Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Blot on the Landscape

There is a growing cult of the cooling tower exemplified by last summer’s unsuccessful campaign to rescue the Tinsley towers near Sheffield from demolition. Since childhood I have admired these structures with the same awe and wonder as a medieval cathedral can inspire. I perfectly understand that if I belonged to a different generation they would appear as abominations in the landscape but I just can’t see them that way. These specimens at Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire have long been familiar and marked a return to the North Country when travelling back from family visits to the soft South. They stood for industry, energy, practicality and hard labour, all qualities in short supply south of the Trent. Being myself in possession of only modest amounts of these qualities, I soon found myself exported to the South. After almost 5 decades my North Country chauvinism has been considerably diluted in the light of experience and cooling towers are extremely rare in the South West where I live now. I read recently that the top of Lincoln Cathedral is the perfect vantage point from which to observe colonies of these creatures in their natural habitat in the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside; distance lending enchantment to the view.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Postcard of the Day No. 22, Williamsburg Bridge

Today’s offering comes from the city of New York and features the Williamsburg Bridge that has carried 2 subway tracks and 8 lanes of traffic across the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn since it opened in 1903. It’s a robust and uncompromising structure that makes no concessions to beauty and its character is faithfully reflected by the acute camera angle employed on this postcard. The transfixing element on this card is the tragedy that is taking place out in the river where a twin funnel pleasure cruiser is ablaze from head to stern. Jets of water from a fire fighting vessel appear to be making little impact and the position of the burning ship suggests that the bridge might be next to go up in flames, compounding the disaster. Curiously, the card bears no reference to this catastrophe as though this was a routine occurrence and undeserving of any special mention. The enlarged detail confirms that the unfolding tragedy is a distinctly clumsy and unconvincing, hand-drawn addition. Vintage postcards often display instances of the art of photo-retouching and even where the level of competence is no more than mediocre it often, as here, adds to the mystery of what we are seeing. The art of incompetent retouching has not been lost in the digital age. To see some wonderful examples of stunning lack of basic skills on the part of overpaid professionals, a visit to Photoshop Disasters is most rewarding.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Postcard of the Day No. 21, Les Roches Noires

A simple, atmospheric composition of delicate colours and textures graced by the ethereal presence of a small girl and her family engaged in the genteel pastime of rock pooling. It all combines into a poetic visualisation of a long forgotten moment of quiet pleasure at the end of a summer day. The details have their own magic. Forms and shapes whose contours fade and dissolve undermine any sense of documentary realism. The pastel hues hover over the forms to which they’ve been applied with varying degrees of accuracy. The image is saturated in an all-pervasive dream like quality that vintage postcards so often and so powerfully deliver. I think a cold shower is called for after all this overcooked prose.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Encore la Petite Ceinture

Today we make a brief return to the strange semi-abandoned universe of la Petite Ceinture whose carefully maintained and long forgotten railway tracks silently encircle the city of Paris. After almost 75 years without a regular service, most of the tracks remain in a state of readiness as if the resumption of service was imminent.

This locomotive with its rather fetching hinged cap attached to the funnel is an example of the type that was employed on the route in the early decades of the last century. It would have made regular trips through the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont conveying passengers from Pont de Flandre with a pressing need to be at la Maison Blanche by the quickest means possible. It would have made a splendid sight as it charged through the park, between the two tunnels, in a blur of smoke and steam. The rapid expansion of the Métro provided alternative routes that were faster and more direct leaving la Petite Ceinture to its eventual extinction in 1934.

The photographs, lovingly presented in glorious greyscale for added enjoyment, were taken in the 19th arrondissement where la Petite Ceinture crosses the Canal de l'Ourcq on the splendidly named Pont Craquer, close to Parc de la Villette. The tracks wind their way through some fairly uninspired architecture. An unhealthy amount of plant life encroaching on to the track suggests that maintenance standards are slipping. It may well be that the continued existence of la Petite Ceinture could soon be coming to an end. To see a passenger’s view from the Pont Craqeur in 1992 follow this link. Be prepared to wait until the video is about 6 minutes in!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Postcard of the Day No. 20, Hester Street

Hester Street is to be found in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and was traditionally a centre of Jewish life in New York. This colour postcard captures the vitality of the neighbourhood with an enormous cast of characters observed from an elevated viewpoint. The elevation favours an almost ethnographic dimension in the sense of detachment that prevails. All age groups are represented and an immense amount of social interaction is taking place. A group of young men have turned on a fire hydrant to get some relief from the summer heat. Local children splash through the torrent of water. The shop-fronts have their blinds extended to provide some shade. Peddlers line the sidewalk and trade is brisk. Amid all the energy and animation, one or two solitary figures can be glimpsed, making their way through the crowds. The balconies on the upper floors are piled high with bedding. When we zoom in on selected details, what we find is street photography par excellence and a record of life as experienced by an unexalted slice of the population at large. Another reading is to imagine we are watching a movie still from a long introductory tracking shot. A movie called Hester Street was released in 1975; it was set in 1896 and based on the story of Jewish immigrants into the US.

Each detail has its own compositional integrity and each could support an individual narrative. The scattering of contours and degradation of the enlarged imagery enhances the quality of mystery. The great joy of post cards is the power of the visual poetry compressed into their modest dimensions. This card illustrates just how rich that poetry can be. An absence of motor vehicles suggests that the original photo was taken on the cusp of the 20th century. Images that come from deep in the past often convey a special potency. Evidence of social change, lost customs, economic migration and the transience of human life are firmly embedded into a wafer thin sandwich of cheap card and printing ink. Only available in postcard form!

Friday, 12 December 2008

The Candy with the Hole

The mid-century advertising campaign for Life Savers confectionery was a landmark in creative excellence. One of the defining characteristics was a superbly inventive use of white space, often in combination with minimal, serial imagery, presented with visual wit and grace. The two examples below illustrate the point. The image above neatly overturns all our expectations by depending for its impact on a large expanse of black. Originating in the late 1940s, it displays a relaxed attitude to racial stereotyping that would be unacceptable today. But, when first published it would have been seen as a witty backward glance to the lost age of the Minstrel Show and a reworking of the classic poster for Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer from 1927.

It was a great achievement to sustain such a high level of creativity in a campaign for an impulse purchase that cost no more than a nickel. Much of the credit must go to Harlow Rockwell (1910-88), Art Director with the New York ad agency, Young & Rubicam. Rockwell had the job of commissioning about ten full colour advertisements each year for the pages of mass circulation family magazines (Life, Look, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, etc.). Photography was occasionally employed but for the most part these were highly desirable tasks for illustration specialists, especially children’s book illustrators. The look was always crisp, clean, fresh and spare in a way that made it truly stand out in an age dominated by text-heavy advertising. Rockwell later developed a second career as an illustrator of best selling non-fiction books for pre-school children in collaboration with his wife, Anne.

The racial complexities of blackface performing in the vaudeville era are explained with humour and relish in the pages of Nick Tosches’ book, Where Dead Voices Gather. It’s an amazingly detailed survey of a lost era in early American music that turns out to have very direct links with the music of the present. A highly recommended read. For lots more examples of Life Savers advertising, please visit the Visual Telling of Stories. Lastly, to brighten up our day, here comes one of 75, smartly turned out Life Savers girls employed to hand out 2000 free packs of Life Savers, each containing 3 sweets, on the streets of New York in the 1930s. To qualify for this work, a candidate had to be exactly 5’ 4” tall and measure 34-26-36 to fit into a one-size-fits-all uniform. They were required to launder the uniform each week and utter the magic words “Life Savers are always good taste” each time they hand out a sample.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Monkey Brand Santa

Our Simian Santa has struggled through a wintry landscape to bring Christmas cheer to users of Monkey Brand Soap. He is well and truly outside his comfort zone and the effort shows in his pained facial expression. The spindly, straggly Christmas tree clutched in his right hand would not look out of place at the New Forest Lapland. The bearing of mistletoe may be a misguided gesture; it’s not easy to imagine the refined beauties of Victorian womanhood braving the winter cold for a kiss from this Santa. The overall impression is decidedly melancholy but perhaps, not inappropriate for the first Christmas of the new era of Recession.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The World of Tomorrow

Timing is everything, and it was the misfortune of the planners of the New York World Fair that, while the focus of proceedings was fixed upon an exciting vision of future prosperity, across the Atlantic, Europe was descending ever more rapidly into a state of armed conflict. The wonders of technology on offer began to seem ever more frivolous and the captains of industry would soon be adapting these ideas for military use. America had surged out of the Depression years on a rising tide of consumerism and by 1939 a credible vision of the future in terms of how technology might impact on the next two decades had emerged. The World Fair of 1939 was designed to showcase these ideas and in this sense was a significant departure from the recent template for such events in which nations competed to make the brashest and boldest statements about national identity via the construction of absurdly bombastic pavilions stuffed with symbols of national pride.

The American twist on presenting the future to the public was to out-source most of the task to giant corporations, many of which, even at that time, had developed a truly global presence. Among them were Heinz, Ford, Kraft, General Motors, Firestone, Kodak, General Electric, and RCA, many of which had an economic power that exceeded all but the most developed nation states. On the whole the corporate branding on display had a cheap and cheerful look that made a refreshing change from the increasingly totalitarian style adopted by nation states. A highlight was the General Motors Building where Norman Bel Geddes gave a new word to the language with his exhibit, Futurama which exposed visitors to a dramatic visualisation of the world in 1960, unsurprisingly a world completely dominated by the ubiquity of motor vehicles.

This humble souvenir fold-out card renders the vision in an air-brushed palette of Looney Tunes chromatic intensity. There is a Machine Age aesthetic with an Art Deco inflection on display and Colonial Neo-Classicism seems to have a stronger presence than the severe geometry of Modernism. The strongest impression is that of a free and easy, advertising friendly, drug store/drive-in sensibility epitomised by the splendidly ridiculous Sealtest building with the appearance of a gigantic sectioned blender. Curving facades predominate and reach a climax in the seductive forms of the Electrical Products Building. With hindsight the whole endeavour seems outrageously optimistic. Presented on the eve of the Holocaust and the death and destruction of World War II. Predicated on a future of unlimited resources, courtesy of a planet with an assumed infinite capacity for absorbing environmental damage. But, therein lies the charm, not to mention the inspiration for Bruce McCall’s parodies in the pages of Zany Afternoons.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Postcard of the day No. 19, Narbonne

One of the pleasures of examining vintage postcards is the rich harvest of detail to be observed. Some single cards contain enough imagery for ten. This example is not quite that rich but there is a generous range of narrative possibilities on display. Starting at the top we have an enigmatic couple leaning out of a top floor open window watching the events below. At street level is a motley collection of urchins presided over by an older youth proudly mounted on a bicycle. The little girls have their backs to the camera but the boys’ expressions range from sullen defiance to insolent grins. On the far right a small boy stands in isolation, his left hand grips something made of paper or fabric. He wears a cap and an indecipherable expression. The image as a whole belongs to the genre in which indistinct traces of lives that have been lived and lost, linger on into the future, separated from every thread of documentary evidence relating to their identities. In the fashion of the time, the decrepit wall of the building has been covered with advertising, mostly for alcoholic drink. The most intriguing poster is for Le Petit Journal and features an image of a man clinging by his fingertips to the edge of a precipice while a female companion looks on, arms folded in apparent indifference. My guess is that it promotes a popular melodrama published in serial form in the pages of the newspaper. The advertising graphic styles suggest a date in the first decade of the last century.

The caption explains the reason for celebrating this once substantial building now fallen into disrepair. The Maison des Trois-Nourrices translates as the House of the Three Wet-Nurses. The second line informs us that this is where Le Marquis de Cinq-Mars and his friend and co-conspirator, François de Thou concealed themselves from arrest by the agents of Louis XIII and Richelieu. Their flight was in vain; they were eventually executed on September 12th, 1642. The story persisted in the popular imagination thanks to a novel by Alfred de Vigny, published in 1826 and a Gounod operatic adaptation, first performed in 1877.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Egyptian House, Penzance

Penzance is one of a select group of towns that attract the designation of the “last of England”. Despite its remoteness, it’s well worth a visit to sample the individual flavour and character of a town that has resisted/escaped absorption into the general mediocrity of the modern English townscape. Not everything is wonderful. The entrails of contemporary commerce are much in evidence, including one quite horrific strip on the main shopping street (Market Jew Street) where 4 out of 5 consecutive premises are occupied by mobile phone retailers!

The Egyptian House in Chapel Street is one of the town’s architectural treasures. Built in 1835 when the cult for all things Egyptian was probably on the wane elsewhere, it drew heavily on the design of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (designed by P F Robinson in 1812) for inspiration. Local mineralogist, John Lavin, commissioned the building to serve as a museum and repository for his collection of geological specimens. It’s a fine example of attention-seeking architecture with its colourful and exotic facade. Much of the detailing is the product of the architect’s imagination and there was no intention to produce a historically accurate recreation of genuine Egyptian building style but in its cheerfully impure form it does a wonderful job of brightening up the townscape.

For the last 40 years the building has belonged to the Landmark Trust and the external condition appears very well maintained. When the fashion for things Egyptian passed the building must have looked increasingly dated and the critical eyes of the Victorian Gothic Revivalists would have found it an anathema. All the more remarkable that it has survived to the present to delight us with its lavish ornamentation and superb lotus bud columns flanking the entrance.