Monday, 19 March 2012

Come to this if you are in Bristol on Thursday 22nd

I wil be giving a talk about some of my research into archives of black history in Bristol this Thursday the 22nd from around 7.00 at The Arts House in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol. It is part of the monthly photo-talk Instant Coffee's which is run by a lovely Spaniard called Alex and sounds like it would be very interesting if I was in Bristol more often. They seem to take it very seriously and usually invite only practicing photographers working in the documentary strain of photography which makes me feel very special since I am neither a photographer nor one that works in documentary photography.

Here is some blurb, which i'm ashamed to say, I did not have the pleasure of having it written for me.

Gavin Maitland is a curator, archivist and photo-historian. He currently works in archives of Christies and the Victoria and Albert Museum and previously attended Glasgow School of Art, NSCAD in Nova Scotia and most recently DeMontfort University in Leicester. He writes about the social and geographic (mis)representation of maligned cultures through photography’s varying histories.
For Instant Coffees, Maitland will be sharing his research into the history of the Bamboo Club, Bristol’s first West-Indian social club located in St. Paul’s from 1966 - 1977. The fragmentary archive of which serves as a visual legacy to the history of West Indian culture in Bristol at a time of great cultural and political upheaval in the UK. Maitland will highlight the importance of employing different approaches in order to conduct historical research, arguing that considerations such as the ephemeral nature of the photograph may lead to an appreciation of its social, commercial and/or industrial life prior to its internment within the archive. 

Please see the Instant Coffees website here for more details.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Photo Talk at V&A

Short notice, but tomorrow, Simon Fleury - photo-conservator at the Victoria and Albert Museum will give a talk on the negative/positive process as discovered by William Henry Fox Talbot in England around the same time as Niepce and Daguerre's process in France which would eventually be known as the Daguerreotype. I missed  a similar talk by Simon at the PHRC in Leicester but I think that this will be probably be a more general 'History of Photography' type thing.

Meet in the grand entranceway at 1 O'clock.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Heavy Walls

The incredible but perennially darrrrrk, site/blog American Suburb X has some interesting images from Michael Lesy's first book Wisconsin Death Trip up on its site here. Appropriate for me, given recent events (see below, and eventually above). I think that Wisconsin Death Trip was, not only my first introduction to the darker side of American life through photographs ('Through a glass darkly', fer sure) but a real introduction to social history through photography - little did my 18 year old self know it at the time. Lesy originally conducted the research that became the book in the mid-seventies when he discovered over five thousand collodian glass plate negatives attributed to one photographer, a Mr. Charles Van Schaik, literally cracking under their own weight in the attic above the former studio. Active between 1895 and 1935 in and around the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Van Schaik set about recording for posterity as well as financial enumeration, the local population consisted mainly of incredibly disaffected Scandinavian's who, having been shown postcards of gigantic vegetables by American agents tricking them into believing how fertile the land in that part of the United States was, soon found themselves sitting penniless atop barren land that even the Heathen Indians wouldn't touch. This generally resulted in a decade long spate of rather inventive acts of homicide, infanticide, filicide and suicide topped off with the occasional bout of Cocaine addiction/window smashing, miserable alcoholic dwarfs as well as a plenitude of reports of ghosts, witches, madness and despair.

Not only was an amazing amount of this captured and preserved above a shop for nearly a hundred years on literally thousands of wet plate collodian glass negatives, but Lesy comfortably accompanies the images with accounts from the local paper The Black River Falls as well as reports of recently inducted 'guests' of the nearby Mendoza State Insane Asylum, the three of which, between them make for some incredibly amazing parrallels of fact such as the recurring and continuing story of the woman who was addicted to the relatively new drug Cocaine and would, on occasion leave her husband, take the train to a nearby town and commence to smashing as many windows as she could before being arrested and sent to the local asylum (I believe thats her above, against the wall). The fact that the photographer, newspaper and asylum made frequent and regular reports of her antics and that Lesy managed to connect the dots between them is to me the stand out story from this whole collection of what is esentially a very strange and dark chapter in American history that historians and filmakers have so far shied away from depicting.

As a part aside, around about ten years ago (and, i have to say, my first introduction to this book) the BBC commissioned a film - I believe what they now call a 'docu-drama' - based on Lesy's original book, featuring such fictionalised recreations of some of the most interesting stories and featuring the voice of none other than Ian 'look out! he's a robot!' Holme as the author of the newspaper reports. As part of the BBC's then revered Storyville format, it is an excellent film/documentary but seriously suffers from the fact that it doesn't quite know exactly what it is: Given its structure and at just over an hour it is too short to be a 'proper film' but too clever to be 'just a documentary' and definately leaves one wanting more from these strange, dark tales. It is beautifully filmed (in or near the original setting) and incredibly, has a rather anachronistic soundtrack featuring many track from DJ Shadow's first album Endtroducing (again, a first intro for me) and which, instead of being utterly jarring like one would expect, works incredibly well, serving to add to the tense, surreal and ultimately cloying atmosphere that the film seeks out and serves, and not to mention over ten years before tarantino made it suddenly cool to do. The DVD release even comes with an accompanying 'making of' documentary but is sadly lacking in any more information as to the formation of the book and to Michael Lesy's own inter-twining personal biography within it, which in itself I find utterly fascinating. If I were you I would be searching out both right now.

Bloomsbury Photo Fair Pt.2

So i’m looking at this stuff and people are jostling around and kinda i’m getting shoved outta the way so I move on  to the next stall and its loads of books, just books which is what I like more than anything in the whole world books about photographs and the guy there, he says to me ‘look at all this stuff, i got it off the son of some old man, what a pervert’, etc, etc and its a considerable amount of ‘erotic’ and pornographic photo-books which is by far not the weirdest thing in the photo-world at all. Kinda goes with the territory if you ask me and to be honest I think probably some of the first photo-books I ever bought were rather pornographic and I says to the bloke well, it was probably one of his only pleasures in life, if he’s an old man there’s probably not much he’s good for to be honest so give him his due, etc, etc. So anyway I have a look at some of those books but i’m not really in the mood for buying books, y’know i’m here for something special. So next there is a guy with a stall full of photographs and its kind of bric-a-brac-cy but in a good way, and lying on top I spies a Seaside Tintype! Just what i’d been looking for. I ask him if he has any more and he gives me some long schpiel about why doesn't, but I buy the Tintype and i’m pretty pleased with myself - my first actual nineteenth century artifact. A piece of the past that at one point actually sat mere feet away from the very persons it depicted... and at only five pounds too. Thats the thing about Tintypes in this country - they are still regarded as these ugly little things... the unwanted bastard cousin of the Ambrotype (at best). So you can still pick them up for pretty much naught. 
As if to almost directly contradict what I was thinking at this stage i move onto the next table opposite - which is the best looking table by far, nicely organized and laid out and the guy has a nice little selection of really interesting Daguerreotypes lying flat under a little display case. he even has a Post-Mortem Daguerreotype of a woman lying in bed so I ask him how much he want and he says £425 but he could do me a deal since it was near the end of the day but I say that even with a deal there is no way that i could afford it and I ask him if he saw Dr. Stanley Burns earlier and he says ‘yes, I invited him here, he came to buy some stuff off me’ sounding not unlike a different kind of dealer for a moment. Intrigued I press him further and he says that they’d known each other for about twenty years or so and that Dr. Burns had asked to meet him at the hotel the night before - obviously he didn’t want to miss out on getting the best stuff! - I asked him what it was that he was buying but the guy wouldn’t tell me and sort of went all shy-like - Oh! the murky world of photographic wheeling and dealing! 
I move on and there are all sorts of stalls. All kindsa people selling everything photographic. I’m surprised by the amount of youngish people around my age (and some even younger) that there are, but i’m put off at the way a lot of them are trying to make themselves appear super-cool. Like these young guys are trying to be all Blue Chip (Shop) so they dress smart but kinda Hoxton/Shoreditch-ish, but like so much of that crowd its all surface, they have little to show and no-one is buying. I find it interesting how almost every table has a kind of.... a style. Like a general demeanor for the table which is posited by what they are selling but which the seller also tries to exemplify somehow in the way that they dress. I’ve got much more respect for Mr Car-Boot-Sale or the guy who sold to Dr. Burns ‘cos at least they’re not trying to be something they’re not. They’re keeping photo-history real, yo.
So one of these other tables i’m at I see one of my bosses from the Victoria and Albert Museum and she’s rifling through some boxes of random photos and asking me how i’m getting on and I say ‘did you see Dr. Stanley Burns was here earlier’ not knowing if she would have any idea who he is. She says yeah, she didn’t see him but she’s met him a few times and he sent her an email the other day asking if he can come to the V&A ‘cos he’s researching a book on  British Seaside Ambrotypes and could  he come and have a look at our Ambrotypes? and I’m like, NO WAAAY, I’m currently researching British (& Scottish) Seaside Tintypes! That is so weird. She said she hadn’t got back to him yet ‘cos she’s been so busy with her new exhibitions and I walk away thinking ‘what are the chances? One of my biggest photo-history influnces conducting practically the same research me; maybe i'm doing something right after all’.
I see my friends, I introduce a lovely Latvian and a Frenchie. Make small talk then run away again; to look at MORE OF THE LOVELY PHOTOGRAPHS! I go back to the stall of the guy who sold the stuff to Dr. Burns because now I have some information that he doesn’t think anyone knows. So I say to him ‘by any chance were you selling Dr. Burns any seaside Ambrotypes?’ and he looks away real quick-like in that way people do when they’re caught out but want to seem like they’re not. So i think Aha! I rifle through some of his Tintypes and he has a really nice selection but they are all no cheaper than a tenner and the nicer ones are over £25 so I think ‘this guy really knows his market’. But he has  a really beautiful and strange one of a little girl holding a stuffed squirrel. Its strange because of the squirrel but also because her face has almost been wiped out. I can’t tell there and then whether it happened ‘in-camera’ or as a result of age or mis-use. I think i’m getting a sense of what attracts me - photographical-like, and there’s something about this little number that I like but at £25 i’m not so sure.

In the meantime as I wander around trying to justify it in my head I come back to the bloke with loads and loads of Daguerreotypes right at the start and say that I really like that Ambrotype of the little girl (not the one with the squirrel, a different one - keep up) and he offers to take £40 for it, but i’m still like ‘its nice but if I get that then all my money is gone on one piece and I was kinda hoping to leave with a bit more to show for it’. I wander around again and i’m really starting to feel like i did when i was a kid on holiday or someplace and I felt like I HAD to buy something but couldn’t make my mind up. I go past Mr. Car Boot Sale and a guy that loooks like he could be his twin brother is standing there flippping through the young girl/older guy beach album from earlier. MY ALBUM! He is about half packed away and I play it cool and they’re giving it all the salesman shpiel and i’m like, 'yeah yeah. I’ll gve you Twenty for it' and the blokes brother/whatever is like, ‘ah, you should take at least £23’ (???!!!) and I loook at another set of photos that I’d been looking at earlier, real strange-like - sort of semi-nudies, but with something real British about them that I can’t describe. About six shots of the same woman. Interesting. She has this look thats kinda sad. Like she’s seen better days. They have this in-between feel to them, like they kinda look like testers for ‘glamour’ shots or something. Like, these photos aren’t THE photos, y'know?. They're kinda sad and kinda sleazy and real amateurish and they attract me in the same way as the beach album in that they seem like they have a story to tell. Like  there is somewhere you could go with them. I just couldn't see it right there and then.The bloke says he wants £30 for them (for six photos???!!!). So I assert myself and says ‘look, its the end of the day and you wanna make some money, i’ll give you forty for these and the beach album’ and he takes it.... his brother bags them up and he’s a nice guy and I feel a bit bad and we have a chat about it all and he says look me up on the internet and I says yeah, you got some nice stuff here and I turn around and have a final wander around and I leave.

So, on Tuesday I go into work at the V&A and open up my mailbox and I’ve got a message from one of my bosses who i’d seen at the fair forwarding me a message from Dr. Stanley Burns:

"I definitely want to talk to the intern working on those tintypes as I am including a large section on English seaside ambrotypes. Tomorrow or Wednesday is good for me to go to V&A and talk to him if he is there. Its important as I want to hear his opinion and I am sure he wants mine."

WHAT...  THE...  FLIPPIN'...  BALLS?!!

 To be continued...