Engineers’ Blue

Henry Peter Bosse : US Dredge 'Phoenix' 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : US Dredge Phoenix 1885

In 1890, a year after the Oklahoma Land Rush, the great race by 50,000 settlers to claim previously Seminole lands after a starting gun was – literally – fired on April 22, 1889, the director of the US Census declared that the frontier was closed.  “There can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” He meant it in a specific and technical sense, that the line which divided population densities of less than two persons per square mile from heavier settlement was now impossible to trace.  Three years later, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner expounded at the then-new Art Institute in Chicago his influential doctrine that the character of American democracy had been formed by the frontier.  At that time, a few miles away, crowds were flocking to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (known also as the World’s Fair).

World's Columbian Exposition Chi 1893

World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago, 1893. Made by the Chicago Bank Note Company.

windmills at the Fair (uncredited)

Display of Windmills at the Chicago World’s Fair, 1893 (No photographer credited)

Tesla demonstrated the lightbulb and Westinghouse the alternating current generator (and George Ferris built the Ferris wheel and somebody displayed a chocolate machine so impressive that Milton Hershey switched from making caramel to chocolate). Theodore Dreiser was one of many visitors who had cause to remember the Fair: I think he met his wife there.

Chicago may well have remained a wild, wild town in its mores for some years longer (as bears witness Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, which dates from 1906); but after the 1893 Exhibition, it could hardly be thought a frontier.  The great rail-head, the focal point of all US trade, it had been sited where it was partly because it was so close to the Mississippi watershed.

One can argue with Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis at all sort of levels, and many historians have contested bits or the whole of it.  But the double myths of the West – of the wild lands being ‘civilized’, and of civilized townies getting a bit of the wilds in them, have become recurring tropes of the American view of America. America has been looking for new frontiers – including Space, famously, the ‘final frontier’ – ever since.  And conversely, the cults of outdoorsmanship remain undimmed, including guns and survivalism for some, or building self-sufficient communities off-grid for others.


Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.

The myth of the West was strong even as the frontier was being declared closed.  Among paintings, for example, Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair.

Numerous government agencies showed the photographs they had commissioned, many of them of expeditions west of one kind or another. Timothy O’Sullivan’s and Eadweard Muybridge’s pictures of the west were shown at the Fair, and so were William Henry Jackson’s, who had accompanied Moran to Yellowstone.  Jackson’s and Moran’s pictures are arguably what made it a national park – a literal taming of the West.   Jackson also made numerous photographs of the fair itself.  In other registers, Eastman showed there, and there were representatives from abroad, too. Among them all were a number of pictures by contributors from the Corps of Engineers, including Henry Peter Bosse (he’s pronounced Bossy, I think).

Bosse was a draughtsman mapmaker on the upper Mississippi, assigned to that branch of the Army Corps of Engineers based at Rock Island, Illinois from 1878 until his death in 1903. As an Englishman, I had to look up where Rock Island is.  I’d only ever heard of it in the context of Leadbelly’s classic Rock Island Line – reworked a number of times, including a version right in the far recesses of my memory by Harry Belafonte.

Bosse’s story is a wonderful one for a number of reasons. To start at the wrong end, it has a number of bad endings which almost scupper it. A large number of his glass negatives, for example, almost all of them, were dropped and smashed in an office move. He himself, come to think of it, could have survived longer.  He died at 59, poisoned by improperly canned asparagus. Bosse’s work, like that of so many photographers, could simply have not survived.

In the early 1990s, a number of dealers (including Denise Bethel, not yet head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s) became aware of some of Bosse’s pictures.  Prices were discussed, a few collectors were alerted, some sales were made.  John Anfinson, a historian attached to the Corps of Engineers, was contacted about Bosse.  He ferreted around and found a photograph of the cover of an album that had not yet appeared. “Presented to US Dredge William A. Thompson by Mrs. William A. Thompson.”  (Dredge is the Americanism for what British people call a dredger.  It’s a type of boat. In English English, the dredge is specifically the mud-digging or mud-sucking apparatus on the boat.)

The Corps of Engineers has the pleasant habit of renaming its boats after long-serving employees: Thompson had been a colleague of Bosse’s.  (Bosse got one of his own: after his death, the Vixen was renamed Henry Bosse in 1908, but unfortunately that one capsized in 1913.)  Anfinson checked, and sure enough, there was still an album on the Thompson:  it had been chugging up and down the Mississippi in the captain’s desk drawer for something like 50 years.  Miraculously, it was undamaged by damp or dust, by bugs or boatmen. That album was valued high ($4.5M high) and Bosse’s place in photographic history was made secure. As Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a damned nice thing…the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.  There are now Bosse pictures online, museums have Bosse holdings, there’s plenty of Bosse scholarship (some of which of course I acknowledge here with thanks).

In a blog of this kind, it is all too easy to write disproportionately (much and often) about that tiny part of photographic activity which has overt claims to art.  It is salutary sometimes to underline that photography makes its own art.  The great master photographers take their habits, their working methods, their interests and prejudices from where they find them. Bosse wasn’t an artist.  He was a jolly amateur cartoonist, a dab at lettering, a prince among cartographic draughtsmen.  He became a brilliant photographer. For the ten or so years that he photographed up and down the Mississippi, he was a state employee (he worked on the river much longer, but seems to have photographed only between about 1883-1893). It was work.  Important work in the national interest, to be taken seriously. To say that Bosse would not have considered himself an artist doesn’t imply that he was visually illiterate or naïve. He had artistry; even genius. But that’s not what he was selling.

His subject was the taming of the Mississippi – one of the notoriously incontinent rivers of the world – into a usable commercial highway.  The Mississippi is a great sluggish beast chock-full of silt, and it has the habit of flooding and violently changing its course.

Arkansas City, Arkansas, flooded by the Mississippi River, April 27, 1927

Mississippi Flood at Arkansas City, Arkansas, April 1927.


Harold N. Fink for the Army Corps of Engineers. Map of the historical changes of bed of the Mississippi, 1944.

Taming the river was not just a question of civic pride.  Until the expansion of the railroads, the Mississippi represented the likeliest trade route for a country that was beginning to demonstrate its insatiable appetite for trade.  It had been a major trade route surprisingly early: by the 1820s the river was churned by steamboats as far north as Minnesota, enough of them in fierce competition that it was cheaper to send goods East by going down the Mississippi and around the long sea passage than to send them over the land route through the Appalachians – even though the land route is ten times shorter.

The Daisy Belle Taking the short cut after a Mississippi flood. Morris

Morris (Maurice De Bevere). The Daisy Belle Taking a Short Cut after a Mississippi Flood. The Lucky Luke books by Morris (later Morris and Rene Goscinny) are often based on real events. Here the famous 1000-mile race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez in 1870 forms the basis of the story.

The Army Corps of Engineers has long been tied to huge projects that might elsewhere be given to civilian contractors.  Among these are national parks, road and railway construction, and of course a huge programme of working with water – for irrigation, navigation, flood-protection, and later, hydroelectric power.  After Bosse’s death, the depression-era programme of kick-starting the economy through public works was partly carried out by the Engineers, responsible for such all-American monuments as the Fort Peck Dam – whose very Socialist representation by Margaret-Bourke White appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life in 1936.

In Bosse’s day, the Engineers had funds to create a channel of a certain depth up the length of the upper Mississippi.  At first, that was four feet six inches; later more money was found and a channel depth of nine foot was aimed at over the entire length of the river above St. Louis.

Bosse was interested in a number of specifically river structures: weirs, locks, wingdams, levees… (a wingdam is a carefully angled obstruction built deliberately to speed the current to scour out a particular shallows). He was interested in a number of specifically river effects: rapids, floods, meanders…He was interested in the possibilities of bridges, docks, wharves.  And he spent his working life on boats: snag-boats, tug-boats, dredgers, workboats and so on.  That might have remained the working environment of Abraham Lincoln, who had spent a while as a flatboatman on the Mississippi, completing at least one journey from New Salem, Illinois, to New Orleans. It did remain Bosse’s working environment his entire working life.

Henry Peter Bosse :Wingdams Below Nininger, Minnesota

Henry Peter Bosse : Wingdams Below Nininger, Minnesota

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at Winona, Wisconsin, 1892

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at Winona, Wisconsin, 1892

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : Wagon Bridge at La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : US Steamlaunch 'Elsie' towing brush, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : US Steamlaunch Elsie towing brush, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Old Ponton Bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisonsin, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Old Ponton Bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisonsin, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Mechanic's Rock, Low Water, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Mechanic’s Rock, Low Water, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Front Street, Davenport, Iowa, High Water, 1888

Henry Peter Bosse : Front Street, Davenport, Iowa, High Water, 1888

Henry Peter Bosse : From Bluffs at Fountain City, Wisconsin, Looking Upstream, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : From Bluffs at Fountain City, Wisconsin, Looking Upstream, 1885 . You can see a raft of lumber in the channel – just what Bosse worked to make safe, fast, and cheaper.

Henry Peter Bosse : Entrance to Guard Lock, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Entrance to Guard Lock, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Closing Dam in Otter Chute, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Closing Dam in Otter Chute, 1889

Henry Peter Bosse : Below the Falls of St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Below the Falls of St. Anthony, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1885

Henry Peter Bosse : Bar in Front of La Crosse, Michigan, 1891.

Henry Peter Bosse : Bar in Front of La Crosse, Michigan, 1891.

The reason his pictures were (usually) made as cyanotypes was severely practical:  he worked for the Corps of Engineers.  Cyanotype was a sensible, relatively sturdy way to make cheap copies of diagrams and plans. Bosse could mix cyanotype chemistry even in a cramped cabin on a boat. But there is every reason to believe that as well as the stench of Mississippi mud, Bosse had poetry in his soul.

Engineers’ blue is a type of brick, made of heavier clay than the standard, more nearly waterproof, even less easy to crush. It was used by Victorian builders where great strength was needed, but because it looked so different, it also provided a simple vocabulary for (restrained) decorative fanciness. That is exactly how I feel about Bosse’s blue. It’s a tool, but one which allows a hint of flourish. Nothing gaudy, certainly nothing sensational. Bosse remains a steady working man. But that blue becomes his metre, his idiom. Time and again he puts little figures in the foreground of his pictures as Moran put them on a rise in front of Yellowstone. Do they represent the enormity of the task that he was tackling?  Human frailty in the face of the river gods?  Or are they there as a surveyor’s ranging rod, to give scale?  I’m sure Bosse had both in mind.  He was a practical man – and a practical man is the epitome of the American dream.  But he was also a photographer, making images to be dreamt over as well as merely read.

Surely that’s why he chose to make his pictures oval in the presentation albums that he took most care over.  The oval signified a view.  The oval was the shape of the eye: in French (which I have absolutely no reason to believe Bosse knew, but still) there is the expression a coup d’oeil, meaning a glance or look.  The oval represents that, a deliberate eyeful of the Mississippi, to be contrasted against merely sighting some bit of the thing. The pictures are superbly composed.  They are river views in the same way that Peter Henry Emerson was making river views in Norfolk at about the same time.

Emerson The Bridge publMarsh Leaves 1895

Peter Henry Emerson, The Bridge, from Marsh Leaves, published 1895.

Emerson thought of himself as making naturalistic photographs; as far as we know Bosse didn’t trouble himself with such things; they are just photographs.  They are records, statements of belief, elegant graphical shapes, mnemonics, arguments, totems, invitations all at the same time.  Too complicated?  That’s what photographs do; they smash our flimsy divisions between different kinds of thinking. The oval is the shape of fancy mounts in photographic company catalogues: this may be a factual view of an iron bridge, but it puts that bridge in its proper context, of the glorious triumph of the taming of the river – itself a big part of the taming of the West – by doughty engineers attached to the citizen Army of the self-identified most exceptional country in the world.  It isn’t fanciful to think of Bosse’s Mississippi as a kind of watery history painting.  Here was destiny.  Only in Bosse’s world, it didn’t have hussars bravely galloping through cannon-smoke. It had a four-and-half foot channel to clear.

Henry Peter Bosse : Construction of Rock & Brush Dam, Low Water, 1891

Henry Peter Bosse : Construction of Rock and Brush Dam, Low Water, 1891




Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983 by Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach, Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea 1983

Richard Misrach: Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, 1983. Richard Misrach is represented by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, California.

As a co-founder of the Prix Pictet, awarded since 2008 for images on the theme of sustainability, I have thought a lot about environmental photography. I know that Richard Misrach takes his place in a long line of predecessors, from Carleton Watkins through Ansel Adams and the New Topographics. I know that both irony and the sublime had been found in the landscape many times before him. I’m British, and know well that tradition of engaged landscape photography represented by Fay Godwin and before her by Bill Brandt. But somehow, for me, it always goes back to Misrach, who was born in Los Angeles in 1949. Nobody else has made such a sustained political enquiry into our maltreatment of the wilderness in a vocabulary of such exquisite beauty.


This 1983 view of a flooded campsite, “Submerged Trailer, Salton Sea, California”, is so simple. Yet it goes so far. Misrach’s big subject for some 40 years of photography at the very highest level has been the complex relationship between man and the environment. Much of that work takes its place in his huge Desert Cantos, which is mainly a catalogue of dreadful abuse, although the occasional noble moment intervenes. As his projects accumulated, it began to seem that here we had someone whose scope and range were as monumental as the area he worked in, the deserts of the south-western US. As sustained serial works go, the Desert Cantos are on the scale of Balzac. One of the Cantos is on the subject of a mysterious pit in the desert, full of dead horses and cows. A nuclear accident? An epidemic of some sort? Misrach’s point (or one of them) is that the whole mythology of the West was centred on those beasts: the 1,000-strong herds of cattle driven to the railheads, the cowboys on horseback. Suddenly Misrach was looking down at John Wayne and the Marlboro Man, caricatured in a pit full of dead beasts. He photographed them with the twisted agony of Goya or Géricault.


The Salton Sea was created in 1905 by bad management of irrigation waters from the Colorado River. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was substantially enlarged by more mismanagement. It is, in other words, both a part of the larger story of the struggle to bring water to the arid West, and a symbol of the chronic failure of that intervention. Misrach offers us this rare watery tourist spot in the desert, turned sour. Yet his camera is not so very different from the tourists’ cameras that would have pointed the same way before the water level changed. We gaze, as sightseers, at a sight no longer fit for sightseeing. There is blame to be ascribed, fault. Yet it is photographed with Misrach’s particular genius for light, caressingly.

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 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.