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Thursday 25 May 2017

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.

Four hand-coloured carte-de-visite copies of engraved illustrations of ancient wall decorations at Pompeii. The backs of the cards are blank.

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.

A fragment of plaster with the real Pompeian red paint. [Sir John Soane’s Museum collection].

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.

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Monday 24 April 2017

Neopolitan tourism

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.

Seventeen people (at least) crowded onto a one-horse carrozzella, with the Bay of Naples and Mount Versuvius in the background, a hand-coloured carte-de-visite copy of a drawing by Consalvo Carelli.

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.

More vendors, and fewer passengers, in this copy of another Carelli drawing.

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:ยท. 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).].

Detail of the back of one of the cartes-de-visite.

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Sunday 12 March 2017

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.

Toot!

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Monday 20 February 2017

Camera porn

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.

That’s me sitting on a bed in a hotel room in Singapore in 1972, trying out a new Super Multi Coated Takumar 28mm lens on my Pentax Spotmatic.

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.

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The colour of Pompeii
Neopolitan tourism
A Swiss alpine locomotive
Camera porn

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