Lang in France from 1981 to 1992). It was originally called the Department for National Heritage, and entrusted with a weird magpie’s collection of bits and pieces from elsewhere. The jewels in the crown – mishandled without exception – were the granting of licenses to exploit mobile communications, the development of broadband, the reform of the horse racing industry, a number of Olympic bids, and an untried form of voluntary taxation in the shape of a new National Lottery whose winnings would in some mysterious way be devoted to the celebration of the Millennium. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has stayed one of the smaller departments, and with the exception of Chris Smith, one which has always been headed by people who were manifestly less than thrilled to be placed there and whose collective contribution to national cultural prosperity has been nugatory. David Lammy, anyone? Maria Miller?

Periodically, the DCMS has conducted a weird exercise in Blairite social control, which has been the attempt to map the creative industries. Modern management – and a fortiori government – can’t do things without obsessive collation of measurables, and unfortunately in the cultural sphere more than in any other (except perhaps religion) measuring is the last thing you can do with any precision. ‘Creative industries’, after all, is not only an unsatisfactory catch-all term that doesn’t hold water, but is also obviously a domain where it’s harder than usual to match outputs from specific inputs in order to measure them. In the Blairite vision (shared, by the way between Labour and Conservatives quite indifferently – I only use Blair’s label because his people articulated it most clearly) culture has to pay its way. Ask anybody who has run a publicly-funded gallery or a ballet company or even a library in recent years and they will sigh as they tell you about the struggle to do things in the hallowed names of diversity, and access, and fitting in with the national curriculum… In other fields, notably in that of finance, practitioners have been allowed to do whatever they liked in the name of excellence; the massive public bail-outs in the banking industry, the constant vast subsidy of the nominally self-financing railway companies, any number of examples show that it wasn’t always necessarily such a good idea. But in culture, where the risks and costs were much lower, practitioners have been forced to toe the line. Culture has had to have social utility or face being cut off from the money. Excellence has come a long way behind.

So the DCMS conducts this absurd exercise every so often in mapping the cultural industries. So does the Arts Council, and, guess what? Neither of them has ever been able to find room for photography. Because, you see, nobody speaks for photography in their meeting rooms any more than they do in the broadsheets or on the radio. Terra Incognita. Here be Monsters.

The greatest recent public contribution to photography has arguably been the Artist Rooms, the touring shows of individual artists from the enormous donation of the art dealer Anthony d’Offay, which happened to be weighted quite markedly towards photography. The ethos of the gift – touring shows, works not separated from each other – was set by the donor. That the donor happened to be interested in — more than interested in: passionate about — photography to some extent set the agenda. The Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, which together administer the gift, simply had to hold out their hands. The d’Offay donation has willy-nilly accelerated the interest those institutions took in photography. It is even arguable that it changed the national agenda quite specifically. His donation, called “the most important thing that has happened in the art world in this country in my lifetime” by Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, was announced in spring of 2009. By the autumn of that year, the Tate had appointed Simon Baker as its first ever curator of photographs.   Is it wrong to see that the two were intimately connected? Is it possible to think that Baker might not have been appointed and the Tate would have carried on serenely mistreating photography as it had for generations, had d’Offay’s pressure not been brought most specifically to bear? One can have reservations about how it has been done without denying that photography has been a success at the Tate. It beggars belief that it might not have been an act of policy at all, however much the bland corporate announcements and press releases suggested that it had been. It might have been a purely pragmatic response to one very powerful donor speaking for photography.

It is impolite to recall that less than a generation earlier, the Circulation Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, responsible for a permanent succession of tours (some of which had also been of photography) which represented similar brilliant value for money, had been axed. No one spoke for photography then.

The sad detail is that photography really does tick every one of the social-utility boxes. It is transnational and transcultural.   It traverses (nearly) seamlessly from one kind of support to another, being notably successfully transplanted to the internet and to digital screens. It can be used and understood by children and by professors: no-one, however disadvantaged, need be excluded from photography, and everyone can find some benefit from it. It can tell truths or stories, be useful or be exalting. It is the communication tool of the age, and still we treat it as a marginal offshoot of the visual arts. If it’s commercial, we condescend to it; if it’s personal we overlook it.



There still exists (or until recently there still existed – it is hard to tell the precise moment of death of something moribund) a nearly unknown entity called the Committee of National Photographic Collections. The curators of a dozen or more great national collections of photography meet every so often, to discuss matters of shared import. Over many years, these discussions have been more a professional exchange than a strategic one: setting sensible standards for the number of lumens appropriate to fall on older photographs, knowledge exchange about digital files, that kind of thing. As things stand, the committee struggles because it has no independent financing. To attend a meeting, curators need to find a train fare and maybe a couple of nights in a hotel, and (absurdly) that simple and necessary strategic expenditure is often beyond their reach. Every so often we read of the discontinuation of the Committee, and indeed, we are in a period now again when it is talked about as under threat or actually disbanded.

The core of the national interest in photography is represented in the national collections. There are certainly dozens of photographic activities which are not intimately tied to collecting or the old institutional framework which kept collecting at its heart. But all could benefit from a vigorous, informed, flexible, contemporary, brave collecting culture. It is through the collections that analysis can be disseminated; and it is shared analysis of photographs that we lack. Scholarship in all its forms (far beyond the scholarship merely of learned men; I mean the scholarship which gives a new producer the chance to see the things done in his field before himself, which allows children to see that old wars were not so different to new wars…) is anchored in collections. There are plenty of great art directors and photographers who would no more set foot in the V&A or the Birmingham Central Library than they would set foot in the Opera House. But make the collections more relevant to them and they will be there.   You have to start somewhere.

But the committee that could bind these great collections is toothless. Give it a director, a secretariat, a small budget, and some legislative teeth, and it could do wonders. Let us give it a try. Let us have a Director of the National Photography Collections, or let’s broaden it and say a Director of Photography Policy, to shout from the rooftops on behalf of photography. That person naturally won’t represent all the many constituencies of photography evenly, but without him or her, the gradual silencing of photography as a cultural asset will continue.

It is amazing, but true, that there are no conservators of photography employed full-time by the state in Britain. There used to be one ­- a brilliant one – named Liz Martin, who worked at the V&A in London. She died sadly early (in 2003) and her post has been ‘frozen’ ever since. Other institutions have conservators who work sometimes on photographs, but they are trained experts in glass or paper, not necessarily specialists in photography. Yet photography was invented in Britain, and boomed here early. We have an incredible stockpile of fragile early material in the national holdings that already needs attention. Appoint someone to oversee strategy in photography, and major long-term problems like that should begin to be addressed. That the problems have been allowed to grow so urgent has been partly because no-one speaks for photography.

So I envisage a director of the national collections, looking not to oversee the individual choices of the collecting departments, but to lobby on their behalf, to draw together workable strategic plans and to work toward their implementation. Such a person would naturally have been answerable to the Museums, Libraries and Archives council, but that no longer exists. So the role will have to answer to the Arts Council or perhaps directly to the ministry. Gradually, that role, one person and a small office, will touch others, and suddenly there will be people – concertedly and with purpose – speaking for photography. High time, too.

Ansel Adams in the Bath

I’m working on an exhibition of the work of Bernard Plossu and have been thinking about him and his work recently. He is a Frenchman, but thoroughly international in his outlook, his experience and his references. He is very well known in France, pretty well known in the US and Spain and Italy and Mexico but completely unknown in the UK.

How is it that photography, which is in theory transnational and transcultural and can make sense to anyone with curious eyes to see, is still divided into these odd (and oddly spurious) categories? Why would an Englishman interested in the kinds of things that interest Plossu not have been made aware of his pictures?

National groupings are the most obvious, but there are others. Who counts as a “journalist” and who doesn’t, who counts as an “artist-using-photography” and who doesn’t…? There are ferocious battles about what is and isn’t street photography, landscape and so on. In my new role as an academic, I’m still falling about laughing at the gymnastics those photographers go through to kid themselves their work is ’research’. That one will take some getting used to.

Claiming or refuting these memberships is sometimes a self-serving manoeuvre, sometimes an accident, sometimes a label stuck on a photographer and sometimes a label a photographer greedily sticks on herself or himself. But labels are (by definition) shorthand for much more complicated descriptions. They’re not swipe cards, to let you through certain gates but keep you out of others. It’s odd, in the age of the internet, and in photography above all, which travels so smoothly from generation to generation, and from screen to wall, and from public to private, that these absurd divisions should persist.


A page from Les Cahiers de la Photographie, 1984.  The picture reproduced was made by Plossu  in Egypt in 1977.

A page by Bernard Plossu from Les Cahiers de la Photographie, 1984.
The picture reproduced within it was made by Plossu in Egypt in 1977.

Here is a page by Bernard Plossu which seems to be driving in that same direction. The question this time is who should or should not be considered an ‘autobiographical’ photographer, but the sentiment is transferable with ease all over photography and its unjustifiable borders. It was published in Gilles Mora and Claude Nori’s Les Cahiers de la Photographie (of which Plossu was then listed as the sole US correspondent, with a PO Box in Santa Fe, New Mexico), volume 13, 1st trimestrial issue of 1984, an issue specifically devoted to the autobiographical in photography, and I don’t find that it has ever been translated into English. It’s a beautiful page, and the thought of Ansel Adams in Les Krims’ bath makes me laugh.

Les Krims, GI Joe Wounded and In Flames Fleeing the Giant Nude Monster, 1975.   From Fictcryptokrimsographs, Krims' wonderfully inventive book of manipulated Polaroids. SX-70

Les Krims, GI Joe Wounded and In Flames Fleeing the Giant Nude Monster, 1975.
From Fictcryptokrimsographs, Krims’ wonderfully inventive book of manipulated SX-70 Polaroids. I am not quite sure that this is her, but the model Krims used again and again for older women in his pictures was his mother, one of the longest suffering mothers in art history.


Ansel Adams, as seen in Apple's widely lauded 'Think Different' campaign which ran from 1997. That campaign specifically associated Adams with Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and a host of other greats. And Jim Henson. Ansel Adams is one of the very few photographers to have a mountain named after him. ( you can't countLord Snowdon - he was named after the mountain.

Ansel Adams, as seen in Apple’s widely lauded ‘Think Different’ campaign which ran from 1997.
That campaign specifically associated Adams with Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and a host of other greats. And Jim Henson.
Ansel Adams is one of the very few photographers to have a mountain named after him. (You can’t count Lord Snowdon – he was named after the mountain.)

This is Plossu’s text from the page above:


“To be for or against autobiography is a non-problem: no-one can deny that a photograph, by the very fact of having been taken, is a realization, a sort of mental self-portrait, pure and simple. Ansel Adams’ pictures of Yosemite are autobiographical, and how! Les Krims’ pictures of naval battles in his bathtub are autobiographical; the assemblages of Fleig[i] are autobiographical; Nori flirting is autobiographical, and taking sides for or against is a nonsense. Further, let’s imagine Ansel Adams making lunatic photographs in his bath: unthinkable. Or let’s picture Les Krims making grandiose landscapes in the face of the mountains of Yosemite: unthinkable. And in any case, those ‘for’ autobiography and those ‘against’ it both like the same photographer, Robert Frank. Why? Because he’s good, that’s why. And what about Diane Arbus? She it was who said the most important thing about photography: “ it’s important to take bad pictures.” When it comes down to it, he was absolutely right, that kid in Egypt, to stick his hand in front of my lens.”


This translation is mine. The sentiment is still true, although it comes from another time and another place. But you know what? If pictures should be able to cross all those borders more easily and with less fuss, then writing about pictures should do the same.


[i] Alain Fleig, another of the founders of the Cahiers de la Photographie, also too little known outside the little borders of France. He was a photographer, but he was also and perhaps mainly a fine academic enquirer into photography. His dates are 1942 -2012.


Three Cheers for Mr. Yo Kaminagai


Open platforms were a civilizing influlence, too

Open platforms were a civilizing influence, too

A little while ago I published here a little musing about the elegant human-scale double-ting that Paris buses make when in proximity with pedestrians. Today, the letter that I print below arrived, and I think it’s a delight. I’m grateful to Song Phanekam for taking the trouble to write, and to write so well. I like the way the blog has actually done what the internet js supposed to do, which is put people in touch who might otherwise not have any connection.

I must admit, I’m also amused that such a little thing as a double-ting is just as worthy of thinking about as weightier design.

So much so, that I propose, if somebody will sponsor it properly, to start a prize. It will be in honour of Mr. Kaminagai, and it will be awarded to designers or engineers who make or have made big improvements to life with very small inexpensive but thoughtful adjustments.  Because you know what?  A bus that modestly tings pedestrians out of its way is a civilizing influence on the city, and we need more of those.


Enjoy the letter; the author has kindly given me the go-ahead to reprint.




Dear Francis,

I just ran into your website after doing some research on Google about sound design… and I read your post <>

Actually, I am in charge of the sound design of the automated audio passenger information systems at RATP. Reading posts like yours encourages me to keep RATP on that track!

I do agree with you, the small details in design can make the difference, as long as they have a purpose! Often, people would think that my job is to add sounds everywhere! Actually I screen every request in order to put the most appropriate sounds at the most relevant moments. And the most important thing: giving a sense of storytelling!

In many transport agencies, the audio announcements are way too numerous. For instance, I do love the London Tube, but the constant announcements is somewhat annoying and irritating… Based on many observations throughout the world, we came up with a very simple solution that you described very well in your post.

We have also banned unnecessary announcements such as ‘the next station is…’ (of course it is the next station, it will not be the one after that) or even any interchange information! We have quickly realised that most passengers have planned ahead their route: they know at which station to get off (to exit or to change). Therefore, the station name was considered as the most valuable information: hearing its name is enough to remind someone to alight.

And next time you will visit the Paris metro, you will notice that the voice you can hear on board is not the same depending of the line you use. As each line is color coded, we found that it would be adequate to have a different voice for each line. A way of creating a strong sound identity for each line, helping the visually impaired (and finally everyone) to recognise their favourite routes.

Regarding the bell designed for the bus, I have nothing more to say, you perfectly captured the meaning of that specific design!

Again, thank you for your article! I have added in cc. Mr Yo Kaminagai, who had first the idea of the station announcements with two inflections and the bus warning signal when he was in charge of design management at RATP. You have now the answer to your final question of your article!

Best regards,

Song Phanekham

Corporate visual identity | Corporate sound design



[The RATP is the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, the Paris transport authority]

Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry

It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.

Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points.  So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures:  a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community.  The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story.  More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling.  Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different.  Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron.  Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect.  Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption.  When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed.  Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness:  we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it.  To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter.  They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together.  In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts.  Two men cross in an alley.  Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place.  We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera.  But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion.  There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right.  It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place.  The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important.    Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below.  Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space.  You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography.  The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first.  Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here.   Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger.  In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.

There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique.  There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner.  Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering.  Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer.  Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point.  There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera.  A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth.  It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left.  But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.

Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it.  I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought.   There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones.  Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth.  But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor.  It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again.  Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths?  They’re factual, sure enough.  But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt.  But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that.  Great photographers don’t, and why should they?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.

It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture.  Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency.  But something has changed.  Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing.  It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before.  Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer.  Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’.  Photographers are different.  They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth.  Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.

The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion.  “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.”  That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important.  Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing.  It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way.  Every truth has been told.  The truth is no longer enough.

A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”.  You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.

Small Noises: Designing for People

The RATP, the Paris public transport authority, has a long and glorious association with design. There are the great and lasting wonders such as the Guimard metro entrances. There have been consistent technological and industrial advances – the full automation of Metro Line 1 is the most obvious example that passengers see today. The Metro runs on tyres, its service intervals are frequent, its spaces and structures are daring, pleasing, and where possible spacious. There are no doubt a thousand design-led features of the RATP which passengers never see and hardly need to know about.

But not all design involves built things or systems, and not all design needs to involve huge costs or massive engineering. Sometimes all you need to do is think.

Commuting time is squeezed at both ends, by the demands of home and work. Commuting involves the closest contact that most citizens ever have with strangers, unless they happen to be doctors or masseuses. Commuting involves individuals giving up a fraction of their self-determination: they are in the hands of others. When it does not take place underground, commuting often takes place in the open air, subject to weather and light. All of this means that customers of public transport systems are almost by definition stressed. Any thought tending to alleviate that stress might pay good dividends. Once again, somebody in the Paris RATP has done the thinking, and others have implemented the thought.

When a train approaches a station, an announcement within it calls the station name to warn passengers how far they have come and whether they need to be ready to disembark. Nothing very original about that; I’m sure all underground railways have something of the kind, if only because it tends to speed up the pause at every station. But in Paris, they have made the pre-recorded announcements twice. As the trains pull in to every station, the name is now announced first in a mildly interrogative tone, and then ten seconds later, in a tone of more confident certainty. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s brilliant.

The interrogation mirrors the mild stress that even experienced passengers feel as they approach a station. Is this my stop, have I missed one, can I get out in time…? But then that more assured answer immediately acts to defuse that tension. Question asked and answered. That’s all, no drama.

A very human kind of Paris bus, drawn by the incomparable Ludwig Bemelmans and included in his Madeline of 1939.  This in fact predates the RATP.

A very human kind of Paris bus, drawn by the incomparable Ludwig Bemelmans and included in his Madeline of 1939. This in fact predates the RATP.

Buses are large heavy vehicles not unlike trucks. Paris buses like buses everywhere else sometimes have to alert other large heavy vehicles of their presence, so they have truck horns appropriate to that. But buses in Paris are also expected to share the roads with humans. There are humans pushing bicycles, of the Vélib’ cycle-share scheme, or privately owned. There are also humans on foot, for Paris buses now go through pedestrianized lengths of streets. In these contexts, a truck horn is a wildly inappropriate tool. So somebody has equipped Paris buses with a second warning sound. You can hardly call it a horn: it’s a gentle bell, louder than a bicycle bell but not by much, whose double ting adds nearly nothing to ambient street noise, and which doesn’t frighten the life out of cyclist or walker when a bus glides up behind her.

Again, it’s not a big thing. But it makes a big difference to the quality of life for all concerned. Even passengers within the bus, not necessarily concerned with the driving conditions outside, are eased by the bare awareness that their vehicle takes its place in the human scale of the city. “Ting – we’re here”, is a vastly different psychological gesture to “PRAARP – GET OUT OF MY WAY”. In other cities, trams have a gentle ting; and they’re often much loved as part of the fabric of life. It doesn’t take much.

I wonder if the same person designed the Metro announcements and the bus bells? Can there be an RATP sound engineer, quietly going about making the public transport of the city more liveable? I hope so. She’s doing it amazingly well.

A Near Approach to Greatness: Meet Victor Albert Prout

Victor Albert Prout. Pangbourne, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Pangbourne, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

A few months ago I had again the pleasure of spending a day at the Hulton archive in West London, the former Hulton Picture Library, long since a part of Getty Images. There I was introduced by Sarah McDonald, the curator of the archive, to a series, unfamiliar to me, of panoramic views of the Thames by Victor Albert Prout, a photographer I’d heard of but only barely. A single picture from the Thames series is reproduced in the first volume of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s the Photobook: A History[i], for example. I’d seen that and vaguely remembered having done so and it was easy to find again. But I liked the pictures in the Hulton Archive very much and kept them both in mind and on my iPhone. So I was pleased recently when the British Photographic History blog carried a small announcement that Joan Osmond, a direct descendant of Victor Prout, had produced a biographic volume[ii] which would shed more light on the little-known author of this fine series of pictures.

The Thames From London to Oxford in Forty Photographs was published by Virtue and Company in London in 1862. There was a second issue with only thirty-six images. A number of odd pictures exist which clearly relate to the series but were not included in the edition, among them the illustrated picture from a lot offered but unsold at Christie’s New York in 2002[iii], which itself seems to be perhaps the one Mrs. Osmond describes as “recently come to light in Australia[iv]“. A number of private and institutional holdings exist with variant collections, and Mrs. Osmond has published a partial list of these. I was surprised that she makes no mention of the Getty holdings, but then she makes no claim to the completeness of her listing.

Victor Albert Prout. Water Oakley, Near Windsor, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Water Oakley, Near Windsor, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout Twickenham, before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout
Twickenham, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Marlow, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Marlow, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Hampton Court, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Hampton Court, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout Henley-on-Thames, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout
Henley-on-Thames, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Day's Lock, Before 1862. courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Day’s Lock, Before 1862.
courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout. Boat House, Park Place, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Boat House, Park Place, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

There was apparently a time when it was possible to think that these pictures might be by Roger Fenton. Mrs. Osmond has unearthed a piquant correspondence between Roger Hannavy, Gail Buckland, and Roger Pratt from 1974, in which the authorship of Prout is definitely established. This is in part because a Mrs. Eleanor Andrews gave a set of forty of the prints to the Royal Photographic Society in 1973. Mrs. Andrews was Mrs. Osmond’s mother, and her dry account is simply this: “In the autumn [of 2010] I went to Bradford to the National Media Museum to see if their album was the one my mother had given away (without telling any of us) and, as I expected, it was[v].” Out of such lasting family resentments are things like biographies made.

It has to be admitted in the first place that the Thames views are by far the most successful pictures by Prout to have survived. A series on Westminster Abbey and another on some jollities at Mar Lodge, Braemar, in 1863 are decent in their way but not scintillating. A number of cartes-de-visite and theatrical studies make up the rest of the Prout oeuvre from Britain and these hardly step out of the middle rank. The public clearly thought so, for Victor Prout in spite of some periods of success, had a restless commercial career and appeared a number of times in the bankruptcy courts. In Australia (for Prout emigrated there like his father, although both came back after a time) he still found great success elusive – his work is traceable but hardly distinguished.

That might lead to a question in its own right. How does a photographer rise above his own level to produce something once in a while of greater merit? For the Thames From London to Oxford really is a very good series of pictures. Parr and Badger put it this way: ”While their possible technique is of interest, what is much more important is how good they are as pictures. … Thanks to the incessant horizontality of its banks, a river is an ideal subject for the panoramic photograph, yet although the picture form is there ‘naturally’, so to speak, Prout still had to make the best of it. And it can be concluded that he did, usually managing to find a vertical element just where he needed it to counteract the ruthless horizontal[vi].” Parr and Badger go on to use the expression “consistently attractive” to describe these pictures and they are.

Some of the clues are in Joan Osmond’s new book. For if Victor Prout is a notch below the greatest photographers by genius or by subject matter, he presents a very powerful study in links and connections. His great-uncle was Samuel Prout, a fine watercolour artist of whom Ruskin was a considerable fan. “Sometimes I tire of Turner, but never of Prout” Ruskin is supposed to have said[vii]. His father was John Skinner Prout, a landscape painter who emigrated to Australia when Victor was a child. It does seem that landscape is the stuff that Victor Prout knew best.

Skinner Prout was not just any landscape specialist. Back from Australia in 1850 he had exhibited a diorama of his travels at the Western Literary Institute in Leicester Square. Joan Osmond quotes the Art Journal: “A series of views from sketches made in Australia by Mr. Prout…. They comprise the principal points of attraction in the Colony and show the peculiar features of its landscape scenery which in some instances is very characteristic and beautiful. The views of the penal settlements exhibit the peculiarities of convict life in all its distressing forms, and the anecdotes with which the lecturer enlivens his local information tend towards the clearer comprehension of the same phase of society[viii].“ The diorama may seem lame entertainment now, with our all-singing, all dancing fully interactive immersive entertainment – although I like the idea of the whole auditorium turning slowly as a single operative cranked a handle to make the spectators face a new part of the picture, or a part already seen differently lit. But you only need to cast your mind back to the popularity of slide shows as late as the 1960s to get some idea of how successful a diorama might be. The most famous diorama man, at least to modern audiences versed in the history of photography, was Daguerre himself. His circular building in London remains between Regent’s Park, the Euston Road and Albany Street, and the showy lettering announcing it is still legible on a high pediment in Park Square East. There is an excellent description of the working of the London Diorama in John Timbs’ Curiosities of London[ix].

Skinner Prout had to perform his diorama, a cross between a master-of-ceremonies and a voice-over, twice a day and it ran for six months in Leicester Square. From 1852 he reprised it at an address of considerable significance: 309 Regent Street. This was the address of the Royal Polytechnic Institute (founded 1838) which contained a number of interesting attributes, including a suite of photographic studios originally set up by Daguerre’s licensee Richard Beard. Again, Skinner Prout had to be physically present at every performance. A colleague of Skinner Prout’s there was a cousin, Samuel Prout Newcombe. And he’s another interesting connection.

By the census of 1861, three Newcombe brothers were earning their livings as professional photographers[x]. It’s not such a famous name any more, but the Newcombes were close to the centre of the boom in photography in the London of the 1850s. Samuel Prout Newcombe owned a chain of photographic portrait studios, and also owned several branches of the London School of Photography, including the headquarters which were at that very same 309 Regent Street address as the Polytechnic. His brother, Charles Newcombe was first assisted by and then a partner of Victor Prout’s brother Edgar, who eventually bought out [Charles] Newcombe’s share in their Regent Street studio.

The Prouts and the Newcombes, a numerous clan of largely Kentish Town, Camden Town and Islington minor entrepreneurs, were intimately connected by family and by financial links, and they were right at the core of the boom that took place when Richard Beard’s patent on the daguerreotype ran out in 1849. That release, plus Eugène Disdéri’s invention of the multiple-lens camera which allowed the full exploitation of the carte-de-visite format (from 1854, a little later in England), plus Frederick Scott Archer’s collodion process of 1851 together made all the difference between photography remaining an interesting operation for amateur gentlemen and becoming the roaring world-wide trade that it did. To quote David Simkin again: “At the time of the 1851 census, less than a dozen inhabitants of London described themselves as professional photographers (described variously on census returns as ‘Photographer’, ‘Photographic Artist’, ‘Daguerreotype Artist’ and ‘Talbotype Artist’). By 1855, there were over a hundred establishments in London producing photographic likenesses. An analysis of the 1861 census returns for London revealed that there were 284 persons working as photographic artists in the capital[xi].” Many of these were up and down Regent Street (indeed the street now called Glasshouse Street is said to be so named because of the large number of daylight studios built on the roofs in this period to satisfy the burgeoning demand mainly for portraiture.) Right in the eye of that hurricane, taking risks and learning new tricks that they hoped would sell, were a cluster of Prout and Newcombe cousins, allying with each other or separating as the vagaries of family history and trade dictated.

Victor Prout was 15 when he assisted his father in working the diorama in Leicester Square. Between then and his early twenties, photography looked like a business in which it might be easy to succeed (although we know that dozens in fact failed). If one had no artistic talent he might get by on technical improvements of one kind or another, or might simply move to territories less overcrowded with photographic establishments than Regent Street. Victor Prout did both of those things.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, contemplating the curious shape of Victor Prout’s Thames pictures, said this: “The origins of photography lie in the world of the diorama, a cross between art and spectacle where the world was depicted in what today would be called a ‘wide-screen’ manner. Many panoramas were created simply by photographing consecutive images and joining them together, but there were also attempts to make cameras that would produce wide-vision images using a lens that swung round and ‘scanned’ progressive sections of the picture plane…It is not certain whether Prout used one of the ‘Pantoscope’ panoramic cameras patented by John Johnson and John Harrison that same year [1862] but they were not ‘joined’ panoramas. They display the kind of perspective that that suggests that they were taken with a swinging lens ­– that is to say, a genuine panoramic camera[xii].”

Yes, indeed.

It turns out that Prout was more than a little inclined to invention. Mrs. Osmond reprints Patent B1009 of 8th April 1865[xiii], in which Prout protects his improvements in the matter of panoramic cameras. A clockwork timing mechanism seems neat but not necessarily essential. But Prout seems also to have worked on improving the shutter mechanism to control the exposure given to various parts of the plate, and notably to have turned his mind to a system of screens designed to allow the sky and the foreground to be exposed together without overexposure of the sky. The date is after the publication of the Thames pictures, but the patent makes it perfectly clear that Prout’s experience of panoramas had led him to certain advantages which he wanted to defend against others. The suggestion is less that of an artist wandering along the banks than of a commercial operator seeking to press home his Unique Selling Point.

Later, in Australia (he had accompanied his parents to Australia from 1840-1848, and returned there on his own account from 1866 – 1875, during the first part of which period he was associated with the Freeman Brothers photographic firm of Sydney), Victor Prout is credited with introducing both a type of enamelled photograph and the autotype to Australia[xiv]. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald announcing his arrival in Australia in 1866 said this of the Thames pictures: “the tranquil side-angle views were made with a special panoramic camera made for Prout by London opticians Ross & Co.[xv]“ It is hard to see who could have furnished that detail in Australia other than Prout himself. He even fiddled with that camera, it seems: the Photographic News some years later, in 1886, described the panoramic views made by Mr. Prout “by means of an instrument recently invented by that gentleman, the novel principle of which is that it travels on a central point, so that a much larger range of vision can be included than by ordinary photographic apparatus.” Again and again, in a career with notable variations between success and its opposite, a technical advance was not to be overlooked if it could lead to a commercial advantage. That last improvement, described only nearly ten years after Prout’s death, seems to be the nearest we will get to Parr & Badger’s conclusion from the prints themselves that Prout used a true panoramic camera.

So a picture is beginning to build up, of a man connected by family both to the old artistic trades, and to photography, the booming new upstart in the visual arts. A man quick to make business decisions and partnerships, and a man for whom success was perpetually just around the corner. Energetic, optimistic, technically bold, prepared to go where the money led, Victor Prout seems to me to have more of the enterprising, even pioneering spirit about him than we are used to associating with commercial photographers. That was then, of course. The whole business was a pioneering one then.

Victor Albert Prout. Halliford (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Halliford (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

Victor Albert Prout. Hampton Court (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Hampton Court (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Victor Albert Prout. Iffley Mill (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Iffley Mill (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Victor albert Prout. Pangbourne, Second View (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor albert Prout.
Pangbourne, Second View (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Victor Albert Prout. Windsopr (detail). Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Windsor (detail). Before 1862.
Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

The river views are pioneering in their way. It turns out that Victor Prout devised a darkroom-punt and propelled himself about in that. It can be seen in many of the pictures, a curious vessel with a curved roof, like a shepherd’s hut with water where there are more usually wheels. That seems pretty original and daring. It recurs in enough of the pictures that it becomes almost a character in the journey up the Thames. It is often accompanied by a less idiosyncratic skiff which seems to have been the lighter, more manoeuvrable runabout on the trip. A number of people recur, too, and Joan Osmond had good fun trying to identify who they might be.

Yet the river views are only pioneering in one sense. The Thames has been an obvious subject for as long as London has been a city. Even the peregrination upriver, which became so popular a weekend outing in the last years of the nineteenth century, as recorded, for example, in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, was by no means a new thought when Victor Prout made it. Turner, that most watery of artists, was seemingly forever wandering up and down the Thames. Several of the great sketchbooks in the Turner bequest are on the river, incredibly light, fast sketches of the trip down river from London to the estuary, or upstream on occasion, too. And of course, the natural shape of Turner’s sketchbooks is a landscape format, not quite panoramic, but it fits the river very well.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 1851)  Thames at Richmond From Thames Sketchbook,  Turner Bequest CCXII Date c.1825 Courtesy Tate

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 1851)
Thames at Richmond
From Thames Sketchbook,
Turner Bequest CCXII
Date c.1825
Courtesy Tate

Prout would not have known Turner’s sketches. But topographic views of the river scenery were not rare, and presumably he felt that they represented a market. A commission that came to nothing first suggested the notion to him: according to Mrs. Osmond, he was invited to provide the illustrations for a Thames book that was eventually published in 1859 with no contribution from him[xvi]. He must have been working on the river at the same time as Whistler, whose early beautiful Thames views date from 1859 (although, again, Whistler wasn’t able to publish them until 1871).

James McNeill Whistler. Thames Warehouses, 1859. Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

James McNeill Whistler.
Thames Warehouses, 1859.
Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

James McNeill Whistler. Old Westminster Bridge, 1859. Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

James McNeill Whistler.
Old Westminster Bridge, 1859.
Reproduced from Cooke, Gordon, Whistler on the Thames, Fine Art Society, 2013

But the long thin format applied to the river was nothing new.

Thomas Stothard, Battersea Reach, no date.

Thomas Stothard, Battersea Reach, no date.

Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard’s lovely view of Battersea Reach is undated but the artist died in 1834, before Victor Prout was born.

So Prout may not have been wildly original. Yet he manages to find enough variety of composition never to become dull. His horizons are always neatly broken up, and the river is never merely a pale plane in the foreground. There is an anecdotal charm in the pictures beyond mere topographical grace; they look like a sequential narrative. As viewers, we want to be moving upstream with the artist.

Victor Albert Prout. Kew Ait, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Kew Ait, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Only one of the Thames views departs from the supple formula of the river view that Prout managed so well. In Kew Ait a pensive mid-Victorian gentleman sits on the gunwale of a trading barge aground in the middle of a wood. No sky, no dreamy river in the foreground, no tops of trees to animate the scene, no attractive villas or bridges to distract the eye. It’s just a boat going nowhere. Exposures were long then; surely this is Prout himself, hurrying in front of the camera and allowing himself just one moment of self-awareness in his headlong search for a place and a business and a medium to call his own. Poor Victor Prout, a boat going nowhere.

With these river views, Victor Prout so nearly made it. That they are charming and technically able no one disputes. That they surpass anything else the artist managed is an oddity, but they do. Mark Haworth-Booth wrote a whole book[xvii] about one of Camille Silvy’s river views and that led him many years later to write another book making quite large claims about the artist’s whole career. I don’t think we can without hyperbole place Victor Prout that high. Silvy was an industrial success far beyond Prout – selling, for example, 20,000 copies of a carte-de-visite of the soprano Adelina Patti. He was also a more varied and frankly more successful artist. But the parallels are there all the same: Silvy, too, was an improver/inventor of photographic processes, and he, too, found the going very hard at the end of the boom in cartes-de-visite towards the end of the 1860s. There is a sad personal parallel, too. Camille Silvy was prostrated at the end of his life by some kind of psychosis and spent many years locked under supervision. Victor Prout came back from Australia raving so badly from the madness known then as General Paralysis of the Insane (the tertiary stage of syphilis) that he had at one time on the voyage to be tied to the mast of his ship. He died in April 1877 at the Sussex Lunatic Asylum in Haywards Heath. In the Thames pictures he left one high quality series, the one of his life. It’s enough.

[i] Parr, Martin and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, published by Phaidon, London, 2004. Vol 1., p.67 and ill.

[ii] Osmond, Joan, Victor Albert Prout; A Mid-Victorian Photographer 1835 -1877, published by J& J Osmond, London, 2013

[iii] Christie’s New York: Tuesday, February 19, 2002 , Sale of Photographs, Lot 00607

[iv] Osmond, op cit, p. 87.

[v] Osmond, op cit, p. 14.

[vi] Parr & Badger , ad loc cit

[vii] Quoted by Joan Osmond at p. 22 from Lockett, Richard, Samuel Prout 1783-1852, p. 94

[viii] Osmond, op cit, p.31

[ix] John Timbs, Curiosities of London, first publ. 1855 by David Bogue. Cited in a later edition by Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, (London, 1868), where the relevant passage is at p. 307-8.

[x] I am indebted for this fact to David Simkin’s amazing repository of facts about photography, which stretches far, far beyond the name in its original remit.

Cf, [accessed 4 November 4, 2013], for full details on the Newcombe photographic clan.

[xi] Simkins, as above.

[xii] Parr and Badger, ad loc cit.

[xiii] Osmond op cit p. 235

[xiv] [Webb, David] The Database of 19th Century Photographers and Allied Trades in London: 1841-1900, accessed via the PhotoLondon website on 4 November 2013.

[xv] Osmond, p.79.

[xvi] Mr. & Mrs. S.G. Hall, The Book of The Thames From its Rise to its Fall, Charlotte James Publishers, 1859. Osmond, op cit, p.65.

[xvii] Mark Haworth-Booth, Camille Silvy, ‘River Scene, France’, Getty Trust Publications, California, 1992