Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Photograph of the Day

Humphrey Lloyd Hime, a 19th century Canadian photographer catalogued sites and people, often native americans, he encountered in the western frontier in the 1850s. This is one of my favourite of his pictures, a view of the prairie beside the Red River, facing east, made in 1858.

Film at that time was not sensitive enough to picture clouds (and they were often painted in), and anyway it could have been a uniformly blue sky. But there isn't much here, other than the title, to give us a sense that it is a desolate landscape. In the notes accompanying the picture Hime tells us that the lack of visible grass is due to a swarm of grasshoppers that had recently swept through eating every last leaf. I first discovered this image in a very good university slide library collection. When I had a bit of extra time I used to like to dip into the collection almost at random - they catalogued it in part by generic subject matter rather than photographer - and I pulled this out of a bit of the collection devoted very generally to exploration. My first thought when I saw it, and before I knew when it was produced or its title, was that it was some sort of attempt at an abstract photograph. Imagine it were in colour, and the sky was a deep blue and the ground a rich if varied copper brown. It would almost be a proto-Rothko.

This image certainly whetted my appetite for more Hime, but although his work is interesting in that kind of amateur 19th century anthropologico-explorer kind of way, I lose interest pretty quickly in another picture of an alienated looking native american, or shanty looking construction. There was another like the one above, taken I believe at the same time and location - but this time looking west.

That stone in the foreground, to my mind, makes it less appealing than the one above. Its also a much poorer quality slide and scan of the slide, but it contributes to understanding Hime's purpose. That is, he took four images, all equally desolate and empty, facing each of the key directions on a compass.

Although it is only supposed to be one photograph of the day, and I have already introduced two, I can't help but post a third. All this semi-abstract desolation reminds me of one of the most striking and evocative of Roger Fenton's photographs:

Taken in 1860, and therefore among the last of the images he made (he gave up photography in 1863) it is an image of a target with what looks like a bullet hole just above and to the right of the centre point. For all of his many strengths Fenton was never able to use his camera to record the horror of war, though at his best he could evoke it (such as his images of the cannonball-littered road the Light Brigade charged to their doom) and for me this image does just that. But then, maybe he made it because he shot the rifle and was proud of having, finally, come near to a bull's-eye. Its a strange image whatever motivated its making.  

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