Every picture tells a story, so they say. A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. Like most bland and sweeping truisms and clichés, neither of these propositions is remotely true – but perhaps have just a speck of truth in them enough to strike some kind of chord of recognition and acceptance.
Lost in a world of pictures last Sunday when I visited the London Photograph Fair. A world of albumen prints, ambrotypes, autochromes, cabinet cards, calotypes, maybe some carbon prints and chromatypes, possibly a chrysotype or a collodion print (how would I know?), daguerreotypes, ferrotypes, gelatin silver prints, holiday snaps, photogravures, phototypes, palladium prints, platinum prints, salt prints, stereoscopics, woodburytypes – and if there was a wothlytype, I just plain missed it. Photographs loose, photographs mounted large and artily, photographs in albums, photographs in books. Photographs of exotic places, photographs of familiar places, photographs of the famous, photographs of the anonymous, oh – and lots of naked ladies.
Photographs are becoming a larger part and a more significant part of what we do – and by ‘we’ here, I mean all of us who in any sense retrieve, preserve and curate the past – dealers, collectors, librarians, archivists (not necessarily in that order) and the rest. The obvious things have always been recognised and valued, of course – the very early, the very famous, the immediately recognisable, the just plain beautiful – but the market seems to have broadened out into the rather more quotidian. Some stiff prices being asked for material that I think a few years back would have been regarded as pretty run-of-the-mill. An interesting conversation with Pablo Butcher, who was exhibiting. This is his thing – aligning rare books with photograph albums – art, exploration, tribal people. He regards the market for photographs as being that much more developed in France (where he spends much of the year) and in the USA than it is here in the United Kingdom. He also made the point that there were different approaches to collecting – different people seeing different things in old photographs, appreciating different qualities, cherishing them for subtly different reasons – a photograph on display in London was not necessarily the same photograph if exhibited in Paris or New York.
One thing I did notice is how far the digital illusion lets us down when looking at these old photographs. If you think the anaemic simulacra we see on the internet in any way approximate to the real thing – then go and take a good look at some real photographs at once. The velvet, cavernous, gasp-making and midnight-deep blacks, the scorching silvery highlights, the subtlety and range of sepia, the sheer power of high gloss – all flattened, washed-out, tamed and wasted in digital mode. You can’t meaningfully preserve or study these things that way. You simply can’t – stop pretending otherwise.
One thing that caught my eye was an album of Edwardian photographs of stiff-upper-lipped Foreign Office types posed in spartan hotel rooms in very unlikely places. Most of them were named, just initials and surnames in the style of the day – but surely enough information to put together a thesis, a narrative, a context, a real story of an unusual kind. A Buchan-style tale of the Great Game? An illicit tale of the love that dare not? I searched in vain for a description. But could find neither that nor the person who was selling it. Nor was there a price.
Frustratedly moved on (the album was gone later) and found the saddest thing – a whole box of forlorn mid twentieth-century snaps priced at a pound each, or six for a fiver. Some were picturesque and well-composed, some were little miracles of homespun craft, some plainly were not, but each and every one a shard, a fragment, a fleeting moment of an utterly real life now lost in anonymity. All context gone – no path back to it. And once there must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who could readily have put a name to these lost souls. But at least there’s something left, however enigmatic. Will there be in the future? We rattle on about the death of the book – it still seems healthy enough – but who now takes their photos to the chemist’s to be developed? Can you even still do that? Outside the professionals, the physical photograph is as dead as dead can be.
Weighed down with such thoughts I moved on to chat to Jenny Allsworth. A so-so day for her, mainly exhibiting photographs related to her specialisation in fine travel books – Africa and the Far East. A grounding with Quaritch, Sotheran and Shapero before setting up for herself ten years ago – she knows her stuff. My eye is caught by this extraordinary image she has for sale for not very much. What is this? –it cries out with meaning – it has a caption and a date – and yet remains wholly inexplicable. An architect’s office from the look of the impedimenta. How stylish that lamp was in 1962 – so too the smart electric fire (health-and-safety notwithstanding). An eighteenth-century print in the background I seem half to recognise – a handsome wall-map I’m not sure I do. Any thoughts? Stylish clothes – the woman in the standard black of the architectural monkhood, then as now. That man can hardly be English – Englishmen don’t wear cricket jumpers to work. And when we do wear them we only succeed in looking genial and over-hearty. Why is that? When foreigners wear them they contrive to look stylish, smart and cool. Perhaps it’s the tie that makes the difference in this case.
But what is going on? What is he drinking? What’s in the bottle? What’s the orange juice about – and who drank it in such large glasses fifty years ago? She’s clearly a little shocked as well as amused. And then there’s the caption – “drug-taking 1962” – neatly, if not fluently, lettered out between tram-lines the way architects do. Or is this a child’s hand? Clearly it’s a joke of some sort – but it’s joke that’s on me unless I can decipher more. And there’s a third person here – the presence of the hand wielding the camera (and not too many people taking home colour photographs at this date). The cameraman is always present to some extent in any photograph, but here it’s overwhelming. Who has caught this moment and carefully preserved it? What does it mean?
Thinking all this while Jenny’s talking to someone else. I start to explain. She says casually – “Oh, but actually I know who she is. That’s Terence Conran’s first wife and her business partner – can’t quite recall their names for the moment”. Now we are getting somewhere. Lost souls partially found. A busy week and no time to take this much further – but that would make her Brenda Trevor Davison, an architect elected to RIBA in 1950 and who died in 2008. She worked for the well-known Dennis Lennon, who worked on the Festival of Britain site and later designed the chic and modern restaurant rooms on the QE2. Conran’s first job was also working for Lennon and they married in 1952 (I believe the marriage only lasted six months or so). She then went into partnership with Alfred William Dinerman (1908-1976) as Dinerman, Davison & Hillman (with Mayer Hillman, the town-planner and environmentalist). North London is dotted with examples of their work – apostles of mid-century modernism (despite the eighteenth-century decor of the office). Perhaps not quite the “renowned” architects a current estate agent is claiming, but an office for the Ham and High, certainly a decent handful of mentions in Pevsner, some listed houses in Kensington, and so on.
So the man in the photograph I take to be Alfred Dinerman, a Romanian by birth (I was right about the jumper), who patented improvements in aluminium zinc alloys here in wartime 1941, and became naturalised in 1947. But I still don’t know what he’s drinking.