This old picture is not exactly from nowhere, but from an album of photographs taken in India in the 1930s. What stories could be told by these nine men?
The album belonged to my wife’s Uncle Jim, who served in the British Army in India in the 1930s. As far as I can make out, however, Jim was not one of the nine men featured in the photograph. I am not sure when the photograph was taken, nor can I explain why at least two of the company look decidedly worse for wear. At their best, photographs can be objects in themselves, without the need for a backstory or a list of dramatic personae. This, I like to think, is one such photograph.
This rather stern looking lady was captured by the Heckmondwike studio of John S Shaw. John Shaw was born near Halifax in 1815, and for most of his working life was a farmer in Staffordshire. Only when he was in his sixties to he return to his native West Yorkshire to climb aboard the commercial band-wagon which was studio photography. The last two decades of the nineteenth century was the great age of the popular studio portrait. Production techniques meant that studio portraits were no longer the preserve of the wealthy, and the new age of home photography had not yet arrived. Every town and village needed its photographic studio, and a wide range of men – and a few notable women – were attracted into the profession. They were the computer repair shops, mobile phone case sellers, and Turkish barbers of their day. Unlike all such recent trends, however, they left a lasting legacy which still can be appreciated over one hundred years later.
Three photographs from an album of photos and postcards from India in the 1930s. They come from a family album which was put together by my wife’s uncle, Jim Carthew, and has been kindly lent to me by his granddaughter. I am slowly working my way through the album, scanning the photographs as I go. The three today must have been taken in that part of India or Afghanistan where Uncle Jim was stationed when he was a soldier in the 1930s. From the rather indistinct captions, the first one is a photograph of a tea server, the second is a dancing girl and the third is the local postman. More from the same album will undoubtedly follow.
Photo trouvée : noun – an image found by an artist and displayed with no, or minimal, alteration as a work of art.
I’m no artist, but I could put together a pretty good case to suggest that this is a work of art. In the best traditions of “objet trouvée“, I found it amongst a pile of old and forgotten photographs. I know not when or where it was taken, or who it features; but it drips with meaning, and is infused with art.
Smiles – smiles on photos, at least – were a twentieth century invention: smiles on the faces of the subjects of Victorian photographic portraits are as rare as Trumpian truths. The reason was partly that Victorian cameras could only cope with fixed expressions – but it was also partly that they tended to be a miserable lot. By the 1920s and 1930s, people were more relaxed, and smiles began to appear, and this added a welcome layer of humanity to photographs. Once you achieved the technological ability to instantly see – and digitally enhance – your photographic image, things started to become unreal again, with blemishes banished and pouts propelled to prominence. For a few decades, however, photographic smiles reflected something like real joy and honest emotion. It was the age of the smile.