The colour of Pompeii
This is a sequel to those tourist pictures of local colour around the Bay of Naples. It’s a group of four cartes-de-visite of the wall decorations revealed when the ancient city of Pompeii was excavated. Once again these are hand-coloured, and the colour makes them appealing.
From about 1750, when archaeological excavation of Pompeii began, the site became an essential stop for wealthy British travellers undertaking a Grand Tour. The young John Soane was there in 1780 and collected a fragment of plaster which he took back to London. It is still in his collection, preserved along with drawings, models, and books about Pompeii.
Architects like Soane were thrilled by the colours they saw at Pompeii. Pompeian red became one of the signature colours of late eighteenth century English interiors—though recent investigations have suggested that some of those reds were not quite what the Romans saw.
My carte-de-visite pictures are artefacts from a later time—when steamships, railways, and middle-class holidays brought larger numbers of tourists to Pompeii.
At least two of the images are copied from copper engravings from Gli Ornati delle pareti ed i pavimenti delle stanze dell’Antica Pompeii [The ornaments of the walls and floors of the rooms of ancient Pompeii], a book first published in Naples in 1796. There is a copy of this book in Soane’s collection. You can find libraries that hold copies via WorldCat. You can also download a digital copy of the first volume of the 1838 edition from the University of Heidelberg.
Here are two delightful travellers’ souvenirs in the form of carte-de-visite photos—reminders of a visit to Naples. I’m guessing a tourist bought them after visiting the excavations at Pompeii in the 1860s.
The carte-de-visite was the first broadly-affordable kind of photograph. Most cartes were posed studio portraits, but there was also a market for views of scenes and places, as we see here.
The photographic materials used—the wet-plate collodion negative and the albumen print—could only record static subjects, and only in monochrome. But these two pictures have captured the colour and movement of the scene because they are reproductions of an artist’s drawings, with colour added by hand to each print. The artist was Consalvo Carelli, an Italian landscape painter who is also remembered for the illustrations he made for a travel journal of Alexandre Dumas.
For me these souvenirs evoke the time when mass tourism was just starting—made possible, for a growing middle class of Europeans, by the steam ship and the railway. Those tourists turned to a newly popular literary genre—the travel guide. Here are some tips on getting around in Naples from Karl Baedeker:
Carriages. The distances in Naples are so great, the charges are so moderate, and walking in the hot season is so fatiguing, that there is little inducement for pedestrianism. A private two-horse carrozzella for excursions costs 15-25 fr. per diem; in the town 15 fr. and gratuity. They are to be hired at the hotels, at S. Lucia etc. The fares of the public vehicles are considerably lower: two-horse carrozzella per drive during the day 1 fr., from sunset to midnight 1 fr. 50 c.; by time: 2 fr. for the first hour. 1 fr. 50 c. for each successive hour; at night 2 fr. 25 c. for the first, 2 fr. 65 c . for each successive hr. —One horse carrozzella per drive 50 c., at night 65 c.; by time (generally disadvantageous): 1 f:·. 25 c. for the first, 1 fr. for each successive hr.; at night 1 fr. 65 c. and 1 fr . 25 c. respectively. From midnight to sunrise double fares. In hiring by time any fraction above an hour is charged as 1/2 hr. In order to avoid imposition the best rule to observe is to pay the strict fare and not a single soldo in addition. Those who are disposed to pay liberally are sure to be victimized. In case of disputes, application should be made to the nearest policeman. [Karl Baedeker, Italy: handbook for travellers (Coblenz, 1867).].
A Swiss alpine locomotive
Another piece has joined my collection of oddly pleasing carte-de-visite photographs. It shows a little steam locomotive whose boiler is shaped like a claret bottle. The boiler is tipped forward about ten degrees, suggesting that this engine was built for hill climbing.
I put on my anorak, did some research, and found that the engine in the photo was built for the Vitznau–Rigi Bahn, the first mountain rack railway in Europe. The line opened in 1871 and this is the earliest type of engine used on it. The carte-de-visite is not marked with a date or the photographer’s name, but there is a good chance it was taken by Adolphe Braun in the early 1870s.
This happy find has sent me on a search for more alpine travellers’ ephemera.
Mike Johnston, who writes the Online photographer blog, has asked his readers to send in pictures of their favourite cameras. I expect to see gorgeous photographs of shiny chrome and dazzling glass. Camera porn.
Since I bought my first camera at the age of ten I have owned about two dozen cameras of various brands—Bolex, Cambo, Canon, Graphic, Kodak, Linhof, Olympus, Pentax. Every one of those cameras was a careful choice, and I liked every one of them. Too many favourites.
So I have chosen to send Mike a photo in which the camera is incidental, a minor detail. I had a long and productive partnership with that camera but it’s the story that matters, not the object.
When I studied architecture at the University of Queensland the course was a minimum of five years of full-time study, plus a year out after the third year. Students were required to work in architect’s offices for that year, or gain other useful experience. 1972 was my year out, and I spent most of it travelling. I hitch-hiked from Brisbane to Darwin, took a short plane flight to Timor Leste (Portugese Timor as it was called then), along the chain of Indonesian islands and on through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, by plane from Bangkok to Calcutta, then on the ground through India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and by ferry to England (where I worked in an architect’s office).
My aim was to learn how to travel, and my method was to have the least possible insulation between me and the place I was in and the people I was among—a challenge for a shy introvert. To record the experience I had my Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR camera, with 50mm and 135mm prime lenses.
I was imbued with ideas about documentary photography that I had absorbed from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt. The work I admired, and aspired to do, caught the decisive moment and had a satisfying composition. To me this meant black and white pictures precisely framed in the camera and printed uncropped. Ah, the purity of youth. Before leaving I loaded 200 feet of Ilford HP4 bulk film into cassettes. It’s amazing now to think of travelling for eight months with a ration of about three dozen rolls of film, with 36 shots on each roll.
Prices for photographic equipment were low in Singapore, and I bought a wide-angle lens there, a 28mm SMC Takumar. The shot above is one I took while playing with the new lens in my downmarket hotel room.
Taking pictures as I travelled was a major project for me. I did a lot of thinking about what I was doing. I learned from the experience and from talking to people. Along the way I met travellers who had Nikons, cameras that were more robust and versatile than my smaller simpler Pentax. I got to fondle a few rangefinder Leicas too—exquisite machines—but I never did take to those viewfinders. I daydreamed of getting a Nikon F with a battery of lenses.
A formative experience was a three-day train journey from Teheran to Istanbul. On that train I met Jiro Mochizuki, a Japanese photographer who was heading back to his home in Paris after spending some months photographing in Afghanistan. We had time to talk, and I quizzed him about the way he worked. He carried a basic kit of equipment to process his black and white negatives wherever he was. While he was working, every evening he developed his film, so he could assess the day’s work before he set out the next day. It struck me that this was the way to get immediate feedback and improvement—I was also impressed with the labour that went into setting up a rudimentary film processing lab in places without clean running water. My dreams turned to the subject of a darkroom.
When Jiro showed me his cameras I had another revelation. He had a pair of battered Pentaxes, with black gaffer tape stuck over the shiny parts. These were tools for work, not objects for sensuous fondling. If those Pentaxes stood up to the use he gave them, I should be happy with what I had. And so I was, until more than ten years later when my Pentax was stolen and I replaced it with a Canon F-1.
When I got back to Australia in early ’73 I had to get back into studying. I bought an old caravan and made it into a darkroom that I shifted from place to place when I moved house. I processed the film from the trip and made contact proofs. I made a few prints then put that project aside. I had to get on with other things. Twenty years later I took another look at that body of work, but didn’t get very far. The task of assessing, editing and printing those negatives still awaits me.
So, what is my favourite camera? It doesn’t really matter. Other questions are more important.