Archive for the ‘Photo History’ Category

Election Eve

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

Most Days at the moment I get four or five messages asking me to support Joe Biden, even though as a British citizen I have no vote in the forthcoming election. Trump’s team take no interest in me, perhaps because of the nature of some of my online posts. But it isn’t that election I’m writing about.

The Eye of Photography has reminded me of William Eggleston’s ‘Election Eve‘, originally published in 1977 as two leather-bound volumes containing 100 original prints in a box by Caldecot Chubb, a man best known as a film producer, in New York. It was a very limited edition of only five copies and the price was presumably astronomical, which was perhaps why I didn’t buy a copy.

There is a different reason which will stop me buying the second edition, printed more economically in offset litho. Though I have a great admiration for Eggleston, I already have somewhere on my shelves ‘William Eggleston’s Guide‘ and the first edition of his ‘The Democratic Forest‘, as well as the 1992 Barbican exhibition catalogue ‘Ancient And Modern’, as well as a number of portfolios in other publications. And frankly, although there are some images of interest, I think that from what I’ve seen so far ‘Election Eve‘ is a relatively minor work of Eggleston.

The price of the new edition, at € 85.00 (around £77) is perhaps not excessive, and doubtless it will be well printed and presented by Steidl. In 1989 ‘The Democratic Forest‘ cost £30.00, almost exactly the same allowing for inflation, though I think I may have got it as a review copy. But unless you are a completist collector, ‘Forest’ seems to me an unnecessary purchase.

There are relatively few photographers who I think it is worth owning more than a couple of books by, and rather more where just one is sufficient. The exceptions for me are those whose work has changed greatly over the course of their lives and also some where the subject matter is itself of great interest as well as the photography. Eggleston’s approach and subject matter seems to me remarkably consistent over the years (with a few minor aberrations.)

There have been so many interesting photographers over the years, and I’m well aware that many of the books on my groaning overloaded shelves are seldom opened but sit there gathering dust. For me they are a resource, a library I consult when writing about photographers, as well as occasionally sitting down to enjoy a volume.

But while books are important, the main way I and I think most others now experience photographs is on the web, and it would be good to see the Eggleston Art Foundation showing more of his work on the web. Although there are relatively few of his pictures available you can watch ‘page-throughs’ of several of his books on YouTube, including one of a more recent selection of work from ‘The Democratic Forest‘ as well as some others, often best with the soundtrack muted.



You simply can’t keep a good photograph down

Friday, August 21st, 2020

Although the Magnum web site contains 34 pictures from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book ‘The Europeans‘, one of his best-known and best-loved images is missing from there and apparently not available from Magnum. I learnt this, and the reason why from a post ‘Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson : Pearls from the Archives’ on ‘The Eye of Photography’ which features it, Rue Moufettard, 1952, along with a short text about this picture of a excessively and cheekily proud young boy on a street corner with two large bottles (appropriately magnums) of wine, one cradled in each arm.

The text that accompanies it begins with the sentence “Henri Cartier-Bresson is 44 years old.” Which he was when he took the picture, having been born in 1908, but it goes on to write about the 1970s when this picture, along with others became popular among collectors in the newly growing art market for photography, particularly in America. While a few years after he took in he included it in his 1955 book Les Européens (The Europeans), by the 1970s he “didn’t completely recognise himself in this image and refused all reproduction. It is no longer offered by Magnum Photos nor printed for collectors.

It is perhaps rather more straightforward a picture relying on the body language and expression of that boy, a rather more ‘human’ image than the rather cooler complexity he favoured. As the text says, because of its “bonhomie and construction” it was often mistakenly attributed to “his friend Robert Doisneau.” While most of us would be very happy to have our work mistaken for Doisneau’s, apparently Cartier-Bresson was not amused.

It isn’t one of my real personal favourites among his pictures, though certainly I think one of his more memorable works, and one that no overall assessment of his photography should omit.

The text continues to look at why the price of Cartier-Bresson’s “prints took a while to take off” in the art market; (it actually uses the term “value” which for me has no relation to art market prices.)

I’m delighted to find that he refused to limit the number of prints of the same image when the art market forced many photographers into producing limited editions in the 1990s; I imagine he, like me, thought this was to go against the essential nature of the photographic medium. Less delighted to find that because of “the impossibility of controlling his works’ quality and interpretation” he forbade “post-mortem prints” of his work. Though given the incredibly wide circulation of high quality reproduction of his works through books, prints are largely an irrelevance.

You can of course still buy a copy of this print which currently goes at auctions for around $20,000 – or you can see it in museums or view it on line at numerous locations including galleries and auction houses and in many books. You simply can’t keep a good photograph down.

Not just Migrant Mother

Saturday, August 15th, 2020

Like me you might find it hard to name many pictures by Dorothea Lange. Of course there is ‘Migrant Mother’ and ‘White Angel Bread Line’, but what surprised me when looking through the images at the excellent on-line exhibition of her work from the Oakland Museum of California, the Dorothea Lange Digital Archive, was how many of the pictures were familiar, and how intrinsic they were to my impression of US history, not just of the depression but also through into the 40s and 50s.

The archive also told me much more about Lange’s personal history, perhaps at times a little more than I felt I needed to know – all those pictures of her deformed foot. Of course I already knew the broad outlines of her growing up, her marriages to painter Maynard Dixon and later the love affair, second marriage and long creative partnership with sociologist Paul Taylor, all of which are illuminated in text and photographs.

Of course her limp, the result of childhood polio was important to her, a part of the childhood experiences which, in as it says, instilled ‘in her empathy for “the walking wounded”—her words for people in distress.’ I imagine that it also helped to create a reciprocal empathy towards her from those she photographed.

Portrait of a woman – Lucy Parsons

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

I’ve just finished reading the final instalment of a series of five articles by Colleen Thornton on Paul Grottkau and Lucy Parsons published as a guest post on A D Coleman’s Photocritic International. It was a story which began by Thornton buying on E-bay a rather fine cabinet-card portrait of an unidentified African American woman, made by a hitherto unknown photographer whose name and Chicago address were below the picture.

Although Paul Grottkau was not well-known as a photographer, he had been prominent in socialist circles both in his native Germany and, after escaping to the USA in 1877 following political arrests and persecution, in Chicago where he settled, quickly becoming editor of the German language workers’ newspaper there.

Thornton goes briefly into considerable detail about his activities there, and in particular to the Haymarket Bombing in May 1886 and the arrests and execution of leading anarchists who were Grottkau’s colleagues, and were clearly unconnected with the bomb. Grottkau had by the time of the bombing moved to Milwaukee, where he had started another German language workers newspaper and become a leader in a number of strikes, including the large strike at the Milwaukee Iron Company’s rolling mill in Bay View. The National Guard fired on the 12,000 strikers and their supporters in ‘The Bay View Massacre’, and Grottkau was arrested as he tried to calm the situation by speaking to them in German. The New York Times reported Mrs. Albert R. Parsons as being in the court when he was sentenced to a year in jail (he only served 6 weeks.) Her husband, Albert Parsons was one of The ‘Haymarket Martyrs’, then awaiting execution, and hanged in November 1887. The following year Grottkau returned to Chicago to edit the newspaper again and opened a photo studio. Two years later he moved away with his family, briefly setting up studios in Milwaukee and Detroit before settling in San Francisco in 1891. There he may have worked in the studio of Joseph Holler, as well as continuing his political activities as a Social Democrat. He contracted pneumonia after returning to work for them in Milwaukee in 1898; 10,000 people attended his funeral and his obituary was published by the New York Times. But although his life-long work as an “anarchist/socialist writer, editor, labor organizer, and political activist” is well-known and documented, nothing at the time mentioned that he made a living and supported his family as a studio photographer, and very little is known about his photographic work.

Thornton was led by her research to Lucy Parsons and by comparing with the few known pictures of her, was able to establish to her satisfaction that the picture she had bought was of Lucy Parsons. Without access to the original it is difficult to fully assess the evidence, and in particular that of some fairly extensive and skilled retouching by Grottkau that Thornton discusses. She certainly makes a good case, but I am left with just a scintilla of suspicion; I’m convinced but not entirely so. But of course her research about both Grottkayu and Parsons still stands even in the unlikely event that Thornton was wrong about the photograph which prompted it.


I have a particular interest in this story as I have photographed Lucy Parsons many times in different locations, or rather her image on a banner produced by UK anarchist group Class War. What I call their ‘Lucy Parsons‘ banner has on it “We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live” attributed to ‘Lucy Parsons (1853-1942)’. I first photographed it in July 2014 at one of their many protests against one of London’s new apartment blocks providing separate ‘poor doors’ for those living the the social housing from those in the larger private part of the building. I’ve since learnt rather more about her life and politics, but not before about some of the aspects of her life covered in this series of article.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.


The Incredible World of Photography

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

Thanks to an article by Jörg M. Colberg on Conscientious I have just spent most of the time I would normally have taken writing a post for this blog on the Kunstmuseum Basel web site online exhibition ‘The Incredible World of Photography‘ which is based on the collection of over half a million images made over 45 years since 1974 by Ruth and Peter Herzog as well as images in the Kunstmuseum’s collection. Among other things the Herzog collection includes around 3,000 photo albums produced by individuals and families around the world, with their small images pasted or held by photo corners onto scrapbook pages for passing around with friends and family – an earlier and limited form of social media.

The Herzog collection is particularly interesting in containing much work by unknown photographers (I don’t much like the term ‘anonymous’ as it’s just that no record has been made of their names.) The web site presents them with an interesting commentary and the site takes some time to explore; although I might argue (you always do my wife would say) with some of the texts it’s both informative and entertaining, and my only slight disappointment came when clicking on the magnifying glass icon to see images more clearly results in only a slight increase in size, hardly enough to warrant the effort of finger on mouse.

If you are in Basle you can visit the gallery and see more, and there is also a 360 page catalogue of this and two other exhibitions of the collection, ‘Exposure Time (E): A Photographic Encyclopaedia of Man in the Industrial Age‘ with a preview online.

Unlike Colberg, I haven’t actually seen a copy of the catalogue, and his piece, The Incredible World of Photography puts the show and book in a wider context. In a short consideration of the difference between physical albums and digital ones he asks “It will be interesting to see how future historians will deal with digital albums: is there actually going to be a way to do that, given that so many of them exist on corporate platforms?”

Colberg suggests that the Herzog collection might be a good starting point for developing “a vastly expanded (and more critical) new History of photography” allowing “what as long been dismissed as vernacular photography” to “have its proper part in that endeavour.” It isn’t of course a novel idea, and something we have already seen at least to a limited extent. And while there may be much of interest in unearthing material from the vernacular and neglected, a great deal of it is tedious in the extreme. My own view of history is very much one that stresses the importance of influence and development which I think is behind the “artists that we think are so special“. I still think at least most of them were.


My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr


The Thing Itself

Monday, July 27th, 2020

I never met Bill Jay, (1940-2009), though I’ve heard many stories about him from photographers who knew him, not all entirely positive. By the time I really came into photography Bill Jay had left for the USA, having considerably shaken up photography in the UK through his conversion of the magazine Camera Owner aimed at amateur hobby photographers into a publication which was at the forefront of contemporary photography in the UK, Creative Camera, and founding and published the 12 issues of his own magazine Album as well as establishing photography in the ICA.

I bought all the back-issues I could find of both Album and Creative Camera, soon taking out a subscription to the latter which I continued for many years until it entirely lost direction. And I read and sometimes bought a number of his books, though I think only his first, ‘View on Nudes’ has retained its place on my shelves. And many of his articles appeared in the various photo magazines I read, including the BJP.

In later years, Jay put some of the many articles he wrote and his photographs, particularly those of many photographers, on the web, and I both read and wrote about these on-line. There is still a Bill Jay web site with these pictures and some articles etc.

I was reminded of Bill Jay by a post on ‘The Online Photographer‘, Bill Jay on ‘The Thing Itself‘ about his most reproduced essay, first published in 1988 in a college newspaper. Perhaps surprisingly I couldn ‘t find itisn’t on the Bill Jay site, but is available along with much other material on Bill Jay on the ‘United Nations of Photography‘ site. It’s worth reading the full version.

Also on the ‘United Nations of Photography’ site is a link to the recent film about Jay, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay, about which Grant Scott writes:

Bill was a great believer in the sharing of knowledge, experience and beliefs and we therefore felt it was appropriate to make our feature length documentary on his life available for all to see. The film features exclusive interviews with Martin Parr, Brian Griffin, Daniel Meadows, Paul Hill, Alex Webb, Brookes Jenson, Homer Sykes, Anna Ray Jones and archival footage of Bill himself telling his story his way!

One of the others who knew Jay well – perhaps better than some of those listed above – and appears briefly on the film is John Benton-Harris, who I’ve often heard talking about Jay. It’s perhaps a shame that his views are not presented there at greater length.

A black woman and a gorilla

Friday, July 24th, 2020

Photographers have often I think failed to pay sufficient regard to the people in their photographs. Its something that is particularly important because of the power differential that always exists between the person holding the camera and those being depicted. Its something implicit in the language of photography, when we use the metaphors of the gun or jailer, talking about ‘shooting’ or ‘capturing’ pictures, both terms I try hard to avoid. And particularly important where our work involved people of a different class or race.

It is a question that worried me greatly in my early years as a photographer, and explains why I made relatively few pictures of people in those years, outside my own circles of family, friends and communities, concentrating on the built environment. And it was why, though I had admired his earlier black and white work greatly, I felt considerable disquiet about the colour images of working class families holidaying on beaches which turned Martin Parr from a photographers’ photographer into a celebrity. They seemed the work of an intruder while previously he had worked within communities.

The years have somewhat mellowed my view of this work, and Parr has of course gone on to do so much more, including turning his camera on his own middle class, but I still find those pictures marred by class prejudice and I think that this was at least in part what led to their popularity in the media. But of course we have seen far worse by other photographers here and around the world, and Parr is in many ways one of the good guys of photography, through the foundation he set up to encourage young and emerging photographers from all backgrounds and one whose advice encouraged me on several occasions in my early years in photography.

I wasn’t until very recently aware of the work of Italian photographer Gian Butturini and his 1969 book on London, reissued in 2017 with the text ‘Edited by Martin Parr‘ on the cover. It’s the kind of European approach popular at the time when I first began as a photographer and which I set out in total opposition to in terms of its graphic nature and quest for instant impact rather than a more serious consideration of the subject. I’ve not seen the book, only those images I’ve seen on line, and not seen the particular pairing of images of a black woman and a gorilla at London Zoo a which so shocked student Mercedes Baptiste Halliday when she was given the book as a present that she began her 18-month campaign against the book which she says is “appallingly racist.”

Parr has now said he was ashamed of his association with the book and that he deeply regrets his failure to appreciate its racist implications, something Halliday points out is hard to understand from a visually literate person. Parr also points out that the claim on the cover that he edited the book is incorrect as it he only supplied an introduction to what is otherwise a facsimile of the photographer’s 1969 book. He has also said he will donate the fee he received to charity and has called for the book to be removed from sale and destroyed. It is no longer listed on the Damiani Editions web site.

The book and Parr have come into the news as the campaign has led to both the public apology from Parr and his decision to stand down as the artistic director of the first Bristol Photo Festival. But last year’s protests by Halliday outside Parr’s show at the National Portrait Gallery were brushed aside and ignored by the photographic establishment. Perhaps it was the decision by the photography students from the University of the West of England to cancel their end-of-year show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol that precipitated Parr’s decision.

One supporter of Halliday has been Benjamin Chesterton, known to many in photography and film for his ‘duckrabbit’ blog which I’ve mentioned here on several occasions. Last month he made a post which looked critically at his own family’s history, ‘Our skin in the slave trade. Uncle Sir John Moore and I.‘ which – as ever – is well worth reading. The Guardian quotes him in its article about Parr and the Butturini case as making the very salient point, “The question remains why is it down to a black teenager to confront one of the UK’s leading photographers and curators?”

The Power of Photography

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

One series of pictures posted through the current lockdown that has often interested or amused me is by Peter Fetterman; in ‘The Power of Photography‘. To see them all in the order he posted them, open the page and scroll down to the very bottom to see the first image, ‘The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, C. 1860′.

But before you scroll, read his introduction at the top of the page which I reproduce here:

Dear Friends,

I am pleased to introduce a new online series called the Power of Photography, highlighting hope, peace, and love in the world. With every entry, I’ll share personal reflections on my favorite images. I invite you to enjoy and reflect on these works during this time.

Peace & Love,

Peter Fetterman

The Power of Photography

Clicking on each of the images will give you more details about it – in this case that it is by an anonymous photographer and is a 9.75×9.75 inch vintage albumen print – and rather curiously is “Copyright The Artist” who as well as being anonymous is certainly long dead and whose copyright will have expired many years ago.

The negative from which it was printed will I think have been made using the wet plate process, which while it had considerable limitations and required a great deal of manipulative skill was in some respects the absolute pinnacle of the photographic process, with detail and resolution limited only by the lenses of the day. You can enlarge the on-screen image by clicking on it, but it then seems rather soft. Since all printing was by contact, the demand on lenses was not extreme, though you can clearly see some softening towards the edges in this and many images of the time. The print appears to be in excellent condition for its age, though there is clearly some fading at top right, but digital representations are often misleading.

Actually I think the images like this are best seen in reproduction, when some discrete retouching can help to repair the minor ravages of time and restore as best we can the original vision of the photographer, which is of more interest to me than the object.

Strangely the second image of the series seems to be missing, though you will probably have little difficulty in bringing “The Steerage” into your mind. There are other iconic images too, such as Cartier-Bresson’s 1938 ‘On the Banks of the Marne’.

But not all of the pictures are well-known and quite a few entirely new to me and by photographers I have not previously heard of, such as the beautiful Small Apples, 1984 by Finnish photographer Kristoffer Albrecht.

I don’t always share Peter Fetterman’s enthusiasms, but it is good to read the comments of someone so obviously enthusiastic about our medium – and to discover we have at least something in common outside of our interest in photography. So here is a little piece of London he may recognise.

Dobells, Records, Tower Court, Camden, 1987 87-2d-63-positive_2400
Dobell’s Records, Tower Court, Camden, London 1987

My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage : Flickr

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.


Trolley – New Orleans

Monday, June 15th, 2020

On the New York Times web site you can see an extended interpretation of the image used on the cover of what is probably the most iconic of all photographic books, Robert Frank‘s ‘The Americans‘, published in the USA in 1959, A Portrait of America That Still Haunts, Decades Later, by Arthur Lubow.

On the first publication in France in 1958, publisher Robert Delpire had insisted on using drawings on the cover by Saul Steinberg, as well as including published texts about America by well-known authors on all the left-hand pages, which Frank had wanted left blank. So far as I’m aware, all published versions of the book (with the exception of the 50th anniversary  Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans which contains a huge amount of extra related material ) have followed Frank’s wishes with the pictures facing largely blank left pages (with just page numbers and brief caption) and used his picture of choice, Trolley, New Orleans 1955, on the cover.

Lubow’s close reading of the image is something rather unusual in photographic writing, where too often those who write criticism appear to have done almost anything to avoid actually looking at the pictures. We may find other references than some of those he finds – our responses like his are to some degree individual, dependent on our own experience and knowledge – and sometimes may feel he is stretching a point, but it is a powerful and useful reading.


Lucy Parsons

Monday, June 1st, 2020
Poor Doors protest, Aldgate 30 Jul 2014

I’ve just been reading a guest post on A D Coleman’s Photocritic International by Colleen Thornton on Paul Grottkau and Lucy Parsons, the first in a series of posts in what Coleman describes as her “painstaking inquiry” which “introduces to the medium’s history two extraordinary figures: a German-born 19th-century U.S.-based anarcho-socialist photographer, Paul Grottkau, and his subject, the African-American anarcho-socialist Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the men railroaded to public hanging in the prosecution of the suspects of the Chicago Haymarket Riot.”

Her research was prompted by finding a cabinet portrait of Parsons on eBay with the photographer’s details on the card below the picture. It is to be published on Photocritic International in three parts of three instalments each. As I write the first two of Part I are online, introducing the photograph of ‘an attractive, well-attired “woman of color”’ for which surprisingly Thornton was the only bidder, and with the photographer, who was previously unknown to me.

I’ve long known a little about Lucy Parsons, a remarkable figure in the history of the USA, and about the Haymarket massacre which led to May 1st being celebrated by socialists as May Day – here’s a brief paragraph I wrote on this site in 2018:

Since around 1891, May 1st has also been celebrated as a socialist festival, usually called May Day, but often also referred to as International Workers’ Day, Labour Day or Workers’ Day, the date chosen in memory of the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886, where a bomb was thrown at police as they attempted to disperse what had been a peaceful rally of trade unionists. Eight anarchists – none of whom had actually thrown the bomb – were convicted of conspiracy, and seven were sentenced to death, though the sentences on two were commuted to life imprisonment. The trial was widely criticised as a miscarriage of justice and the three men still alive were pardoned and freed in 1893. The massacre was on May 4th, and the date of May 1st was almost certainly chosen because it was by tradition May Day.

Lucy Parson’s husband, Albert Parsons, was one of the “Haymarket Martrys”, a union leader with no connection to the actual bombing who was executed on November 11, 1887. She had been born a slave on a plantation in Virginia in 1851 and had married Parsons in Texas in 1871, the couple having to move to the north because of racist hostility to their marriage. She became one of the USA’s leading anarchists, a labour organiser and journalist with an international reputation, one of the founders of the  Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Famously described by Chicago police as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” she continued her political activities until shortly before her death in 1942.

I think Lucy Parsons first came to my attention through Class War, one of whose banners carries the text “We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live” Lucy Parson 1853-1942 CLASS WAR“. It has on it another portrait of her, a far less formal image – and one that appeals to me rather more than the younger and slightly dreamy vignetted pose in the image that attracted the attention of Thornton. The photographer of this picture, made in the 1920s, is unknown.

The ‘Lucy Parsons banner’ was one they used in the long series of ‘Poor Door’ protests – around 30 in all – that I photographed outside 1 Commercial St, Aldgate, calling attention to the socially divisive separate entrances being provided for wealthy private residents and social housing tenants in this and other blocks.

It has also been carried by them at many other events. In December 2014 Class War used the banner outside the Mayfair offices of US property developers Westbrook Partners who were intending to evict tenants from the New Era Estate in Hackney before Christmass so they could refurbish these low rent social properties and re-let them at market rents – roughly four times as much.


Class War: ‘Evict Westbrook, Not New Era

It’s a banner I’ve made so many picture of, both at protests about various housing issues and at other events. So I thought I’d share just a few here, and an hour later I was still finding more and more to share from My London Diary. So perhaps as more of Thornton’s research is published I may share another set. Those in this post are all from 2014.