Konditormeister by August Sander

August SanderPastrycook,

August Sander Pastrycook, 1928. © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2011. © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2011.

I have been inconstant about my favourite August Sander photograph. For a long time I had postcards of the three most perfectly Weimar of them pinned just to the right of my desk. The high-school graduate (1926), the secretary in a Cologne radio station (1931) and the wife of the painter Peter Abelen (1927/8). Three twisty Mannerist poses, three exquisitely languid cigarettes. Those three fabulous photographs are direct photographic parallels to the savage portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Hardem by Otto Dix, in her red-checked dress and monocle, which dates from 1926.

At other times, it’s been “The Three Farmers”, one of the very few photographs to inspire a full-length (and very good) novel: Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers. Or the travelling mason at the bend in road, in his startling flared trousers and fancy waistcoat. The bartender, with his absurd black toupee . . .

It is conventional to read Sander’s portraits as historically and prophetically laden; they throw light back on the collapsing orders of 19th-century Germany, and forward to the horrors of the early 20th. His great catalogue, Men of the Twentieth Century, is cited as a fundamental source so often, and by people expressing so many different things in so many different ways, that it is sometimes hard to see quite what the original added up to.

In the end, it was a heroically ambitious project by a photographer at the peak of his powers, but even he didn’t quite know what it all meant. He was a politically cautious man moved to great anger. He was a local patriot from the Westerwald unable to conceal his contempt for some of what his world had fostered. I see Sander crashing the studio habits of the generation before his into the newer habits of lightweight portable cameras and available light. Above all, I see a true photographer; somebody who believed that if you just look well enough something will become clear.

Look at his “Konditormeister (Pastry Cook), Köln Lindenthal”, c.1928. See how his ring bites into that fleshy finger. See how he wears the pin-striped trousers and highly polished shoes of a master of his trade. See the tense compromise between the strength of his right fist and the delicacy of those fingers in his left hand. Remember, if you will, that this man must have served in the Great War, and try to imagine what that left in him. See the three great round curves, of his head, his torso, and his mixing bowl. Admire the dusting of flour or sugar on the floor. Admire the way his coat has so much texture it’s almost a skin. And once you’ve done all that, see if you really can read the odd expression in his eyes. He looks a bully, but he wanted Sander to approve of him. You won’t lose interest. This is a masterpiece.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Mari Mahr


New Mexico 1931

Mari Mahr – New Mexico 1931.     From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

Mari Mahr is a brilliant artist of Hungarian origin who divides her time between London and Berlin.  Too gentle a person ever really to push herself forward, Mahr has had the kind of career which is faultless, but not really very visible.  No longer a young woman, she remains insufficiently appreciated by a large factor.  She works in relatively small series, often about her family, occasionally about figures of more public standing. In series after series, she has produced works of astute elegance seeking to situate her own affective existence among the objects of affection or culture around her. Her hallmarks are exquisite delicacy of psychological enquiry, matched and made visible in exquisite delicacy in the photographic object. By quality of work, she is one of the very great artists of recent years; by the amount of limelight shone upon her, almost invisible.

In 1982, as something of a feminist looking for strong women models, Mahr came upon the figure of Georgia O’Keeffe.  This is how she herself described it:

“In the very last scene of a documentary movie, an old woman climbs a ladder all the way to the top of her house. I was impressed by the strength and charisma of such an old woman and decided to find out more about her.  I learnt she was partly Hungarian, but what is more important I absolutely loved how her career came about, the way she made her choices, how she chose her men, how she made situations awkward for herself, painting away when it wasn’t a womanly thing to do.

I’d read her diary where she writes so eloquently about Taos, Black Place and so on — I saw it all in colour. This was before I’d been to America, so all the knowledge of the country came from Technicolor movies. I did the series in 1982, about her travels in the 1920s, using a black car like the one Stieglitz (the photographer, her husband) had given her.”

New York 1925

Mari Mahr – New York 1925.  From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)


New York 1918

Mari Mahr – New York 1918.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934

Mari Mahr – In Search of Ghost Ranch 1934.  From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

Black Place 1944

Mari Mahr – Black Place 1944.    From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)


Mari Mahr – Ghost Ranch 1941.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

It sounds simple, and so perhaps it is, once you’ve done it. By making the stagey elements of her pictures completely apparent, Mahr let us know immediately that we weren’t looking at fact.  Every standard picture element is up for revision: scale, perspective, narrative… this is a complete taking of control by the artist of those things which more normally constrain photographers.  The obvious edges and folds, the block colours, the ultra-plain symbolic elements (skyscraper, cow, adobe, car, flag…) give the clues to a reading of O’Keeffe’s story which is both heroic and curiously domestic in scale.  What results is a tribute and a separate work in its own right. Mahr has admiration and respect for O’Keeffe, and a point of humour about her, too.

These are variants of collage, set design, maybe diorama. A few recurring themes make them understandable as music.  They’re lovely as little post-cards, and sensational as the chapters in an episodic biography. They’re anything you like except flat photographs.  No matter that it is little known; this is one of my great series.

Canyon 1916

Mari Mahr – Canyon 1916.   From the series Georgia O’Keeffe (1982)

[Another in the series Hodgson’s Choice, assembling a virtual collection guided by no more than my own taste, interest, curiosity, amusement or any combination of those. This piece was originally published in the Financial Times in January 2013 and reposted as part of a larger piece on these pages in 2015.]

Great North Road Garage, Edinburgh, November 1981 by Paul Graham

Paul Graham, Garage on The Great North road, Edinburgh

Paul Graham; Garage on the Great North Road, Edinburgh, 1981


[Continuing to re-post pieces from my 2013 series Hodgson’s Choice]

Paul Graham changed my attitude to colour. An excerpt from a gallery text on his own website says that he “belongs to a rare group of photographers that were the final generation to enter photography before it became part of the broader contemporary art world.”  That’s true, and it has nothing much to do with exact dates.  Along with such as Philip-Lorca di Corcia and even Nan Goldin, Graham remains a photographer, not an ‘artist-working-with-photography’.  Graham won the Hasselblad award last year (2012), the first Briton to do so. He’s an international player. Yet, in our very British way, in the UK he’s hardly known outside photographic circles.

When Graham started, documentary photography (at least in Britain) was in black-and-white, and it was about telling the truth.  After him, it was in colour, and it was about having a view.   Richard Billingham, Martin Parr, Nick Waplington, Paul Reas, Donovan Wylie, Anna Fox, even Gillian Wearing…a generation of British photographers, shading off in all directions towards art, were liberated by, and in some sense indebted to Graham.

In the early days, Paul Graham did eye-watering things.  He went to Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles and made beautiful, even romantic landscapes with just the tiniest glimpses of all being not well.  He made a record of Britain on the dole in the Thatcher years that would (I’m not joking) have brought down the government had it been published by a major novelist or film-maker.  But he was a youngish photographer, and it passed.

In that same period, Paul Graham went on an absurd road trip up the A1.  The A1 is to road trips as a fairground choo-choo is to the TGV.  It was so British it wasn’t even a motorway.  It still isn’t, as a matter of fact. And on this ridiculous road, with culture and reflexes and patience and sympathy and wit, Paul Graham began to make pictures about what it meant to be European as Europe fell away from dominance.  He was literate in photography – and in a lot of other stuff, too – and he made out of the sleepy cafes and uninspiring landscapes of the A1 a vision so much bigger than the A1 that everything he has done since has been checking the wake behind.

Of course Graham had seen his Joel Sternfeld and his Stephen Shore and his William Eggleston and his Joel Meyerowitz. But still.  A subaqueous car showroom, in which the only line of black is a twisted aerial?  And those names, perfect for cars:  here we go, in the money of 1950 or so, Singing and Humming along.   I don’t even think Humbers were still manufactured when the picture was made: sold to Chrysler or somebody, and then again, to become Talbot, I think, then swallowed up in Peugeot.  This showroom was drowning even as Paul Graham photographed it. The Singer, descendant of the sewing machines which represented one phase of the Industrial Revolution.  And next to it, the Humber, named after the great estuary that watered part of that British industrial landscape.  All going under, in the early days of Thatcherism. It’s very simple: I know intimately the culture this picture comes from.  I even remember the smell of those places, of T-Cut and spilt petrol.  In Britain, this is a brilliant, game-changing picture.  But it also speaks right to me.

Paul Graham’s early prints are absurdly undervalued.  You can buy them from Pace/MacGill in New York, or from Anthony Reynolds in London.

Ady’s Poem by André Kertész

Ady's Poem

André Kertész Ady’s Poem, 1934. From Az Igazi Ady (Le Véritable Ady) [The Real Ady]. Text by György Bölöni. Photographs by André Kertész and others. Editions Atelier de Paris, Paris, 1934.

It started with André Kertész. A little book called On Reading, in which the Hungarian photographer simply presented pictures of people in the act of reading in public places. There is no text. I have my copy still and I see it is an English reprint dated 1982. I had been interested in photographs long before then, but once I had Kertész’s book, I got my teeth into it.

Was it journalism? Was it some kind of attempt at a catalogue, in which the variety and similarity of human activity would be laid out for comparison and categorisation? Was it a sketch of an autobiography? A book of gently comic illustrations in the manner of Sempé? I remember how long I held that puzzle in my mind. Having no scaffolding of reference to make sense of it, I interrogated those pictures again and again. I discovered in that little book that photographs could convey complexity in spite of their apparent simplicity, and that they amply repaid concentration and analysis.

Although this series will abide only by such rules as I shall feel like following at any given time, it seems fair to start with Kertész, because he started me. The series will develop into a virtual collection of the photographs I would help myself to if money were no object. In the nature of photography, there are many versions of most pictures, and sometimes I can have one and you can have another just as good. I will for that reason suggest places where pictures can be bought if I know of such places and if it seems right to do so. But a virtual collection can be selfish and can certainly be light-fingered. I will have no compunction about plundering public and private holdings in establishing my own, and if I happen to want the only known print of something, well, suck it up. Virtual collecting takes no prisoners. I can see that already, and I haven’t even started yet.

Essentially, these will be things I covet. But I covet photographs as photographs, not as a class of asset. Some will be very valuable; others will be unsellable. And with that, let’s begin.

Kertész was an exile and a freelance. He worked where he could and never allowed himself to lose his own personality in the collective personality of a newspaper. For that reason, he had to trust his own taste. Even when working for another, it was always a Kertész he would make. In 1933, in Paris, his fellow exile György Bölöni invited him to illustrate a life of another Hungarian, the poet Endre Ady. It was published in 1934 as Az Igazi Ady (The Real Ady) by Atelier de Paris, and “Ady’s Poem” is one of the illustrations from it. And what is it? Just a little meditation on reading, and on writing. It’s no big deal, yet it’s marvellous. Loads of people can make a picture of a café table. But not many could get those sweet relations between the straight lines and the curves so absolutely right, and even fewer could make a simple modernist study of materials and surfaces into such an exquisite minor-key sigh for home.

Kertész’s greatest hits are everybody’s greatest hits. “Chez Mondrian”, “Melancholic Tulip”, “Underwater Swimmer” . . . More than anybody else, Kertész is the man who claimed for photography its strange intermediate territory between realism and metaphor. This café table was not much on the day that it happened. But turn it into a photograph like this, and it has become quite something. This print was sold by Sotheby’s in 2006, a little thing, less than 10 x 8 inches. It’s a very rare image in the Kertész canon, yet at £48,000 far, far from his auction record. Its tones were lovely but it wasn’t one of the heavenly miniatures that Kertész made on postcard stock. No doubt, I’ll have one those, later. All in all, nothing gaudy, but a lovely thing with which to set off.

The Cult of the Camera: Noel Pemberton Billing and the Compass


Compass Camera. Designed by Noel Pemberton Billing in England Made by LeCoultre &Cie in Switzerland

I have less of the fetishist enthusiasm in photography than many.  I own no dun-coloured waistcoat with thirty pockets, for example, and I find that I cannot concentrate through (let alone contribute to) even the first bars of any conversation about anti-aliasing filters. I’ve never been a photographer; I am disbarred from the whole freemasonry of gear.

Yet that fetishism exists.  Here’s a little gadget which I’d like to hold in my hands.  I’d like it on my mantel.  I might even put it in my pocket and rub it surreptitiously, like a worry stone or a rosary …


Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass Camera

I’ve succumbed, you see — most unusually for me — to a photographic object.  I want to own one.  And it comes as the pivot to a whole group of stories.

These pictures, harvested online, are of something called a Compass Camera. The pictures come from many sources, and I’m grateful to all of them, but I want to send you to just one among them. The site http://www.submin.com not only contains many detailed comparisons of different models of Compass, but also a substantial number of manuals, promotional material and so on, reproduced page by page in their entirety, an invaluable guide to the machine itself and the context in which it was offered.

The Compass is tiny – less than 3 inches square, and barely more than an inch deep when closed. It dates from 1937. It’s so intricate that it had to be manufactured by a Swiss watch maker, LeCoultre.  As a feature on it in Camera magazine in 1965 put it, the Compass was ‘everything but a success.’ Part of its problem was simply the price: at launch, it cost £30, compared to the Leica selling at £15.


Compass advertising in Amateur Photographer, 1939, reproduced in Cyclope 52, 2000

Another difficulty would have been its phenomenal fiddliness.  It looks like a fantasy of what a spy camera might be, yet you’d have to wonder what kind of spying would offer the leisure to manipulate quite so many tiny dials and switches to operate the thing.  It takes 35mm film – perfectly standard stuff, you’d think, ideal for spying.  Except not quite.  It takes individual sheets of 35mm film, pre-backed on light-tight paper, which are loaded like the single plates of much larger, heavier (and acknowledgedly slow) cameras. A later modification allowed use of a roll of film, but even that was hardly convenient, as it was limited to six exposures. Yet some 4000 of these things were made; some of the design ideas it encompassed are still in use.  It was brilliant, it worked, and it’s beautiful.

Amateur Photographer 1943

Compass in the Hand, from Amateur Photographer, 1943


Compass Camera


Compass Camera

Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass Camera.   Designed by Noel Pemberton Billing in England.   Made by LeCoultre & Cie. in Switzerland

The Compass was the design of a man called Noel Pemberton Billing, about whom fact and false fact swirl. If this little camera is beautiful, his more abstract ideas were vile.

Michael Pritchard, in whose History of Photography in 50 Cameras I first met Billing, calls him mildly enough “a true English eccentric”. The historian G. R. Searle (who also wrote Billing’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography) was more outspoken. As quoted by Lucy Bland (in Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper), he called Billing “the most conspicuous and dangerous of all the war-time jingo demagogues”.  

Billing was an engineer and designer, principally in aviation. He held hundreds of patents, including many to do with cameras, but stretching beyond them as far as a simple package for safety razor blades.  He designed improvements to the gramophone player, too. Philip Hoare, in an essay called I Love a Man in Uniform: the Dandy Esprit de Corps, calls Billing “an Edwardian Lothario, the inventor of the seaplane”.

“Like the prewar ‘nut’, but decidedly more virile,” he goes on, “this dandy autofact’s accessory was the car: Billing drove a lemon yellow Rolls Royce and other, futuristic motors of his own invention; commentators noted that he dressed in ‘unusual clothes,’ especially long collared shirts worn ‘without the usual accompaniment of a necktie’.”

Hoare tells us – with a picture from his own collection to back it up – that Billing “had a ledge of flesh inserted in his cheek to keep his monocle in place”.

Had Billing stuck to aviation, he might have been a solid success.  He was in it from the very first, experimenting with gliders almost as soon as he came back (in 1903) from a youthful fugue to South Africa. (He had joined the South African police and seems to have served for a while in the Second Boer War.)  Billing opened in 1908 what was probably the first airfield in England, on a marsh in Essex. It was overtaken by Goodwood as the centre for pioneering flight. He started an early aviation magazine, Aerocraft in 1909. He raced cars (and also steam yachts). He tinkered.  He had money, and he also made some.  In 1913, he made a £500 bet with the aircraft engineer Frederick Handley Page that he could get his flying licence from scratch in twelve hours of flying.  He had probably been practising for months or years before that; he was that kind of man.

But he won his bet, and the winnings (a very substantial sum at the time) allowed him to invest in his very own aircraft factory.  He put it on the Solent, on the River Itchen, in fact, because he wanted to specialise in seaplanes. He designed original configurations of aircraft, including one with four stacked wings. He was interested in planes to hunt down Zeppelins, he thought about planes which could land on water and ditch their wings to become lifeboats for damaged ships. None of this was nonsense: the whole industry was full of trial-and-error, chimera-chasing, making-do.  It was wartime, and aviation was an industry whose boundaries nobody knew. Pemberton Billing got close; but never quite got the cigar. When the government effectively bought out his plant, it survived by repairing planes damaged in the appalling carnage of the time.  Never mind the enemy, these things fell out of the sky with alarming frequency and terrifying consequences.  He was really close, though. The telegraphic name of the Pemberton-Billing company, chosen by Billing as the superior opposite of submarine, was ‘Supermarine’, which became the company name and which would echo in aviation glory as the maker of the Spitfire – but only after he had sold his share.


Pemberton-Billing PB1, as exhibited at the Olympia Aero Show, London, March 1914. One 50hp Gnome seven cylinder rotary engine. Span 30ft. Length approx 27ft. Maximum speed 50mph.

Billing retired from the Royal Naval Air Service after serving only briefly. He wanted to make a name in politics.

The issue of Flight (“official organ of the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom”) of January 13th 1916 contains the announcement of Billing’s convenient eleventh-hour promotion to Temporary Squadron Commander at the same time as the notice of his resignation from the Service. The issue runs what is in effect a campaign manifesto for Billing, including a front-page editorial, a full-page portrait, and a long and frankly hagiographic profile.

“His object is to become the advocate in Parliament for the very extended air policy  which has been so strongly urged in the past in ‘Flight’…From his knowledge of aviation he is not likely to be led astray by a lot of flap-doodle statements emanating from those who have some axe to grind of their own.”

defence against the night bomber

Pemberton-Billing as a Lobbyist for Aviation

Tellingly, Billing is described as standing for parliament ‘at the request of an influential committee’.

In other words, he was backed as a lobbyist.  He was eventually elected, in Hertfordshire. Partly because he was loud and a showman, and partly because the arguments for increased air power were in fact sensible at a time of appalling slaughter on the ground, he acquired a certain populist renown.

Then things went from the zany Buster Keaton world of early aviation to something a great deal nastier.

With the financial backing of Lord Beaverbrook, Billing opened a journal called The Imperialist (renamed in early 1918, in case anyone had any doubts of its methods, The Vigilante).  Openly anti-Semitic and homophobic, this looked for people to blame for the way the war was going. Billing was persuaded that a secret German campaign called The Unseen Hand was sapping the British will to fight.  And what was The Unseen Hand?  Networks of prostitutes, deliberately infecting our boys.

“The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting – even profit-making – army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers.”

In December 1917, Billing ran an article by the virulently anti-Semitic Arnold Henry White saying that Germany had a network of homosexual agents (he used the word urnings) on the same kind of mission.

“Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents… Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race… When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent. Britain is only safe when her statesmen are family men.”

Then a Black Book appeared (although mysteriously, its appearance seemed always just around the corner). The book was in the hands of a German aristocrat, briefly king of Albania.  Then it was in the Home Office Such a one had seen it but couldn’t produce it just now.  The Black Book was supposed to be

“a book compiled by the Secret Service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past 20 years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive and German bodies execute…. for the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia…. the names of 47,000 English men and women…. Privy Counsellors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors and members of His Majesty’s household follow each other with no order of precedence…. Wives of men in supreme positions were entangled…. In lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed.”

This kind of stuff was barely coded at all.  Readers would have recognised, I think, in the “wives of men in supreme positions” an allusion to Margot Asquith, wife of the recently unseated Prime Minister, and a constant lightning-rod for gossip and slander.  The reference to ‘dancing girls’ would certainly have suggested Maud Allan, the most famous dancing girl of the time. The vision was clear – if clearly mad. There were 47,000 high-placed names, all homosexual, all capable of being blackmailed by Germany.

On it went.  The kind of stuff that only a semi-hysterical population can take seriously.  But the war looked very hard to win, to say the least.  Passchendaele had petered out only recently – the ‘end’ of the battle is usually given as November 1917. In the face of consistently dreadful war news, hysteria was more understandable – and more exploitable – than at more stable times.

Billing went further and further. He claimed that Jews in government were conspiring in treason to lose the war; he fomented a series of attacks on Jewish businesses or even on those of people with German-sounding names – all very nasty, and an obvious prefiguring of the habits of British fascists to come.

No need to be a psychologist to see that Billing was a fantasist, or even to suspect that he may have had some trouble dealing with an element of homosexuality of his own. He was certainly an extremist of the right-wing, of the kind that is violently anti-everything. The cast of characters that whirled around him is ‘colourful’ but also included deeply dangerous people. Lord Beaverbrook I’ve mentioned as one of his sponsors. He was the man of whom Evelyn Waugh said “Of course I believe in the devil.  How else could I explain Lord Beaverbrook?”. Billing was involved with Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times (and later the Morning Post), a sinister military figure openly contemptuous of politicians and privily plotting against them when their views on strategy differed from his own. Billing employed on The Imperialist the certifiably mad American Harold Spencer (discharged from the British Army for paranoid delusional insanity), the author of a shrilly anti-Semitic book published in 1918 under the title Democracy or Shylocracy.

In early 1918, a private performance was planned of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It had to be private because the theatre in England was carefully censored (as it remained well into the 1960s).  Salome was to be played by Maud Allan, the American actress.  The Vigilante published (under the screaming title The Cult of the Clitoris) a hysterical claim that the thousand people due to attend the performance would all also appear in the Black Book.  Maud Allan sued Pemberton Billing for criminal libel for suggesting that she was a lesbian.  The trial was a sensation: mud of every kind was flung. The court became the perfect launchpad for Pemberton Billing to air his conspiracy theories. A succession of witnesses made spectacular allegations.  Dr. Cook, tuberculosis officer for Lambeth, gave evidence to the effect that everybody concerned in the production must have perverted minds, be sadists and sodomists.

Maud Allan as Salome by Reutlinger

Maud Allan as Salome –  Photo Reutlinger

As always around Billing, the cast of characters was gaudy.  Ms. Allan was herself a sensation. She was a huge star, having long been performing as a dancer to big audiences in London in costumes quite amazingly revealing for the date; but she was also revealed to be the sister of a man executed in California in 1898 for the lurid murder of two women. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, now a vehement homophobe, gave evidence, as did an extraordinary woman called Eileen Villiers-Stuart.

“Lloyd George and his advisers,” according to Toni Bentley in Sisters of Salome, “hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals’ conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover’s libel case.”

Gaudy is the word. These people didn’t care too much about telling the truth.  Spencer and Villiers-Stuart both later admitted to having lied in court.  The judge, Charles Darling, a very senior figure, barely kept control of the trial, but in June 1918 Pemberton Billing was acquitted of all charges of libel.  For a few days there was uproar; it seemed a vindication of his preposterous views.  The fascination of the case has not diminished over time.  It is, for example, one of the events rumbling in the background of The Eye in the Door, the second of Pat Barker’s novels in the Regeneration trilogy.  No doubt you could make a movie of the life of Noel Pemberton Billing.

The uproar got Billing re-elected to Parliament, but as the credibility of his witnesses became harder to maintain, and as the victory in the war removed the primary cause of the public hysteria in which Billing’s theories had found their ground, he gained little traction from the case.  He retired from politics in 1921.

One of the points of the Compass is that it was meant to be a complete camera system: everything you might need was designed into the little block of machined aluminium, including filters and other such elements normally carried separately. Even the tripod was beautifully designed and made for it.  A swivelling connector between camera and tripod was built in to allow matched pairs of stereoscopic pictures to be made without effort. Another connector with five notches allowed perfectly aligned panoramas. There were choices of methods of focus, careful exposure ratios (calculated in Compass Units, which were engraved on the machine). It even had a spirit level built in. If you really were in a hurry, there was a SNAP setting in the middle of the shutter speeds (although even getting to that was fiddly).

It was maybe too perfect.  Small wonder it was made by a watchmaker.  It had some 250 parts.  To take a picture with such a thing involved daintiness and precision at the expense of convenience. Pemberton Billing designed another camera in 1946 – the Phantom, which never went into production.  It was Michael Pritchard, then at Christie’s, who was responsible for the sale of the prototype in 2001.  It was estimated at £8,000-12,000 and sold for £146,750 – smashing the auction record for cameras at the time.  Pemberton Billing should have stuck to what he knew; he was a really good designer.


Compass Camera


Compass Camera


Compass on its tripod


Compass Camera


If you haven’t seen quite enough pictures of the fetish-object yet, there’s an amazing little film in which somebody called Sarah Smoots carefully .. fondles a Compass camera for quarter of an hour.  That should probably be enough.

To Recognize What We Were



Matthew Finn: From Mother

There are lots of accounts in photography of intimately close relationships.  Of course there are, since you could say simply that photography has become the ‘natural’ medium of affection.  Every family album is affection congealed in physical form.  Every photograph framed in silver then perched on a mantelpiece or a piano was an attempt to hold on to affection – even if only dutiful affection.  Usually these worked in the absence of the person photographed; occasionally as some more ideal version of that person than the flawed daily one of wearied familiarity.

At this usual, simple level, the photography seems to play a relatively straightforward role.  There was a relationship: this is what the people involved looked like when they were tidied up for the camera.  But sometimes the photographs in some way are the relationship itself as distinct from a record of it.


Leigh Ledare; Mom with Mask, 1972. Leigh Ledare provides only an example among very many of the infinite complexity of tales which can be told or acted out in photographs.

No doubt Matthew Finn’s extraordinary set of pictures of his mother Jean fall into that category.  They were made over a period of very many years, and the fact of the pictures — the need to make them, the act of making them, the results of making them — must have changed the relationship between them.  She’s his mother; but she’s also performed for him the part of his mother.  He’s her son; but he also acted the role of the photographer.  Remember that in spite of the pictures, we actually know very little of their relationship.  We know that together they acted out a version of it, and that version was for our consumption.

Hockney's Mother

David Hockney; Mother, Yorkshire Moors, 1985

A number of years ago, David Hockney made one of the most tender of his ‘joiners’ as a portrait of his mother.  The joiners were collages – multiple photographs which mimicked the flickering way the eye moves over and around a subject.  Hockney wanted us to linger over the face of his mother as he had often done – and a single photograph would have been too easy to ‘get’ then dismiss as a single framed bit of information.  So he borrowed from Cubism the habit of looking from several points of view at the same time.  Hockney’s mother has three or four noses, three of four mouths; you see her head from the left and from the right. Yet none of that dodgy anatomy matters at all so long as you see her slowly.  That turns your glance into a caress and so allows you to reproduce some of the caress of Hockney’s own way of looking at her, his eye travelling gently over the many surfaces of her face.


Matthew Finn; From Mother


Matthew Finn. From Mother.

There is a lot in that notion that affection takes time to record.  Matthew Finn’s act of photography is moving partly because it took so very long.  If so much photography has the throw-away quality we understand by the snapshot, then surely its opposite might be true:  slowly made might imply great value.  And slowly made might be an invitation to look slowly, too.  Nicholas Nixon’s mesmerizing photographic project — The Brown Sisters, in which he photographed his wife and her sisters every year over a lifetime, and they age and change before our eyes like a flip book in slow motion — is another good example of the same thing. Matthew Finn’s mother ages and sickens through the photographs as she aged and sickened through time. Quite impossible simply to glance and go.

Jacob Israel Avedon 1972

Richard Avedon; Jacob Israel Avedon, Sarasota, 1972

Photography is complicated.  It’s by no means always just the slowness of the process which asks our attention.  Richard Avedon made a monumental series of portraits of his father across the end of the 1960s and the opening of the 1970s. Jacob Israel Avedon goes from business attire to hospital gown as the series develops.  His face becomes gaunt, his expression agonized like a medieval painting of a martyr. They’re simple pictures, close-to, no background, yet we can actually see the growing bond as the repeated performance took hold of them both.  Avedon wrote with emotion of the experience of making them — in a way which is perhaps relevant to Matthew Finn:

“At first my father agreed to let me photograph him but I think after a while he began to want me to. He started to rely on it, as I did, because it was a way we had of forcing each other to recognize what we were. I photographed him many times during the last year of his life but I didn’t really look at the pictures until after he died.

They seem now, out of the context of those moments, completely independent of the experience of taking them. They exist on their own. Whatever happened between us was important to us but it is not important to the pictures. What is in them is self-contained and, in some strange way, free of us both.”

Forcing each other to recognize what we were, he said. It’s a beautiful phrase, and one which says a lot about the misunderstandings between children and their parents.  Was Matthew Finn looking to recognize what his mother was?  Was he allowing her — in a reversal of the usual power relations between parent and child — to express herself as a mother?  Or was he trying to hold sand on a fork as time kept on sliding by?   We don’t need to know.


Matthew Finn; From Mother

We don’t even know what to call this kind of photography.  It has in it something of autobiography, of course;  something of documentary; something even of performance or play.  There used to be something called ‘concerned photography’, a phrase long out of fashion now. It tended towards social issues more than personal ones.   Matthew Finn’s long collaboration with Jean is all of these things and none of them.  Do we mind which category it falls under? All we can see is the intensity of his looking.  He stared a long time like a hawk at his mother.  And she never blinked back.



Mother, by Matthew Finn, was shown at Francesca Maffeo Galery in Essex. I wrote this little text to accompany the exhibtion, and both photographer and gallerist have been gracious enough to let me reprint it here. The book of the series has recently (2017) been published by Dewi Lewis with an essay by Elizabeth Edwards under the ISBN 978-1-911306-14-6










Almost Forgotten by the Dwellers in Cities

The estuaries of rivers appeal strongly to an adventurous imagination.

Joseph Conrad, the Mirror of the Sea

N. Kander triptych from the Dark Line

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

You wouldn’t think it, but the Thames is a secret river.  Great sandbanks which stretch roughly North-East–South-West defend its mouth from anything of much greater draft than a Viking longship.  Those banks have hard names that sailors fear:  Galloper and Shipwash and Long Sand and Sunk Sand and Kentish Knock and Margate Hook and Shivering Sand …  Separated by narrow swatchways and gats, and with ferocious tides made worse in particular wind directions, those sandbanks are the real secret of London’s wealth.  There’s something like a 24-foot rise of the tide at springs at London Bridge.  Bretons can deal with that, but not many others can.  There are few higher tidal differences in the world. If jingoist British historians used to boast that no-one had successfully invaded England since 1066 (barring such trifling visits as that of 1688, for which they could find easier names than invasion), it is really those shoals they had to thank.   For a low-lying harbour in a broad estuary, the Thames is ferociously well defended.

That estuary, by the way, is ill defined. Take a sensible view on a large-scale map and the greater Thames mouth stretches from the North Foreland, where the Kent coast bends sharply south, to Bradwell-on-Sea, where the Blackwater curls out around the Dengie Marshes or even to Walton on the Naze beyond Colchester.  That larger Thames includes vast areas of marshland: at Tollesbury, for example, or around Canvey Island, which gives perspective to a landscape today populated with out-of-town industrial development of all kinds.  It’s not properly a secret landscape, since so many people live and work there. Yet enterprising film makers keep on finding that people don’t really recognize large parts of it.  Go for a walk around Dengie and you aren’t in the familiar suburban outer London at all. I imagined for years that Dengie was so wet and wild that it had given its name to its own virulent form of temperate-country malaria, but the fever is spelt Dengue. Although it is certainly true that there were fierce malaria-like agues in the Essex marshes, it seems implausible that the two words are in any way connected. Yet the very real wildness of the marshes remains another of the defences at the mouth of the Thames, and another of the secrets it holds from those who go no further east than the Tower.

Of course, men added to those defences: you can still go and spend a windswept hour on the boulevards of the fort at Tilbury, a wonderful Vauban-like design of pointed bastions more romantic by far than its unpromising location in the flat riverside Essex marsh.  The present fort was built in bolt-the-stable-door reaction to a humiliating Dutch invasion of the Medway by a fleet led by Cornelis De Witt in 1667. John Evelyn called that  “a dreadful spectacle as ever Englishman saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off”. It was at the earlier fort on the same site that Queen Elizabeth, in the press of the alarum of the announcement of the Armada, gave one of the lauded speeches in the language:

 “I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King — and of a King of England too — and think foul scorn that Parma of Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

How many modern readers know what stories lies concealed in the three words there – Parma of Spain?  Parma’s not in Spain; we still know that much.  Parma was in fact Alessandro Farnese, the greatest of a great condottiere family, who made his career in the service of Spain.  It was Farnese’s campaigns that secured the Southern provinces of the Netherlands for His most Catholic and Hapsburg Majesty, Philip II (Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece, King of the Two Sicilies, Archduke of Austria, Count Palatine of Burgundy…).  You could certainly say that it was thanks mainly to Farnese that Belgium remains a separate and Catholic country today.  As a historical figure, he’s extraordinary:  as a young man he fought at Lepanto; and as an old one was the nominal commander–in-chief of the Armada.

The Armada didn’t do its work; thanks more to those winds and tides and sandbanks than to any great sailoring. The great fleet was scattered: a wreck from it is one of the attractions of Tobermory, on the island of Mull, and there are others dotted around Ireland.  England remained Protestant.

Various other invasions have been thwarted by the skin of English teeth.  As late as 1939, a chain was stretched from Shoeburyness to Sheerness across the estuary to rip the keel off unwelcome visitors – and that chain was seriously considered for replacement in the 1950s to deter any Cold War visitors by submarine.

It may be odd to start thinking about the Thames in military terms.  It’s a great trading river, one of the great ones of them all.  The John Company ships, the Australia clippers, the cogs of the Hansa…those are the ships one should really think about on the Thames. But the trade relied on its military strength.  The great warehouses of the Pool are all inland from the great shipyards, at Chatham and Deptford, with the huge arsenal at Woolwich:  the Thames has its defensive ring, all right.

I said it was a secret river.  Fairly recently, a sensitive and leisured generation has opened up the Thames path, not only down the length of the rural stream through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, but right through London, too.  The river bank is now accessible, perambulable.  Bikes and baby-buggies can take the air along it.  Londoners can lean on a wall and watch baulks of timber racing down the tide.  Until recently, that was unthinkable, certainly in the great port city itself.  Every inch of frontage was a warehouse; with only the narrowest alleys between down to the foreshore.  You can still get a hint of what it must have been like in some relict streets of Wapping and of Rotherhithe and of Bermondsey.  The Thames was a filthy stream, and crowded beyond anything that we know of it today.  Only on exceptional occasions (the waterborne jubilee of the present Queen Elizabeth, the celebrations for the millennium…) has the river anything like the press of shipping it had every day until recently.

The Thames had the peculiarity – because of those same tides – of not being a city of quaysides.  Only in the nineteenth century, when the great docks were dug out (bigger and deeper and more recent, in proportion as they are further downstream from the city) did quays come to be a London thing as they are almost everywhere else.  The London docks were industrial spaces, working areas, and even had they not been hedged about with tall walls to keep goods in and pilferers out, they were neither respectable nor safe; no flâneurs there, and because there were no quays, no flâneurs closer to town, either. Until containerization and a series of dock strikes closed the inner docks and moved the trade to Tilbury (where the container port is on private land and therefore protected by laws of trespass as much against unsanctioned union activity as against theft) dockers used sometimes to walk from one side of the Pool to the other across the decks of ships: quicker than walking around by the bridge if there was work to be had.  But ordinary Londoners knew nothing of that, as they knew nothing of the lanes of Dockhead or Pierhead.

When Conan Doyle wanted to hide a Londoner in plain sight, as Poe hid his letter upon the mantle, he hid him as a beggar.  In The Man with the Twisted Lip, a seemingly respectable gentleman from Lee, in Kent, hides his true occupation from his family by going up to town every day and getting changed and made up into the appearance of a disfigured beggar, in which guise he makes more than £700 a year – a lot of money, then.  Where else to make his transformation but in the secret alleys of the riverside, less known to respectable persons than many places thousands of miles away?

Upper Swandam Lane is a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge. Between a slop-shop and a gin-shop, approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave, I found the den of which I was in search. Ordering my cab to wait, I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering oil-lamp above the door I found the latch and made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with the brown opium smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.

One odd consequence of all this this secrecy is that every Londoner has his or her own private gazetteer of the Thames. It has opened up a great deal. The Clean Air Acts have blown away the smoke and smog which used to be its daily cover and the water itself is much cleaner than it was. Seals are regularly seen at least as far as the Isle of Dogs in London, although the attempt to restock salmon seems to have failed so far. Salmon were once abundant in the Thames: eighteenth-century London apprentices went on strike demanding they be fed salmon no more than five times a week. Yet the Thames is still hardly a place of great public water frontages or promenades.  For every great palace on the river, for each of Greenwich and Somerset House and the South Bank opposite it and Hampton Court and the mother of Parliaments, there are miles and miles of undistinguished workaday frontage, still today.  Brentford Dock is a very Thames-typical place, to me.  The canal comes out there, quite far upstream of the twin cities of London and Westminster, through an untidy copse of boatyards and boatsheds, under a main road.  The towpath of the Grand Union canal, which has run all the way from Birmingham and beyond, stops a few hundred yards short of the Thames: a messy little bit of navigation for the commercial boatmen from the river to the first lock.  One of the last regular cargoes, once a week by water until the early 1970s, was the order of Seville oranges for the chocolate factory at Bournville.  So Brentford, surprisingly, for it is miles inland, was once a port of disembarkation – and there are still improbable Customs notices on the wharf to greet those touching UK soil for the first time there.

Thames lighters look like huge floating skips, really.  There survive a few, docilely towed by engined craft and picturesque enough in their way.  But the lighters used to be one of the great menaces of the London river. When carrying down the canal system from inland, it was quicker to continue down the canal to Brentford than to turn at Bull’s Bridge onto the Paddington Branch and the Regent’s Canal through north London. Cargoes were transshipped from canal narrowboats into lighters which drifted down on the tide to the seagoing vessels in the docks or the Pool of London.  The lighters had no engine, often had no means of steering beyond a huge steering quant; even when they did have a tiller and a rudder, without an engine they were helpless for anything but the stateliest of changes of course.  Going upstream, they were grouped and towed as we know today when they couldn’t ride up on the tide.  Downstream, they drifted singly, each bouncing its way through whatever shipping might be in the way. Lightermen acquired a reputation for exceptional toughness and the worst language, and small wonder.

When my friend John Cronk got divorced and wanted to stay near his children he bought a workaday houseboat moored by Kew Bridge. It had been a brothel at some point, and had far too many bedrooms, each in cheap pine cladding with a tele on a bracket up near the deckhead.  There was a bar, either presumably for the gentlemen to wait until their particular friend was available, or for them to muster up the grim cock-courage of liquor.   John got to know a lot of secret Thames people living there, some of them as established as land-dwellers, but many not: a curious shifting population of people unsettled in both senses, restless people, people up one minute and down the next, like the tides.

That great flat–bottomed converted steel barge needed maintenance every year or two; I can’t remember if they actually scraped its bottom, but I think that was the sort of thing.  De-rusting and re-waterproofing.  To do it, the boat had to be cumbrously unbolted from the side, floated off the steel cradle on a concrete bed that normally kept it level, and towed by a hired tug (or a dragooned friend) across to a Brentford boat-yard.  One year, a man working under her was killed when the boat shifted while this work was going on.  John, as the owner, seemed plausibly to be technically responsible even though the work was being done by a boatyard he had contracted with.  For quite a while he was worried that he might have to face some kind of charges. I don’t know how the story was resolved: an agreement between insurers, most likely.

That’s one of my secret places.  Eel Pie Island is another, with the ghost of its Eel Pie Hotel, one of the high places of British rhythm ‘n’ blues.  I never went there – it burnt down before I was old enough; but I went often to its less-louche cousin, the Bull’s Head in Barnes.  Eel Pie is hardly a great island.  Old maps call it an ait, which is more like it.  It still has an artist community, not exactly seedy, but definitely on the Bohemian side. As joke-Bohemian places like the mudflat moorings at Cheyne Walk became ridiculous (in price; in pretension; in people), a genuine London Boho would move upstream to Eel Pie if he could. I once ruined the engine in a Volvo 480ES by driving it along the tide-flooded length of Chiswick Mall.  I was in a queue of traffic, slowly wading through shallow water behind many other cars doing just the same.  Every other car made it just fine; but I didn’t know that the air intake of those cars was very low, between the front wheels.  I do, now.  So Chiswick Mall became a secret place of mine that day.  The Isle of Sheppey is a secret place of a different sort, a curiously beautiful little hill above the mudflats.  I used to like the stumpy surviving arm of the Grosvenor canal, under the distinctive chimney of the pumping station by the railway tracks into Victoria.  Pimlico Boating Station; the Dove at Hammersmith; the terraces of St. Thomas’ Hospital, Barking Creek and the Bow Back rivers, the Gallions Hotel…

All Londoners have associations of this kind with the river.  They may not see it for many weeks on end – because one can cross it on the tube without knowing it’s there.  But that sudden catch in the breath from the sheer breadth of sky above the water is familiar to all.  It’s not just Wordsworth who found the river startlingly beautiful when the smoke cleared by chance.  Monet did, too, and his studies of the light changing over the Houses of Parliament are ‘secret memories’ of many of us.  Bill Brandt’s seagull wheeling past the shipping is one of mine, too, and so are the long thin Whistler sketches.  Not all secret memories of the river are simply of actual places. Snatches of song count, too.  (When Ian Dury died, his family threw his leg-iron and one of his walking sticks into the Thames off Hammersmith Bridge). Books make plenty of memories, too: Magwitch out on the marshes.

Many generations before the canal system was built, the river had always been alive with small craft.  Quicker for almost any London journey of any length to go north or south to the river, take boat, and then go south or north from the nearest stair to the destination.  Read Pepys and he’s forever leaping into a boat – and not just because of his job.  He was a great naval administrator, and probably took a few more rides on the Thames than most, but everybody above the breadline did it from time to time. Now, in addition to the tourist boats, the fast connections to the investment bankers at Canary Wharf signal the reopening of a long history of the Thames as an efficient internal highway as well as the great external highway of the world.

The few surviving oarsmen, with their boathouses at Putney and elsewhere, are the last traces of one of the great outdoor leisure crazes, when late-Victorian and Edwardian Londoners flocked to the nicer bits of the river to learn the muscular habits of the watermen. If the Head of the River and the Boat Race are more or less absurd today, it’s peculiar to recall that they once drew crowds in the hundreds of thousands, when the river shed its working clothes and became an animated playground for the day. In the same way, the nearest London ground for the illegal bare-knuckle prize fights was at Moulsey Hurst, south of Hounslow, and Pierce Egan, the great pioneer sportswriter, often describes the crowds pushing their way down there to see Jem Belcher or Tom Cribb. Egan’s long written commentary (‘Key to the Picture of the Fancy Going to a Fight at Moulsey-Hurst‘) on Robert Cruikshank’s twelve-foot caricature of the crowd going down for one such match is a kind of early nineteenth century reality show. It’s there to entertain and to inform, but it is essentially true. The famous Globe theatre within a few yards of the river on Bankside was next to a bear-baiting ground, now less famous. Vauxhall Gardens, like the boxing grounds, was home-from-home to scallywags as well to fine gentry. The Thames ran through the middle of London’s entertainment as well as its trade; and every Londoner to this day has some association there, even if it is only an office party on a rented steamer.

I like the urban myth that the tidal flood alarm rings when the water level goes into the mouths of enough of the decorative lion’s-head mooring rings.  When it was originally told me, it was as an actual alarm of some kind.  Since then, I find no circuitry but a rhyme:

“When the lions drink, London will sink;
When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains;
When the water is sucked, you can be sure we’re all … in trouble.”

It sounds like an ancient vulgar London nursery rhyme – yet the lions can only have been put there after the Thames was Embanked by Joseph Bazalgette late in the nineteenth century.  And the thought of Bazalgette, of course, brings up the thought of the great sewerage system he built, with its magnificent cathedrals of shit at Abbey Mills and Crossness, still there in all their cod-Byzantine glory.  Bazalgette built the Embankment, essentially a hollow dam from Tothill Fields downstream.  The District Line trains run within it; and when fibre-optic cables were new, a company hired space through the hollow to run speedy connections to the city.

T.S. Eliot knew all about the secrets of the Thames.  In the Waste Land he talks of how ‘it sweats oil and tar.’  The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, begins with a rich passage about the Mississippi, which Eliot would have known as a child growing up in St. Louis, and which is very Thames-like as he describes it:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities – ever, however implacable,

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of

What men chose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

The river is within us….


Londoners will recognize that.  The river is within us. Perhaps the way to describe it as the subconscious of Londoners.  You don’t have to know of the buried rivers, the Neckinger and the Effra and Counters’ Creek and the Fleet which flow down to the Thames to understand how the river acts on Londoners as a mix of the individual and the shared. All Fulham fans know about the Thames at their backs; all Millwall and Charlton fans, too — although their bits of the river may not be quite so intimately close. Everybody whose car is lifted high on the giant QEII bridge between Queenhithe and Purfleet gets the view of the skyscrapers far to the west and the tankers moored almost on the mud below. Yet those very public vistas, the obvious ones, are not the ones that make up our own maps.

There is a story I like very much in Conrad. (There are lots of stories I like very much in Conrad, but it’s of this one that I’m thinking.) I’m sorry that it’s long, but Conrad likes to get his pipe well in between his teeth when he tells a story, even such a little one as this.

Behind the growth of the London waterside the docks of London spread out unsuspected, smooth, and placid, lost amongst the buildings like dark lagoons hidden in a thick forest. They lie concealed in the intricate growth of houses with a few stalks of mastheads here and there overtopping the roof of some four-story warehouse.

It is a strange conjunction this of roofs and mastheads, of walls and yard-arms. I remember once having the incongruity of the relation brought home to me in a practical way. I was the chief officer of a fine ship, just docked with a cargo of wool from Sydney, after a ninety days’ passage. In fact, we had not been in more than half an hour and I was still busy making her fast to the stone posts of a very narrow quay in front of a lofty warehouse. An old man with a gray whisker under the chin and brass buttons on his pilot-cloth jacket, hurried up along the quay hailing my ship by name. He was one of those officials called berthing-masters — not the one who had berthed us, but another, who, apparently, had been busy securing a steamer at the other end of the dock. I could see from afar his hard blue eyes staring at us, as if fascinated, with a queer sort of absorption. I wondered what that worthy sea-dog had found to criticise in my ship’s rigging. And I, too, glanced aloft anxiously. I could see nothing wrong there. But perhaps that superannuated fellow-craftsman was simply admiring the ship’s perfect order aloft, I thought, with some secret pride; for the chief officer is responsible for his ship’s appearance, and as to her outward condition, he is the man open to praise or blame. Meantime the old salt (“ex-coasting skipper” was writ large all over his person) had hobbled up alongside in his bumpy, shiny boots, and, waving an arm, short and thick like the flipper of a seal, terminated by a paw red as an uncooked beef-steak, addressed the poop in a muffled, faint, roaring voice, as if a sample of every North-Sea fog of his life had been permanently lodged in his throat: “Haul ’em round, Mr. Mate!” were his words. “If you don’t look sharp, you’ll have your topgallant yards through the windows of that ’ere warehouse presently!” This was the only cause of his interest in the ship’s beautiful spars. I own that for a time I was struck dumb by the bizarre associations of yard-arms and window-panes. To break windows is the last thing one would think of in connection with a ship’s topgallant yard, unless, indeed, one were an experienced berthing-master in one of the London docks. […] I answered him pettishly, I fear, and as if I had known all about it before.

“All right, all right! can’t do everything at once.”

It’s a properly London vision. Ninety days out of Australia, presumably with real danger to avoid. Conrad loved ships, and respected that a high spar goes around in a dancing circle of huge diameter on the sea. Half an hour in a London dock, and he’d forgotten. He might have knocked some panes out of a warehouse.

Well, I could go on but I’m warned away. Hilaire Belloc was a wonderful writer about water and the sea. His description in the Cruise of the Nona of sailing through the Portland Race is one of the great passages of descriptive prose that I know. Yet Belloc was dull about the Thames, his book about it no more than a piece of hack-writing. My own unconscious Thames sounds ponderous when dredged like this and brought to light. But what brought about this fit of river-gazing?

Nadav Kander has made a new series on the estuary, and part of it, at least, touches that same collision between private and secret with what appears to all. It is plausible to say that Kander’s greatest series so far is the one that won the Pictet Prize, on the Yangtze. It was a marvellous set of landscape photographs, but that was only its substratum. What the Long River is really about is how the little people are left behind in the new giant China, world power. Picture after picture shows huge infrastructure that the ordinary people cannot reach. A man washes a motorbike under a vast bridge with no possible way for him to ride along the top of it. There’s splendour; but also a fierce contrast between China, connected and powerful on the global scale; and its people, not yet riding the information superhighways even though they themselves are building them. It was a lot to get into a travel series, and not many photographers could have done it. But Kander did; he was already well-known by then, and for many interlinking skills; but his series on the Yangtze took him up another level. Complex thoughtful understanding expressed with great control and great harmony: it was fine photography by any standards. 

Kander St Michel 2002

Nadav Kander; Mont St.Michel, 2002

There’s another picture of Kander’s which carries a weight in this context, too. In 2002 he made a picture of the Mont St Michel which managed the amazing trick of seeing this much-photographed monument freshly. Kander’s St Michel rises in the distance above a flat wet plain, more like an illustration of John Bunyan than anything else. It’s a goal to be reached, almost a mirage. A drain winds toward it that might take us there; but it curls uncomfortably away and might not. It’s a mental vision more than a physical one, shimmering, almost at the edge of sight itself. For most of its history, this is quite precisely how Christianity has been seen. The church was almost always the highest building around, often the only one. It dominated, to be aspired to or feared. Le Corbusier cheekily noticed that grain silos in the US rose above the plain with the same kind of psychic dominance that churches used to have, and since then, buildings of many different sorts have grown far taller than any church.

In the new series, partnered with lower glances into the underbrush and into blurs of motion, Kander has done the same thing again. He has made quite a few pictures in which the vast skies of the outer Thames isolate but don’t quite crush the various buildings of the urban spread at its fringe. If I’m not quite convinced by Kander’s more nearly abstract pictures in this series nor by the companion studies of woodland, nor by his fairly routine studies of the big blocks of erosion protection – they have become fairly standard tropes of ‘accidental sculpture’ and were anyway done much better by Koudelka in panoramic format when he worked on the Transmanche Project all those years ago – then by contrast I find his pictures of buildings just on the edge of perception extraordinary.

N Kander, from a Dark Line 4

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from the Dark Line 2

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from the Dark Line

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from A Dark Line 6

Nadav Kander, from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

N Kander from a Dark Line 5

Nadav Kander; from Dark Line – the Thames Estuary 2017

You can think of these in the trendy vocabulary of the Anthropocene if you like – the name for the era in which the marks of man’s occupation have been left on the planet, slight at first, but more marked since roughly the start of the Industrial Revolution – but it may be better to think of them in terms of the subconscious of London. These are pictures where the superficial knowledge we have of the places we live – shared and mapped, and apparently perfectly logical – is challenged by a deeper knowledge which is personal and barely articulated: felt rather than thought. That buildings, big buildings on the scale of power stations, can disappear under huge skies is a subtle reminder of something we dare not forget, that for all the urban human history of the place, nature is still strong in the estuary, only a few miles from the city, even if sometimes our awareness of it is no stronger than the cry of a harrier far away on the marsh.