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

Hey Charlie – Harry Cory Wright and the Localist Tradition

Harry Cory Wright.  The Field, 2012.

Harry Cory Wright.
The Field, 2012.

The story is really very simple. You either get it or you don’t.

Harry Cory Wright’s mother died and the family decided they could not hold on to the house she had lived in. So a fifty-year connection with a place was severed, and Cory Wright (or more properly, all the mind-map of people connected with his family and with the house) would have to make do with frozen aging memory instead of the constant refreshment of a place that changes each time it is revisited.

But Harry Cory Wright is one of the great landscape photographers in Britain now. His commitment to place is far stronger than that of most of us. He understands the world and comments on it mainly through his sensitivity to place. No doubt there is something in that fifty-year anchorage in one particular spot that nurtured in him a confidence that place mattered. Perhaps it was just something about the place in question. It was a house called Tilhill, on the River Wey, near Farnham, in Surrey. I know that because Cory Wright has posted it on his blog, Sense of Place, where he has been tersely but movingly clear about this present series of pictures.

The blog is much more intimate and much more revealing than the essentially non-textual booklet that accompanies the show. I was surprised, because I thought of Cory Wright as a Norfolk photographer, and so he is. But the place we call home is not necessarily the place we live. It is perfectly easy to identify and gurn and gawp at the house itself on Rightmove (a property website) and to zoom and pry by Google satellite view over the very clearings and curves of the river that appear in the pictures. I wouldn’t have done it had I not known the house was sold. But landscape photography used to be about places we hadn’t been nor could easily get to. Now, inevitably, whatever else it does, it contains also an invitation that we can take up without leaving our chairs.

Cory Wright used to work only with vast cumbersome plate cameras. I don’t know if his were proper old-school things of mahogany and brass, but they were certainly the descendants of those. Those are slow machines, and Cory Wright was a slow-picture man, a man prepared to wait all night in a winter marsh just in case the dawn did something important as it lightened. Now he can use digital like everybody else, but he prefers the method which allows pictures to seep into the camera one very slow view at a time. A man like that was not built to leave a place that mattered so much to him and for so long without doing something about it.

Hey Charlie is the result.

Harry Cory Wright. First Smoke Flare into Alder, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
First Smoke Flare into Alder, 2012

Harry Cory Wright Fishing Bend and Candlelight, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Fishing Bend and Candlelight, 2012

Harry Cory Wright and his brother Charlie and a pyrotechnics expert called Bryan quartered the ground he knew so well setting off sparks and flames but mainly smoke. Sparks are up and down, gone at fast, fast shutter speeds. But smoke is another matter. Smoke has been used for years in the theatre and cinema to convey something which translates appropriately as ‘atmosphere’. It writhes and roils and lingers a long time. It becomes a sensible transcription of the thickness of the air itself. It’s in books, too. You can’t imagine the Hound of the Baskervilles or Pip Gargery on the marshes terrified out of his wits by Magwitch without curling tendrils of wet smoke. Fog, murk, haar, mist… we have a lot of words for that stuff in our little island in the Atlantic, and not surprisingly so. All of them imply a shifting relation with place. At sea, particularly, but also on moors, the fog plays eerie tricks on the mind.

Surrey is not what you’d call wild moorland, though. Tilhill is half-way between Farnham and Aldershot, in a zone too far out to be suburban but only just. It’s the gin-and-manure belt, formerly the home of numbers of military gentlemen from the times when the army liked having large areas of scrubby heath to play in, but within reach of London in case of any Gordon rioters or similar needing a sharp set-down. Harry Cory Wright has been to wild places since growing up, plenty of them. But these meadows and thin woods supplied the wilderness before the possibility of travel. They make me think of A. A. Milne, finding a whole world in the Hundred Acre Wood (itself not so very far from Tilhill, if memory serves) for Christopher Robin and his friends. These are real alders and poplars, right enough. But isn’t the real wood that is being sent up in flames; it’s the imaginary one.

Harry Cory Wright. Rose Grenade, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Rose Grenade, 2012

So what is Harry Cory Wright doing with his smoke and flames?

Part of the answer is simply that he’s playing one last time in the fields he’s always played in. Nothing complicated or art-critical about that, and nothing wrong with it, either. It was exciting and sad to set these fireworks off in that place and it made a great send-off, and it would have been a fine thing even with no camera anywhere near.

I think the other answer is to be found in the relationship of different speeds of action. They’d called Tilhill home for fifty years, but the sparks behind the poplars are gone in a matter of seconds. They’d played in the field for whole seasons at a time, yet the smoke breaks up and is gone in minutes, even on a still day. There is, in other words, a more complex weaving of time in these pictures than there would be with the ordinary vocabulary of landscape. We’re used to simple indicators of time: water smoothed out at slower exposures, foliage in motion, the almost sports-photography blur of a background behind a pin-sharp kingfisher doing its stuff. But here something else is going on: the deliberate acknowledgement that time and place together add up to more than either of them alone.

That has been a concern of photographers before. I think most clearly of Fay Godwin, who always came back to photographing places that had once been far more important to people than they were when she got there.

Edwin Smith, Limetree Cottage, East Hagbourne,1953. (Chris Beetles Gallery)

Edwin Smith, Limetree Cottage, East Hagbourne,1953.
(Chris Beetles Gallery)

I think of Edwin Smith, that most elegiac of photographers, whose pictures at one and the same time ask us to regret the past and yet take mellow pleasure in its passing.

These Hey Charlie pictures are like that. They may have an element of regret. But they have fierce pleasure, too. There is something of the Viking funeral about them: Harry Cory Wright is setting fire to the trees and the river bends of his childhood and pushing them out to sea.

Harry Cory Wright. Harry, Bryan and Central Poplars. Smoke and 130 ft Mine, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Harry, Bryan and Central Poplars. Smoke and 130 ft Mine, 2012

In all of this, Harry Cory Wright takes his place in a large shift which probably now has enough momentum to be thought of as a movement.

It used to be obvious that the great landscape thinkers went elsewhere and brought back visions of the stuff beyond. Richard Burton struggling to Salt Lake City or Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter or Eric Newby in the Hindu Kush. Even Jan Morris in Venice.

The real picture was never quite so. In Britain, at least, with its peculiarly rapid changes of landscape from mile to mile, you don’t need to go far. It may even be denser and more complex for your readers or viewers if you stay close enough to home that they know in detail what you have not said as well as seeing clearly what you do. There has been in Britain for a long time a large group of writers who stay very close to home and whose exoticism comes from the microscope not the telescope. Adam Nicholson, who inherited the Shiant Islands and wrote about his experience in Sea Room (and who also made an early and rather good book on the Somerset Levels – Wetland – with the photographer Patrick Sutherland). Richard Mabey, perhaps the most radical of all the great localists, who could make a whole ecology out of railway embankments and waste ground. Robert Macfarlane and his friend Roger Deakin. Oliver Rackham and Thomas Pakenham, content to study the landscape often one single tree at a time. Sometimes the same writer does distant then local in successive books: Nicholas Crane, who wrote a marvellous book about the high places of Europe and then wrote a better one limiting himself to a stripe of England two thousand metres wide

I’m no specialist, but even to me there are a number of fundamental texts in this movement. There’s W.G.Sebald, constantly tying the local here to the local elsewhere through the memories (or false memories) of the people who came from one to the other. There’s the other W.G., W.G.Hoskins, whose Making of the English Landscape pioneered in the 1950s the business of looking at the landscape as a text, to be read and unravelled almost as a palimpsest. There are two obsessive books about birds, J.A.Baker’s The Peregrine (1967), and T.H. White’s The Goshawk (1951). (Neither is really about birds; that’s just where each of them starts.) T.H. White wrote a more complex book, too, called England Have My Bones, which I love in spite of its constant tone of railing stressy anger. “When London Bridge has tumbled down, and the sewers of the hive have ceased to pollute the waters, there will be salmon opposite the Imperial Chemicals building, but no Imperial Chemicals building opposite the salmon.” White described learning to fly in England Have My Bones (in the 1930s) but he also went ferreting and allowed the grass snakes to nest behind Aldous Huxley on his bookshelf.

Grass Snake.  Illustration by TH White from his own England Have My Bones, 1936 " A female is pouring from behind the sofa. As the floor is of polished wood she gets a poor grip of it ( she prefers the hearth-rug) and elects to decant herself along the angle between wall and floor.  Here she can press sideways as well as downwards, and gets a better grip." How local can you get? A natural history of one's living room.

Grass Snake. Illustration by TH White from his own England Have My Bones, 1936.
” A female is pouring from behind the sofa. As the floor is of polished wood she gets a poor grip of it (she prefers the hearth-rug) and elects to decant herself along the angle between wall and floor. Here she can press sideways as well as downwards, and gets a better grip.”
How local can you get? A natural history of the author’s own living room.

There are marine versions of the same effect, too, where the fiercely local fully understood and minutely analyzed has the value of anything anywhere. Read Hilaire Belloc’s wonderful Cruise of the Nona (1925) for whatever you like, including a dyspeptic misanthropism fully the equal of White’s. While you’re reading it, you’ll be taken around the tough tidal conflicts of Portland Bill in a passage of nautical writing as thrilling as any ride around the Horn. Yet Portland is so close to London that it’s where much of the stone for the ponderous grey official buildings came from.

There is one fundamental text of British localism that is neither really watery, nor yet really not, which is L.T.C. Rolt’s Narrow Boat, first published in 1944. Rolt – who was also capable of the strongest dyspepsia – was an engineer, and his rediscovery of the canal system not just for its physical qualities of ditch and bridge, but for engineering and architecture and the culture of the boatmen and the economic changes wrought by the canals is a major source for much British thinking since. Rolt’s passion led to a preservation movement, and that then operated in tandem with the responsible government department and coloured it over time. That pattern became a model in Britain for such things as the Victorian Society and even the National Trust. It doesn’t always work quite so well in every field but the canals now see more use than they ever saw in their commercial heyday, and much of that use is by holidaymakers and retirees who may look like nostalgic pleasure seekers, but many of whom are active lobbyists and skilful and knowledgeable local specialists. The former British Waterways Board in the end took on so many of the arguments of the preservation societies that they had only budgets to fight, not policies.

In photography, much the same thing has happened. The respect for previous uses and the wisdom acquired through deep intimacy with the particular have been a different song to the louder one of further, weirder, rarer. Susan Derges’ lyrical exploration of small stretches of water or Jem Southam coming back again and again to the same dew-pond are not so very different to Roger Deakin swimming in wild tarns. You could make an argument that the whole career of John Blakemore was a movement from large to small, until he was making virtuoso studies of wilting plants Sellotaped down on tracing paper on his kitchen table: pale on pale. There is a brilliant series of pictures of fish frozen in blocks of ice by Calum Angus Mackay: oddly abstract things until you learn that the photographer lives in the Outer Hebrides where fish are culture and diet and money and all.

That concentrated local knowledge is what Hey Charlie is about. Fireworks displays often mark the opening of something or other. Not here. These fireworks mark the end of a lifetime of getting to know a piece of the land with intimacy and precision and emotion. That’s always worth doing, and it’s a bit sad when it’s done. It’s no coincidence that there lies very close in Cory Wright’s blog to the Hey Charlie pictures an unmistakeable study of one of the uprights from Stonehenge, a grave marker as plain as could be.

Harry Cory Wright. Stonehenge, 2012

Harry Cory Wright.
Stonehenge, 2012

There’s a post-script, though. Harry Cory Wright and his brother Charlie sold the house and most of the land. But they kept a field. And they have (or can get) camper vans, and go back to the field as often as they like. It’s theirs.

Hey Charlie is on show at Eleven in London until 7th September 2013.

The Quizzical Chamois – Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture

Chamois, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Chamois, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

A number of weeks ago I was asked by Hamiltons Gallery in London to write a catalogue text on a group of pictures by Irving Penn which are less known than many, but seemed to have interesting characteristics of their own.  I was glad to write it, as I find that the scholarship of Penn seems a little unchanging.  I hoped that by treating these pictures exactly as though they were made today, and reacting to them as if they were a recent offering by an artist at his peak, I might bring a little freshness as well as appreciation. The catalogue is beautifully produced and is now out as the show has opened.  It runs at Hamiltons throughout the summer, until 13 September 2013. This means that a large number of visitors to London have the opportunity to visit these less known but high-quality pictures, and to purchase them as may be. The catalogue is a very limited edition, and – as bloggers do – I wanted to reach as large a number of people as possible, so I have asked for permission for the catalogue text to be reprinted here.  I do not often reprint texts published elsewhere: I’ve enjoyed writing it: that’s why it reappears here. The text is as published (without the notes).  The illustrations are fewer by far.

I owe thanks to a number of people: to Tim Jefferies and David Peckman of Hamilton’s Gallery, to Vasilios Zatse and Matthew Krejcarek and their colleagues at the Irving Penn Foundation, and to Sandra Klimt, who produced the book. All of these people made it possible to work at breakneck speed and yet to high standards.  My thanks to each one.


Critics and historians of the work of Irving Penn often note that he was attracted to the memento mori genre, otherwise known as vanitas. A number of the conventional markers are there: broken jugs or the frequent appearance of all-too-human bits of debris in otherwise idealized still life pictures and portraits. There is even an elegant intimation of mortality in the subtle way that the frozen block of beans in Frozen Foods with String Beans (1977) is just beginning to thaw.

This connection to vanitas can be seen in examples of Penn’s work over a period of many years. Colin Westerbeck noted that Penn’s groups of non-commercial still lifes are all intimately connected to the theme of vanitas: the Cigarettes, the Street Material, and specifically the series of memento mori studies that was published as Irving Penn: Archaeology. A 1941 image, Funeral Home, published in Passage: A Work Record, Penn’s major retrospective book, depicts the shop front of W. S. Watkins & Son, Embalmer. Even in Venice in 1945, the young Penn was making studies of the scummy surface of the canal in deliberate opposition to the Ruskinian glories just above. Those images of foul water describe grassy stalks directly reminiscent of some of the Street Material from thirty years later, and of the fibrous shards that poke out of the Cigarettes.

For an artist with such an enduring interest to go on to make this astounding series of studies of the skulls of animals, Cranium Architecture, might seem quite natural. Penn was interested in death, goes the argument, perhaps as a counterpoint to his professional career working (both at Vogue and for his commercial clients) with people obsessed with youth.

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Mouth (for L’Oréal), New York, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

In Passage, a book made very much under Penn’s detailed control, the first of the cranial studies, Black Rhino (1986), is presented on a spread opposite Mouth (for L’Oréal) (1986). This is not a coincidence. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is a powerful picture, not least because it is one of the most violent in the whole of Penn’s canon. The lipstick in eight clashing colours is smeared in purposeful affront to the anatomy of the mouth. It has a thick, lardy impasto a million miles from the smooth refinement that Penn knew (better than anybody) that lipstick was “supposed” to convey. Several of the colours have metallic flecks in them, and if that reminds you even for an instant of car paint, you are suddenly in a world close to the horrors of J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, Crash. Penn was the master of a beautifully understated sexuality, in which respect and admiration fully control desire and, by controlling it, flavour it. But by 1986, at least some of the vanity of the commercial beauty business had turned very sour for Irving Penn. Mouth (for L’Oréal) is harrowing.

The rhinoceros skull image on that spread is in striking contrast, a calm tribute to the serene way that evolution proceeds about its business, contrasted to the futile panic against ageing, against rejection, of our daily hunt for esteem. The surfaces of the girl are, for once, far from lovely. The patinated bone of the animal, very old, but tenderly preserved, not only shows its own elegance but proves by its very existence the love that curators have spent upon it. Being stripped of flesh, it comes close to revealing its own essence.

Photography has a long (and now mainly forgotten) relation with phrenology and physiognomy, those pre-Victorian branches of science which promised to identify specific characteristics in a patient or subject from the detailed shape of the head. Physiognomy is discredited as having uncomfortable connections with eugenics, but in its day it was considered a science and not a parlour game. Its high point came precisely in the decades preceding the boom in photography.

I argue that physiognomy survived “underground” within photography. We still “read” character from photographic portraits in a way that has no relation to logic at all: her eyes are “too close” together, so we don’t entirely trust her; his “fleshy lips” make him look a libertine; her square jaw tells us she’s determined and reliable. We still expect, in other words, the surface to reveal quite impossible information about the interior. We do so a little in real life, but almost constantly in photographs.

Irving Penn knew about this. He is quoted as having said: “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the façade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows and dares to believe.”This is a rich thought to underpin his various photographs of skulls. For if the skull is simply a head stripped of its façade, then to photograph it is less to enquire into aspects of death than to look at the fundamentals of expression and character. To photograph a skull might then be to get to the bare bones—quite literally—of character.

Penn photographed a number of skulls before the concentrated energy of the Cranium Architecture series, and it is far from clear that their primary reference in his mind was to death. Two of them are of particular interest.

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers, New York, 1979
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The Poor Lovers (1979) is a peculiar picture of two skulls, one balanced on top of the other. One is twisted mildly to the right, the other mildly to the left. The bone of the upper one has darkened appreciably more than that of the lower, leaving a sensation that the two skulls descend from different races. It bears a mild, almost dilute memory of Man Ray’s classic study Noire et Blanche (1926), in which both the mask and the living sitter are depicted with eyes closed. The Poor Lovers is not legible as a study of any aspect of death. There is Penn’s characteristic detritus on the surface below, and the skulls are noticeably battered, but they are not in any real sense a study of decay or of mortality.

A few pages on in Irving Penn: Archaeology, we find A Cry (1980), a study this time of a single skull. Here Penn has deliberately imparted a twist to the expression by arranging the upper points of the lower jaw in asymmetry, the jaw “hinged” before the cheekbone on one side and behind on the other. So this is formally quite clear: here is a search for expression. That twist—impossible to miss—is viewed from directly in front. Reading the expression is more difficult, but we can see that whatever else it is, this is most certainly not a scientific picture. Neither is The Poor Lovers. Nor is either of them wholly or solely about death.

In reference to Rag Face (1975), part of Penn’s Street Material series, Colin Eisler writes: “The photographer’s progress on his pilgrimage of counter-vanity is made clearest in his least-known works . . . works conceived beyond purchase or fashion. . . . This new outlook, this liberation, allowed Penn to express his sense of fun as well as morality, his sense of adventure, of spontaneity. It even allowed Penn to get ugly.” Eisler had emphasized the connections to the vanitas traditions, making the point that grisaille, that nocturnal painting in black, white, and grey, frequently seen along with the vanitas in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, prefigures the tonalities of black and white.

But these studies are not only vanitas studies; they can be read just as sculpture. That may be what Eisler had in mind in talking about Penn’s sense of fun. Penn was a private man, not much given to the modern conception of “sharing” his inner thoughts about his work. His sense of fun—it has to be said—is pretty much unrecorded anywhere. Alexander Liberman once put it in the plainest English: “Penn is not easy to work with. . . . Penn seldom squanders his intensity.”

The timing is important. The 1970s had perhaps been a difficult period for Irving Penn. For the first time in a long career, he no longer had the studio supplied by Vogue and all the help that went with it—not merely in assistants and budgets, but in the roster of art directors and editors who had protected him from the coarser rigours of the magazine market and had encouraged him to try many of the ideas that became his most successful series. While Penn never fell out of favour, he certainly had a quieter commercial period in the 1970s. And that is what propelled him to his great affair with platinum printing, which ushered in exhibitions of his work at the Marlborough Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. In the 1970s, Penn had perhaps little choice but to put his artistic proclivities in the foreground.

Among those proclivities was sculpture. Penn had always been interested in the history of art; he drew, painted. But in the late 1970s he was experimenting in photography with shapes that were interesting in their own right and not merely as the most recent descendants of the venerable traditions of the vanitas. There is an immediate parallel with Alexander Liberman, Penn’s close associate and perhaps the only colleague approaching an artistic confidant.

By the late 1970s, Liberman had been a sculptor for a long time, and he was notably proud of his monumental constructions. A piece called There (1973), of enormous steel cylinders welded together, is a rendition of the fallen columns of a giant temple. It looks the blood brother of some of Penn’s photographs of piles of bones, or ingots, or machine parts. It is impossible not to believe that they evolved together, in constant conversations as well as in meetings with the artists all around. Vogue, as Liberman himself underlined, was a very serious art magazine in his time, even if he did once have to get Cecil Beaton to photograph fashion in front of a Jackson Pollock in order to get the painting included in the magazine.

So it begins to be possible to draw a picture of Penn, evolving his artistic practice in the late 1970s, turning his mind, in the wake of his great friend, to sculpture. Years before, in the introduction to Penn’s Moments Preserved, Liberman had written: “In a time when the unclear is too often used to cover up the absence of meaning, Penn’s steadfast adherence to definite statement has given his work a ‘visibility’ that few have been able to match.”

Other elements are discernible, too. As Irving Penn himself put it: “Sometime in 1964 I realized that I was victim of a printmaking obsession, a condition that persists today. . . . Over the years, I must have spent thousands of hours brushing on the liquid coatings, preparing each sheet of paper in anticipation of reaching the perfect print.” Penn was a supreme printmaker, and the print itself is an essential part of the astonishing tango between perception and representation that all the great Penn
images add up to.

Again in Penn’s own words, we are shown another element: “In 1979, I acquired an early twelve-by-twenty-inch banquet camera and had it altered. A five-foot track was made and a long bellows substituted for the original short one. I found a number of excellent long lenses. My intention was to make a platinum printing negative twelve-by-twenty inches right in the camera.”

Penn used the banquet camera for the Archaeology series and an 8 x 10 view camera for his Cranium Architecture. American art critic Rosalind Krauss noted that use of the banquet camera gave Penn the same format as the double-page commercial spreads of which he was a master. Krauss observed that “for the last several years [Penn] has produced a series of still lifes . . . that in format, disposition of objects, frontality of composition, and shallowness of space is identical to the memento mori images of his own aesthetically tagged platinum prints. The work Penn has done for Clinique cosmetics, . . . elegant, shallow, luminous still lifes of bottles and jars, . . . is the visual twin of its conceptual counterpart, the platinum work that speaks not of perpetual youth, but of death.”

It is important to note here that the Cranium Architecture prints are not made in platinum — that is to say, they are not in the medium at which Penn had made himself supreme, although it is possible he intended them to become so later. Instead, they are the most subtle, most sensitive, selenium toned silver prints that one could ever ask to see.

Westerbeck observed that Penn was more than a little taken aback at the reception his Street Material series received when the photographs were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1977. It seems that a number of critics were offended at the idea of expensive materials (platinum, essentially, palladium and a little iridium) being used in the depiction of squalid junk. Although those critics missed the point, that reception set Penn back a little. After that date, all the major shows until the first exhibition of the Cranium Architecture at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in 1989 were retrospectives, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984. That cannot be a coincidence. He did publish the Flowers as a book in the period, but that, too, is a retrospective, the images dating for the most part from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It adds up to a caesura, a lessening of forward progress.

So now, perhaps, we have a number of elements in place to see the Cranium Architecture a little better.

Tapir, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Tapir, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Roe Deer, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

The negatives of these incredible pictures were made in a matter of a very few days, in the National Museum in Prague, between June 16 and 20, 1986. Photographs of the work in progress by Lennart Durehed, a former studio assistant who acted as Penn’s principal assistant in Prague, indicate that the conditions were very simple. The skulls were moved and handled by the photographic team, the support was an ordinary desk, the camera an 8 x 10 view camera. Twenty-one skull images, made in an exquisite matt-finish silver print, were chosen for the show at Pace/MacGill. Penn had hardly worked with silver printing since he first started experimenting seriously with platinum in 1964. Yet he came back to it as a virtuoso. He used all that he had learnt in platinum to make prints of a subtlety that rivals what he achieved in platinum itself. The majority of them are in the landscape format, not quite in the proportions of a double-page spread, but the orientation is significant for a photographer whose previous work had been mostly square or in the portrait orientation.

 Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Boar (Domestic), Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986 Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

Camel, Prague, 1986
Copyright © by The Irving Penn Foundation

One part of me says that these skulls are pure modernist masterpieces, delayed only by Penn’s commercial career. When that paused, he made these studies with a clarity of vision and a directness of purpose that is the precise equivalent of that shown by Edward Weston making the Peppers or the Nautiluses.

I see, in addition, the contribution of the vanitas picture, and I do believe that there is an element of truth in the idea that Penn had found horror in the constant demands of the beauty industry that he had served so well and so long. But there are two further readings of these great pictures that are perhaps a more personal view.

I see the Cranium Architecture as a collection of super-portraits or para-portraits. They are the direct descendants of the physiognomic tradition, and the direct successors of Penn’s many years spent trying to make legible truths appear from the lineaments of a face. They seem to search for real truths of character in the act of peeling away the skin. By that I do not mean that Penn crudely expected to find a mandrill charming or a lion sardonic. And yet—when you look at the chamois, do you not see the same combination of quizzical embarrassment that I see? Does the tapir not say, “ Oh, well, what the heck,” to every viewer? These are caricatures of human expression, found in the skulls of dead animals, by an artist who had perhaps come steadily to disbelieve the confident legibility of his own great portraits.

He was making a gift to his viewers. There is none of Penn’s debris here, none of the stage-setting and scene-building that would help us come to any “right” reading of these expressions, and which he himself had developed as such a sophisticated technique. I see in these pictures an invitation for us to look with rigorous attention, to see how much of what we think about character is in fact gleaned from the false promises of phrenology and physiognomy, still buried deep in our photographic habits.

Then finally, I see them as sculptures. There is something so compelling and seductive about the cavities and declivities of the skulls, so brilliantly described. That comes not from photography’s habit of flattening the world but as a counter to it. The magisterial controlled gleam of the silver printing is as pleasing to the eye as bronze or wood have always been to touch.

They are great things, these skulls made in a few days in Prague. Like so much of Penn’s work, they encapsulate the thinking of years. They stand by the sheer perfection of their making: they are so carefully seen, printed with such virtuosity. They have none of the tense social meaning of the Street Material images that precede them, none of the commentary on consumer culture perhaps seen in the Cigarettes series. These Cranium Architecture pictures make no comment: they are as nearly universal as any photograph can be. Their genesis is intimately tied—as I have suggested here—to the artist’s development and his changing concerns. As two-dimensional sculptures, they are to be read almost as abstractions, for the pleasure of the surfaces so minutely detailed. I like to think that’s why Penn thought of them as “Architecture”: a reference to the kind of thinking he wished his viewers to pursue.

I keep being reminded of Penn’s great portrait of Miles Davis—The Hand of Miles Davis (1986). The skulls, exactly like that, invite reading far beyond what they themselves depict. They are perfectly solid things, known beasts preserved. But they are also the start of limitless chains of metaphor and allusion.