An alumni night last club meeting, taken by former club member Tony Cooney covering his tour of Iraq as a Royal Engineer. It is the only time since I have been a member of the club we have actually been short of chairs for an event that became standing room only. Tony brought not only photographs but an interesting array of prints and pieces of kit that augmented a fascinating talk about his experience of, possibly, Britain’s most controversial war of the last 70 years. The Royal Engineers, “Everywhere where duty or glory lead” , have a long and very distinguished history in a role that is as old as the concept of a military. They go where the Army go. Without their skills the Army will not go very far at all. They provide and maintain the infrastructure that keeps the rest moving.
Tony’s pictures were taken at a time when digital was a “new” thing (technically nearly thirty years old but new to most of us) that was beginning to take a hold and film was the only option for “serious” photographers. We have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. He took both digital and film cameras. At around 2 mega pixels for digital images at the time, you can see the point. Also Tony was using digital before it tipped the selling scales in 2007 which was the first time it outsold film cameras.
Tony stands in a now century old tradition, not always embraced by the authorities, of the squaddie photographer. The very first toted the Kodak Vest Pocket camera of 1912 and the Autographic of 1915, which found Their ways to war in the hands of thousands of regulars, volunteers and enlisted men and not a few women, of all ranks. The Box Brownie (1900-1934) was also vastly popular but nowhere near as robust. This everyman photography was a feature on all sides to a greater or lesser extent (A book has recently been published on the KVP in the trenches written by military historian Jon Cooksey) and its continuing significance as social record should not be underestimated.
Using average wages as a guide, the £1-10 Shillings of a 1912 model Kodak Vest Pocket bought during the Great War would take a £545 chunk out of an average pay-cheque today[i]. Mind you the average wage in 1912 was around £67 a year (about £6,905 in today’s value using inflation as a guide, but between 1912 and 2016 average wages far outstripped inflation). A Kodak Vest Pocket would take about 2% of the average annual wage to purchase, so not a huge chunk of change but substantial enough to ensure most of them, at least initially were probably in Officers hands as it represented more than a week’s wages for many – before we take out the cost of film and processing.
The British Army banned cameras that were not in the hands of Official War Photographers in 1915, for fear of the intelligence it could provide when captured by the enemy. All combatants developed a similar ban. Often it was overlooked and cameras at the Front if not exactly everywhere, were not remarkable but the subjects were and are.
This democratisation of photography, and we should not underestimate the role that the invention and mass production of gelatine based film had on this process – it was the absolutely key driver – produced an invaluable, if widely dispersed, social record of men and women at war, not the sanitised version of the official published record, nor the sensationalised one of the press, but the real lives and routines of the people who were there and the people around them. This is not to diminish the cost of this in lives lost and shattered, but is actually (and thankfully) but a small part of the whole and Tony’s presentation represented that much bigger picture. But when it’s you it is 100%. Tony spoke of the personal cost, how it has taken a long time to get not just the large amount of stories together into something he can show but also the necessary perspective to make the presentation work. Which it did.
Tony also had, not just the kids-everywhere pictures (roughly 40% of Iraq’s population is under 14, and war ranks fifth as the causes of death in the country) with their insatiable curiosity, but also the pictures from a family get together for which they were loaned a camera. For me that added more depth and breadth from what must have been, necessarily, a relatively isolated experience – even if, sometimes, as Tony related, an undeniably and demonstrably dangerous one.
So our thanks to Tony for an excellent evenings presentation, much to think about, and a very great deal to see.
[i] Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” Measuring Worth, 2017 . Using 1912 and 2016 data.
Sid Jones, a member of the Dorchester Camera Club took us through a compact history of photography last meeting, which was well received by club members. Sid’s approach was to look at the key moments through technical advances in the chemical medium from Nicéphore Niépce and his associate Louis Daguerre, Fox Talbot and the gradual increase in the speed of exposure from 8 hours to, eventually, fractions of a second. He then explored some of the key figures behind the lens before giving us a selection of his most influential Twentieth Century Photographers: Ansel Adams, Eliot Erwit, Henri Cartier-Bresson to name but three. There are of course thousands of photographs that could make it onto anyone’s shortlist. So this weeks blog is a more leisurely look at the time line of the development of photographic processing from chemical to digital mainly with the help of the George Eastman House Foundation YouTube Channel.
Photography as we know it starts with the fixing of a photograph to give it a lifespan beyond the immediate. That was Niépce’s achievement, though light had been used to paint for centuries before that. So, although our hobby as we know it is barely 150 years old, it origins go back to ancient Greece and Aristotle (384 BC to 322 BC). Dageurre, though, was the person who produced the first useable, mass production method for producing photographs. Henry Fox-Talbot produced the first paper negative and then developed the negative positive process so many of us started out with, around the same time (calotype). Photography as a sharable medium over time was born in 1839. But it wouldn’t have got far without Sir John Herschel who not only invented hypo (“fix” for the image so that it didn’t immediately start to fade) but also came up with an iron salt based system with a predominantly blue tint known as a cyanotype. You probably know it in its engineering form, the blueprint.
The Albumen print came about in 1850 and is a version of Fox Talbot’s paper based process using egg whites, the invention of Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, a Lille Cloth merchant it was probably the most popular form of print in the Nineteenth Century, not least because of the rise of the “Carte de Visit” which we looked at consequent to this seasons Chair’s Evening. Fredrick Scott Archer, butcher, silversmith, sculptor, inventor and photographer is next up with the invention of the Collodion in 1851, more precisely the Wet Plate Collodion. More viable than the Dageurreotype but it necessitated a portable dark room, the wet plate being the clue here, when the photographer was out and about. It was the process Roger Fenton recorded his Crimean War images on. As the Albumen print democratised photograph so the Platinum print, invented in 1873 by Willis and Clements and perfected over the next seven years, platinum printing, or the Platinotype, was an attempt to promote photography as a fine art. Platinum has never been a cheap way to do anything.
In the last quarter of the C19th, the so called pigment processes (Carbon Print Process, Gum Bichromate) where gelatine coatings to a paper base allowed for images to be reproduced in continuous tones with the excess being washed away to create highlights and the darker, hardened gelatine that remained formed the dark areas, came to wide use among the art school photographers still burdened by the doubts cast by their painterly cousins on the artistic value of a photograph. 1864 saw the invention of the Woodburytype, remarkable for the fact that it was a relief image that covered with pigmented gelatine could yield a mould that many thousands of copies could be run from. They look like photographs but they were actually made on a press, the gelatin covering hardening in relation to the amount of light it received.
The real mass market, the one that stands both sides of the camera, came fully into life with the Gelatin Silver Process. A late C19th century process, it was the first that didn’t really require you to carry your darkroom with you. It dominated C20th photography, it was the motor of George Eastman’s Kodak company, “You press the button and we do the rest” (1892). Colour, as we have seen elsewhere, had a long gestation. It all really changed around 2004 when the sales of digital cameras first exceeded the sales of film cameras. The digital age was truly upon us and Kodak didn’t move with the times quick enough. In 2012 they filed for bankruptcy.
It is all about the image in the end and the stories we attach to them – more of that next meeting. For the first time in Human history a true likeness could be taken of an individual, place or thing and, given the right process mass produced. Or put on the wall and treasured. Or left in the back of a draw to be discovered. We have had several conversations on the blog about notions of truth and photography and it is a continuing and evolving argument.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Critiquing your images – Ian Gearing.