What was freezing cold in my last letter is now mild and inviting. The weather has gradually moved from its winter modus into the beginnings of spring, although we are warned, as every year, that this is only a temporary measure, the heavens will send down a few more cold fronts and allow bitter winds to bite through our clothing before finally giving way, and allowing us the first strong reminders of what warmth and sunshine are. We have not managed short-sleeve weather yet but, standing in one corner of my front yard, looking out onto the street and keeping well away from gusts of wind, the promise is there. I must admit, I feel slightly strange opening a letter – for the second time – with a comment about the weather. I know that it is claimed the English have only two subjects they discuss – weather and football – but I thought I had managed to move on from there. Football is generally something I do not spend a great deal of time thinking about, and the weather, for me, is merely a question of warm clothing / cool clothing / dry clothing decided when I get up in the morning and not thought about a second time during the day. And yet, when people meet me, the general first question – after being asked how I came to Germany – is something about football, as if that is the theme all Englishmen need to be probed over, small talk if you will, to keep a conversation going, or to show some form of interest.
When I tell people football, and other sports, do not interest me as much as a good book, they are completely thrown off track, have no idea what to think or to say, as if I have destroyed their preconceptions of the English. There I point out to them, politely of course, that am a German citizen, have been for the last twelve years or so, and would love to discuss Martin Luther, Wolfgang von Goethe or Friedrich von Schiller with them. These, as some may know, are the names most associated with the Germans – along with Adolf Hitler, but he doesn’t make for good conversation, as I am sure you can appreciate – and, for some strange reason, Wolfgang Mozart. Strange because he was born in Salzburg, in Austria, and isn’t a German at all. Ludwig van Beethoven, on the other hand, was born in Germany, but hardly ever comes up in polite conversation, and Richard Wagner, also German, is generally written off as a good conversational subject because Hitler loved his music and it is associated by many with the National Socialist party. Wagner was, after all, a strong anti-Semite, so I suspect this is understandable, no matter how much we may appreciate his skills as a composer.
But I think my interest in books over other things – be it sport, politics or whatever – was quite well covered in my last letter, and I’m not in the habit of repeating myself unnecessarily, nor of demeaning the intelligence of my friends and co-correspondents by suggesting they need a repetition to understand a very clear point. It’s not as if we are in school, much as I’d like to be that age again because at the moment, suffering from a bad head cold, I feel more as Lucretius described an old man:
Age has crushed the body with its might,
The limbs collapse with weakness and decay
The judgement limps, and mind and speech give way.
which is one of the reasons why I would have given almost anything for the chance to stay in bed this morning and recuperate but, sadly, I had promised my presence elsewhere.
In fact, today was something I could have avoided without too much difficulty: in Bremen the spring season has opened, no matter that spring is not officially here and the weather is still too cold for most sensible flowers to raise their coloured heads yet; the outdoor flea market season began today, and one of the stall holders went to the trouble of telephoning me to say she had something for my collection. This may seem strange to some, that a flea market seller calls customers, and she is certainly not a professional with her one square yard of table space and a few odds and ends on offer. But, for some unknown reason, people seem to trust me – even after they get to know me, I could add here – and so she called and said that she’d been offered an album of photographs from the period that I collect.
There was a time, between about 1875 and 1920, when well-to-do families and individuals had their photograph taken – which was still a very expensive affair – and used this as a calling card, similar to our business cards today, or as a memento. The photographs were printed on very thin paper, and then glued to a piece of cardboard about the size of a modern credit card – a slightly different shape, but similar in overall size. Some people would use these as calling cards – and they were called Carte d’Visite, following on from the fact that the first commercial photographers were travelling Frenchmen – and leave them at the houses of gentlefolk they had called on who, for whatever reason, were either not at home, or didn’t wish to receive them at that time. The earliest versions were quite simply a photograph stuck on a piece of card but, as time went by, people – or photographers who set up permanent commercial studious in the major European towns and cities – realised that they could use all the space on the back of the card, and beneath the photograph on the front, if they’d stuck it on carefully, as advertising space. What is the point of having a photographic studio – I can almost see someone pondering this, scratching their head, or running a hand through a thick, long beard – of being in business if no one knows that you are there?
The initial result was a name and address embossed on the front of the card, directly below the photograph, where everyone could see it at a glance. The next step, clearly, was to use the back of the card, and this soon became a flourishing industry: printers would produce wonderful graphics on the blank cards, personalised for each individual studio, and advertising the services to a larger populace. This, of course, was back in the days before mass production, when printing presses were hand-operated and individual cards could be fed through quickly and efficiently for printing without worrying too much about the bottom line profits at the end of the quarter. The result is almost a generation of photographic cards where the names of those studied are long since forgotten – since family and friends knew who each person was, they had no need to make a note, and then, with the passage of time, new generations forget – but the studio names, addresses and photographic awards and prizes received are retained for posterity. Prizes and awards because, of course, studios were in competition one with another in the major cities such as Berlin, New York or wherever, and the more awards, the more gold medals received for a business, the higher its reputation, the greater its income. And the best photographers would travel hundreds of miles – horse and carriage travelling – to enter a competition: none of this scan an image in and send it off by mail, they had to be there.
These days, because they do not know who is in a photograph from over a hundred years ago, and cannot even be sure whether it is their own family or not, people throw them out with the trash. The entire history of a family could disappear in a matter of seconds, consumed by a paper shredder at the local recycling unit, and that despite the fact that there is growing interest in these photographs, and a blooming trade on such Internet platforms as eBay. The professionals selling over the Internet have, as you’d expect, a completely different idea of worth: the photographs of famous people tend to reap in higher prices; those of unknowns are sold off in bulk, since there is always someone who wants something cheap.
And then you come to someone like me, a book-reader, writer, foreigner in a strange land with an interest in history who, when he gets hold of such photographs turns them over, ignores the person on the front, and looks for the studio, the photographer, the history behind the history. One of the advantages is that I can play the high and mighty now and then, when a professor makes a mistake in an introduction to a book for example. I had the great pleasure of being just this person last week, after visiting a photographic exhibition in Bremen, which was excellent, and noting that the people pushed their exhibition by claiming that the young woman who took all those marvellous images had been one of the first to open a studio in Germany. Back then, as I am sure you can imagine, a woman having her own business was just something which did not happen: women did not go through the same education as men; women were second-rate citizens; women could not vote and were not considered capable of grasping the finer points of politics, business or the outside world. In fact, if a man died and his wife inherited the business – such as a clockmaker, which happened here where I live in 1852 – she was not allowed to run the business, no matter how good her skills and connections. In the case here the widow had to marry a seventeen year old apprentice clockmaker, who then gave his name to the business so that it did not need to close, leaving her and her family in penury. The clockmaker is still there, run along the male line even today.
In the introduction to their catalogue, the male expert claimed that the photographer, Annelise Kretschmer, was one of the first women to open her own studio under her own name, in Dortmund in 1929. Which made me grab pen and paper – metaphorically, since I can no longer hold a pen – and point out to them, in a pleasant manner, that they should take another look at the successes of women in the arts, that not all were confined to a dilettante status by so-called liberal sponsors, and that a young woman – I didn’t bother researching too far back – is recorded as having opened her own studio in Flensburg in 1905, when Kretschmer was two years old. I mentioned a few others too, but this was a good example because it was a quarter century earlier. Not to detract from Annelise Kretschmer, her work was wonderful and I am jealous of those who have prints in their collections, but I do like using my knowledge now and then, and I am sometimes a little too pushy, if you can call it that. Unless I’m wrong, then I am very quiet indeed. A church mouse has nothing on me when I’m wrong.
So the young woman from the flea market telephoned me to say she’d been offered an album of photographs, and to ask whether I’d be interested, and that was my only reason for getting up this morning. I daresay my cat would have whacked me across the nose a few times when he got hungry enough and if I was still in bed, but, other than that, I could easily have lain there, a book in my hand, and read the day away. And, probably half the night too, since I wouldn’t have been able to get back to sleep after such a lazy day. It was good getting in to Bremen, though, witnessing the first flea market of the season, greeting all those that I’ve met and got to know over the last few years. The hardest part is seeing who isn’t there; quite a few said last year – and have probably been saying it for the last five or ten years – that this would be there last time; they’re not cut up for it anymore; the market and customers have changed too much; it’s not like it used to be; they’re too old for such things. Most of them don’t mean it, but there’s always one, maybe two, who don’t make it through the winter months, and that’s a shame.
And that all brings me in a full circle, because the weather was wonderful, alongside the river, with the sun making a short appearance now and then, taking a peak at us all haggling over prices and drinking coffee from paper cups while reminiscing over the last year – when everything was so much better and so on- before going back into his winter sleep. Another few weeks until spring, so the sun has an excuse to remain in bed until late in the morning, even if we don’t. And there was a football match with the home team – Werder Bremen – winning for a change, so what more could you possibly wish for?