L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard, by Robert Doisneau

The Accordionist Rue Mouffetard

Robert Doisneau                                      L’Accordéoniste de la rue Mouffetard (1951)

I like a bit of French humanist photography as much as the next man, and often for very simple reasons. But they’re not always simple pictures. Brassaï was an intellectual, a writer and a thinker as well as a snapper, whereas Robert Doisneau is thought of as an instinctual, reflex, photographer. He certainly had prodigious reflexes. A picture like this has to be rapidly seized. But that by no means implies that it need be slight. The elegant complexity of what is going on in this charming street scene still takes me by surprise. Never underestimate a great photographer.

The nominal subject of L’Accordéoniste de la Rue Mouffetard  (1951) is a musician. He is facing us, but his eyes are a dark bar across his face, a clear indication that he cannot see. As if that were not enough, he has a very visible white stick. Above his head, a No Entry sign looks for all the word like a blindfold on a child’s drawing of a face. A blinded smiley would look just like that. It acts as a graphic shorthand of the whole picture: a visual title. So we have three separate, very clear suggestions that this cute picture is not about street life or music but about blindness.

Let’s go on: the group on the left are all looking with concentrated attention at something, but we cannot see what. The lady on the right, too, is staring at something, but in her case it’s out of shot. Between them, a very obvious “frame” in the panelling of the shop front is empty. Where we might expect an advertisement or a trade-name, there is only the varnished grain of bare wood. So the frame is “blind”, too. Only one figure is caught looking with attention: the sturdily poised artist square on his feet, drawing. We can’t see his page: too far, and protected by the angle of his pad. We can guess what he’s at, though. He must be drawing the blind accordionist. And then it finally dawns: he is drawing the musician, certainly. But he’s drawing him in a scene just like the one we’re looking at. And the only person looking intently back out of that scene, into the picture that Doisneau has made, is you. It’s a cheerful enough scene. But the joke is on us, the viewers. We are the only ones in the whole equation who are not seeing anything of what all the others are looking at. We are the blind viewers of the Rue Mouffetard.

It’s still cute, full of lovely period details like the baggy trousers and the battered soft hat. But it isn’t just cute, by any means. It is a beautifully crafted essay on the business of looking. As such, it’s amazing.

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Harlequin Without His Mask

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

I have been indifferent to Rankin. I’m not a follower of fashion, and have never had much interest in which brand he has favoured with his efficient but derivative image making. I’ve been to a number of his exhibitions, but can’t remember ever reviewing one. Rankin is one of those photographers whose style is the absence of style. When you see a single picture of his, you can’t tell it’s by him, and when you see a number of them together, you can’t tell whether he was deeply involved in the subject or merely contracted to it.

Rankin has often, for example, exhibited his pictures of his partner, the model Tuuli, and I have consistently been unable to see any special affection in the pictures that might distinguish his treatment of her to that of his other models. To be precise, I don’t mean merely pictures in which the model happened to be his wife: it might be quite wrong for those to have any legible trace of their private relationship. But Rankin has exhibited pictures specifically as a love story, and those come out looking just like any other nice clean cheerful safe pictures of a woman. Rankin can certainly supply you with a pout, a smile, sultry come-hither eyes or what have you. Bags of what looks like energy or charm. But there is something mechanical in his photography beyond which I have found it difficult to get to anything more interesting.

No doubt precisely that contributes to his very considerable commercial success.

If you want conventional unchallenging studio photography which presses simple emotional buttons with no great demand upon the viewer (and that is exactly what a large majority of commercial clients think they want), Rankin may well be your man. He is not, I find, particularly interested in trusting the pictures to do his communicating. He is happy for his pictures to take their overtones and undertones from the words which accompany them. The pictures are just-so; they do an excellent job. But they never challenge you to rethink your world, never ask to draw upon deep reserves of memory or understanding. Rankin does not weave complex patterns of ideas, of the kind which photography weaves so successfully out of allusion and quotation and reference. He does not dance that constant lovely edge between what we are made to see and what we know already.

In the terms I have used earlier in these pages, he may not even be a photographer at all, although there is no doubt of his mastery as a camera operator.

Or so I thought.

I went a few days ago to Liverpool, to see the various manifestations of the Look/13 Festival. Rankin is showing at the Walker Art Gallery, a very ho-hum sort of exhibition entitled ALIVE: in the Face of Death. It tells heartening stories about the drive and vigour that some people can show under tough medical circumstances, and most of the pictures are relentlessly jolly. The majority are portraits of the patients or former patients themselves, with a few footnotes (such as a group of professional Ghanaian mourners) thrown in. It’s not at all a bad idea to speak in public of death more than is the norm in Britain, and the Walker is to be applauded for that. A few visitors will indeed be heartened by the show, and will take away from it a mental picture of resolve or gaiety or some similar linear characteristic. Most of the pictures are nothing more than illustrations of the thesis and they are completely missable. Yet in among all that, I confess to my considerable surprise, Rankin has put a group of astounding portrait studies which not only make the show worth seeing but also made me wonder if I should begin to rethink the photographer.

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin calls these portraits life masks, and I had thought that they were no more than a rendering of a still face by one photographic technique or another. But it seems they are not: in April of 2013, The Scotsman published Ian Rankin’s (the novelist’s) own pictures of his face being moulded in plaster, presumably for the sitting with his namesake photographer. They really are pictures of life masks.

The first thing I liked was how universal the people become under these circumstances. A degree of difference is maintained by the sheer age or youth of skin: the model Abbey Clancy plainly has a smoother mien than Ian Rankin. But all these heads photographed exactly the same way become studies of mankind as well as just studies of people.

They are, of course, a typology. You can photograph any number of variants of an object the same way, and hope to find some revelatory common ground between them. That is an idea so tired it has not much left to yield. But life masks go right back to the very beginning of photography on at least two counts.

To have such a cast made – even with quick-drying plaster – demands the kind of stillness that has not really existed since the long exposures of the very early days of photography. Daguerreotypists frequently used a head clamp, to enforce stillness. Real stillness is not merely a technical matter: it changes the psychology of being portrayed.

That stillness does things to the face being photographed, and to our reading of it. W.M. Hunt has amassed an entire collection (published in The Unseen Eye) of photographs in which the eyes of the sitter are closed, or masked in some way. He has a particular affection for pictures in which the eyes are masked by a chance effect which then gives an extra something to the photograph. He explains that this gives some reading of the unconscious, and he may be right: certainly it is by the eyes that we most usually engage with each other. Masked eyes automatically mean that some engagement less than usually direct is going to be involved.

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.   This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt's brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.
This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt’s brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

One of Brassai's graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.   Also from WM Hunt's Unseen Eye.

One of Brassai’s graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.
Also from WM Hunt’s Unseen Eye.

The second reason I say life masks go right back to the earliest days of photography is that photography absorbed some of the main ideas of physiognomy, ideas very current in the decades before photography which survive within photography even though substantially discredited elsewhere.

Masking is intrinsically challenging. One part of photography’s appeal to most viewers is a strange element of voyeurism. Not that all subject matter is looked at with sexual eyes, but that there is a recurring pleasure in being able to take more time to view with intensity and concentration than is afforded when looking at things in vivo. Look carefully in the real world, and you are always out of time before you can have fully grasped what you see. Look carefully in a photograph and things (physical and associational) appear which seemed to have been hidden. That produces a pleasure in seeing: it provides its own rewards by revealing more or revealing otherwise. Masks both repel that kind of scrutiny and invite it. I defy anybody not to look harder at a mask than they do at a face. It’s almost as if the mask carries within itself the invitation to unmask if you dare, to unmask if you can. Look hard enough at a mask and it might just dissolve.

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates' British Moths, 2011

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates’ British Moths, 2011

I wrote on these pages not long ago of the shaving-foam masks of Marcus Coates, in a piece called British Moths 2011, which continues to intrigue me. On that same occasion I mentioned Erwin Blumenfeld, who used masking as an absolutely central weapon in his armoury. Blumenfeld would mask the model in an amazing variety of ways, including using strobes with a telescope attached that allowed him to use light itself as a mask. But he also used bobbly glass, venetian blinds, heavy shadow… The new (May 2013) exhibition of Blumenfeld’s fashion work at Somerset House in London contains a number of masks or images dependent on masking, and some of them are very close in conception to Rankin’s series at the Walker.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936. Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936.
Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

A catalogue of masks in photography would certainly be enormous, ranging over factual anthropological studies, a host of make-up effects in fashion, various kinds of sport, and the unwitting masking of the kind that W.M. Hunt assembled in his book. S&M masking is a subject in its own right. The humble pair of dark glasses may be no more than a sketch of a mask, a request to be viewed as though masked, and therefore a plea to be unmasked.

I’m interested by the idea that the face is only one small remove away from a mask all the time. By a minimum of manipulation, a photographer can turn a face into a mask, and by doing so redouble its compelling force to be viewed. That manipulation can be through a physical process of mask making, as by Rankin. It can be by a manner of photographing, as for example by the German modernist photographer Helmar Lerski.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner's Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).  Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner’s Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).
Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

One of the great successes of the Tate’s 2007 exhibition How We Are, curated by Val Willams and Susan Bright, was the fresh impetus given to the beautiful portraits of destroyed faces by Percy Hennell. Hennell was a technically inventive specialist in colour photography who worked in the Second war in a number of Royal Air Force hospitals. Many of his pictures of the reconstructive surgery undergone by patients (often after severe burning) are in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We stare at a Hennell sitter with a terrible mixture of pity and fear and relief that such a thing has not happened to us. We also stare hoping against hope to find legible marks of character behind the disfigurement. In Hennell’s pictures, the mask is often of a peculiarly extreme kind. It is a still a mask, but made of flesh itself. And that, oddly, seems to be not so extreme after all. It seems that all faces are masks when seen in a certain light.

Percy Hennell, Wartimne injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

Percy Hennell,
Wartime injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

The phrase at the top of this page is from Thackeray’s English Humorists, where he writes in the chapter on Swift: “Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin”.

Robert Brownjohn’s Street Level Series

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

One of the pleasing things about being interested in photographs is that it is really perfectly OK to admit to not knowing even important groups of pictures. In a narrower specialism, say in craft pottery or in modern literary fiction or in contemporary dance, it’s embarrassing to miss first-rate stuff.  In photography you can even turn the whole argument around:  far from being embarrassing to have missed something, it may be that to live only with those pictures that have good kudos in your particular neck of the photographic woods is to be limited, to lack curiosity and openness.

The new and the new-to-me is a powerful stimulant. It’s by checking one’s reactions against the new that one improves one’s antennae.  It’s the fear of the new which makes so much commercial photography stultifying.  Don’t forget that the word cliché is French for a snapshot. Clichés are merely the standard thoughts of those frightened by the new. I think there’s a lot of fear of the new in specialist areas, too, like sports photography, although there the problems of access and delivery are so great that perhaps there are some excuses.

It is good periodically to meet the new-to-me face to face.

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn.  From the Street Level series, 1961.Victoria & Albert Museum

Robert Brownjohn. From the Street Level series, 1961.
Victoria & Albert Museum

In the latest re-hang of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s photography gallery, there is a group of pictures of lettering found in situ on London’s streets.  I admit, I did not know these pictures, and while I certainly knew of their author, I did not think of him as a photographer.  They date from 1961, are by Robert Brownjohn, and, like so very much interesting photography, they were not originally made with any interest in what they might be as photographs.

Brownjohn was a designer, a good one. Born in America as the son of an originally British bus-driver, he had studied with Lászlό Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago, then with Moholy-Nagy’s successor, the architect Serge Chermayeff, before coming to England in 1960.  He was a member of that New York crowd of the 1950s centred on such luminaries of the cool jazz as Miles Davis and Stan Getz.  Later, he became a key figure in the Swinging Sixties in London.   A pioneer in several fields of design, he was also an addict, who died before he was fifty.

There was an exhibition devoted to Brownjohn’s work at the Design Museum in London in 2005. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is still showing (for a few days – until March 18th 2013) a little study of the famous and influential title sequence he designed for the James Bond film Goldfinger.  The exhibition organizers Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor tell us [http://bit.ly/XWVkXg] it was “the first film title sequence to enter MoMA’s collection as a design work in its own right… As memorable as the film itself, the title sequence of Goldfinger (1964) captures the sexual suggestiveness and wry humor of the James Bond mythos.”

Anne Morra, an associate curator of film at MoMA, writes of the same show “In order to illustrate his concept to the producers of From Russia with Love, Brownjohn lifted his shirt and, with a projector flashing images on his stomach, began to dance. Once Brownjohn assured the producers that a pretty girl would be used instead, he was given free rein to explore. The success of the From Russia with Love title sequence earned him the largesse to be even more radical in designing the Goldfinger titles. Celebrating the way the titles were visually distorted when projected on the human body, Brownjohn hired a model named Margaret Nolan and dressed her in a gold leather bikini, effectively using her as a three-dimensional screen.”

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Robert Brownjohn. Preparatory study for Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

Two views of Robert Brownjohn’s preparatory studies for the Goldfinger title sequence. 1964. Silver-gelatin print. Photograph by Herbert Spencer. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Don Goeman. © 2012 Eliza Brownjohn

The Bond films have the status of national treasure now, but Brownjohn was a working designer.  Like most working practitioners (among them not least photographers) his theories evolved on the hoof.  He moved typography along in several commissions by inventing a more fluid way of dealing with it than had been seen before. Projecting words onto curved surfaces and particularly onto surfaces in motion, or drawing words direct onto models, was deliberately to blur the lines between three-dimensional and two-dimensional messaging.  That’s not so far from the photographs of lettering at the V&A. He was hip, daring, and quick to find better ways of getting his point across.  Just a quick browse through the Museum of Modern Art’s holdings of his work  [ http://bit.ly/WfNy0g ] reveals an elegant use of space that reminds me of no-one so much as Alexey Brodovitch, far better known in photography circles than Brownjohn because of his twenty-five year association with Harper’s Bazaar.

But Brownjohn had other styles, too. Some of his work reminds me strongly of the only-barely controlled late-1960s graphic work that the photographer Bob Whitaker did for Oz magazine, (although Brownjohn seems to have been a more amenable corporate servant). I exhibited some of that in the mid-1990s at a little gallery I used to run (called Zwemmer Fine Photographs, in London) and I remember the streams of young designers from St. Martin’s – which was then nearby – amazed at the radical courage of that work.  Brownjohn could do that, too, but he did it under that very formal Moholy-Nagy legacy.  Technically proficient, daring, and formally tight.  Brownjohn made a pretty compelling package of all-round design wizardry.

Brownjohn was associated with Herbert Spencer, who was as much a drum-beater for clear thinking on design as a designer himself.  Spencer designed and edited his journal Typographica through the whole of the 1950s and most of the 1960s, a fundamental source then for those in Britain anxious to keep up with European modernism in design (and a coveted collectable now).  Several of Brownjohn’s series of photographs appeared there.  The pictures now at the V&A appeared in Typographica in October 1961, in a 32-page essay called Street Level. Another smaller set of 13 of Brownjohn’s pictures (on Wrapper Design) appeared in the same issue.

Herbert Spencer was an accomplished photographer himself, although no more of a ‘professional’ than Brownjohn.  “By virtue of one’s training or experience,” he recalled in an interview, “one simply looked at things in a different way and selected details and viewpoints which a professional photographer wouldn’t have chosen.”

That is exactly how Brownjohn would have felt. It is in that context that the group of pictures in the V&A needs to be understood. It overlaps with what I wrote about in a recent post on this site [ Photography Changes Everything. ]These pictures were not made to be distributed through any photographic context. That does not make them unworthy of contemplation as photographs.   As far as I am aware, only the specialist writer on design, Rick Poynor, has paid any special notice to the Brownjohn pictures at the V&A, in an excellent detailed piece in Design Observer which goes into solid research. Poynor has already published the whole sequence in his study of Typographica (Laurence King, 2001). Poynor it was, too, who wrote the text for Herbert Spencer’s late volume of photographs Without Words (1999).  I am indebted to him: it is his work that effectively introduces me to the great interest in Brownjohn’s Street Level pictures.

You could say these pictures are not much: just a working collection of photographs made because nothing else could do the job as well.  But they are also very fine photographs.  There is obviously a crafted delight in Brownjohn’s composition: he didn’t require teaching in that domain.  The pictures are wider than many would have made them: they deliberately include a significant element of the grimy London world that they record.  They have a sly wit, too.  No Parking in Space Today, says one, a stoner’s hip joke for the beginning of the space age.  SMOKE EXTRACT says another, on a close-up of a brick wall, as though the bricks above their cement horizon line might magically be transformed into something altogether more vaporous.  The lettering on a shop front which says Rolls-Royce is next to a projecting sign for the Rock Building Society; impossible not to see a sublimated Rock’n’Roll there.

There are pleasantries here, but there is also something more serious.  I’m reminded of that famous opening scene of Great Expectations in which Pip tries to make out the character of the parents he never knew from the very different letters on their headstone:  “ The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd impression that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly hair.  From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly….” Brownjohn was convinced that the character of the city was complex, but also transmissible.  Passers-by who saw these various signs would have a mood imparted to them as well as literal information.  The pictures do a good job of suggesting how that works, and to that extent, they are substantially more than ‘just’ factual photographs.  The nominal subject matter in each frame is relatively small (only a couple of pictures — an effaced street name high on a wall, the Rolls-Royce shop — could really pass for a ‘view’.  Yet there is a conscious respect for the subject.  These are not just graphics, collected by an investor in graphics for re-use later.  They are a deliberate collection of London letterings, with honour paid to their particular belonging there in time and place.  That is enough to make them non-neutral, committed. They don’t look like Brassaï, but these are street pictures with as much right for consideration as his.  Brassaï’s wonderful graffiti (I’ve always suspected ­– with not a shred of evidence – that he drew them himself, specifically in order to photograph them) are formally much tighter than Brownjohn’s letters.  In the one you get a mark.  In the other, a lettered environment.

Brownjohn is not normally included in lists of photographers, and certainly not outside a specialist design fraternity.  These pictures have not been for years in the V&A’s collections.  Their acquisition numbers include the figures 2012: these are recent additions, early fruits of the V&A’s new acquisitions committee in photography, and entirely welcome.  The V&A is a museum of applied design and decorative arts even more important than a museum of photography.  It is right that its curators should gently and without any great song and dance acquire and display works whose very existence is an argument against those who would pigeon-hole photography in a medium-specific ghetto of its own.  Photography gets everywhere and affects everything.  A tight group of pictures at the far end of a long gallery of pictures does a little bit to show that the custodians of our photographic heritage are not, in this case at least, cowed by that.  It is absolutely good to meet these pictures.  Do we need to expand the canon of  ‘known photographers’ to make room for Robert Brownjohn?  Not in the slightest: we simply need to acknowledge that good photographs are not necessarily made  to be good photographs, and that there is plenty of room in our collections and in our appreciation for them wherever they might come from.