With A Few Distractions And Other Themes
It seems to me that have only really written about one of my hobbies – or pastimes – so far, and probably a little more than some people might be used to. You will undoubtedly have noticed that, once I begin on a subject, I tend to work my way through and around it, with a few distractions and other themes along the way, and that is especially true when a particular matter really interests me, or when have spent a good deal of my life exploring it. The two are not necessarily the same: I could quite easily spend several years delving into the subject of personality, or myths and legends, or any other subject under the sun, without them really influencing me or becoming one of my greater interests. With books it has always been different, right from the very beginning as I first learned how to read and write, probably because the diversity available, the number of fascinating subjects is so large there is barely time for boredom. Every book is an experience and few are a disappointment, if you know what you are looking for and who to follow. I daresay it is the same with social media today: if you know what you are looking for and can find Internet or virtual soulmates, you’re set up for life. Or, at least, for the term of a social media platform since, as we have seen with a few life-long services, they do tend to die a death after a while. It may well be different with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but was certainly so with MySpace, back in the day, and that wonderful invention Vine, only too recently. I have to accept, though, that other people have other interests, other hobbies and, if I rattle on about my own all the time, hardly pausing for breath, it gets boring very quickly.
Of course, in letter writing, especially when it is the only connection between two people, it is very difficult to hold a direct conversation, both sides are always awaiting a reply to what they have written and some, like me, enjoy keeping the conversation going even when there hasn’t been a reply by writing a new letter – you might already have noticed that I tend to do this a lot – even before the last letter could possibly have been delivered. In fact, in my own case, I do know that it takes about a week for a letter to travel from Germany to the United States and go through the system, so I am not really playing with time, just cutting it a little short, you could say. But even letter writing, despite the number of letters and their frequency, is not my second greatest hobby or interest, which may well come as a surprise to you. A few years ago I came across something which enraptured me to such an extent I almost considered giving up other things in order to pursue it but, luckily, decided after all to make it merely a sideline and not a full time occupation. I say luckily not because I would have regretted fiving something up – although undoubtedly that would be the case – but because I have since discovered that I can continue with my other interests at the same time and, in many ways, they complement one another. Not that I am going to mix them together, that would be an almost impossible task, but the one does not rule out enjoyment of the other or, to put it slightly better, the new interest does not stop all the other interests, the book reading and collecting, the letter writing and travelling, from being enjoyed to the same extent as before.
Having called it the ‘new’ interest, I just admit that most people would not consider it new, as in recent, but it is new as in being the latest of my interests. Books and travelling were always my first interests, and will probably always be the main ones so long as I can move myself from one place to another, and letter writing came due to circumstances I chose for myself in the early Eighties. Although, as I recall, I did have my first experiences in this new field much earlier in life, before I was able to simply up sticks and travel at will, even before I was a teenager, but from a different angle. This interest – before I lose your interest by wandering all over the place and not being specific – is photography, but not the taking of photographs, more the collecting of them. My earliest experience was, however, with a camera and resulted in a wonderful image of a squirrel sitting between two branches, an acorn clasped firmly in its paws and looking directly at me. The focus was absolutely perfect – the roughness of the bark delineated and with precise shadowing – and the light was as every photographer, whether amateur or professional, hopes it will be. It was, of course, a film photograph – we didn’t have digital back then – and in black and white, which possibly made it all the more interesting to look at.
It wasn’t this one shot – all the rest from the film have vanished with the passage of time – which brought me to collecting old photographs, but more the discovery that few people living in this city, which I had recently begun to call home, had even the slightest inkling of its history. I found it astounding that the members of a family which had been resident here through four generations – and three of them still there – didn’t appreciate the monuments in a park which backed on to their own property. When I asked them about certain stone remains, they had no idea whatsoever, and so I was forced to research myself, discovering that the stones were remnants of an old bridge across the river which runs through town, and engraved with the initials of George the Third of England, who was a member of a German family from Hannover and had inherited the English throne after his grandfather had taken it over in 1714, being the next in line of succession. They were even unaware of another monument in the park which commemorated the war of 1872, and the beginning of what we know as Germany today. Prior to this it had been a broken up set of Germanic states which, following this warm began to be united into a whole by Bismarck.
Their lack of knowledge led me to research as best I could; which would have been easier had the members of the local history museum shown any interest. During this research I found some old lithographic postcards from the town, and discovered that there were six different designs produced, and that the lithographed image was the first form of printing used for postcards with an image. Prior to these all postcards had been blank, with an address side and a text side and, consequently, very boring unless you were into social or genealogical history and trying to trace family information through various means of communication. I managed to buy, for a very small price indeed, all six of the different designs, and began researching postcards further, just at the time as other people discovered these marvellous things, and the price shot up. Where I had been paying about one Deutschmark for a copy of the earliest illustrated postcards every printed, the cost of a normal photographic card, printed and published perhaps thirty years later and relatively easy to find, shot up to forty Deutschmarks, and has since more than doubled. Collecting postcards has become a very expensive hobby indeed, but fortunately, through a small stroke of luck, one which I decided not to follow.
You probably already know that photography was essentially a French discovery which was further enhanced by scientific research in Germany and England. The initial forms of photography, which were very complicated and involved a good deal of time and energy, as well as knowledge and luck, were gradually perfected with professional photographers moving, very slowly, away from glass negatives to film as we know it today. The first film cassettes, and portable cameras, were brought out in Germany, with Eastman Kodak, from the United States, coming into the game shortly after and sharing the marketplace with Agfa. In the Twenties there was a rush to personal photography, and the first box cameras, such as the Kodak Brownie, were brought onto the market for the world to wonder over and use. Up until then cameras had been large and unwieldy things, more suited to studios and to the professional – predominantly French – photographers who constructed travelling studios and wandered from town to town across Europe, plying their wares. Negatives were produced on glass and developing them was dangerous, not only from a health point of view, and costly.
As I researched the history of the town and sort out postcards to add to my small collection, before moving on to bigger and better things, I discovered that there had been professional photographers in the town and a neighbouring village almost from the very beginning of photography – as a commercial entity, not from the first discovery – and it was possible to find examples of their work on some of the new Internet auction platforms, such as eBay. And, even better, there were so many examples from across Europe on offer, that the prices remained low for the most part, and only exceptionally well-known photographers, or subjects, commanded a high price, and even that was well within my means. What was almost impossible to find were the original glass negatives, and that for good reason. Although all of the commercial photographers promised their customers the negatives would be kept so that prints could be ordered later, this only held as long as the photographer remained in business, or when someone else took over directly from him or, in few cases early on, her. Then, of course, came the Second World War and the devastation in Germany and, of course, the move from glass negatives to film from the Thirties onwards. The chances of something so fragile as a glass negative, no matter how well packed, in a major city surviving the blitz was exceptionally small.
And then there were the people themselves. In the smaller towns and villages where photographers had lived and worked, spared mostly from the bombing, such treasure troves did manage to survive. In fact, one of the last glass negative photographers here, in my city, kept all of his work and passed it on to his children, following his death in the mid-Thirties. They then passed it on to their families who, in the late Sixties, decided to take a look through the results of years of work, and destroy all those negatives, all that history, which didn’t appeal to them, or which they thought wouldn’t make any money. In effect, they destroyed practically everything this photographer, from about 1910 to 1935, had produced; images of people and the surrounding area which could never be replaced or replicated, as the people had gone, the surroundings changed. A few years ago I held an exhibition of papers and photography connected to the city, and members of this photographer’s family came to look at what was left of their destructive ways, to familiarise themselves with the life and works of their own forebears.
What remains are the photographs themselves, and it is these that I decided to collect, well aware that such a task is impossible to do justice to, there are simply too many examples and were far too many photographers for anyone to manage a representative collection. Unless they concentrate on one photographer or one town, which I decided not to do. I do have examples from all the commercial photographers working prior to the Second World War in this neighbourhood in my collection, and also their life histories right down to the houses they lived in and their family histories, which is more than can be said of the two local museums here. In fact, as the museum director here was preparing a book on one of the later local photographers – the one who had his glass negatives destroyed – she didn’t even bother approaching me for information or samples, and missed out a great deal of his work and history as a result. I am, of course, a private collector, and not of interest to those who consider themselves professional. At least, not outside of the major cities, where private collections form a massive part of any exhibition mounted on almost any subject you can imagine, but especially art and photography. Local museum directors tend to believe that they know everything about their chosen area or subject and avoid private collections as if they were the plagued. Having said that, when I put on my first exhibition, well away from the museum, a local politician, who is now mayor, rang the museum director at home and asked why she wasn’t there. An hour later she turned up, took a quick look around and went back home again. I later heard that she commented to someone else, she hoped I wasn’t thinking of opening my own museum, and taking all their visitors away. I wasn’t at the time, but, perhaps….
What is so special about these photographs which makes them worth collecting? Well, it is not the subjects. Most of the ones I have in my collection – and I have roughly twenty-five thousand at the moment – are portraits of people who lived before 1920. They have been sent out to family, to relatives overseas and, in some cases, shared amongst people who had attended some educational course, or went through trade training together and wished, in one form or another, to have a memento of their experiences and classmates. The ones which have been sent to family and friends, for the most part, have no notations on them. No names, address, greetings, dates, nothing. The people receiving these small photographs would have known who they were, who was depicted, and, therefore, had no need to write their names on the back. Their children would, undoubtedly, also have known, for the most part. It is when we get to the third generation that the memories disappear, and those proud subjects, members of the family from years before, become faces without names, without any connection to the present day. Younger family members inherit the photographs from their parents or grandparents after their deaths, and do not know what to do with them or, in many cases, quite simply do not have the room for such things. We do not all live in massive houses with plenty of storage space.
So, why should I be interested in a mass of nameless faces? The interest and value in collecting them comes not so much from the person who sat for the photograph, but more for the history and work of the photographer. From the 1870s onwards, as prizes for photography began to be issued by the largest European cities and photographic societies were formed around the world, photographers began to advertise themselves on the photographs. You have to imagine a photograph as being a piece of card roughly the size of a credit card. The photograph itself, the image, is printed on a very thin piece of paper straight from the glass negative, which is then glued to the card. Clearly the photograph is smaller than the card it is being fixed to, and it has a reverse too. Initially, photographers had their names and addresses embossed on the front of these cards, right under the image. Then a few printers began to see a commercial possibility, and they produced individual cards for photographers, with printed images, names and addresses on the reverse. Through this information, plus the vanity – remember that? – of the photographers, who would note their major awards and presentations, medal and certificates on each card, it is possible to trace the life and history of a photographer, their studio, and their inheritors. It is possible to follow one photographer through several addresses, from beginning to end of their careers, then the person who learned the trade from them, and eventually took the business over, right through to the modern day.
The most fascinating thing about collecting these old photographs, for me at least, is the research into the backgrounds of those photographers, many of whom began their careers in completely different trades, and then switched at some stage or even, as in some cases, pursued photographer as a sideline, a second career in addition to their money-earning one. And, of course, the women who entered the trade, and with a great deal of success, especially since, right up until the end of the Second World War, it was considered bad, and mad almost impossible, for a woman to have her own business. A fine example of this is the story of a watchmaker in my town. The young seventeen year old joined a watch-making company – that is, a family business and not a major factory as we would understand it today – to learn the trade. He began as an Apprentice, then became Indentured as his experience grew and, finally, could advance to the level of a Master Tradesman, with the ability to open his own business and be independent. This was the way things worked in Germany up until quite recently; if you hadn’t passed your Master examination, you couldn’t open a business in that trade. So the young man was learning how to make and repair watches under the tuition of a Master Craftsman, that is, until his tutor died, leaving a widow to inherit the business. Being a woman, however, she had never been able to study the craft, had never been able to follow this line of education, and so she would not have been allowed to take over the business and run it. The answer, for both of them, was quite simple: she inherited, he married her, and the business continues under his name to this day.
So, when I see female photographers working independently in the 1880s and 1890s, it comes not only as something of a surprise that they should be allowed to open their own businesses, but also as something of a boost. I am interested to know how they managed it, how successful they were, and what became of the business, the studios, before and after they began working. Admittedly there are very few, but those I have found have proven themselves more than competent beyond all shadow of a doubt, and some have even become, in the world of photography, quite famous with the passage of time. With a certain degree of determination, it would appear, it is possible to overcome both prejudice and convention, and be successful. The Second World War changed everything, of course, not just in Germany, but across Europe, and very much to the benefit of women, but those who have come into my collection all worked earlier, and many up to fifty years before the war began, before women were called in to do men’s jobs so that the men could advance towards an enemy and have themselves blown away. Theoretically we’ve come a long way since those days, haven’t we?