Friday, 29 June 2018

Panda Photographs Young Boy! - Bert Hardy and the Line Between Cute and Unsettling.

Sometime ago I was giving a lecture to students about, among other things, dream-like photographs. Not misty-eyed views of appealing scenes, but images that somehow invert the normal in ways that we sometimes experience in our dreams. I mean of course those dreams that, for their oddity, really strike us but often seem completely boring to the poor souls we recount them to. So I once had a dream in which I left a meeting to go outside and smoke a cigarette - in real life I am not a smoker - and did so not because I was aware that smoking indoors was forbidden, but because I didn't want to be seen smoking by the others in the meeting. When I was outside I found it hard to light the cigarette because I was suddenly holding my cat and she was struggling to be released but I didn't want to let her go. (Yes, I know, as I mentioned, the dreams of others are boring).

Freudians out there may see all kinds of things in this dream, but all I see and will consent to see, is something mildly absurd that at most might be thought to reveal a degree of background anxiety. But the point of me mentioning this is that I can image a slightly absurd dream of a man attempting to light a cigarette while holding a cat that was clearing struggling to break free.  That is what I would mean by a dream-like photograph. There are lots of real images of this sort, but I will only use one of them as my example. Its a quiet well-known image by Bert Hardy, the British press photographer and photojournalist. I have seen it given different titles, but the most common one is Panda Photographing a Boy, 1939:

The panda in the picture is Ming, who arrived at London Zoo from China in 1938, and the boy is Michael Hardy, the photographer's young son. A couple of years ago he wrote an account for The Guardian newspaper of how the picture came to be that describes how his father, as a freelancer, had to find striking subject matter to sell to the newspapers. Hardy knew that photographs of animals and children were always popular, and the new panda was quite a sensation with the public, and so here was an opportunity. Because Ming had already been widely photographed - Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were photographed with her - Hardy had the great idea of reversing the ordinary to have the panda photograph a person, as if that animal's interest in humans was as acute as our interest in them.

The photograph really works. It captures our attention for its absurdity, and for its charm. Key to its success, however, is that at the moment this image is being made Ming appears to be looking at the young boy with the attentive gaze of a photographer trying to get the right image, while its paws appear to be manipulating the camera. Likewise, the boy - Michael Hardy - appears willingly to be looking at the camera and panda with the kind of self-consciousness that most people have when they reposting for a photographer. All of this works together to make an effective dream-like image, something that shows the inversion of the normal in a striking manner that has the power to stick with us. We may also be inclined to say of the picture - as a friend to whom I recently showed it did - that it is so cute.

I'm not going to get distracted too much by the notion of cuteness, assuming instead that everyone will already be aware of the panda as a paradigm of animal cuteness - so much so, that its cuteness is very likely to be the very feature that ensures its biological survival. Pandas have all the cuteness features: child-like in appearance and behaviour, soft, round face, big eyes, playful cartoon ears and tonal contrasts. So the Hardy image is of a cute animal, behaving cutely by imitating human behaviour, in front of a cute child. It is all so cute.

But another photograph in the series that wasn't used, and which almost certainly wouldn't have sold to the newspapers, is anything but cute. In fact it is distinctly unsettling:

In this version of the image young Michael Hardy appears distressed, while Ming is looking elsewhere, possibly at the Camera or beyond it to the side. We also notice that now Ming is wearing a collar, with a chain or some kind of leash attached and held tautly by someone outside the frame. While Ming may still be cute, we become more aware of her oppressive surroundings in this image. The bleak concrete and brick enclosure is oppressive, with almost no flora: if you look carefully at the most distant bit of brick wall you can just make out a bare, leafless tree beside an ugly looking bin on wheels.

While it may still have some dream-like features, the tenor of this image is poor child, poor poor animal. The first version is picture-postcard charmingly quirky; this latter one is a darker reflection on how we treat children and animals. It reminds me somewhat of Gary Winogrand's zoo images in which the people are the ignoble beasts in contrast to the noble animals reduced by their circumstances. But this one has the added feature of showing how we are willing to use both children and animals for our amusement.

I don't begrudge Hardy the image - it was a different time and he was trying to feed himself and his family. My point is that to wake from the dream of the former image would be strange but amusing, while the latter one would be to feel unsettled by the contents of the dream.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

When the material photographic medium asserts itself - Kertesz's Broken Plate

It has sometimes been argued that the photographic medium is 'transparent', though different writers mean different things by this claim. Famously - or infamously - Kendall Walton argued that photographs are transparent in the sense that we literally see, or are in a kind of direct perceptual contact with, the real objects they depict. In his essay Transparent Pictures Walton writes that:

"With the assistance of the camera . . . we can also see into the past. We see long deceased ancestors when we look at dusty snapshots of them . . . Photographs are transparent. We see the world through them . . . I must warn again watering down this suggestion, against taking it to be a colourful, exaggerated, or not quite literal way of making a relatively mundane point. I am not saying that the person looking at the dusty photographs has the impression of seeing his ancestors . . . Nor is my point that what we see - photographs - are duplicates, or doubles or reproductions of objects, or substitutes or surrogates for them. My claim is that we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of them."

Perhaps unsurprisingly Walton's position has not garnered many followers, though it is a credit to the ingenuity of his argument that so many critics have sought to reveal where it goes wrong. My interest today, however, is not in Walton's argument or indeed those of his critics. Rather it is the the thought that the photographic may be transparent in a different though related sense - one that we can find Roland Barthes articulating - that is my starting point. The thought is this: when we look at photographs our attention very rarely strays from the subject matter of the image to contemplate the medium that gives us that image. As Barthes makes the point in Section 2 of Camera Lucida, 'Whatever it grants to vision, and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.' Lets immediately dispense with Barthes' rather hyperbolic claim that this is 'always' the case and replace with the more modest 'usually'. So qualified, there is something right about what he says. Photographs typically function as relatively pristine windows: when we look at them our attention goes directly through them to their subject matters. Its quite a rare for the medium to assert itself and grab our attention.

So consider Andre Kertesz's Broken Plate, Paris, 1929:


I think it is quite natural and quite common for viewers who first encounter this image to suppose that what they are seeing is a photograph of Paris taken inside a building through a broken window with  a hole in it and various lines of fracture. I have shown it to numerous people who draw this conclusion right away. But we know this isn't the case, not least because Kertesz wrote of this image that:

"In this picture of Montmartre, I was just testing a new lens for a special effect. When I went to America, I left most of my material in Pais, and when I returned I found six percent of the glass-plate negatives were broken. This one I saved, but it had a hole in it. I printed it anyway. And accident helped me to produce a beautiful effect." (Kertesz on Kertesz)

Whether you discover this fact about the photograph by reading what Kertesz has to say about to, or by looking somewhat more carefully at picture and seeing that there is something not quite right about the broken window explanation of what we see, the effect upon upon our experience of the image is interesting. Indeed, I can easily get this experience when I look at the image despite knowing precisely what it is I am looking at. The only way I can think to characterise the experience  is to say that somehow our attention draws back from the scene - from the Montmartre buildings - to the image's surface. When this happens it seems much harder to attend to the Paris buildings; its as if they become ever so slightly vaguer as one's focus shifts to the surface foreground of the image.

The experience is quite similar to that had when looking through a window that has something on it, such as a crack, a stain or anything else that can be focused upon. When we focus upon the what's on the window our perceptual awareness of the scene outside that can be seen through the window is diminished. We don't cease to have any awareness of what is outside the window, but its vaguer and less focused.

That a similar experience can be had with photographs when the material medium draws our attention to the image surface can appear rather odd. After all, there are huge differences - not least a significant spatial difference - between a window and the world that can be seen through it. With photographs there are no counterparts to some - probably most - of these differences. The building of Montmartre and the cracks and hole in Kertesz's image reside together on the same surface. That we can experience the image is certain respects similar to the experience of looking through a window with cracks and a hole in it indicates something about perceptual psychology, but also that the window-like quality of many photographs is a visual metaphor so easily enabled by the photographic medium and its use. Its when the medium asserts itself and draws our attention to the photograph rather than what it is of that this visual metaphor comes to our attention. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does it can have have such a pleasing and interesting effect. Kertesz called this effect 'beautiful', and I find that a pleasing description of it.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

A 'Saucy' Photograph - "The End is In Sight"

Here is a photograph that I encountered on a major news website, illustrating an article that sceptically reviewed a recently published academic study arguing that going nude in public makes those who do it happier. The author's point, which was couched in intentional humour, was that shame about the nude body is just as natural as whatever happiness may be aroused by such behaviour among committed naturists. To be frank I probably wouldn't have read the article if it hadn't been illustrated with this wonderful photograph, which is entirely within the humorous spirit of the article:

The photograph is titled Nudism on Hinsdale Beach, Southport, July, 1979, but is not credited to a particular photographer, but rather to the stock photo agency linked to the Trinity Mirror newspaper group. They publish The Mirror newspaper, a centre-left British tabloid, that like all British tabloid newspapers is - or at least was - steeped in the culture of the 'saucy'.

I have never encountered an equivalent of the 'saucy' in another country, and perhaps it is distinctively British. Formally I suppose one could say that to be saucy is to be sexually suggestive in a lighthearted and humorous way, but it connotes so much more that is intimately bound up in a now largely extinct British veneer of Waspish prudishness. The mark of the saucy is innuendo and the double entendre - with my image above amusingly employing the latter - and it was once the staple of   the 'red top' tabloids, as well as certain types of British stage and screen humour.

But its hard to imagine this photography being made now, or if it was, being upstaged. Partly this is because the kind of religious protester and cultural critic at the centre of the image is very rare these days - at least in Britain. But also because our imagery is typically far more sexually explicit, lacking any respect for saucy humour. While sauciness was still common in popular British popular culture in the 1970s, by the 1980s it was a waning form. In the light of the long sexual revolution, it was at first able to assert itself as an instance of a more sexually aware and tolerant age - think of a television sitcom such as 'Are You Being Served?" -  before being rejected for its ultimately prudish presuppositions. We are also more aware that saucy humour often relied upon cruel attitudes and stereotypes, and we are less comfortable with and tolerant of such humour.    

So I'm not mourning the loss of the 'saucy' since most of its manifestations in Britain were awful, but this 'End is in Sight' image demonstrates that it wasn't all awful when its targets are not so much demeaned as teased. That is what this photograph does, and what saucy at its best can do, it teases rather than makes fun of its subjects.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Sadness of Frank Horvat's Le Sphynx Photographs

In 1956 Frank Horvat was a 28 year old Croation photographer who at had just moved from London to Paris to further advance his already blossoming career. His work had already featured in a number of leading photo-magazines, including LifeParis Match, Die Woche and Picture Post, and one of his photographs was selected to appear in the famous Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen in 1955 at the MoMA in New York. Horvat hoped the move to Paris would see more high profile commissions, and it wasn't long before a New York agency hired him to create a photo-spread about 'sexy Parisian nightlife'. This was a perfect opportunity to explore and exemplify his sense that there was a darker sider to Paris than that he saw in the humanistic photographers of the time, including the Paris of his hero and one time mentor Cartier-Bresson.

Horvat focused his efforts upon Place Pigelle, the then notorious district of Paris known for its sex shops, strip joints and prostitrutes - as well as being famed location of many great artist's studios. After finding the proprietors of these adult establishments reluctant to admit him with a camera he eventually bribed his way into a seedy strip club, Le Sphynx, named after a famous and elegant brothel that had been closed down some years earlier. Here is his photograph of the exterior of the club:

According to Horvat, he was asked to leave 15 minutes after being admitted because the girls complained that he was taking pictures of them without providing them with any further payment. But in that time he had shot five rolls of film and made some extraordinary images.

While the photograph of the entrance and facade of Le Sphynx has a certain nour-ish seedy appeal, the photographs from inside the club seem to me to be extraordinarily sad images. The intended erotic atmosphere is overwhelmed by the melancholy of it all. Consider for example one of the most powerful of the images:

Sometimes titled 'Self-portrait with Stripper', we see Horvat with his Leica photographing a naked performer sitting at a disheveled table in front of the mirror in the dressing room. It being a strip club, the dressing room is a place that a costume is put on in order to be taken off on stage, and where make-up and her are arranged. In such clubs men remain dressed and Horvat is in a dark suit with his face obscured by the camera. The women by contrast is utterly bare and exposed to view. Part of the power of the photograph comes from the sheer beauty of the women, with her radiant white skin and pristine, sculptural quality at odds with her disordered surroundings. But for me its the expression on her face that gives this photograph a particular power. What I see there, or think I see there, is a kind of resignation, a kind of melancholy acceptance of the her fate as the locus of the male gaze, to which she returns a look of nothing more than patient toleration. I can imagine her thinking, 'get on with your pictures, take in what you must, I have things to do.' There is no happiness, no anger, no high emotion of any sort; just a kind of fatigue with it all, including everything that is bound up in playing the role of the sexual object.

This sort of sadness os magnified in another image of the what appears to be the same women. This image, with the appearance of having been taken with little or no awareness of its subject, catches the melancholy fatigue with the circumstances of such a life.

The slightly bowed head, the closed expression and its the contrast of the beautiful unclothed body, as well as the highlighting of the body by lighting it against a largely black background, all give this image a profound sadness. Models and others who's trade is their body and their ability to perform with it, are altogether different when they cease to perform. Here is the same women, now performing.

That smile seems so painful in light of what else we have seen about her. I don't know, but I like to imagine that the images of her taken backstage were made after this one of her performing.

Some of the other images capture aspects of that performance, and again place it in stark contrast to the alternative world backstage.

This magnificent photograph concentrates on the equal sadness of the clientele gazing upon a naked body, again almost sculptural in its purity, but without the distraction of a head communicating an inner life or providing a means of performance. The other women waiting in the wings, with the requisite smile fixed firmly upon her face, prepares for her performance. The spectator need make no such efforts. This cost is limited to the undoubted cost of entry and the purchase, no doubt, of a bottle of over-priced but poor quality champagne.

Another feature of this last picture I find oddly disturbing (aside from finding it nearly impossible to stop thinking the man gazing upon the model is the poet Philip Larkin) is the decorative painting above his head. What is depicted is a centauride who appear to be holding a shield, but is controlled by a lead rope by a stylised women. If you look carefully at the picture you will see a slight triangular darkening in the region of the genitals that is suggestive of pubic hair on both the centauride and the women who holds the lead. The message os one of women as exotic sexual playthings. but in a stylised and elegant world that stands in stark contrast to the sad middle-aged businessmen (epitomised by the 'Philip Larkin-like character) who constitute the clientele.

Another image shows a man on the stage, with his arm around one of the showgirls, who appears to be saying something to her and - at least to my mind - appearing to lead her away, as if she has embarrassed the house.

The look on the main showgirl's face is, again, sad; almost as if she is being gently told off, has done something wrong, or has just had enough. The other two showgirls sitting at the back of the stage appear to look on with some concern.

These images show a place that isn't sexy, or racey, or stylish, or fun. But it also doesn't look seedy or particularly exploitative. Rather, its just sad. Sad but beautiful women who make a living by taking off their clothes and pretending to be happy and sexy. Sad and lonely men who watch all this from the shadows.

Friday, 29 July 2016

A Party in Warhol's Factory - 1965

Sometimes there is just so much in a single image. On such photograph is Fred McDarrah's record of a party taking place in Andy Warhol's factory taken on the 1st of September 1965. Every time I look at it I seem to notice something new, or at least I find my attention grabbed by another feature.

There is so much here it is hard to know where to start. There is something incongruous about the seemingly partly dismantled moped parked in the middle of the party, with a book or pamphlet resting open against the seat. This looks very much like the moped in the background of the photograph, taken at about the same time, of Warhol in the Factory spray-painting some paper. It is very beautiful and perhaps it just was a familiar object there to be appreciated.

How about the two walls and pillar covered rather haphazardly with tinfoil. The reflective and textured quality has a certain appeal, and even though it appears little care has been taken in applying it, it certainly gives the room a kind of charmed character. For the time it must have seemed a very eccentric and 'arty' thing to do. And there on the wall, at the centre top of the image are a few versions of Warhol's screen print, which later was adapted into his famous cow wallpaper.

It might be worth recalling that, according to Warhol, the cow motive was created in response to the art dealer Ivan Karp's suggestion that Warhol produce an cow image because "they're so wonderfully pastoral and such a durable image in the history of the arts." Warhol goes on to report that when he showed Karp the huge brightly coloured cow heads he at first appeared shocked, but then said "They're super-pastoral! They're ridiculous! They're blazingly bright and vulgar!" Bright and vulgar is a good description of the entire effect of the walls; standing in stark contrast to the almost invariably cool attendees. 

Two more things worth noticing can't even be directly seen. The first is the relative height at which the photograph is taken. McDarrah must be standing on something elevating him above the heads of the partygoers. This elevated perspective lets him take so much in as well as distancing the viewer from the event, placing us outside and above it. 

Secondly, something interesting that we can't see is taking place behind the photographer, on his lefthand side. Why? Well, starting on the far left of the picture and going right, look at the faces of some of the guests. First there is the women with sunglasses, a black dress and a coat draped over her arm. She is looking with some interest at the invisible event. So too is the women in the white coat behind her, as well as the couple behind her. By the way, compare their facial expressions. The first women seems to have a look of slight anger or even a touch of disgust. The second looks bored by the event and the third women looks amused, while the man intimately beside her appears interested. Keep scanning to the right, and just after the moped look to the back of the room, near the tin-foil covered wall, and there is another less intimately connected couple gazing at the same occluded event. Continue scanning right, past the central pole, and you come to another couple looking at the event. The man has his hands on his hips and appears quite amused by what he sees, while the women beside him appears bored or perhaps gazes a bit disapproving at whatever is happening. Lastly, to the front left, the couple on the sofa are likewise engaging in whatever is happening outside the frame of the image. The women is interested enough to be photographing it even though she has on sunglasses, while her male companion to her left looks on with amusement and interest, raising this chin to ensure a good view is had despite his slouched position. Whatever it is it has grabbed lots of people's attention, while others carry on unaffected. 

This subtle feature of the photograph works together with the elevated position of the camera to create much of the mystery of the photograph. The legendary place, and these people with access to it, are involved in something we can never be a part of. And they leave us wondering. 

Whatever is happening I don't believe it involves the party's host. I might be wrong about this, but I think we can catch a glimpse of Warhol at the very back of the room. To find him, look to the far left of the cow print, and then carry on slightly further to the right there is a sharply-defined vertical line from an edge of  foil-covered wall. Follow this edge of wall down and you see the line hits the top of an apparently blond head upon which rest some sunglasses. Who knows of this is really Warhol, but it does look quite like him. While we are speculating about the identities of some of those depicted, take a moment to look at the man on the sofa in the sunglasses with his legs and arms crossed. He looks remarkably like Lou Reed circa 1965. Here is a photograph by Stephen Shore or Warhol and Reed together:

 Maybe its Lou Reed in the McDarrah photograph, but maybe not. I like to think it is. 

While we are thinking about our maybe Lou Reed character at the party, consider his posture and that of the man seated beside him and talking to him. The differing body language suggest there is an interesting story to be told about what is going on between them, and I keep wondering what it is. 

One of the little details I like most about this photograph is also to be found at the sofa, but its not to do with the people sitting on it. Rather, it is the fact that it is covered in plastic. I haven't encountered plastic sofa coverings since I was a child in the 1970s, but even to my ill-formed child-like mind they indicated a kind of weird bourgeois ruining of a prized possession by attempting to protect it form ruin. That said, all of the plastic covered sofas I ever encountered were in respectable suburban homes, and this one is placed at the location of a party at which I imagine it may even be likely that something will happen that would scar the sofa. Cigarette burns, red wine stains, that kind of thing. Now of course, this is Warhol's Factory and perhaps the plastic cover is an ironic gesture - after all, he has tinfoil on the walls and a moped in the middle of the room. 

Well, maybe. But what then do we make of this photograph of the factory from about 1965, maybe a bit before the party, in which the sofa appears without plastic, but with the glamorous Jane Holzer - a close friend of Warhol who acted in a number of his films (she subsequently became a very successful property tycoon, and owns a huge collection of Warhols's work):

But also, there is another Stephen Shore photograph from around this time which shows Warhol reclining on the plastic covered sofa even though there is no one else around to cause it to come to any harm.

It might also be worth noting the tall ladder to the left in the background of this Shore photograph. That might have provided McDarrah's elevated position when taking the party photograph. It certainly looks about the right height. 

Now once you start thinking about the cultural significance of plastic sofa covers, and then finding one in Warhol's factory, it makes one think a bit more about the people we see in the image. In the main, those attending the party seem to be dressed so respectably, with very few wearing what we expect of the beat generation and the New York avant-garde. The more I look at the people depicted the more I want to know who they are, how did they know Warhol, and why do they mostly look like they wouldn't be out of place at a cocktail party in Westchester County? At such an event one might expect plastic sofa covers  - rolling our eyes and smirking dismissively at their representation of the worst of bourgeois concerns - but  how do we reconcile their presence in Warhol's factory?  

Now have a look at the man immediately to the right of the moped, who presumably left his dark suit and thing tie at home that evening. He seems so different, and he appears to be holding a giant claw-like hand. Look at the position of his arms, and you will see it is hard to imagine it actually is his hand. But what is that thing, and why is the women to his right in the print dress seeming to touch it? And who is the ghost in white in front of the two of them? What is going on in this image? 

McDarrah photographed the people and events of Greenwich Village as a staff photographer for The Village Voice for many decades. He is particularly famous for his images of the Beat Generation and the New York art scene in the 1950s and 60s, though he continued to create significant photographs of New York life well into the 1990s. What he captures in this image of the party is something of the appeal and mystery of the factory. Who wouldn't have wanted to attend parties there, and even better to be a part of this fabled milieu, and yet as long as we look at images such as McDarrah's of the party we are left noticing small details that only make us wonder what that might have meant.     

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Bill Bernstein's Disco "Tableau Vivant" - Sexual Politics at Studio 54

Last November a collection of Bill Bernstein's extraordinary photographs of the disco scene in 1970s New York was published. I have to confess that prior to looking through this book I really wasn't very familiar with Bernstein's work, but there is an impressive eye at work behind these images. One of my favourites is this, simply titled "Studio 54, 1979":

It might help those that are not familiar with this particular bit of our cultural history to note that Studio 54 was perhaps the most exclusive and fashionable of nightclubs, or discos as they were still referred to then, in the 1970s. Its fame extended well beyond New York where it was located.

Now with that bit of context behind us, consider the image. Five attractive young adults with the money and credibility to get admitted to the disco are arrayed in the manner of an unfolding sexual narrative. For me the story starts with the man in the white shirt at the centre-top of the image. His posture is one of confident, comfortable recline. A positioning of the body that calls attention to itself, while his expression seems to ask why he is not receiving that attention. His gaze is directed to the man on the far right of the image, and to my mind I sense in his expression and 'look' a combination of  curiosity, mild annoyance that the man on the right's attention is elsewhere, and a sexual energy.

The top man's gaze takes us to the man on the far right whose posture and expression is that of someone more agitated by what he is looking at. Notice that he has his right arm extended around the shoulder of the man to his right, the one with the white socks, a hint of a moustache and an interest in the ear of the only women in the image. Our man on the right seems annoyed by this moment of intimacy between white sock man and the women, but there is also a hint of anxiety and, well, intensity about him. Something like "What is he doing?", or "He better not be telling my secret" are the thoughts written on his face. Is this a moment in which jealousy has gotten the better of his cultivated cool?

The gaze of the man on the far right takes us to white sock man. His interaction with the women is intimate, at least he is being intimate with her. He is one of two men with their arms around her, and the way he his turning his body from the man on the far right suggests he is communicating two messages at once. One for the women and one for the man on the right.

The position of white sock man takes us to the women. It is clear that her primary interest is not in the man whispering in her ear (or, it being a nightclub, more likely shouting in her ear). Her gaze is outward to events and people behind the photographer and her expression is blank, perhaps uninterested - or perhaps very interested as one would be in a bit of serious information. Maybe she is taking in the secret of the man on the far right as communicated by white sock man. Its not her gaze or expression that contributes to the complex sexual politics of the image but her placement within the tableau, where she is, and her hand on the knee - almost the inside thigh of the man to the left. Whereas so far narrative has unfolded through the direction of gaze and expression, it is this hand that takes us to the final character in the story.

The man on the left is a kind of inelegant counterpart to the man in the top of the image. More rock n roll than disco I imagine. He is relaxed and confident in his posture, with his left arm around the women being reciprocated with her hand on his knee. These are "touches" of possession, of an intimacy that extends beyond the circumstances of this scene or of the shared friendship of its actors. The key feature of the posture of the man on the left, however, is not that he has his arm around the women, but that he sits with his legs spread wide. He dominates his space, advertising his confident sexuality.

The image suggests a story of sexually charged interaction. It could almost have been staged, a tableau vivant representing the spirit of the disco, with its faux glamour and the all too often vast gulfs between the required appearance and the underlying reality for those entering such adult playgrounds. Looking at the image, I am left trying to imagine where these people are today, what they look like and what they think of their youthful experience of disco-pinnacle. This spur to imagination also arouses thoughts of whether I would like to be in this tableau, to be one of the these characters or someone one like them. I think not, but then is this a fairytale or a dark parable of human folly?

Not a contemporary Hogarth, but I would bet that had Hogarth been resurrected in the 1970s, he would have appreciated this image immensely.

Friday, 24 April 2015

A very early photograph of the Palace of Westminster

On the whole and notwithstanding a few worthy exceptions, 19th century British gothic revival architecture is not to my taste. I find it overworked, artificial, graceless and fraudulent for its attempted identification with a pre-modern grandeur. From the perspective of the contemporary world it can seem almost twee, like a person who persists in dressing themselves in anachronistic clothing associated with an age of elegance and wealth. Dress yourself as an Edwardian today and the desired effect of elegance and ease is undercut by the absurd pretence. The Palace of Westminster, or the British Houses of Parliament as they are more commonly referred to, are a good example of this problem. The architecture presents itself as having adopted a pose of out-of-time grandeur - more theme-park pretending than real awe-inspiring presence.

Or so it seems to me. But then I encountered this undated photograph of the Palace and was able to see it in a new and, to me, very unfamiliar way:

I don't know who the photographer was, or the exact date, though it is clear that it is close to the date when the building was being completed - so probably somewhere around the mid to late 1860s.

What I like about the image is the way the building dominates the north bank of the Thames. The angle is just right to obscure the towers of Westminster Abby across the road, and so it really does have the appear to be a truly monumental building.

If you don't see my point, do a Google image search for the Palace of Westminster. What you will find is a building that appears far more modest and tamed by its surroundings. Here are three chosen more or less at at random:

These latter pictures give us the building as we are familiar with it, but both seem to show a heavily wrought, complicated and very tame edifice. They show a building that far from having an authority rooted in age, is now a tired old thing ready for retirement.

(It was recently reported that the building is literally crumbling and requires billions of pounds of renovation work if it is not to simply collapse. There has been some discussion that it would be better to simply build a new parliament building. This seems to me to be a very good suggestion, for many reasons beyond my dissatisfaction with Barry and Pugin's pile. Another parenthetical note: if you do the Google image search recommended above, ask yourself why the vast majority of images are taken from the direction of Westminster bridge - or from the righthand side of the building from the perspective of the south bank of the Thames, and why do almost all of them give a prominent place to the rive? Its really strange how few images there are taken from the opposite sides.)

Maybe these aren't the best postcard images of the Palace, but I couldn't find any other image on Google that had the same powerful grandeur of the one from the 19th century, and which aroused in me a kind of awe at its presence. Its often said photographs can get us to see something familiar in unfamiliar ways, and this lovely 19th century photograph of the Palace did just that trick for me.