Marking time on prints
Here we are at the last day of the month—a month in which I have written nothing here. I don’t like to leave empty spaces in the monthly archive so, to fill the gap, let me show you this precious item from the State Library of Queensland collection.
Mike Johnston, who writes the Online photographer blog, has asked his readers to send in pictures of their favourite cameras. I expect to see gorgeous photographs of shiny chrome and dazzling glass. Camera porn.
Since I bought my first camera at the age of ten I have owned about two dozen cameras of various brands—Bolex, Cambo, Canon, Graphic, Kodak, Linhof, Olympus, Pentax. Every one of those cameras was a careful choice, and I liked every one of them. Too many favourites.
So I have chosen to send Mike a photo in which the camera is incidental, a minor detail. I had a long and productive partnership with that camera but it’s the story that matters, not the object.
A look-out on Christmas eve
For a greeting card this summer solstice I have chosen this wood engraving from 1866. It may prompt us to lift our minds up from the Christmas carols, Christmas shopping, Christmas presents, Christmas drinks, Christmas pudding—to spare a thought for (ahem) Christmas Island.
Oops, sorry. I’m not supposed to talk about politics or religion at a Christmas gathering. Let’s just enjoy the picture and the text. The scene was drawn by J A Pasquier, an obscure artist. His work, and the work of the even more obscure engraver who signed with a monogram on the bottom-right, is a morally-uplifting tale of devotion to duty, suitable for warming the hearts of respectable folk at Christmas time.
I have added a photograph of the RMS Normanby to my little stash of steamship carte-de-visite photos with accommodation plans on the back. The photo of the Normanby joins the ones of Hibernian and Denmark which I have already mentioned here.
The Normanby has a special interest for me because of its connection with Queensland, and the colonial government’s efforts to develop the northern shipping route that linked the colony to Asia and Europe through the Torres Strait. Before this route was opened, most ships from overseas arrived in Queensland only after calling at the southern colonies. The government built port facilities, dredged rivers, erected lighthouses, and offered profitable contracts to shipping companies to carry mail along this route.
The first of these contracts was awarded to the Eastern & Australian Mail Steam Co, a company formed in 1873 to operate a four-weekly mail and passenger service from Sydney to Brisbane, Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore and Hong Kong. One of the first ships in the company’s fleet was the RMS Normanby, built in Glasgow and launched in 1874. The prefix RMS stood for Royal Mail Ship, a mark of quality and reliability.
This will be my fifth year of sending out Christmas cards by email. It’s my way to cut the clutter that comes with the summer solstice.
This season’s card displays another sentimental picture from a Victorian illustrated magazine. Please enjoy more strange customs (involving bunches of prickly and parasitic vegetation); more foreign places (England, in the 1890s); and more outmoded technology (the rowing boat, the paddle steamer, the wood engraving).
A good facsimile
People who look after historic places and collections are most attracted to the authentic, the real, the genuine. Facsimiles and reproductions, not so much.
But there are times when a facsimile can be a good thing—such as at the Old Museum in Brisbane, where visitors are now enjoying a new copy of an old picture.
A Christmas pudding at sea
In the late 1800s illustrated weekly newspapers published some of the best artists of the day, through the medium of the wood engraving, as I have mentioned before. Before half-tone reproduction of photographs came in, this was the common way to publish realistic images of both ordinary and extraordinary events.
I have chosen another wood engraving for my email Christmas card for 2014—the fourth in a series. There is no lighthouse in this one, but there is a Christmas pudding, and a story of life at sea. The artist was Edwin Buckman (1841–1930) and he called the picture A Christmas pudding at sea.
John Smeaton’s birthday
Let us take note that John Smeaton, the English civil engineer, was born in Leeds on this day 290 years ago.
Gongs for Thom and Dick
I am delighted that two old friends were recognised in the 2014 Queensland Memory Awards last night.
Thom Blake, historian, was awarded the John Oxley Library Fellowship—a 12 month residency to further his research on the Great Artesian Basin. A great choice. I have been to a few artesian bores with Thom and know how keen he is, so I’m looking forward to the results.
Richard Stringer, photographer, received the John Oxley Library Award … for his work in documenting Queensland’s landscape and architecture over the past 40 years.
I’ve followed Richard’s work since 1967 or 1968—I don’t recall which year, but I do remember that first exhibition in an upstairs gallery in central Brisbane. I was a high-school student interested in photography and Richard was an architect branching out into photography. He showed black and white prints of buildings and architectural features. I remember the graphic treatment of the subjects, with bold shadows, lines and textures accentuated by darkroom manipulations—high contrast, solarisation, bas-relief.
The keeper’s Christmas dinner
I have sent out my email Christmas card for 2013, the third in a series illustrated with a wood engraving. Again, it’s a sentimental subject involving Christmas, a rowing boat, a lighthouse, and a lighthouse keeper.
More about the woodburytype
To add to my terse mention of the woodburytype the other day, I bring you a paragraph of text, and a video.
The paragraph is from Richard Benson’s book The printed picture [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008]:
The woodburytype plate was hard to make, but once done it could generate a lot of inexpensive prints. They curled terribly and the borders were always a mess, from the excess gelatin squeezing out, so they were always mounted. The woodburytype used no silver, which saved money, and it could produce monochromatic prints in any color, according to the pigment used. The prints were also never wet, so all the complex handling of wet paper was avoided. Most of them were colored to imitate albumen prints, so the viewers believed they were seeing a “real” photograph. The technology didn’t allow prints much bigger than eight by ten inches [20 x 25 cm], but these beautiful little prints never had to go into a hypo bath so they are remarkably permanent.
This video from George Eastman House shows the woodburytype printing process in action:
Olga Nethersole woodburytype zoomified
Let me decode that headline:
Olga Nethersole (1867-1951) was an actress and a celebrity in England and America. She is a perfect subject to demonstrate the woodburytype.
Woodburytype was a process for printing high quality black and white photographs, used from the late 1860s until about 1900. This Woodburytype print of Olga makes a fine test for zoomify
Zoomify is software for zooming and panning website images.
Port Said lighthouse
Another one for the bucket list: I must have seen it as I passed through the Suez Canal (twice, in 1965 and 1966), but I don’t remember it. It marks the northern entrance to the canal.
It was the world’s first concrete lighthouse tower, and was designed by François Coignet and completed in 1869—the first Australian example of this type was Green Cape lighthouse (first lit in 1883).
The Port Said lighthouse was among the first to be lit by electricity, using a carbon arc powered by de Meritens dynamos—the first (and only) use of this system in Australia was at the second Macquarie lighthouse (first lit in 1888).»more»
Henry Winstanley’s great lighthouse engraving
I have a few nice old prints of lighthouses, but none as wonderful as the one I just acquired. It’s from a copper plate engraved by Henry Winstanley (1644-1703)—an English engraver, merchant, and entrepreneur.
The engraving shows the lighthouse Winstanley built, with very great difficulty, on the Eddystone Rocks near Plymouth. The work started in 1696, and the lighthouse was finished and lit in 1698. Winstanley was not satisfied—he enlarged and strengthened the structure in 1899, and my engraving shows it in this improved form. The picture is surrounded by notes that set out the history of the project, and the intricate details of the design.»more»
The new yacht ‘Galatea’
On this day in 1868 The Illustrated London News ran a picture of the Galatea, the lighthouse yacht I have already mentioned. The launching of such a vessel, associated with such a noble purpose (and such noble personages), was a typical subject for celebration in the popular illustrated press in the nineteenth century.
The Illustrated London News was the first illustrated weekly newspaper (founded 1842). It was followed in England by The Graphic (1869), in America by Harper’s Magazine (1850), and in Australia by the Australasian Sketcher (Melbourne, 1873). At their best, these mass-circulation illustrated papers brought high quality illustrations of current events into the homes of middle class people.»more»
And we discussed a design brief for a weekend retreat. Margie and I have been going to the Bunya Mountains for years, and have stayed in various rented houses and cabins. We always enjoy ourselves, but we find the rental houses deficient. For one thing, they never seem to be equipped with the sorts of books that are needed during a week at the Bunyas.»more»
Gentle reader, if you know where this photograph was taken, please send me a message. The picture shows a small town gasworks, newly built or under construction. In front of the camera is the gas holder with five blokes sitting or standing on the empty vessel. Behind on the left is a shed (for storing feed stock?) and in the centre a brick building (the retort house?). No chimneys are visible (odd?). The style of the photographic print suggests a date in the 1870s, ’80s or ’90s. The name of the photographer suggests the place shown may be one of the 61 former gasworks sites in New South Wales. Any ideas?
Uses for a mobile phone
In my little box of 19th century prints is a steel engraving of a drawing by Thomas Allom of the interior of the Panthéon in Paris. It’s not especially rare or valuable, but I like it for the quality of the print and the connection with my former architectural partner Richard Allom (distantly related to Thomas).
I wanted to ‘re-photograph’ the scene that Thomas Allom drew, so I needed a copy for reference. A google search turned up a print-dealer’s online catalog with an image of the Panthéon print, which I copied to my phone. With this in my hand, I found the right spot to stand. I can vouch for the general accuracy of the drawing, with a proviso. I think it is based on a properly set-up perspective drawing, but using a point of view outside the building—impossible, in other words, because this view is blocked by the front wall of the building.
With my widest lens (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L on EOS 5D), and with my back against the wall, I could not get all the parts of the ceiling that Allom showed into the picture. Not, that is, unless I tipped the camera up and caused the columns to topple, and that would never do.»more»
Found on Wikipedia Commons, this beautiful woodcut of Japanese sawyers cutting some heroic planks. Neither of the sawyers, nor the saw doctor, have time to enjoy the view of Mount Fuji, but their lady companions might. I recommend following the link to the high resolution version.»more»
Another Daniel Marquis photo
I have just acquired another carte-de-visite photo from the studio of Daniel Marquis. It’s a scruffy specimen but I am glad to have it. I’ve added it to my online museum. On the back is some writing in a language-other-than-English. Would anybody care to identify the language, and tell me what it says, please?»more»
Navigating the Bosphorus»more»
Another month, another placeholder. I’m still busy inspecting lighthouses, and collecting useful knowledge about them.»more»
I’m busy with the lighthouse inspections, so I won’t be writing anything original here for a while. Let this engraving mark the time I am spending offshore. Islands have such evocative names: Who would not want to go to South Solitary Island, or Booby Island, or Low Isle, or Cliffy Island?»more»
Running the numbers
Chris Jordan’s Running the numbers: an American self-portrait is a series of photographs that looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Here are images that give scale to the numbers.»more»
Just found in the National Library picture collection: a stereo photo of a welcome arch built in Hobart for the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. This little object tickles my interest in stereo views, lighthouses, and celebratory arches.»more»
The Stock Route
As a small contribution to Alan Griffiths’ work of building a comprehensive website about photography, here is a photograph from my collection.»more»
Father’s day ponderings
My treat this morning: breakfast, then reading in bed — Henry Petroski’s The book on the bookshelf. He has a chapter about the development of private studies and how books were stored in them. His mention of pictures of Saint Jerome in his study sent me off to the big book of Albrecht Dürer.
Jerome (AD331-420), patron saint of librarians, was a frequent subject for Dürer. I’ve chosen an early woodcut from the year 1492 for dissection below. It does not have the brilliant perspective of his 1514 copper engraving, nor the wonderful human detail of his 1521 panel painting, but it has something else: a bed.
Jerome, who translated the bible into ordinary Latin, appears in the woodcut sitting at work in his study, which is smartly equipped in the style of the 1490s. As someone who spends much of his working time in a study, I am struck by similarities with my own setup.»more»
Engravings on wood
At a second-hand bookshop in Whangarei I bought a copy of E Mervyn Taylor’s Engravings on wood (Wellington: Mermaid Press, 1957). This book displays a body of work influenced by the natural environment of New Zealand, and embedded in the European tradition of printing from engraved end-grain wood blocks. The native birds, plants (like the toi toi), landscapes and people of New Zealand were his subjects, and he engraved them with freshness.
I had not heard of him before, but this says more about my poor knowledge of New Zealand’s cultural history than it does about the artist. I know now that Mervyn Taylor (1906-1964) was a well-known and well-regarded artist.»more»
Over the top
For Remembrance Day, a reminder that arguments about the authenticity of the photographic record are not new.
Frank Hurley, in France with the Australian troops in 1917, wrote about the problems of recording what was going on around him:
I have tried, and tried again, to include events on a single negative but the results have been hopeless. Everything is on such a wide scale … Figures scattered, atmosphere dense with haze and smoke—shells that simply would not burst when required. All the elements of a picture were there, could they but be brought together and condensed. The battle is in full swing, the men are going over the top—I snap. A fleet of bombing planes is flying low, there is a barrage bursting all round. But on developing my plates there is disappointment. All I find is a record of a few figures advancing from the trenches and a background of haze.»more»
On Monday nights I meet friends in a Sunday-school room and sing — for pleasure and refreshment. We don’t aspire to excellence (which, for me, is just as well).»more»
The walls of my office are hung with prints, mostly black and white. When I look up from my work I see woodcuts and wood engravings, lino cuts, copper and steel engravings, an etching, a lithograph, a silk screen print.»more»
Yesterday I made my first digital quad-tone prints, a milestone on my way from darkroom to desktop photographic print making. All sorts of new technologies make this possible, and the internet sews it all together: Through the net I found out about film scanners, Photoshop, monitor calibration, printer profiling and inkjet printers. I bought the printer at auction, and shopped on-line for the continuous ink system, the inks and paper. I joined in discussions, and sought information about technicalities and aesthetics.»more»