DRAWING WITH LIGHT

A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

A young couple photographed at Southsea, Hampshire, probably early 1900s

One hundred and seventy-five years ago this year, the invention of photography was announced to the world.   In January 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot read a paper at the Royal Society in London on his process of ‘photogenic drawing’; eight months or so later, Louis Daguerre’s rather different photographic technique was made public at the Institut de France. Both announcements followed years of experimentation, and Daguerre had been the partner of the brilliant French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (died 1833), whose ‘heliography’ produced the first true photograph in 1826-27.  The term ‘photography’ or ‘drawing with light’, seems to have been first coined in France, not long after Niépce’s pioneering picture; the word first appeared in an English publication in 1839 (1).  Identifying a single inventor for a new piece of technology is not always easy, and as the historian Michel Frizot points out, ‘photography was not invented by one person’ (2).  This blog is not aimed at reopening the issue of Who Got There First.

Instead, I want to write about the fascination of historic photographs. By this, I don’t just mean images of major historical events, or portraits of the Great and the Good. To me, the term denotes photographs of anyone, anything or any place in the past. I know that people’s definitions of where ‘the past’ begins differ enormously, but that’s another issue I’m going to sidestep here.

What photography has given us is the ability to seize a moment and hold it forever – or at least for as long as the image will last.   In the days of print cameras, the technology and expense of print film and cameras meant that most people only took photos on special occasions – birthdays, weddings, holidays and so-on, or they visited a professional photographer.  Nowadays, photography has become ubiquitous, even habitual, thanks to the advent of point-and-click camera controls, digital photography and the internet, along with mobile phone cameras.   Our lives can be documented visually as never before.

'The past is a foreign country': sometimes it really looks like it, too. 'Grecian' dancing, c 1900-1920?

‘The past is a foreign country’: sometimes it really looks like it, too. ‘Grecian’ dancing, c 1900-1920?

To my mind, this makes the photographic record of the pre-digital world even more valuable.  That includes those images which at first might be dismissed as banal or dull – you know, studio portraits of unknown people, album shots of holidaymakers in deckchairs, unremarkable street scenes.  Some photos of this kind do get into archive collections or books, but a great number seem to end up at boot sales or in junk shops, the product of estranged families, solitary old age and house clearances. There’s a good chance that many of these images might end up in landfill if no-one buys them.

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

Market-day in Dinant, Belgium, summer 1938: from the album of a British tourist

You might ask why any of this matters, if there’s no-one left to care what happens to the photos? With many of these images, the names of the people in them are unknown, the exact locations are uncertain and the only way you can date them is by reference to clothes, vehicles, and so-on. What use are they?

A Thames lighter being 'sculled' under old London Bridge, c 1930

A Thames lighter being ‘sculled’ under old London Bridge, c 1930

The answer to this is that each photo, however inconsequential it may seem, is a fragment of history, made all the more precious because it relates not to famous figures or events, but to ‘ordinary’ people. For example, the historian Avril Lansdell made telling use of pictures of this kind to show how British people actually dressed in the 20th century, as opposed to what the contemporary fashion mags might suggest was worn (3).  And in amongst all those portraits and holiday snaps are images of vanished buildings, long-gone street scenes and landscapes, and sometimes evidence of dramatic historical events. For all these reasons, such photos are worth preserving.

There can also be something terribly poignant about looking at people in an old photograph, like the attractive young couple at the head of this blog.   The photo was taken in the Hampshire seaside resort of Southsea, and their not-quite solemn expressions and linked arms suggest happiness – people on a day out, on holiday, or even honeymooning.  Judging by the clothes, the image dates from the early 1900s, and it is quite possible that they could have lived into the 1960s or later. Two World Wars, the Depression and the Cold War awaited them, but also the welfare state, rising standards of education and greater equality.  Standing in the photographer’s studio on that Edwardian day, they could have no idea of what was to come.  A similar thing could be said of us, staring out of a Facebook or Instagram page. Think of that next time you take a selfie.

Cuddly old 'Uncle Joe', Germany 1945.  Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Cuddly old ‘Uncle Joe’, Germany 1945. Photo from the album of a British soldier who was part of the occupation forces

Blog © Ian Friel 2014

The photos in this blog come from my personal collection, most of them bought at boot sales.   The first stage in preserving such images is for them to be acquired by someone who cares about them.  The second stage is to find an eventual home for the collection – perhaps museums, libraries or archives  – where the original images can be looked after in the long term and made accessible to the public.

(1) Oxford English Dictionary, oed.com

(2) M Frizot (ed), A New History of Photography, Cologne 1998, p 23.

(3) A Lansdell, Everyday Fashions of the 20th Century, Shire Publications, Princes Risborough 1999.

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2 thoughts on “DRAWING WITH LIGHT

  1. I thought that this was a very insightful entry. I wonder how easy it will be for historians of our own time to gain the insights which we can of say the Edwardian period given the fact that whilst it is true, as you said in your blog, we self-curate visually like no other society before, so much of it remains electronic and perhaps less important as a result. I sometimes wonder whether we have the quantity of everyday pictures of the past that we have because they mattered to the people who took them or had them taken before they required more effort than the instant ‘selfie’.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments. Portrait photos, whether taken in a studio or on the beach, inevitably tend to be more numerous when it comes to historic images, but even non-professional photographers sometimes tried to document more than just friends and family with their photos. The visual record also owes a huge debt to the invention of the photographic postcard, which meant that local professionals suddenly had more of an incentive to photograph events, street scenes and so-on. Postcard images could go round the world like tweets – for example, pictures of a non-fatal railway accident at Littlehampton in 1920 (when a train didn’t stop at the buffers and ended up in the road), were sold widely in England and even cropped in Italian editions!

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