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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.

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January reminder

It’s a chilly January day in the city. I’m walking near the high street. From a distance, I see a homeless person lying on the pavement, huddled away in their sleeping-bag.

As I get closer, I flinch. It’s not a person at all.

It is three grey bin bags, waiting to be collected.

This is what five years of living in a northern English city does to you. Your expectations make a U-turn for the worse, especially on days like this.

Yes, we learn that we have to keep our hopes up. Toughen up, look ahead, don’t despair. That’s our duty. As grown-ups. As citizens. As teachers, nurses, social workers…

But at the end of the day, that’s just public relations. Essential to our lives, to our living together, but not always true to our feelings. And not – dare I say it – not always the best course of action.

Once in a while, might I be permitted to accept the gloom? For if everything is shiny and hopeful, I may lose my powers of judgement.

I see this city today, and am reminded that it needs changing.

 

P.S. Will the reader forgive me for not including an attractive picture in this post?


This was written in January. That month, however, seemed to need something written in a different tone.

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‘My greatest fear is of waiters and porters’

I am fascinated by the relation between people’s looks and the freedoms they are given by others. An important aspect of this is that I do not believe that so-called public spaces are accessible for everybody. The way people dress, or the way they behave, can be a reason for others to exclude them.

UBL01-P326N312-largeVieuxDoelen

Print of the Vieux Doelen from 1844, published by A.P. van Langenhuysen, now in the University Library of Leiden (Bijzondere Collecties).

The twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg wrote an evocative poem about this – about being out of place and not feeling welcome in the poshest hotel of the Netherlands’ poshest city (translation below):

Du Vieux Doelen

Het kijken van voorbijgangers braveren.
Doen of ik iemand ben bij elke stap.
Zoals ik deed als knaap en voor de grap,
om mij daarmee allure aan te leren.

Doen of ik niemand ben en zo riskeren
te zweven tussen schouderklop en trap,
tussen toenadering en achterklap,
maar altijd dupe van de hoge heren.

Voor obers en portiers ben ik het bangst.
Een klein vergrijp tegen de etiquette
moet ik bekopen met een blik die kwetst.

Ook al beweeg ik me op ‘t allernetst,
ze blijven uit de verte op mij letten.
Het eind waaraan zij trekken is het langst.

[rough-and-ready translation:]

Hotel Du Vieux Doelen

Braving lookers-on.
At every step pretend to be someone.
Like I did as a boy for a laugh,
in order to teach myself some class.

Pretend to be no one and risk
both pats on the shoulder and kicks,
both friendly approach and backbiting,
but remaining the victim of gentlemen.

My greatest fear is of waiters and porters.
The tiniest breach of etiquette
must be paid for with glances like bayonets

However politely I move about,
they keep an eye on me from afar.
They always get the last laugh.

The poem is part of a series about The Hague, about the modernity of The Hague, and about the lonely flaneur wandering through the glittering city.

Apart from the wonderful rhyme in the original (‘kwetst’ – ‘allernetst’, etc.), this poem is also interesting for what it says about looks and belonging.

Two themes run through the whole of Achterberg’s series of poems about The Hague:

  1. the staggering modernity of department stores with customer lifts and ready-priced items, of shop girls and businessmen; and, perhaps most importantly, of huge shop windows with their live male window-dressers and lifeless female fashion mannequins.
  2. the loneliness of the man who walks through this modern space; the lack of meaningful, long-term relations he experiences; the city-dwellers’ business-like communication that is often wholly reduced to financial transactions.
622px-Eaton%u2019s_College_Street_Store_Toronto_-_ca._1930

Eaton’s Department Store, Toronto, Canada. Archives of Ontario: T. Eaton Company. Available on Wikipedia.

By the time Achterberg was writing in the 1950s, this image of the modern city already had a long tradition in European writing (Baudelaire, Zola, Simmel, Benjamin…). Although attractive enough to many, it is a limited image that stresses the experience of wealthy male observers.

However, Achterberg is a more interesting poet than what I’ve just said suggests, and one of the ways in which he shows this is in this poem about the hotel Du Vieux Doelen. Here, the protagonist is not the wealthy but alienated flaneur who buys empty luxury and empty love on the streets of the city; instead, he is an outsider, not rich and educated enough to be at home in this hotel. Meanwhile, porters and waiters are the princes of the palace.

 

The poem is taken from Gerrit Achterberg, Voorbij de laatste stad, Paul Rodenko (ed.) (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1955, 1978), p. 148.

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With a little help from my strangers

Last night, I was in trouble.

I live in a city. It is a hilly city. I try to cycle around as much as I can, but yesterday I was on foot, quite a long way from home, tired, hungry, and… near a tram stop. Isn’t modern city life wonderful?

I got into the tram and discovered that I did not have enough cash on me to pay for my fare.

Now we have to move back a few hours, to the moment I was still at work. My task was to get better acquainted with theories of modernisation. One of the most famous theories, and one that many of the newer ones rely on, is that of Georg Simmel. Simmel lived in another city, Berlin, around 1900 (okay, I have to admit that even in 1900 Berlin was somewhat bigger than the city I live in). He believed that life in the city made people blasiert: hard, arrogant, unsocial. People in the city, he wrote, were only interested in treating each other correctly; not in getting to know them. People in the city were rational, unfeeling. They treated other people like things, machines to be used to get on with one’s own life and then discarded.

All in all, my situation was looking pretty grim, there in the tram-car on a cold night in the big city.

Honoré Daumier, 'Entre onze heures et minuit', from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

Honoré Daumier, ‘Entre onze heures et minuit’, from the newspaper Le Charivari, 21 décembre 1844, now in the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. Found on http://www.aparences.net/periodes/realisme-periodes/le-realisme/.

At that moment, a single modest individual stood up and proved Simmel and his succeeding generations of theorists wrong by a simple but brave act. She offered the conductor the amount for my fare. And was interested in chatting with me for the rest of our shared journey. In fact, she was a city dweller if ever there was one: she was born in one, and had lived in various cities and metropolises around the world. So she was certainly not the Last of the Mohicans, taking a fading country-side mentality with her into the modern metropolis.

It is true: the town or city makes different demands on its inhabitants than the village. It has always done so, and it always will: there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about that. As soon as a place grows so big that you cannot know everyone, your attitude to your fellow citizens necessarily changes. This is because we cannot follow up on most of the social encounters we have: we will never build relations to most of the people who serve us in shops, check our parking permit or sit with us in tram-cars. Therefore, we can never ‘reward’ the people we are grateful to, nor ‘punish’ those that have done something wrong in our eyes.

This is also why begging homeless people form such a ‘challenge’ to city councils and affluent ‘homed’ people alike. Their unboundness, their freedom of sorts, makes giving to them scary. People want to know what happens with their money: ‘If we start giving to them without asking anything in return, where will it all end?’ Another city where I used to live explicitly advised its new (homed!) citizens not to give any money to those directly asking for it, but donate to an official charity instead.

Whether this is a sound advice, I do not know. Probably, the answer cannot be general but has to be specific to the circumstances: somewhat intellectually handicapped, freedom-loving 60-year-old tramps for life are a different matter altogether than (to give a quite different example but one that operates under the same mechanism) ministers of poor countries, which may be better off with trading opportunities than guilt-assuaging money.

But I know that this city’s warning appeals to the desire most people have to control the recipients of their charity. And, perhaps, also, not to come too closely to them. Strangers feel safer at a distance: in that sense, Simmel was absolutely right. Therefore, I called my ransomer’s small act brave.

She was acting from the age-old hope that the good you do will return to you some day. Was her decision therefore old-fashioned, un-modern? I believe not. Urban disinterest, which is inevitable to some extent, does not govern all we do. Just think back to the past year: I am pretty sure you can remember some instances when someone (in the city!) has done something good for you without expecting anything in return from you.

And that almost turns this column into a Christmas wish (aaargh)…

(Ok, lets get it over and done with:) I will close with the same two words spoken every day by Ellen DeGeneres:

‘Be kind’.

This post was written on Tuesday 10 December.

P.S. I know there are some critical readers out there who might object that acts of charity, like this one, tend to reinforce social (‘class’) distinctions (crudely put: we help the people who look like us). I do not believe this is completely true – I am not as pessimistic as that – and even to the extent that it is: that story needs to be told some other time and, I think, does not undermine today’s.