#31 ‘Whaling Station During the Lunch-hour’ by Tom Overton

Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour


In 1936, the poets W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice got an advance to write a travel book about Iceland. Reading Don Juan on the boat over from Hull that June, Auden decided that it should be structured around a letter in verse to Lord Byron:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,

           And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,

Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,

    Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;

           I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.

I’m going to be very up to date indeed.

It is a collage that you’re going to read.

The trip had been planned as a holiday; an attempt to get a perspective on Europe. Auden and MacNeice clearly enjoyed themselves, but signs of the impending Second World War provided what Auden called ‘the orchestral background’ to the book: a gently mounting horror-film drone behind their inept adventuring (MacNeice didn’t bring any camping equipment, and the tent Auden brought collapsed on them on the first night. MacNeice tells us that Auden, wearing pyjamas, flannel trousers, riding breeches, two shirts, a golf jacket, a coat and an oilskin, looked like ‘something out of Brueghel’ while he was trying to inflate the airbed, and moved ‘like something that would be more at home on water’.) News of Franco’s uprising against the government of Spain reached them in July, and at one point, Auden exchanged ‘politenesses’ with Goering’s brother at breakfast.

The island was awash with Nazis searching out the genetic cradle of the Aryan race, and read now, Letters from Iceland is a book that seems to display the horrors of fascism at a kind of embryonic stage. But it goes further than that, finding its DNA in Romanticism, and wondering if Byron, were he alive today, would have fallen in with Oswald Mosley. As Lincoln Kirstein wrote, ‘with Picasso in painting, Stravinsky in music’, Auden was ‘a master of the uses of the past, projected into the present and prophesying a future’.

In a letter that ended up roughly halfway through the book, Auden describes meeting a ‘selfish little Englishman’ who viewed the struggle in Spain as nothing more than an inconvenience for tourists. The addressee, Erika Mann Auden, was Thomas Mann’s daughter. Auden – who was generally, but not exclusively interested in men – had agreed to marry her so she’d have an English replacement for the passport the Nazis were about to take away.

Auden’s letter mentions that he’d visited the whaling station of Talknafjördur. But before explaining, he interrupts himself by recalling a nightmare: in hospital for an appendix operation, he was befriended by an intense, violent man who follows him when he tries to escape; later on his father arrives. Then, suddenly, the letter switches back, and it is no longer the dreaming Auden being carved up:

I wish I could describe things well, for a whale is the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. It combines the fascination of something alive, enormous, and gentle, with the functional beauties of modern machinery.

In the summer sun, with the radio, the chirping of a canary and the whistling of a workman in the background, the waking Auden watched as a seventy-ton whale was ‘torn to pieces with steam winches and cranes’, and a fifty-yard pool of blood flowed out into the bay past five other half-submerged corpses. In a verse-letter to the artist William Coldstream later in the book, he remembers the station as ‘slippery with filth – with guts and decaying flesh –  like an artist’s palette’. In the letter to Erika,

A bell suddenly clanged and everyone stuck their spades in the carcass and went out for lunch. The body remained alone in the sun, the flesh still steaming a little. It gave one an extraordinary vision of the cold controlled ferocity of the human species.

In this book, at least, Auden had photography to help him describe. Perhaps he felt more inclined to experiment because of his recent work at the General Post Office film department, where he’d been allowed – with no prior expertise – not just to write verse, most famously for the film Night Mail, but to direct the shooting of scenes. It was a golden age of state-sponsored documentary, but Auden was going off its certainties. In February 1936, he published a review of Paul Rotha’s book Documentary Film, sceptical of ‘whether an artist can ever deal more than superficially […] with characters outside his own class’ (most British documentary directors, he pointed out, are ‘upper-middle’; he was no different). He was also sceptical of the disinterestedness of the large government departments or companies needed to fund these films.

The problems a pen and a camera posed were apparently fewer, or at least different. In July 1936, Auden believed that

any ordinary person could learn all the techniques of photography in a week. It is the democratic art, i.e. technical skill is practically eliminated – the more fool-proof cameras become with focusing and exposing gadgets the better – and artistic quality depends only on choice of subject.

According to the scholar Marsha Bryant, Auden scribbled the captions on the backs of the photographs so hard that his publishers worried they’d show through to the other side. The one on the photograph at the bottom right reads ‘Whaling Station during the Lunch-hour’, though it doesn’t show the whale itself. There are two overleaf – captioned ‘Flensing by Steam-winch’ and ‘The Corpse’ – which show it as abstract shapes, done violence by the workmen, and by the cropping of Auden’s camera.

In Flensing by Steam-winch, a thick rasher of whale is being torn along its length. Though the heads of six men are visible above the strip, and their chests through the loop it makes as it folds back over the body, they must only be helping – avoiding a wastefully messy tear by making guide-incisions, perhaps. The force is clearly coming from out of shot to our left, as if backwards over the other page, if you read the images in sequence. That’s where the central, diagonal form of Whaling Station comes in – surely this, with its shiny exposed pistons, and the toothy gears which hoist it up and down, is the steam-winch which is doing the flensing.

Auden’s framing makes it look like a howitzer abandoned among the deserted rubble of the station; a reminder of the landscape of the Great War, like the poetic description of 1936 as ‘the eighteenth year of the Western Peace’ that comes later in the book. Auden’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines would probably agree. In his reading, the memory of the whaling station returned to Auden in 1938, when he was in Brussels, looking at Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting was then thought to be an original Pieter Brueghel, and perhaps the dim memory of how MacNeice had described him inflating the camp-bed made him loiter for a while. Either way, he turned it into one of his most famous poems, Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

It reminds us, Davenport-Hines thought, ‘how easily we put aside other people’s catastrophes to pursue our petty quotidian comforts. Most of us stick our spades into the carcass while it is still steaming and go off for lunch.’ Though its specifics are a little different, Whaling Station was Auden’s version of this image, captured at a moment when he could talk of seeing

[…] as clearly as at the moment

The wraps of cellophane torn off

From cigarettes flit through the glass

Like glittering butterflies […]

Auden’s 1949 poem Memorial for the City is similar in that it describes blossom falling, entirely unaware any impropriety, on the dead. But the attitude towards photography that went along with it had changed. Auden had been disillusioned by his experience of the republican cause in Spain in 1937, and discombobulated by writing another collaborative travel book, this time in China with Christopher Isherwood in 1938. He had moved to America, met Chester Kallmann, the love of his life, and written ‘September 1, 1939’, on the outbreak of the Second World War and the end of a ‘low dishonest decade’. Gradually, he had rediscovered the unifying pattern of Christian faith. All of this shaped the lens through which he saw the images released from Auschwitz, and, during his work for the US Strategic Bombing Survey, the wholesale devastation of Germany. In Memorial for the City,

The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye

See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.

I Am Not a Camera – published in 1962, but assembled from observations in a 1947–64 notebook – ends

The camera may

do justice to laughter, but must

degrade sorrow.

Where the Auden of 1936 had used photography in an effort to fill in for the documentary shortcomings of writing, here he used writing to express the documentary shortcomings of photography. He criticised it for being what the Auden scholar John Fuller called ‘the necessarily choiceless disposition of fact’: for being too much like the whalers blithely lunching on the periphery of vast suffering.

Letters from Iceland is island-like and separate in Auden’s attitudes to the camera, but worth a visit every now and again. It ends with an epilogue to Auden from MacNeice, now alone in London, looking back on the overshadowed fun of their trip, and forward to the mood of Autumn Journal (1939): 

Our prerogatives as men

Will be cancelled who knows when;

Still I drink your health before

The gun-butt raps upon the door.

The newsletter of the W. H. Auden Society thought Davenport-Hines was getting carried away in his version of the whale story, overzealously scribbling his caption on the back of these images. But read now with a knowledge of the history that followed, the whole book seems to be about what it is to be just out of shot from coolly systematic violence.

Like Musée des Beaux Arts, it’s a case-study in the practicalities of witness; a contradiction to that famous line from another artistic visitor Spain in the 1930s, Robert Capa: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ It suggests the better, more eloquent picture might be off to one side somewhere.


Tom Overton’s writing has been published by the New Statesman, Apollo, Tate, the British Council, the British Library, openDemocracy, The White Review and others. The first volume of his edition of John Berger’s writing on art – prepared as a Fellow of the Henry Moore Institute, and the Centre for Life-writing Research at KCL – will be published by Verso in October. He’s working on a book of his own, and tweeting as @tw_overton.

#30 ‘The Piano Man, No Ordinary Scrounger’ by Patrick Wright

Piano Man


Shortly after midnight on April 7, 2005, a young blond-haired man wearing a dark suit and white shirt was found wandering, dripping wet and distressed, near a beach at Minster on the Isle of Sheppey in North Kent. The police who picked him up couldn’t get a word out of him, so they conveyed him to the Medway Maritime Hospital on the mainland in Gillingham, where he was kept for a while and eventually sectioned for his own safety. He refused to speak, and became highly agitated when approached. He had no identification on him, and all the labels had been cut from his clothes. The clinicians made no progress with their nameless patient until, on being given some paper and pencils, he made a drawing of a grand piano. Taken to the piano in the hospital chapel, he sat down and played, much to the amazement of his carers, who recognised snatches of Swan Lake in his performance. Over the following days they encouraged him to play more, presenting him with sheet music of Lennon & McCartney tunes, and admiring the ease with which he played them at sight. They decided this troubled young man might actually be the real thing: a brilliant pianist, who had suffered some sort of breakdown and turned up on Sheppey dressed, so conjecture now suggested, as if he had walked out of, or fled, a perhaps disastrous performance. It was thought that the mystery man was probably British, and that there might be an orchestra or music academy somewhere that was missing a pianist. Such was the intention with which news of his situation was relayed to the press as well as to the National Missing Person’s Helpline.

It was the Mail on Sunday that triggered the explosion of interest. An article, published on May 15th, introduced this ‘silent genius’ to the world, and dubbed him the ‘Piano Man’. Speculation was intense, and the story of this man who had apparently risen from the sea was taken up almost instantly all over the world. Journalists and television crews from far-flung places advanced on the Isle of Sheppey: ‘This is really bizarre, no. . .’, muttered the local reporter from the Sheerness-Times Guardian as he pointed out a Tokyo television crew for a French journalist (Le Point, 26 May). There were some, including the duly interviewed manager of the pub on the road where the Piano Man had been found, who maintained the downbeat view that the stranger was just another illegal immigrant: either he had jumped off a passing ship, or been pushed into the water by people smugglers as they were approached by coastguards or the police. Such dark suspicions lurked in the back of some newspaper minds too, but the drama would soon be removed from its desolate location on the Isle of Sheppey, and relaunched as a universal ‘story’ about the identity, existence, loss and, in words attributed to an interested Hollywood producer by the Guardian, ‘the fragility of the human mind’ (Guardian, May 18). Here was a story that proved the proximity of art and reality, or so it seemed to the novelist, Chris Paling. He wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph (20 May), claiming to have written the Piano Man’s story already in his just published and duly advertised novel, in which a forgetful man crawls out of the sea and heads into a nearby town.

As the story spread throughout the summer, the Piano Man was the subject of a great efflorescence of speculative theories in which the suspected illegal immigrant and NHS scrounger was displaced by a tortured artistic genius who must have suffered some sort of nervous breakdown after a disastrous performance and not even had time to change out of his concert clothes before stepping onto the boat from which he would leap, distraught, as it approached the Thames estuary. Meanwhile, the search for the mystery man’s identity produced a dizzying array of contenders – many hundreds of them. There was a performance artist who had been seen in France or Spain, a classically trained pianist who had once played in dissident rock tribute band in Prague, a Canadian drifter known as ‘Mr. Nobody’ who had once tried to enter Britain illegally. Various women announced themselves quite certain the Piano Man was their missing boyfriend or husband. The man himself had by now been transferred to the Little Brook hospital in Dartford, where the Sun tried to donate a keyboard for his room. His ‘story’ was said to be of interest to so many Hollywood producers that, if Mark Lawson was to be believed, doctors and carers could hardly get through the crowd at his bedside (Guardian, June 18). There was also a flurry of armchair diagnosis. One psychiatrist, who had never met him, was in no doubt that the Piano Man had been hurled into a ‘fugue state’ by trauma. Pop psychologists also took to print to throw in their pennyworth – Oliver James was in very little doubt that the Piano Man was suffering from a ‘borderline personality disorder’. Dr Judith Gould of the National Autism Society diagnosed him as one of theirs. As the legend grew it became carrion for the meta-commentators too. The pop-Lacanian analyst, Darian Leader, speculated in the Times about how the story had activated ‘the common fantasy of escaping a humdrum existence’ (Times, May 21).

By the time the tide turned, the doctors and nurses at the Little Brook hospital had been caring for the Piano Man for the best part of four months. By late July, they were said to be wondering whether their patient’s voice box was damaged, or had even been removed, but were impeded by the difficulty of getting his formal permission for an endoscopic examination. On August 8, the Independent reported that doctors were worrying that ‘the talented musician in a wet suit’ might never be identified. But this all came to an abrupt end on the morning of Friday August 19, when a nurse went into his room and asked routinely, ‘Are you going to speak with us today?’ Unexpectedly, the Piano Man had opened his mouth and replied ‘I think I will.’ He went on to identify himself as a 20-year-old Bavarian, who, far from stepping out of the sea, had come to England by Eurostar from Paris, and had been trying to kill himself in the hours before he was picked up by the police. Informing the hospital staff that he had two sisters and was gay, he also announced that – as the hospital chaplain had himself suspected – he really could not play the piano particularly well at all, and that he had only drawn one because ‘it was the first thing that came to mind’.

By the time news of his recovery reached the press, Andreas Grassl was back with his dairy-farming parents in the tiny village of Prosdorf in Bavaria, whence he would only speak in carefully measured statements issued through the family’s solicitor. He explained that he had known nothing of the media storm brewing up around him, and, having thanked the psychiatrists and nurses who had looked after him, and also the many sympathetic people who had written to him while he was in hospital, he now had to think about his future. He wanted no more contact with the media. By the time the gay news service Pink News revisited the story two years later in 2007, Grassl was living in Basel, Switzerland, and studying French Literature at the university. By then reporters had found various of Grassl’s former friends and acquaintances who spoke of the difficulty of growing up gay in a conservative Bavarian village, and who declared that his crisis was said to have become acute in the French coastal town of Pornic, in South-Eastern Brittany, where a relationship had gone wrong.

The British press was by no means unanimously content to have its summer fantasies about the Piano Man so rudely interrupted by reality. Some commentators used merely plangent terms to express their disappointment at the sudden disenchantment caused by Grassl’s recovery. Writing in the Independent, Charles Nevin, who claimed to have dreamed that the piano man was another genius like Paderewski, regretted that ‘a little touch of magic and mystery is no more’. Other papers – and not just the tabloids – reacted as if they had been grievously let down by Grassl, who had proved quite unworthy of the celebrity they had so generously bestowed upon him. He was multiply denounced as a ‘fraud’ for not being mute and as a ‘sham’ for not really being able to play the piano well either. It was now said that his ‘glorious, enchanting music’ (Darian Leader) had actually consisted of ‘hitting a single key repeatedly’. Grassl was nothing but a ‘suicidal gay German’ and ‘just a fiddler’ who had made disreputable use of past experience as a ward orderly in Germany to act mad and freeload on the NHS. Various papers gleefully declared that the Health Authority were considering legal action to recover the costs of his care, but this wishful recommendation went nowhere – partly, as may be surmised, because the clinicians never doubted that Grassl had been in the midst of a crisis that was now successfully resolved.

Many of the loftier commentators, who offered the world their thoughts on the interest Grassl had accidentally generated, shared the assumption that the Piano Man was powerful because he represented what Darian Leader called a ‘blank canvas’ on which people could project their own longings and fantasies (Times, May 21). In reality, ‘canvas’ was not the medium that supported the billowing clouds of speculation, and neither was the screen on which they were projected in any way ‘blank’ .

In the words of the Sunday Telegraph, the story of the Piano Man was ‘strangely cinematic, from the shock of his dyed blond hair to the unusual formality of his attire. He is a walking plot yet to be unravelled’. (ST May 22)  In the early weeks that ‘unravelling’ took several different forms, each one suggested and confirmed by a different film. Many, including some of his carers, saw the Piano Man through the prism provided by the Australian film Shine (1996) – which turned the tormented pianist David Helfgott into an embodiment of what one American psychiatrist diagnosed as ‘movie madness’:  i.e. a ‘celluloid amalgam of schizophrenia, manic-depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and idiot savant’ (Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D., letter to the editor, New York Times, March 15, 1997). For those inclined to emphasise the ‘autistic savant’ in this mix, further corroboration was provided by Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988). A French writer, Jerôme Cordelier, who visited Sheppey for Le Point, added a more recondite film – The Man without a Past (2003) by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, the hero of which is a welder who loses all knowledge of himself after being beaten up and robbed a few hours after arriving in Helsinki, and then builds a new life among the city’s container-dwelling outcasts. In Germany commentators reached further back to Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), in which a disorientated and more or less mute young man walks into early 19th century Nuremberg, having apparently been raised in total isolation from fellow humans.

However, the pictures that really kept the Piano Man aloft as he was pushed and pulled through this seething chaos of contending plots and scenarios were of a decidedly static and unmoving variety. A Kent-based ‘photojournalist’ named Mike Gunnill, has described how he got a call from the picture desk of the Daily Mail informing him that ‘a man has been found, he isn’t talking’. The Mail had been alerted to the story by an authorised social worker at the Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham, who explained that the ‘mystery man’s’ carers needed help in identifying him. On May 6 Gunnill visited the hospital and tried to photograph the unknown figure, but it quickly proved impossible – ‘he just covered his face every time and started to become distressed.’ A French reporter quotes Gunnill as saying that the man ‘screams and cries like a baby when he sees someone new’ and that he looked around ‘as if seeing the world for the first time’ (Le Point, May 26).

Realising that Gunnill might fare better when he took the man for his daily walk, the social worker, Michael Camp, took Gunnill out and showed him a place ‘partly hidden by trees’, and told him to be standing there and ready with his camera at the appointed time. Gunnill, who was effectively working as an NHS-assisted paparazzo, managed to get a few pictures before ‘the mystery man’ noticed his lens and took evasive action. They show Grassl as a frail, lightly bearded figure, with somewhat spikey blond hair, wearing his by now dried-out suit and white shirt, with every possible button done up. In one of Gunnill’s stolen shots, the solitary figure sees the camera and stares back with what may be a mixture of fear and disgust, clutching his plastic folder of music in both hands. In others he shields his face completely with the folder, or peeps out with one fiercely bright eye.

In the most evocative example, a cropped version of which was used by the Mail on Sunday to accompany the article of May 15, in which Grassl was first converted from ‘silent genius’ to ‘Piano Man’, he is all there from head to toe: tall, lean, very thin, somewhat awkwardly bent, and this time clutching his folder over his waist with both hands. He has the caught-in-the-headlights look, characteristic of pap shots, but it is the contest between the predatory lens and Grassl’s retaliatory stare that gives the image its unforgettable quality. Here, to be sure, is the Piano Man as something other than the formulaic sufferer of psychiatric illness: a strongly minded figure, pale, and surrounded by leafy green rather than a white room with all the ligature points removed and slumped figures in armchairs watching daytime TV. Far from looking abject in his melancholy, the young man in Gunnill’s most widely circulated image looks closer to the inspired and also tormented figures of Kaspar David Friedrich, Edvard Munch, or August Strindberg in his Inferno period. According to the article published in Pink News on May 1, 2007, Grassl’s last words on this drama before he got on with studying Baudelaire were wishful as well as decisive: ‘That Piano Man stuff, no-one is interested in that anymore.’ He was properly stitched up by the press and its less than authoritative commentators and hirelings. It still seems possible, nevertheless, that, one day, he might look back at that photo and feel just slightly satisfied that he produced an image that kept the snarling (and not just) tabloid contempt for asylum seekers and scroungers at bay for a full season.

Patrick Wright is a writer and broadcaster who teaches at King’s college London. He has recently made a radio documentary about another German visitor to the Isle of Sheppey: ‘A Secret Life: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness’ broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday April 19, 2015.

#29 ‘Mariette’ by Carol Jacobi

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910) , c. 1855. Salted paper print from a glass plate negative (210 x 147 mm), Wilson Centre for Photography.

Mariette, by Félix Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon, 1820-1910), c. 1855. Salted paper print from a glass plate negative (210 x 147 mm), Wilson Centre for Photography.


Mariette presents us with first photographic principles. Created by French photographer Félix Nadar in Paris, sometime around 1855, it is currently on display with over 90 other salted paper prints at Tate Britain.

Walter Benjamin, in his A Short History of Photography in 1934, described these early prints as ‘incunabula of photography’. For Benjamin, these had quickly been superseded by an industrialisation of the medium, extending into his own century, but were the ‘first flowering’ that pointed the way for photography in the future.

Nadar’s print Mariette catches the experiment of early photography. He made the negative image on a glass plate coated in a viscous solution of collodion and light-sensitive silver salts, a process barely five years old, and printed it as a salted paper positive, the earliest photographic reproductive method, introduced by Henry Fox Talbot just fifteen years before.

Very soon, as Benjamin explained, improved optics and finer albumen prints ‘conquered darkness and distinguished appearances as sharply as a mirror’.  Photography lost the balance of dark and light intrinsic to the relatively simple response of chemicals to shadow and illumination. Mariette’s pose, graphically white against modelled umbers, retains the sense that ‘the light wrestles its way out of the dark.’ The texture of the silver salts caught in the paper fibres subtly softens and equalises the contours, so that they echo one another across the image. Benjamin argued that a longer pose created a less spontaneous, more accumulated, synthetic likeness. Figures were, moreover, observed in an open place where ‘nothing stood in the way of quiet exposure’. As a result, Benjamin believed, ‘they live, not out of the instant, but into it… they grew, as it were, into the image.’

In our age of photographic celebrity, from Instagram to 24 hour rolling news media, it is interesting to reflect on Benjamin’s observation: ‘for these first to be photographed, the viewing space went un-framed or, rather, uncaptioned.’ Mariette resists framing, still. The woman who stood in front of the lens was Marie-Christine Roux (1820–1863), also know as Marie-Christine Leroux, a professional model who earned her living in the ateliers of Paris. Her career ended in 1863 when she drowned in the wreck of the Atlas, a steam ship on the way to Algiers. Mariette was the name given to a fictionalised version of Roux by her ex-lover, the writer Jules Champfleury, in Les Aventures de Mademoiselle Mariette (1853). She is also identified as Musette, an earlier fictionalised account of Roux, in Henri Murger’s short stories, Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851), which became the basis for Puccini’s opera La Boheme (1896). Nadar’s brother, Adrien Tournachon (1825-1903), made a portrait of Roux as this character.

Murger and Champfleury’s precocious tales of modern life aspired to the realism of photography. Their fictional Musette and Mariette played out tensions between real and false representation in the form of real and false love. Affairs were undone by the women’s ambition to earn money; their modelling was aligned with prostitution and their affections were shown to be sham. This tangle of life and art, truth and artifice, manifested itself in Nadar’s photograph of Roux posing naked before the camera. It registered a more open and inscrutable reality, however. Mariette reveals her body and covers her face. Hope Kingsley has pointed out that this may have been a precaution against censorship laws which could sweep up models in the prosecution of photographers for pornography. Roux’s pose also reflected contemporary anecdotes about models and courtesans concealing their identity to hide the means by which their apparently respectable bourgeois lifestyle was achieved. It was a time of  broader anxieties about the way modernity, and technical and demographic changes in the city, were  confusing clear class and moral boundaries and the difficulty of distinguishing these from appearances alone.

Mariette was one of the first paper photographs to represent the figure unclothed. The covered face removed it from the realm of the portrait to the nude, entering photography into its long dialogue with the conventions of the painted and sculpted nude. At the same time, it established the modern media’s distinctness from painting and sculpture. Roux’s contrapposto stance, with all her weight on one leg, is close to that of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780 – 1867) life-size nude La Source, which was exhibited in 1856, on which he was working at the same time. Ingres was well known to both Nadar and Roux: she posed for the painter, and the photography historian Helmut Gernsheim has suggested that the photograph was taken for the purpose of being painted. In Mariette, the element of exposure intrinsic to the photographic method is expressed in its more stepped back, empty perspective and the expanse of drapes apparently dropped at the figure’s feet. In comparison, Ingres’ figure raises her arm to support a vessel of water and with her distracted gaze appears unaware that she is watched, while the contradictory combination of Roux’s defensive arm and her frontal stance are united in their acknowledgement of the lens.

A few years later, in 1861, another painter in their circle and customer of Roux, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 –1904) purchased a print of Mariette. He adapted it for three paintings. The first was Phryne Before The Areopagus. Phryne was a model and courtesan from classical times, the legendary muse of the painter Apelles and the sculptor Praxiteles. The painting showed her before a court on charge of impiety. As a last resort, her lawyer was said to have bared Phryne’s breasts to the judges, and thus secured her acquittal. Nadar’s photograph was ideal for this subject, but Gérôme raised the defensive arm slightly to reveal Phryne’s shadowy eyes, to hint at an acquiescent gaze, and diluting the image to something more permissively painterly. The modern resonance of Gérôme’s central motif, the model dissembling respectability, was not lost on contemporaries, however. ‘This skinny, knock-kneed Phryne’, one critic wrote, ‘whose flat hips still bear the mark of the corset, just as her legs show the line of her garter, and who is nothing but a brazen wench.’

Phryne’s marble-like flesh is immaculate. The modernity the critic speaks of, a degraded modernity in his eyes, is that of the photograph, what Benjamin called ‘the spark of accident’. ‘All the artistic preparations of the photographer and all the design in the positioning of his model to the contrary, the viewer feels an irresistible compulsion to seek the tiny spark of accident, the here and now. ‘ An indentation left by a garter can be seen on Roux’s calf. Her underarm and pubic hair depart from the conventions of the smooth skinned classical nude (Nadar had tidied the latter on the negative before printing). Roux’s knees are knees that bend, that have sinews and tendons emphasised by her contrapposto position. That indexical presence is continued in the fabric, an inconsequential but nonetheless impossibly complex distribution of mass and movement settled on the fine texture of the rush mat, beyond the skills of any draper painter. ‘Something remains that does not testify merely to the art of the photographer, something that is not to be silenced, something demanding the name of the person who had lived then.’

‘These images were taken in rooms where every customer came to the photographer as a technician of the newest school,’ Benjamin wrote, while ‘the photographer, came to every customer as a member of a rising class.Roux was not strictly a customer, but Mariette emanates from model and photographer – each of them, incidentally, 35 years of age – negotiating the professional, technical, artistic and social change of their times. This intersection of method, medium and moment was what Benjamin called the aura: ‘For that aura is not simply the product of a primitive camera. At that early stage, object and technique corresponded to each other.’


Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860 ran 25 February – 7 June 2015 at Tate Britain.  

Carol Jacobi is Curator of British Art 1850-1915 at Tate Britain.

#28 ‘Committed to Memory’ by Niall Griffiths



This photograph is a work of fiction. The young man in the white jacket is not a strangler; the older man in the darker coat and glasses is not his victim. The truth, in fact, is the opposite of the depiction; the younger man was the victim. He is the one in pain. The empty expression on his face does not indicate the affectless, anhedonic emotional vacuum of the psychopath, but the broken, stupefied, resigned condition of the tortured. His name is – or was – Kristjan Vidarsson, although, at the moment of the photograph, he probably couldn’t recall, with any conviction, even that.


On the night of 26 January 1974, the wild Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland was battered by storms. Gudmundur Einarsson, an 18-year-old labourer, had been partying in a harbour town south of Reykjavik, six miles from the home to which he never returned. The search for his body was called off after a few weeks; disappearances are not that uncommon in the more untameable parts of Iceland. 10 months later, in November, Geirfinnur Einarsson (no relation to Gudmundur), received a phone call summoning him to a harbour cafe. He never returned home either, and an extensive search of the harbour uncovered no body.

And no evidence, nor no witnesses. The two men seemed slurped into a black hole. Rumours, as they often do, abounded, concerning a small-time crook who had been arrested for smuggling cannabis from Denmark called Saevar Ciesielski. In December 1975, he and his girlfriend, Erla Bolladottir, were arrested for an unrelated minor crime and the police, for reasons unclear, asked Erla questions about the disappearance of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur. She recalled the night that the former had vanished; she remembered the fierce storm and the peculiar nightmare she’d had in which Saevar and his friends were whispering in low, conspiratorial voices outside her bedroom window. The head of the investigation, on hearing this, told her: ‘we are going to help you recall everything and you will not be able to leave here until you tell us what happened to Gudmundur.’

Consider, now, this scene, of which no photographic record exists: Erla alone in her cell, sleepless. Erla fretting over her 11-week-old daughter. Erla in an interview lasting 10 hours during which dreams and memories and cravings to return to her normal life intermingled. Maybe she could recall a body wrapped in a sheet. Saevar in solitary. Saevar, under interrogation, mentioning three friends: Kristjan and Tryggvi: both arrested and isolated and endlessly questioned. And Albert, a gentler figure than the other two and whom the isolation and the interogations quickly broke. He admitted to hiding Gudmundur’s body in the lava fields. Could Geirfunnur be there too?

Enter phantasms, fanciful imaginative flights, chimeras from hysteria: perhaps Iceland had its own Mansonesque death-cult. Its own underground psychopathic separatists, with Saevar as their Charlie. Erla, again under interrogation. Geirfinnur fell off a boat and drowned; no, he didn’t, he was murdered on the boat then thrown overboard. No, no, he was killed on the dockside after he failed to deliver promised booze. His body was burned in the lava fields, that mad dreamscape where sprites and goblins made the laws. The suspects, whose foggy and piecemeal recollections gave the police such stories had, by this time, been in solitary confinement for six months.

But evidence – the police required evidence. They brought Karl Schutz over from Germany, who had recently cracked the Baader-Meinhof gang. He set to ferreting out the ‘foreigner’ that Saevar and Kristjan, in their ramblings, had mentioned, and found Gudjon Skarphedinsson, Saevar’s accomplice in cannabis smuggling; an Icelander, yes, but of swarthy complexion: in such ways does the carcerally bureaucratic mind, in a fervid search for corroboration, find its own facts. In solitary confinement, Gudjon was given relaxants and sleeping pills. He was the second to break, after Erla. Over a period of two years, the suspects were taken out to the lava fields 60 times. 60. Even without evidential proof, Schutz branded them as ruthless, merciless, rapacious people. Capable of killing. He had – because he needed to have – his perps. Later, they withdrew their confessions, but the verdicts were found and the sentences delivered: life imprisonment for Saevar, three years for Erla, 12 for the others. Redress for crimes to which they confessed but which they could not remember committing. The mind finds its own facts.


Gisli Gudjonsson, an ex-detective, is now a forensic psychologist and a leading authority on False Memory – or, as he preferrs to call it, Memory Distrust Syndrome. He points out its main triggers: isolation, persuasive interrogation, false evidence, high emotional intensity and the external insistence on the futility of continued denial. Concerning the false evidence, there’d been rumours of a set of photographs, kept in Iceland’s national archives, one of which showed Kristjan strangling a policeman playing the part of Geirfinnur. Another showed Kristjan standing next to a dummy playing the part of a corpse. Gisli: ‘once you have enacted something, it then becomes more of a reality.’

See Erla in isolation for 105 days, away from her infant daughter. See her being interviewed over 100 times, only on three occasions with a lawyer present; often these interviews went on for over 12 hours. There are no photographs of this. Now see Saevar with his head held in a bucket; effectively being water-boarded. See him and the other suspects deprived of sleep, company, air. There are no photographs of this. See Tryggvi in solitary confinement for 655 days. Doped with Diazepam and Mogadon. See him, along with all the other accused, cleared, in 2011, after an 18-month inquiry. Says Erla: ‘the case is a body that keeps rising out of the grave.’ Gudjun, now a retired Lutheran minister, expresses bafflement that he confessed to a killing he had no memory of carrying out. And he also, still, in his broken English and in his broken voice, expresses doubts: ‘if you have been telling someone where he has been, what he has done, telling him that other people were involved, in the end you can say him to be in the same position as you want to have him. He does not have any more his memory or the power to say no.’ And Tryggvi and Saevar? They’re saying nothing. Tryggvi died in 2009, at 58. Saevar died in Copenhagen, homeless, two years later. He was 56.


Korsakoff’s syndrome is a type of dementia associated with excessive alcohol consumption and which generally causes deficits in declarative memory. Sufferers find problematic, if not impossible, the processing of contextual information, which is an essential component of accurate recollection, resulting in gaps of memory which are plugged with confabulation. I’ve seen this at work; alcoholics asking me if I remember the long weekend we spent at a zoo, or in Toronto, or whatever – invented memories, fictions, necessitated, in part, by the need to arrest the dissolution of identity, crucial to which is the recall of individual experience. Deeply saddening to witness.

As this is an era of manufactured need, so too is it an era of manufactured illness. Are we suffering from Korsakoff’s too? Is our collective memory full of holes? For instance; did we really see that photograph of the Bullingdon Club, the epitome of unearned privilege? David Cameron and Boris Johnson have forbidden its reproduction, this we know, but in their airbrushing of their own histories is the undermining of our own. How well do we recollect that image? Did we even see it at all? And what The Sun blatantly and imperiously demands us to accept as ‘THE TRUTH’, well, it has taken a quarter of a century for the Hillsborough Commission to prove that the headline would better have read ‘THE LIES’. That image of the crouching fan with his hand in the pocket of the prone and unconscious figure, he was not seeking valuables, as we are told; he was looking for a way to identify the dead, to contact the next of kin. And those sodden corpses; yes, they were drenched in urine, not because the living wished to vilely desecrate the dead, but because human beings, whilst being crushed to death, have a tendency to piss themselves in agony and terror.

This is Korsakoff’s syndrome foisted on the non-alcoholic and the sane. This is dementia imposed from without. It is a lover scissoring the ex out of the photograph of happier times in a fit of jealous rage and insisting she was never there in the first place. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others, wrote that ‘one of the characteristics of modernity is that people like to feel they can anticipate their own experience.’ How possible is that if we cannot remember our own experiences with any conviction or confidence?

The contemporary human is unanchored, unmoored, adrift on a sea of ostensible experiential corroboration, none of which can be trusted. Spectacularisation – or one aspect of it, namely the external concretisation of shared experience and data – to Debord, was illusion, and to Baudrillard, it was all hoax. Sontag has a more positive spin: ‘There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority. The argument is in fact a defence of reality and the imperiled standards of responding more fully to it.’ Yet even such a concept as ‘reality’, in this context of tangible proof, of irrefragability, becomes unreliable, or, rather has been made so. This is not Photoshopping, or CGI on Youtube; this is the powerful making insubstantial and untrustworthy of the living bedrock. This is, in effect, allowing reality to be constructed by self-serving arbiters. The world is what we are told it is, not what we perceive it to be, and the ontological reinforcements of physical record and artefact are themselves fictitious. So Gudjun still feels, three decades on, that he ‘does not have any more his memory or the power to say no.’ Look, here’s Kristjan frozen forever in the act of murder. Memory is elusive and slippery; hard images are not. What will you trust?

And how we wish we could dismiss as false certain images that we know to be more or less objective truths. As a child, searching through bundles of damp-swollen and half-rotten books and periodicals in a relative’s garage, I came across a copy of Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War!. How I wished then, still wish now, and will forever, that the mounds of mutilated corpses displayed on its pages were just mannequins, or that those appallingly shattered faces were due to make-up and prosthetics. That they were just particularly gruesome Hallowe’en masks. And I am reminded of the recent campaign in Liverpool to re-christen those streets to which slavers gave their names; an understandable impulse, yes, but we have the history we have, not the one we would like to have. Unless, of course, the power is available to edit one’s own history, to transmogrify truth into lies and lies into truth, eroding the quiddity of such concepts in the action.

I wonder about Kristjan, and whether he was sure – as much as anyone can be – of who he was as he lived rough in Copenhagen; whether he really knew that he was not a killer of other human beings. Whether his innocence in that matter was felt as a fact in his heart, and in that part of his brain where certain self-knowledge resides. Whether, at the moment just before hypothermia wiped everything white, he yearned for forgiveness or craved redress; or whether his sense of self had been so steadily and systematically dismantled that even the wellspring from which such longings should sprout had been filled in, occluded. Choked. I hope he knew, at the last, that the only truism attached to his story – and the wider world which it metonymises – is this: do not trust what you are ordered to trust. Whatever you are told is true might be a lie.


Niall Griffiths is an English author of novels and short stories, set predominantly in Wales.


#27 ‘Self-ish’ by Marina Benjamin


‘It just bit into me, like am I dreaming’, said Ferdinand Puentes, of surviving this plane crash off Kalaupapa, on Hawaii’s Molokai island in January 2014. It’s a curiously poetic way to explain it. Less ambiguous, is his selfie to mark the occasion.

The modern phenomenon of photographing one’s self with a handheld camera, or mobile device, and then airing the results on social media – the selfie – is now part of the hall of mirrors of digital culture, endlessly refracted across our electronic landscape, as selfies are posted, tweeted, emailed and shared. From MailOnline to Tinder, the selfie rules.

But are selfies self-portraits? Only in the loosest sense of the term, in being both of you and by you. But it is more accurate, I think, to see the selfie as the ‘anti-self-portrait’. Photos like Puentes’ – the ‘I have to make a visual record of this so that I know, and you know, it wasn’t a dream’ selfie – are just one fragment of the phenomenon; albeit a kind of cousin to the pervasive ‘I’m standing with my face pressed against a celebrity’s face’ kind of selfie. An unstated rule is that the selfie-maker must strive to have it appear uncomposed, instant, casual, spontaneous and true – though, in actual fact, selfies lack any of these attributes. Selfies are representations that resist the very idea of representation – which is an idea that sits at the heart of what it means to be painterly.

Selfies are now so much a part of the wallpaper of contemporary culture that lately I’ve found myself becoming blind to them; I just don’t see them any more. It’s as if their very ubiquity – their teeming and intrusive banality – has effected a vanishing act, melding them into a solid wall of ever-present non-signification.

I’m trying to recall when selfies first impinged on my consciousness. In 2000, my husband travelled to Devon Island, a rocky and desolate place on the far Arctic reaches of human habitation. He was there to research a bunch of people trying to simulate living on Mars. Largely alone, and desperate for a record of having visited such inhospitable lands, he turned his camera on himself – though no one thought to call it a selfie at that time. He looked tired but wired, and 10 days unwashed. For a long while – years – he used that picture as his Facebook profile shot.

The next time I would register selfies, there had been a gear-change. It was when celebrities on holiday began digitally sharing pictures of their legs and lower torsos, snapped as they reclined on beach-beds in exotic parts of the world. Quite what the viewer was meant to take away from this new-fangled so-and-so woz ‘ere (and supine) phenomenon is unclear. That the subjects were rich? Pampered? Thin? Tanned? Had a nice pair of pins and an up-to-the minute bikini? Banality, you might say, was there from the start. But the novelty of selfies bought a measure of time for this trend in visual tagging to play itself out.

And so the floodgates opened. The selfie, of course, is now also employed on a massive scale by the non-celebrity, civilian population, and to similar effect: to give the appearance of giving yourself away, without actually doing so. To pepper your electronic universe with stand-ins. To perform your very own burlesque – a teasing visual striptease that says now you see me, now you don’t.

In taxonomic terms, we’ve got mugging, gurning and general tomfoolery; belfies, group-selfies and look-whom-I’m-with selfies; dress-up selfies, dress-down selfies and look-what-I’m-doing selfies; make-up free selfies (posing, if you please, as activism), filtered selfies, selfies with pets, Oscar 2014 selfies and political selfies. I don’t know about you, but I grew exhausted somewhere near the beginning of this lengthy list.

Then, in spring 2014, came the death of Peaches Geldof – not so much the poster girl for attachment parenting as the ‘posted’ girl, pinned to her social media niche like a butterfly fixed behind glass. Here was a life documented daily, and in near-hourly detail, on Twitter and Instagram, where her tagline – ‘Waging a never-ending war against dirty nappies’ – was a paramount exemplar of banality chic. Everything Peaches Geldof wished to promote – from her commitment to mothering, to the clothes brands she represented, to the food her baby boys ate and the bibs she used to mop them up with – was here, in an endless succession of uploaded mobile snaps and videos. Ostensibly, the message was ‘here’s a bit of my private life that I’d like to share with you’. But given how much we now know about what Peaches Geldof wasn’t sharing, perhaps the real take-away is how striking was the dissonance between her lived life and the life she projected.

Of course, all (self)-portraits lie. But the thing about selfies is that by virtue of manifesting an up-to-the-minute rolling reportage on the person they stand in for, they function as avatars. What makes avatars interesting in the world of signs and semaphores is that traditionally an avatar is spirit incarnate, a physical representative of the soul’s true self. There is no better vehicle, you might say, for self-idealisation.

I am hardly the first person to comment on the minor tragedy of Peaches Geldof’s death by accidental suicide. Or on the desperate efforts of a young woman battling her demons in private while trying to persuade the wider world, and probably herself too, that she was a model mother – and losing on both counts. But I do wonder at the extent to which the selfie was an accessory to the crime: an unwitting accomplice to the unraveling of this woman’s stable sense of identity. In being co-opted to serve an ideal of impossible perfection, wasn’t the selfie, ultimately, a force of fragmentation, alienation and explosion?

Thinking about the far shores of ‘death by selfie’ puts me in mind of another photographic suicide: Francesca Woodman’s. Before she took her own life in 1981, at the age of just 22, by jumping from the window of a New York loft, Woodman produced a substantial oeuvre that obsessively worked and re-worked the self-portrait. But with a crucial twist: in Woodman’s work, the subject self evades capture. We glimpse her fleetingly in mirrors, or she lurks half-hidden in the shadows of doorways. At other times Woodman ‘denies her face to the camera’ [her words], or conceals herself behind her hair or her arm, a swathe of gauzy fabric, a roll of cellophane. This is work in which the materiality of personhood is deliberately smudged, and the very notion of the sovereign self questioned.

Woodman liked to work in series. In a group of pictures taken in Providence, Rhode Island, in the late 1970s, she produced a set of stark and nervy images in which, owing to their long exposure times, she is blurred into a wisp-like silhouette against a bleached out empty room. These pictures are almost abstracts, fuzzily balletic, and strikingly beautiful.  Yet at the same time there’s a kind of electric quality to them, a marked tension. Woodman appears to be on the move, crouching, arms swinging down to the ground, like an animal on all fours. It is as if she is avid to escape the frame, avoid exposure, give us the slip and just disappear. The viewer feels implicated. He or she is not just a passive voyeur, but a hunter of prey.

In another group of equally unsettling images, taken in the kind of semi-derelict room she favoured using as a set – empty of furniture, its plasterwork crumbling – Woodman is naked, pressed up against a wall, desperate to blend herself into the wallpaper but only half succeeding, so that you see her and you don’t see her. You see a bit of leg, a bit of tummy, some hair. The rest is covered. The images are all somewhat blurred, ghostly. As with her exposures that use mirrors and doorways, Woodman positions herself with great care in these shots, so that she is expertly poised between absence and presence.

Woodman’s work makes for uncomfortable viewing. And that is intended. She wished to disrupt the taken-for-granted laziness of the viewing gaze, to question its entitlement. At the same time, by making us keenly aware of the viewer, effectively ‘outing’ them as the unnamed presence in her pictures, Woodman evokes a certain creepiness. There’s a whiff of suspicion that she is being watched. Perhaps by a Peeping Tom? Certainly by someone who delights in proximity and in peering into another person’s private world – someone illicit, hidden, who revels in the secret delight of watching without being seen.

This sense of the creepy encapsulates how I’ve felt when I’ve surfed the selfie scene; a little compromised and a little besmirched – tainted by my own consumption.

But then selfies stir up such feelings in the viewer by deliberate design; by blurring the lines between private and public, between access-granting and access-denying, insider and outsider.  They promise one thing, openness, and deliver another: surface. Their stark message is that you can get close up, but you cannot get personal.

Yet if selfies frustrate the viewer, they are a boon to those who wish to expose themselves without actually baring any soul. Thanks to the selfie, celebs can pap themselves, parade their drunken antics and kiss-and-tell indiscretions, and share behind-the-scenes confidences and tawdry confessions directly with fans, without in fact giving anything away at all. It is all surface. All wallpaper.

Perhaps, had she lived, Francesca Woodman would have deplored selfie culture for its phoniness – for being untrue to the idea of exposure. Would she have tweeted, I wonder? Or had an Instagram account? Would she have shared her life on Facebook and her smart phone? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I doubt she’d have fallen foul of mistaking the faux-realist surface of the selfie for the stuff of life that lies beneath.

A line of thought that perhaps did not consume the eerily calm Puentes, as he bobbed along on the plane wreckage-littered waves.


Marina Benjamin is a writer and journalist. Her books include Rocket Dreams (2004) and Last Days in Babylon (2007). She is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. She tweets as @marinab52.

#26 ‘Reticulation’ by Simon Fleury





⁃ A pattern or arrangement of interlacing lines resembling a net.

⁃ Overall random pattern/network of cracks and/or fissures that may occur in the photographic emulsion/ binder/ coated layer.

In doubt

In 1865, Richard Redgrave, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s first curator, and the Science and Art Department’s Inspector General for Art, took up his pen to annotate a photograph. Redgrave’s inscriptions, inked across the albumen paper surface, mark in meticulous detail the object under study. In so doing, he created one of the first photo-based condition reports. Aside from being a fascinating example of early photography itself, it represents one of the earliest and most ambitious uses of the photograph in a museum, to document the condition of a work of art. It is testament to Redgrave’s groundbreaking work that the conventions he employed in his painstaking symptomatology – the use of large format photographs, a systematic lexicon, and key to describe material condition – are easily recognisable; many are still used today by museum conservators throughout the world.

The entwining of museum, where I work as a conservator, and photography has long fascinated me; a preoccupation perhaps not unsurprising for someone responsible for the care of the museum’s photographs. Not only is the V&A home to the national collection of the art of photography, but it was also one of the first museums to have an in-house photographic studio. It was the new institution’s first director, Henry Cole, who set in motion the dual function of the photograph – both as a means of producing information, and as an object of high art – at the heart of his museum project. Redgrave, although keen to embrace the descriptive acuity of the photograph, particularly for documenting object condition, was less than happy with Cole’s insistence on the artistic merits of the new medium.

Redgrave was in doubt. He was tasked, at the time of the proposed move of the Raphael Tapestry Cartoons from their home at Hampton Court Palace to the South Kensington museum, with assessing the condition and suitability of moving these fragile works of art. The commission to photograph the cartoons (detailed in correspondence held in the V&A’s archive) must surely have been a major undertaking for Henry Cole and his team. The main challenge was the lack of sufficient natural light in the gallery at Hampton Court Palace. The architect and inventor, Francis Fowke – another of the museum’s founding milieu – devised an ingenious solution. On days of fine weather the cartoons were lowered, by a team of Fowke’s sappers, through a gallery window into the court below, where they could be photographed. One of Fowke’s main contributions to the project was the design and manufacture of a camera of mammoth proportions, to fit a lens bought specifically for the task the previous year in Paris.

Cole’s visionary conjunction was to persist. The instrumental use of the photograph was applied to a wide range of roles at the museum. Photographs were predominantly made of the objects in the collections for purposes of classification: as a pedagogical aid for distribution to schools of art, and for the commercial sale of prints to the public. Ever since those early days of the museum, and the advent of a revolutionary new medium, the materials and technology of the photograph have been worked into its fabric. The making of photographs, perhaps not unsurprising given the ubiquity of the image, remains essential to the functioning of the institution.

Little has changed since Redgrave’s proto-conservation reports. Today’s condition report remains a curious amalgam of photograph and text. The latest incarnation (tablet based), continues to rely on the representative potential of the photograph, now digital of course. Recently I have been preparing one of Redgrave’s annotated prints of the cartoons for display. The images that I’ve taken are essential to that process. I can only wonder at how Redgrave would have felt knowing that his utilitarian report will soon be displayed in the V&A’s ‘A History of Photography’ gallery. His inked inscriptions have taken well to the albumen print surface. The symptoms and evidence of the cartoon’s past life are mapped in the photograph’s fine detail, and Redgrave’s descriptive lexicon. There is an inherent tension in the condition report’s conjunction of text and image. Everyone sees something different. However fascinating it is to witness this disparity between image and text, the written word, for the purposes of describing material condition, is currently deemed too subjective, compared to the representational qualities of the photographic image. The complex structure of the object under study is clearly visible: particularly the numerous paper layers and the vertical joints where the cartoons were cut into strips for the weavers. It’s easy to overlook that – although now considered some of the finest surviving examples of Renaissance art – the cartoons were also once perfunctory – integral to the process of making tapestries. Redgrave’s print is also showing signs of its past instrumental life. As such, it requires minor treatment, which includes surface cleaning and several small repairs, before it can be mounted for display.

With so much of what I know of the photograph conditioned by working at the V&A, it’s hard not to be affected by this complex mixing-up of materials, practice(s) and place. Entangled, implicated along with others, I’m  intrigued by the way in which the technical photograph mediates the space of interaction between objects. This reticular activity has, over time, coalesced into a complex net of relations between objects and the technologies of their capture. It is as if the museum, through this process of recursive activity, is largely conditioned by, and conditional on, the photograph. The museum would be unrecognisable without this process of technical inscription.

The photograph, as no doubt you are aware, for a large part of its history was defined by the two stage negative/positive process. The making of photographs at the V&A, until the relatively recent digital incursion, has relied mainly on the genius of William Henry Fox-Talbot’s positive/negative process. As such, to be true to process, I should really have begun, not with Redgrave’s annotated prints, but the negatives from which they were made.

Collection Store: 15.5 0c, 31% RH

In one of the V&A’s climate controlled stores are the twelve remaining wet collodion-on-glass-negatives, made in 1858 by Charles Thurston Thompson to document the Raphael Tapestry Cartoons. Richard Redgrave’s annotated prints were made from these negatives. On entering the storeroom there is a marked difference in temperature from the corridor, and the reassuring hum of the chiller unit. The nearest OCEAN (Object Centred Environmental Analysis Network) monitor suggests a temperature of 15.5 0c and a relative humidity of 31%. Photographs are complex chemical balancing acts, largely contingent on process and material stability. The preservation of these objects can be greatly extended by reduced temperature storage and the dark.

Opening one of the drawers of the cabinet, one is immediately struck by the size and materiality of these early photographs. The twelve glass plates are a staggering metre square and a mere 10mm thick. This particular negative depicts the cartoon The Conversion of the Proconsul, Elymas Struck Blind. There are numerous fingerprints, scuff marks and accretions to the plate/emulsion surface. Even in the store’s relatively low-light conditions (without the illumination of transmitted light: so central to the negative) a faint image is visible in the light brown fug of the collodion emulsion – details of the artwork; an arrangement of figures: traces of the details of the cartoons complex construction; the cockled paper-layers. There are minor planar distortions and reticulation. The light-sensitive mutable skin (binder) has a granular structure, a plasticity that clumps and swells through the process of exposure and development. There are numerous (minor/major) losses and scratches to the emulsion. Many of the scratches have been retouched with black dye/ink. On closer inspection (using a torch to throw a raking light) : a micro landscape is discernible. The central area of the negative depicting the cartoon (the focus of Redgrave’s reports) is masked by tape. The tape is lifting in places and has pencil annotations, top-right. Telescoped in a territory of excess information – outside the taped-off sweet spot of the negative – a scenography is evoked: a work of art, a cartoon momentarily removed from the gallery, arranged outside, and secured on a platform support; a rolled cloth arranged on the grass below the object, and visible above the plane of the cartoon, are windows and the building of the Fountain Court. The edges of the glass-plates are chipped and cracked and there is a larger area of loss at the top-right corner. The transparency and stability of glass make it an ideal support for the photographic emulsion. This first conjunction of a glass substrate and binder was a major advance in the technology of the photograph – importantly reducing exposure times and producing a more detailed image. The untreated (beyond the emulsion) edges of the glass-plate are discoloured and dirty. There are numerous areas of staining. The size of the negative makes possible this movement across and through the image. In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2000), the theorist Vilem Flusser describes this ambulatory movement as an ability to “wander over the surface of an image” – a radical, fundamental break with the linearity of the written word. Might this fissure shed light on the disparity – played out in the condition report’s antagonistic conjunction of image and text – between what can be seen and what can be said? But one is also drawn, from the image carried in the binder – a reversal of light and dark, transposed in the positive print – back to the three dimensional physicality of the object, and its singular complex material characteristics. Although now part of the V&A’s photography collection, this was once a working object and as such carries evidence of the wear and tear associated with having been instrumental.

That the (art historical) status of these objects changed, is mainly due to happenstance. In the early 1990s, a flood in the photographer’s studio crypt store brought the attention of Elizabeth Martin, the then conservator of photographs at the V&A, who recognised the importance of these long-neglected objects. Although unconfirmed, it would be no surprise that Martin – who possessed a fine-tuned sensibility for her subject – was responsible for their discovery and rescue. The discovery precipitated their move from relative obscurity to a bespoke cabinet in the climate controlled environment of the collection stores: the technical photograph, hereby untethered from its functional role, and returned. With this shift in visibility comes a new lease of life: digitisation, through the latest photo-based technology, is being considered. My preliminary visit, to take the temperature of these objects, is detailed in my condition statement above. My doubts are not too dissimilar to Redgrave’s, and concern the stability and care of these fragile objects.

It is perhaps unsurprising, considering their stature, that the cartoons, ever since the ground breaking work of Redgrave, Thompson and their milieu, have been the focus of several further scholarly undertakings: many of which were reliant on the photograph. One major research project in the 1990s deployed a heterogeneous range of investigative photo-technologies that included: x-ray, transmitted light, raking light, colour transparency and macrophotography. But it was the technique of photogrammetry (most often employed for aerial mapping of the spatial measurement of buildings) which made it possible to produce an accurate three-dimensional picture of the cartoon’s underlying paper layers.

This extraordinary field of interactivity complicates the choice of an image to accompany this text. Is there one that catches this negentropic, circular play, of correspondence? I will settle with one of my annotated images of Thompson’s negative; the latest in a constellation of informational refrains, but almost certainly not the last.

That objects remain elusive, always in flux – never fully relinquishing to modes of capture – is reassuring. However impossible to grasp, in this complicated field of activity, a heterotopian entity that I have come to know as museum-photograph, I’m drawn to speculate: what kind deluge would ensue if it were possible to summon, simultaneously, in one single phantasmagorical event, every moment of light-sensitive photographic inscription at the museum?


Simon Fleury is a senior conservator at the V&A, responsible for the care of the Museum’s photographs. One of Richard Redgrave’s annotated prints can currently be found in the V&A’s History of Photography gallery. (Charles Thurston Thompson (1816-68) Raphael Cartoon with Condition Report Annotations, about 1858, no.76: 598).

Image: detail from a condition report of Charles Thurston Thompson’s collodion-on-glass negative of the Raphael Cartoon: The Conversion of the Proconsul; Elymas Struck Blind, 1858. (© V&A Images)

#25 ‘Adrian Street and his Father’ by Jeremy Deller

The return to Beynon's Colliery.


This is a revenge photograph.

In 1973, photographer Dennis Hutchinson was tasked with taking portraits of Adrian Street for a lengthy piece of editorial in the Sunday People newspaper. He had asked Street to suggest a location, and he said he wanted to be photographed in Wales, at the coal miner’s pit where he used to work as a teenager. He wanted to be shot with his father, who still worked there, and whom he hated.

In fact, he hated all the people in the picture, hated the pit, hated the village. He told Hutchinson, “I want to show them what I’ve made of my life, what I’ve become since leaving Wales.” He’s wearing his European Champion middleweight belt, as though to say, “Look, you peasants, this is what I’ve made of myself. I don’t have to go down a mine every day.” He’s returned as a success; a sort of prodigal son in reverse. This was his calculated expression of his showbiz, glamorous life. He’d clearly thought about this photo for a long time, planned it for years. He’d been biding his time.

The rather classical composition makes this photo resemble a Renaissance painting. When I first encountered it, on the cover of an album by the band Black Box Recorder (an album called England Made Me, which is ironic because the picture was taken in Wales) I found it shocking, but knew nothing about it. At a guess, I assumed it was a publicity image of a glam rock musician, taken at a coal mine. It took me back to my childhood, when the biggest things going on in the country seemed to be industrial strife and glam rock; and here, in the photo, were both. It was only when I saw it again, reproduced at a smaller size in grainy black and white in a book about wrestling, that I began to get a sense of what was really going on here. It had much less visual impact, but I now knew that it was not a photo of a musician, but of a wrestler, Adrian Street.

Street was always keenly interested in marketing himself, in him ‘as a brand’, as we’d put it now. He claims to have been one of the inspirations for the glam rock movement, and apparently he was acknowledged as such by Marc Bolan. Street saw a wrestling match as a kid and thought it was the thing for him; he liked the theatricality. Boxing also has an element of that, but wrestling is neigh on pure theatre. Street was a strong-willed child and he remained strong-willed: driven, egotistical, self-centred and self-aware. He would admit these things, these aren’t criticisms. His first professional wrestling match was in 1957 and from the early 1960s, he started bleaching his hair platinum blond, and wore increasingly outrageous clothes. Even though he was absolutely straight, he realised that his camp yet tough look would be more lucrative, because people would be more interested to see him wrestle. The more outrageous a character you were in the ring, the more successful you’d be. Even if you were a baddie – in wrestling these characters are called ‘heels’, who are ‘scripted’ by the promotors – people wanted to see you lose because they hated you. You got a reaction.

I’ve gone through Adrian’s albums; he’s got a big archive and a lot of photographs are of him looking very dressed up in public places. He’s always ‘on’, always the wrestler, walking around and posing. This photograph is a way of asserting that persona. It’s Adrian showing the men back home what he’s made of his life after he left them. They had all said, “You’ll be back, because you won’t make it as a wrestler or as a bodybuilder. We’ll see you in a few months.” That was in the 1950s, and this photo is of his return, in the wary 1970s, having transformed into this exotic creature. The Sunday People would undoubtedly have had a circulation of millions, and this photo is how he wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.

Street’s father looks quizzical here, and rather concerned. According to Adrian, there was no acceptance whatsoever. His dad made a point of pretending not to be impressed by anything. Adrian would take his parents on what were, in the 1970s, really fancy holidays, to places like Thailand, but his dad would feign indifference. They genuinely didn’t get on. To be as unusual looking as Adrian was, was not to be encouraged. Pit villages were very conservative environments. People with massive amounts of self belief, like Adrian Street, have always had to transform themselves and their lives. In that sense, his is a mythic story.

I’ve called this the most important photograph taken in Britain after the war. I don’t say this glibly, I know it’s quite a claim to make. But to me, it is the perfect summation of the difficulty post-war Britain had to come to terms with being a post-industrial country. A country where the power of heavy industry had diminished, a country that was shifting towards an entertainment and services-led economy. All of the stresses of that shift are visible in this photograph, and all are present in the life story of Adrian Street. In this one image, he personifies the British post-industrial struggle.

In my work, photographs take on all sorts of roles – they are used as documents, serve as reminders, or, as in this case, a source of inspiration. I didn’t take this photograph, but for me it was an entry point; the start of a process that led me, when I realised that the protagonist was still alive, to contact him and make a film about him and this image.

Adrian is a small guy, about the same height as me, and tough as nails. At 73 years old, despite surviving a bout with cancer, he’s still in very good physical condition; you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

I used to watch British wrestling on television as as a kid – until, controversially, it was taken off air in the late 1970s –– so I would have watched him in one of his estimated 12,000 fights. Street’s no longer active in the ring, he now designs and sells wrestling gear. But I’m still looking at this image. We’re still watching him. And isn’t that what he wanted?


Jeremy Deller is a British multi-media artist. His work often draws upon the cultural and political heritage of Britain. He won the Turner Prize in 2004.