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Marking time

Marking time

Saturday 22 October 2016

George Verney turns professional

My search for knowledge about my great-great-grand-uncle Daniel Marquis has boosted my interest in the other pho­to­graph­ers who were at work in Brisbane in the 1860s and ’70s.

Daniel Marquis set up his photographic studio in Brisbane around 1866, in George Street, opposite St John’s Pro-​Cathed­ral. He was already a competent op­er­ator, with ten years’ experience in Scot­land, and he found a ready market for his work in Bris­bane. By 1868 he was advertising his position as pho­to­grapher by appointment to His Excellency Colonel Blackall, the Gov­ernor of Queens­land. A vice-regal ap­point­ment was a mark of competence and re­spect­ab­il­ity.

Governor Blackall lived in Government House at the smarter end of George Street, several blocks south­east from Daniel’s studio, past the upmarket Harris Terrace, the Bellevue Hotel, the Botan­ical Gardens and the Houses of Parliament.

Blackall’s aide-de-camp was an army officer, Lieutenant George Verney​—​an amateur pho­to­grapher. Pho­to­graphy in the wet-​plate era was technically difficult, ex­pens­ive, and mostly the province of professionals.

As an amateur Verney photographed Government House, its residents and visitors. Some of his photographs have survived in an album, now in the National Library of Australia, that give an intimate and personal picture of life in the house. He and Daniel Marquis must have known one another, and I like to imagine them discussing the art and craft of photography.

Governor Blackall stood on the top rung of the social ladder in colonial Queensland. The rank of the principal members of his staff, in­clud­ing George Verney, was elevated by their connection with the person and functions of the governor.

Governor Blackall with his aides, Brisbane, 1870. The three men are, from left to right, Lieutenant Verney (aide-de-camp, with gold braid on his tunic), Colonel Blackall (governor of Queensland), Lieutenant Terry (private secretary). [State Library of Queensland]

In the 1860s and 1870s the British journal of photography was published weekly. The BJP and its associated annual British journal photographic almanac and photograper’s daily com­panion were read by professional photographers, and by gentle­men amateurs. George Verney contributed several articles to the Al­manac, including the one in the 1877 edition that I quote below. Perhaps he polished and rehearsed this story more than once, as he told it to his fellows in the officers’ mess and in the drawing room at Government House, before he wrote it out and sent it to the editor:

THE AMATEUR AS A PROFESSIONAL
By Capt. George Verney

SOME few years ago I was photographing on the banks of the Mary River, in Queensland, and as assistant I had bor­rowed the services of the carpenter of the steamer in which I had arrived at Maryborough in attendance on His Ex­cel­lency, the Governor, as one of his personal staff. I had re­placed my uniform by an attire more suitable to the heat of the climate and to my photographic work, and with sleeves rolled up was busy washing a plate when from a neigh­bour­ing small house a stout, florid individual stepped out.
        Photographers are rare birds in those parts, and, no doubt, it struck my friend that this was a capital op­por­tun­ity for permanently recording the natural beauty of himself and family​—​the latter entirely colonial products​—​and, at the same time, of patronising a vagrant artist. After a few remarks from my friend​—​who I may call Mr Bounce​—​de­livered in that lofty, patronising tone so suitable to a gen­tle­man of his exalted sphere (though I that evening discovered that he held a very subordinate position in the government service), he condescended to inquire whether I would do a group of himself and family. I replied that I was no portrait artist, but I would try to please him if I could. Mr Bounce intimated that his family should be summoned, but re­ques­ted me to have everything quite ready, as he could not guarantee his children remaining still long, and in this I soon found out that he spoke the truth.
        Such a hullaballoo then ensued ! Such a calling for mother, and Sally, and Tommy, and Harry, and half a dozen more! Such a putting on of coats and hats, of odd boots, of ill-adjusted neckties and pinafores! Such attempts to wash dirty faces clean​—​the hands were impossible to get clean! Such exercise of parental authority, first from father then from mother, then from both together, distinguished by thumps and smacks, and then by a fiendish howl from the unlucky brat that the plate I had ready in the bath was quite useless! I had to prepare another, while my friend the carpenter was on guard to prevent the children from lick­ing the collodion, and from developing or intensfying them­selves all over, or from fixing them­selves both in this world and in the next.
        When all was ready then came the difficulty of puttmg the children together. I found that the elder children were all anxious to be as far from their parents’ reach as pos­sible, knowing, no doubt, the full weight of parental au­thor­ity when applied to themselves; while it was equally ne­ces­sary for the younger ones to be pulling either their father’s beard or their mother’s hair, or disputing which should hold the father’s watch for the baby to listen to the tick, in the hope that this infantile amusement would keep baby still. When intimated that I really could wait no longer the father settled himself with a benign smile on his coun­ten­ance (which afterwards came out as a diabolical grin), and I hoped that my experience as a professional artist was drawing to a close. But the mother suddenly recollected that baby was not holding the plated mug its grandmother had sent it from England, and as grandmamma was to have a copy of the picture it was absolutely necessary that the mug should be in the baby’s hand. The mother had to go for the mug, leaving the baby in the father’s lap, squalling and kicking as babies will do when their mothers leave them, and suggestmg to my mind how quieting and sop­or­ific a dose of cyanide of potassium would be! On returning with the mug baby would not hold it, but dashed it on to the ground, breaking a small bottle of silver I had, which entirely spoiled the appearance of the mug ever after, as before I left It was black all over. However, as baby would not hold the mug, an elder child was deputed to hold it over his head, which was done with such graceful evolutions that it came out in the picture like an indistinct teapot with sev­eral handles, or what a pot of beer looks like to an inebriate who sees double.
        My patience was now quite exhausted, and with a caution I exposed the plate. Having bribed the children to depart by promising to show them the picture afterwards, I developed and fixed, and really found the result not as bad as might be expected. A few arms and legs and even heads were missing; but as the portrait of Mr Bounce was perfect he was delighted, and in the fulness of his heart he con­des­cen­ded for the first time to allude to payment; but his grat­it­ude was but short-lived for on my informing him that my fee was £10 10s and £1 1s for each copy (not a bad price for an 8½ x 6½) he turned so pale and red by turns that I feared apoplexy was to be his end then and there. However at last he managed to gasp out an invective, which allowed the torrent to flow, and his unparliamentary language can­not be recorded here. Threats on my side of a summons were retaliated by him with threats of prosecution for ex­tor­tion, and hints of magisterial interference on my behalf led to hints of the lock-up on his. I could scarcely keep my countenence at Mr Bounce’s rage, while my assistant, the carpenter, had disappeared into my tent to hide his ex­plos­ive guffaws. After repeated refusals from Mr Bounce to pay my modest demands I said it did not matter and just slipped the negative out my hand, when it was shivered on the stones at our feet. On th1s Mr Bounce claimed the negative as his property, and I assured him he might have it all if he liked to pick up the pieces. I soon packed up, and left Mr Bounce cuffing a brat over the head for cutting his finger with the broken glass.
        In the evening a banquet was given to the Governor, and some distance down the table I spied my frieud Mr Bounce. Our eyes met, and he was suddenly taken ill and retired, and not even the attractions of a subsequent ball, or his loyalty to attend the Governor’s
levee, would induce him to come face to face with the vagrant artist. As we steamed down the river I saw him peeping out of his ver­andah, and I waved him a farewell with my cap, at which he dis­s­ap­peared, never to be forgotten by the vagrant artist.

There were other professional portrait photographers working in the Maryborough district at this time, including Christopher Moore who evidently travelled away from his studio to make portraits at people’s homes. I doubt he would have asked ten guineas for a sitting or one guinea for a whole-plate print.

Advertisement placed by the photographer Christopher Moore in the Mary­bor­ough Chronicle, 14 September 1869. Governor Blackall posed for a photograph in Moore’s Maryborough studio, and made him artist pho­to­grapher by appointment. Note that Mr Moore is offering a whole plate print (8½ x 6½ inches) for two shillings and sixpence, which is less than one-​eighth of the price of one guinea quoted by Lieutenant Verney to Mr Bounce.

Governor Blackall’s visit to Maryborough in 1869 was described in a series of articles in the Maryborough chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett advertiser published on 28 August, 31 August, 4 September, 9 September.

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Wednesday 19 October 2016

Funeral for a house

Each year in the city of Philadelphia almost 600 houses are de­mol­ished​—​houses imbued with meaning for the people who lived in them or were otherwise connected to them. Here are two doc­u­ment­ary videos about an attempt to properly mark the de­moli­tion of one of those houses.

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Thursday 22 September 2016

MoMA exhibition archive online

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has published an online digital archive of the exhibitions it has mounted since it was es­tab­lished in 1929. It is a searchable collection of documents in­clud­ing lists of works, cata­logues, press releases, and photo­graphs of installations. The PDF copies of catalogues​—​including many out-of-print collectibles​—​are wonderful.

There is a huge pile of important stuff there. Just dropping a few names: Charles Eames, Olivetti, Bernard Rudofsky, the young Philip Johnson, Edward Steichen

One of a series of 18 views of an exhibition of photographs by Bill Brandt at MoMA, September–October 1969.

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Wednesday 17 August 2016

The quality of tags

The State Library of Queensland is asking people to tag photos in Flickr Commons​—​Pitch in! Become a digital volunteer.

Yes, I’m willing.

Tags are descriptive terms chosen by anybody and applied to a photo. Let’s take the example of a photo filed under head­ings like koala, or Phascolarctos cinereus, which zoologists would re­cog­nise as correct names. Zoologists would also allow descriptive terms like marsupial, or herbivore. But what about tags like bear, or cute, or cuddly?

Tagging is a good way to collect a range of understandings from many people with different points of view and different know­ledge. Tagging can produce a useful and sometimes surprising range of descriptive terms. The librarians appear to be en­cour­aging people to enrich the Flickr Commons by tagging. But I wonder if their heart is in it.

On the Pitch in! web page is a black and white photo of four young women working in a garden, with a headline Tag SLQ’s photos in Flickr Commons. Three coloured labels have been applied, ap­par­ent­ly to show how tags can add value to photos.

One of the images on the State Library pitch in! page, based on a photo that is also available on Flickr.

But, to me, these labels show the opposite​—​that tags can sub­tract value when they are wrong. As the nerds say, garbage in, gar­bage out. Was this done on purpose​—​part of a cunning plan to show that tags are unreliable?, that we should all stick to those proper Library of Congress Subject Headings?

 

The green label points to one of the young women and has the tags 1940s, casual wear, high waist, straw hat​—​which sound plausible but, since I don’t know much about women’s clothes, I won’t say any more about them.

 

The red label deals with things I do know about. It points to the house in the top right corner and suggests the tags Queens­lan­der style and Californian bungalow. The house is a single storey wooden house, with a hipped corrugated iron roof that covers the verandahs without a break​—​so yes, it is similar to many houses built in Queensland between 1900 and 1930, and there’s no harm in tagging it Queenslander style. (I don’t call houses Queens­landers, because that word’s meanings are too diverse and un­spe­cif­ic for my purposes.)

But the Californian bungalow tag is just wrong. This is a term with a particular and useful meaning. The stan­dard ref­er­ence lists these essential distinguishing features of the Californian bungalow:

  • Visually prominent low-pitch roof
  • Wide eaves overhang
  • Exposed roof timbers
  • Street-facing gable

The house in the picture has none of these essential features (nor does it have any of the 14 other features associated with the Cal­i­for­nian bungalow style).

Two photos from the library’s collection, taken by Frank Corley. The one on the left shows a Californian bungalow (miss-classified by the library as Queen Anne style). The house on the right is similar to the one in the dig for victory photo.

So the red tag should lose the line Californian bungalow. Adding the tag timber and tin would be useful (and correct). Like this: image of label

 

The purple label points to the line of type, top right. It has the tag Garamond font. I won’t insist on calling it a typeface, not a font​—​I concede that battle. But it doesn’t look like Garamond to me. Claude Garamond’s name has been linked to lots of different typefaces but not the one in our picture. With a bit of research I found out what it is.

The State Library catalog tells us that the photo came from Queens­land Newspapers Pty Ltd, but does not say whether it was ever published, nor in what newspaper. The photo­grapher might have been working for The Queenslander, The Courier​–​Mail, the Sunday Mail, The Telegraph, or some other paper whose files ended up with Queensland News­papers after various acquisitions and mergers. My guess is that the photo was pub­lish­ed, and quite likely in The Telegraph.

The Tele was the major Brisbane evening newspaper in the ’40s, but it has not been digitised and indexed. I did a Trove search of newspapers in Queensland, looking for this picture without suc­cess​—​a result which is not inconsistent with the picture having been published in The Telegraph.

It is useful to remember how newspapers were produced around this time. A puff piece in a Lismore paper describes the process. All of the Brisbane papers would have been produced on similar high-​speed rotary presses, printing from stereotype plates made from metal type and etched metal blocks.

It is interesting that the typeset heading dig for victory is on a strip of paper attached to the photograph. I take this to be a one-​off print pulled from a line of metal type, then pasted onto the photo. The photo, with the headline pasted on, was used to make an etched zinc half-tone block. Incorporating the type with the image in this way avoided the need to cut away part of a block to insert metal type for the headline.

A Ludlow type catalog, showing the Cameo typeface.

In the 1940s most newspapers used Ludlow Typograph type­setting ma­chines for setting headlines, using matrices specific to those ma­chines. The Ludlow company produced these matrices for a wide range of typefaces and sizes. I have looked through Lud­low type spec­i­men books online, and found one with the type used on our photograph​—​a hand-tooled serifed Roman named Cameo.

A detail of the Cameo type sample, and a detail of the pasted-on headline. Snap!

So the purple label should read Ludlow Cameo type. More use­fully, it should add the tag dig for victory which is a very pithy expression of what the photo is about, and likely to connect this image with many others about the same subject. Like this: image of label

 

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