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How to sell a sad thing

Sad things can be funny. But sad. But funny.

Here’s something spotted a while back by my partner. A bag of peanuts containing peanuts…

… as well as…

… the same volume of air.

Then we found this unbelievably cool DIY mural in a shopping centre:

… which made me worry a little about the people who wrote it.

And a little later, I ran into a street scene in our eminently postindustrial city, equally to do with the world of buying and selling:

It’s always good to assure potential visitors of Sheffield that, whatever we may look like from the outside, we do have Total Quality Within.

 

Photos taken by JHMS.

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Elisi in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most adapted books ever. That means that by studying one of its many translations you could learn to read almost any written language. It also means that by studying its illustrations, you are in touch with artists across the globe, and with the iconographies and visual imaginations of cultures around the world.

This, for instance, is an edition published for the Eastern African market in 1940:

Elisi katika nchi ya Ajabu is a Swahili translation and adaptation. It was a created by Ermyntrude Virginia St Lo de Malet (also known as Conan-Davies). Whether she also drew the illustrations, I do not know.

Saint Lo was a missionary and it is interesting to see that someone whose aim was to save souls for the Christian Church should translate such an irreverent, even positively anti-authoritarian book. (The translation was self-commissioned.)

The text makes an effort to transpose the setting of the story from England to Eastern Africa. And so do the images, sometimes less successfully, but sometimes also more so.

The images take the original Tenniel drawings as their basis. They are modified, however, to turn the Dormouse into a bush-baby, for instance, and the White Rabbit’s umbrella into a cane. Significantly also, they turn white Victorian Alice into a barefoot girl with braided hair, wearing a kanga: Alice/Elisi is now a Swahili girl.

This scene from Chapter IV offers a particularly interesting comparison:

Alice’s hand has been copied from Tenniel’s drawing and more heavily hatched in order to suggest a darker skin colour. But another thing has changed.

When there’s no longer any room for Alice’s arm inside the Rabbit’s nice little brick house, she sticks it out of the window. Then,

after waiting till she fancied she heard the Rabbit just under the window, she suddenly spread out her hand, and made a snatch in the air. She did not get hold of anything, but she heard a little shriek and a fall, and a crash of broken glass, from which she concluded that it was just possible it had fallen into a cucumber-frame, or something of the sort.

Tenniel, on reading the text, duly drew a cucumber-frame.

But the nice thing in this scene is Alice’s limited perspective: she just hears the crash and therefore concludes she has broken ‘something of the sort‘ of a cucumber-frame. Even if it sounded more like glass than anything else, this is an ideal spot for an illustrator to seize some extra freedom.

The illustrator of the Swahili edition indeed chose to make a complete cultural translation. Instead of a greenhouse for growing cucumber, they drew a cluster of ceramic pots. Equally breakable. And just as likely a thing that you might encounter at the corner of a house. Importantly also, since so much of Alice is about eating and drinking, the illustrator chose an object that is used for food: these pots are probably used by the Rabbit to transport and store foodstuffs or drinks.

Translating images from one culture to another can be just as challenging as translating words. In this scene, it seems to me that the image translator has done a fine job.

Now Elisi is a transcultural translation, aimed at making it easier for readers in Eastern Africa to relate to Carroll’s story. (See Byron Sewell’s Indigenous(-looking?) Australian illustrations for another example.)

But how about new illustrations set in North America, Europe, or urban Australia? How about the millions of different girls and boys living there, reading Alice for the first time? Almost all those translations depict pink (‘white’) Alices. It is very hard to find much variation in the way she looks, even in those editions which are not set in Victorian England but in contemporary locations, which in real life are filled with an abundant variety of children.

So let me use Black History Month to turn an endemic problem into a ‘news item’: who can help me find an African American Alice? An African French Alice? A Sri Lankan British Alice? …

 

I have used Lewis Carroll, Elisi katika nchi ya ajabu, trans. St Lo de Malet (London: Sheldon Press, 1967). There is a more recent translation by Dr Ida Hadjivayanis, Lector in Swahili at SOAS in London.

Regarding copyright and my reproducing the 1940 images here: since the illustrator is anonymous, I have counted 70 years from the year of first publication, but please comment if you have further information.

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The silent failure of sharing: an update

Earlier this year, various cities in the UK saw the introduction of the yellow Ofo bikes, part of a new bike-sharing system. In an earlier post I suggested that it is going to take some skill to do this sharing successfully. So how have these skills fared so far in the lovely city where I live, the city of Sheffield?

It seems the pessimists’ fears have come true: this sharing in our city has not worked out. At least, that has been the conclusion of the company who put the scatter bikes in place.

Unrideable bike. Photo by the author.

Apparently, the initial vandalism which bike-sharing companies consider part of their collateral damages, did not wear off in Sheffield. In June, the company investing in Sheffield even created a ‘rapid response team’ in order to tackle this vandalism, but to no avail. The company will now concentrate their efforts in other UK cities.

Empty parking spaces. Photo by the author.

That is also the public story supporting the withdrawal: vandalism is not officially cited as the reason for removing the bikes from Sheffield.

The sad irony is that, when Ofo introduced its scheme in January, which happened on an impressive scale, the existing bike-sharing scheme run by the University of Sheffield was folded. This scheme had the advantage of using fixed docking points.

Fixed docking points were also its main disadvantage, however. The old scheme benefited a much smaller number of people. However, it might also have enjoyed a much longer life, with the potential of growing slowly but surely into a sustainable practice that would benefit larger groups of people in the city, including those living and working further away from the university and its (elite) communities.

Old university scheme ‘ByCycle’. Promotional photo. From a review by Cycle Sheffield.

Of course, the withdrawal of Ofo from the city has not been accompanied with the same display and splendor as its arrival. It all happened rather silently.

It looks like in this case we witnessed – or rather, did not witness – the silent failure of sharing. Or, to give the phrase a somewhat cynical positive spin: the silent skill of failing.

Let’s hope Ofo has at least given Sheffield’s many latent cyclists a good taste of the pleasures of cycling. Perhaps another bike-sharing scheme will come and fill the gap – but perhaps also, we can do this on our own: ‘get on your bikes and ride’?

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Postmodern toilet

As readers may know, toilets interest me. Each time we decide which cubicle to visit in a semi-public space, we show who we think we are: a man or a woman.*

I recently visited the International Archive for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In my break, I found a single toilet cubicle, marked with the following pictogram:

By AIGA (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

This confused me – which only goes to show how seriously we take these symbols. Women’s movement? Were women expected to look for a different loo?

I moved on. Suddenly, the WC door showed a different picture:

By AIGA, converted by Lateiner (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikipedia Commons.

Another moment of confusion. Had I misread the picto the first time around?

And then: but of course, a tilt card (a lenticular print, or ‘hologram’). Both images were really there, but which one I saw depended on my standpoint.

A common description of postmodernist art is that it contains an ontological flickering (‘onto-‘ from the Greek word for ‘being’). This means that you are presented with multiple realities; a story in which the protagonist moves in two different worlds, for instance. Only, whereas in non-postmodernist art, one of these worlds usually turns out to be a dream-world from which the protagonist wakes up, in postmodernist art, both worlds are equally real. The Neverending Story would be a classic example.

I could enter the loo a woman, and come out a man. Or vice versa. Or perhaps more accurately: as long as I was inside, I would always be both woman and man. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, but a cat which remains both dead and alive even after someone has opened the door to check.

The archive in Amsterdam therefore presented me with a wonderful ontological opportunity. (And no: no one opened the door to check. This had been firmly locked from the inside.) And I had the pleasure of being postmodernist for a brief while.

Luckily, after these few minutes I did not much mind to give up being female and male, and to just be me again.

 

* Or that which is often presented to us as a third option: disabled. Which raises a whole number of additional issues.

More on ontological flicker: Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987). Years ago, I used his (her?) ideas in an essay on postmodernist children’s literature, which included Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte).

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Small relief

Once upon a time there was an artist called Lucia. At least, that is what it said on the card:

lucia pintoretta

conceptual art
on the margins between 2D and 3D
oil / mixed media / miniature screen prints

@smallrelief

But deep in her heart, Lucia knew she was really a house painter. A wall-coverer. A primer. A coater.

Mornings, she would arrive in her studio and with a sigh take up her brush to finish an abstract portrait or satirical landscape which she had started months earlier. She hated the delicate dabbing and the minute mixing of colours that seemed to be needed to create her works. The endless search for fresh ideas. The pressure to surpass herself every time, as her critics demanded. To excel. To ‘help art ahead’.

She was fed up with art fairs, prize juries, artist-in-residence applications. She was tired of twittering about her own work. Every morning she was unsure how to make it to the end of the day. How to stay on her chair, staring at Illustrator or at a bit of canvas the size of her phone. Every evening, she had grown a little humpier, a little lumpier.

But she would spring back into shape whenever she allowed herself to stretch a big new canvas. She would gesso it with all the violence of a herd of cows on first leaving their byre in spring.

She knew that the larger works did not sell that well. Miniatures were her thing, miniatures was what she had been in the New Yorker for, so miniatures was what she had to produce. Ever since she had been little, teachers and scholarship committees had begged her to use her talent: her ‘sensitive touch’, her ‘delicate shadings’. So much practice, so much sweat. So much sensible investment. A waste to let that go unused.

Beneath the window, the primed canvases were piling up.

But that is what she dreamt of: covering surfaces; measuring her progress in square metres. Changing the entire aspect of a room in a single day. Flinging paint at walls by the pot-full. Instead of creating subtle satires for a sniggering collector to explain to his private guests, she would brighten up someone’s day with a yellow footbridge, or a sky-blue brick wall bounding with the train track. And at the end of each day, something material would have been accomplished.

While doing her work, she might stumble over an old nail or a rusty spot. But she would simply paint them over! And even if she missed a bit here or there, it would not make a difference in the grand scheme of things. O wonderful meeting of light and labour! O concrete paradise! Acrylic dream!

O, flimsy dream…

Abby Flat-Coat, Hogeweide Bridge near Utrecht (2010). Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

But one night, Lucia’s followers were able to read the following message:

#greatrelief @smallrelief

And that was that.

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The earliest photos (2): outside in

In the previous post, I commented on the porosity of early photography: the parlour moved into the garden, the city into the home.

A reader sent me a photo of her grandmother which shows the same porosity.

Portrait of Tina Sangen and three other women, by Gerhard Mertens (early 20th century). Probably in the public domain. With permission of the owner.

The photo was taken in a studio: indoors.

It depicts four servants. The grandmother-to-be is the young woman on the right: Tina Sangen.

These four women lived and worked in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Their portrait, however, was taken by Gerhard Mertens in Aachen, Germany. The distance is about 35 kilometres, which they would have travelled by train.

Gerhard Mertens had several studios in Aachen, and apparently had the reputation, the connections and/or the price to compete with the photographers that must have been available in Maastricht itself. Or perhaps the sitters did not go to Aachen specifically for Mertens’s studio: Aachen was three times the size of Maastricht, so the chances of getting a decent portrait done were simply higher there.

The back of the photo makes you wonder: are the negatives still being preserved somewhere, for new print orders?

Nevertheless, as the reader who sent the photo remarks, it is interesting that these four women made the journey across the border (which up until just before World War One remained pretty porous itself) to have their portrait taken. Partly, the trip must have been an outing, but it was also a work day, because the women are wearing their work costume and I don’t think they would have chosen to do so if this was a day they really had to themselves.

So what we are seeing may be a mixture of a proud employer* showing off their neat servants, and the servants getting a – hopefully paid – day out of the house, and out of the city. Evidently, the borders between work and leisure were porous, too – in terms of space as well as time.

But what also remained porous was the border between interior and exterior. The photo’s background shows a park-like landscape with full-grown trees. The foreground, on the contrary, a carpet and what looks like a very woolly rug. And on closer inspection, the background turns out to be painted.

This photo doesn’t really belong in the category of ‘early photography’, and it was easy enough for photographer Mertens to take pictures indoors. The outdoors clearly had its own charm as a setting – witness the painted trees. Yet at the same time, little effort was made to hide the fact that this scene takes place inside a room – considering the carpet. Or perhaps the photographer really meant the carpet to evoke that traditional outdoor feeling established during the earlier phase of portrait photography?

 

 

* Their employers were the family Pichot ─ Du Plessis.

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The earliest photos: inside out

Yesterday, a generous friend gave me an enormous book: a big fat history of photography.

I had not anticipated that this already splendid book full of beautiful old photos, would also tell me a lot about that other interest I have: space.

One aspect of space that fascinates me, is the distinction between outside and inside spaces. Where exactly do we cross the threshold between being indoors and being out-of-doors? And where do we prefer to be?

Sometimes the distinction is clear. But this is far from always the case:

Tim Green, Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds (2016), CC-BY-2.0, on Wikimedia Commons.

Inside or outside?

Jürgen Sindermann, camp site Prerow on the Baltic Coast (1990), Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst, Zentralbild, Bild 183, via Wikimedia Commons.

Back to the history of photography. Very early photos, taken in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, seem to me to have frequently blurred the boundaries between inside and outside. This is visible in two types of photos discussed in the first chapter of my book.

1)  Most early photographic portraits follow the same pattern: the subject is seated or standing next to a table or column or such, against a simple architectural backdrop or curtain. All of this is placed – and this is key – on a nice, patterned carpet. In short, everything is done to suggest that the photo was taken in a comfortable drawing-room, or in someone’s study.

Portrait of Mary Ann Bartlett (1850 à 1860), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, DAG no. 1218.

However, not only were many pictures taken in professional studios rather than in the sitter’s home, and were those bits of furniture much too upmarket for some of them to even afford them. Many of such portraits were also taken in the open air. Especially amateur photographers often created their portraits out of doors. This could involve hauling quite a bit of furniture outside in order to create a miniature parlour. The amount of furniture is still modest on this example, but it shows clearly how such photos were made:

(Self-)portrait of Alexandrine Tinne in her own garden in The Hague (1860), Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, Collectie 066 De Constant Rebecque, inventory no. 249 (public domain). Note the carpet. But also the saddle: Tinne was a famous explorer.

Photos such as these would later be cropped. Usually.

2)  A completely different genre was formed by cityscapes, an outdoor genre. Yet again, in early examples of this genre the boundaries between inside and outside were blurred. Out-of-door pictures were often taken while the photographer was standing indoors, working their camera through an opened window; or they were taken from the rooftop of the photographer’s house; or else, if the photographer did leave their front door, quite close to home.

They have that sense about them of a casual look out of the window, or of nipping out for a breath of fresh air on the doorstep.

Eduard Isaac Asser, view from his rooftop, Singel, Amsterdam (c. 1852), Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-F-AB12278-A (public domain).

That this is how early photography operated had two causes, I read in my book. For in order to take photos, you need two things:

  1. your equipment: camera, tripod, plates, chemicals… In the early years, all this equipment was unwieldy and the process of making an exposure complex. It was best therefore not to venture too far from your studio;
  2. of course, in order to take a photo you also need light. And in the early years of photography, with less sensitive materials than now, you simply needed more of this, so the best place to go for all kinds of photos was outside.

It was therefore in the nature of early photography to merge working outdoors and indoors. The very technology itself, which demanded both intricate equipment and a lot of light, turned these artists into amphibious creatures, who brought the parlour into the garden and the city into the home.

 

The first chapter of the book: Saskia Asser, Mattie Boom, Hans Rooseboom, ‘Photography in the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century: A New Art, A New Profession’, in Dutch Eyes: A Critical History of Photography in the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Waanders, 2007), 57-102.