Points of View
Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs
(The British Library)Some of us are suckers for black-and-white photographs. And some of us are even more suckers for old photographs, from the earliest days of the earliest "calotypes" or "daguerreotypes." What is it about them that has such a hold on us?
Is it the knowledge that they are gone: the scenes, the buildings, even the lakes and rivers and trees, but mostly the people? In Points of View we are offered over two hundred photographs, full-sized, all drawn from the collection at the British Library. From the very earliest, William Henry Fox Talbot's pictures of the abbeys of England, or oaks, or Talbot himself --- unsmiling, frozen: one had to expose oneself for minutes to capture oneself in the early days of photography.
It's the exposure, isn't it? You capture it, and no one can take it away from you ... even if you are only capturing yourself. Whether it is the carefully posed exposures: trees, friends, villages. The trees can't (or shouldn't) move; the friends are best caught when they are sleeping (there is one of those here).
The villages? There are no inhabitants, for the minutes of uncapping the camera, the exposure, the recapping, all wagons and people and animals disappear, will not be "fixed," as later the film will be "fixed" by the chemicals.
Nabokov reported that the one photograph that caused him the most anxiety was a picture taken, a month before he was born, of the porch ... and on that porch a carriage in which he would be (later) sleeping, being moved about. It gave him such a start because at that very moment, the moment when it was "snapped," he did not (yet) exist.
Point of View comes in eight sections, starting with "The Infancy of Invention" and ending with "Fin de Siècle." In between, we get spectacular pictures. One of Oscar Wilde from 1882, long before they killed his soul in Reading Gaol. His stocking legs take up a full third of the plate, and above, in the dark, his handsome mocking face framed against the patterns and curls of a Victorian backdrop. He didn't know then, we know now, that he would fall dreafully for his arrogance.
He sits across the page from George Bernard Shaw, in 1900, in his dark suit, standing darkly back against a spindly chair, brow and beard still dark and trimmed.
The chapter titled "Making the Modern World" may hold the most interest, filled as it is with workers at Sydenham or Shanghai or Peru ... or under London, digging the tubes that would (and still do) carry millions. It's colonialism at its most gritty, to remind us of who was who.
And also to remind us of who is who, there is a man on the fields at Gettysburg, rifle and cap torn away: he himself on the ground, quite dead. There are two quiet shots from the Franco-Prussian War, letting us know that there wasn't only one massacre at the time (the border wars of South America of the same years are not shown; their mortality figures were greater by far.)
One of the last pictures comes from Kingsway, London, mostly shadow and dark, carriage and men and horses and dockside, from a book titled London, by the great writer Hilaire Belloc, who was to later compose some delicate poems, poems for delicate Victorian children. Such as,
"Matilda Who told Lies, and Was Burned to Death"Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one's Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to Believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not She
Discovered this Infirmity.
For once, towards the Close of Day,
Matilda, growing tired of play,
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the Telephone
And summoned the Immediate Aid
Of London's Noble Fire-Brigade.
Within an hour the Gallant Band
Were pouring in on every hand,
From Putney, Hackney Downs, and Bow.
With Courage high and Hearts a-glow,
They galloped, roaring through the Town,
'Matilda's House is Burning Down!'
Inspired by British Cheers and Loud
Proceeding from the Frenzied Crowd,
They ran their ladders through a score
Of windows on the Ball Room Floor;
And took Peculiar Pains to Souse
The Pictures up and down the House,
Until Matilda's Aunt succeeded
In showing them they were not needed;
And even then she had to pay
To get the Men to go away,
It happened that a few Weeks later
Her Aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that Interesting Play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her Niece
To hear this Entertaining Piece:
A Deprivation Just and Wise
To Punish her for Telling Lies.
That Night a Fire did break out--
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street ---
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) --- but all in vain!
For every time she shouted "Fire!"
They only answered "Little Liar!"
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.
--- Lolita Lark