Posted on behalf of Ourania Karapasia for Visual Collections.
“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”
– Ansel Adams
This is the first in a number of Langford Brooke-related blog posts that we are going to share throughout the year. The collection consists of circa 1000 glass plate negatives, all digitised and recently processed, soon to become available to researchers and the general public. They are early 20th-century images of the Langford Brooke family of Mere Old Hall and Mere New Hall in Cheshire, England.
One of the resulting research observations on the Langford Brooke Collection of Glass Plate Negatives is that it offers us unique insight into the moments in which an amateur photographer is no longer the one behind the camera, but instead becomes the subject. The ongoing cataloguing of the collection singled out a few instances in which the figure of the photographer is not absent and the explicit or implicit presence of the ‘photographer photographing’ manifests itself in many different and sometimes mysterious ways:
- An amateur photographer captured in action by another amateur photographer
- Amateur photographers photographing one another
- An amateur photographer photographing a framed portrait
- A [professional] photographer captured in action by another photographer
- An amateur photographer photographing oneself – aka Selfie
The Langford Brooke family lived in an age when photography was not easy or quick, but rather complex and slow, and required a huge number of manual stages and processes. In our time of instant digital images, it’s hard to imagine the effort that went into creating photos during photography’s first 150 years. Each single image was unique and laborious to create.
Way before the digital era, photographic emulsions were prepared on glass supports, known as glass plate negatives. Two types of glass plate negatives exist: the collodion wet plate invented by Frederick Scoff Archer, in use from the 1850s; and the silver gelatin dry plate created by Dr Richard L. Maddox, in use from the 1870s. Our Langford Brooke Collection uses the latter. Wet-plate collodion was displaced almost overnight by the advent of dry-plate photography in the late 1870s. Dry plates were much more manageable in terms of handling and transportation and far more sensitive than wet plates, allowing for speedier exposures. For the first time it was possible to take a camera anywhere and snap an image with or without a tripod. The combination of dry plates and other affordable cameras from reputable manufacturers democratised photography, an activity that was rapidly welcomed by a legion of eager amateurs.
When Mrs Phyllis Dunkerley (the second child, daughter of William and Jessie Langford Brooke) donated the collection to The John Rylands Library in 1983, she recalled that the majority of the pictures were taken by one main family member, her father William. William Langford Brooke took many hundreds of photographs during the course of over ten years (circa 1908-1920). His main interest was photographing his family and friends and a series of pictures captured at different angles and positions portray their time together outdoors at Mere Old Hall.
An amateur photographer captured in action by another amateur photographer
The photograph below, taken in 1916, is one of those that capture a moment when people are not posing for the camera and are at different stages of motion/interaction. But the photograph reveals something else as well: in the far background, visible is another photographer in action: Florence Bradley is photographing her brother Stephen Bradley playing with William’s daughter Phyllis, in the doorway of Mere Old Hall.
In the second photograph the photographer has moved with his camera to another spot, closer to the other photographer’s subject. Consciously standing behind her so he could get a central shot, William captured Florence Bradley photographing her brother Stephen Bradley standing in the doorway of Mere Old Hall in 1916.
The third image is a group photograph taken outdoors which depicts members of the family and relatives enjoying their time in the garden at Mere Old Hall, circa 1915. All are in formal dress (typical of the era), and positioned in two rows: in the front row, women are seated with children in deck chairs and standing in the back row are Montie and William. All pose for a group portrait, except William (on the right) who seems to make efforts to stabilise/balance a type of box camera (similar to Kodak Brownie) on the back of a deck chair. Two almost identical shots have been transformed into a GIF to demonstrate that while William is posing with the rest of the group he is also in action, taking a picture of the photographer.
Amateur photographers photographing one another
The moment in which two photographers are taking each other’s picture has dual significance: while the photograph seems to evoke absence, it also summons presence.
In the first photograph, Montie Montague White and [presumably] William Langford Brooke are making portraits of one another with hand-held folding plate cameras against the background of the garden arch at Mere Old Hall, circa 1915.
In the second photograph, T. W. Knowles and [presumably] William Langford Brooke are making portraits of one another with hand-held folding plate cameras against the background of a garden lawn, circa 1915.
An amateur photographer photographing a framed portrait
In the image below, the photographer [presumably William] has captured a moment in which another photographer (Montie) is in the middle of the act of re-photographing a photographic portrait; Montie is seated with a framed portrait of a female figure before him, and with his own tripod-mounted camera he is taking a photograph of a photograph. The act of re-photographing a photograph imitates what is happening in digital culture today: the imaging of cultural heritage is a necessary part of its long-term preservation.
But there is something extraordinary about this image in that it conveys a dual interpretation: on one hand it is so striking in its own right, telling its own story, while at the same time, it is inspiring us to see the ‘bigger picture’! The essence of this is encapsulated in the act of digitisation: when the original photograph is digitally photographed within a modern context, the process in turn creates another narrative, an interaction between past and present. Time folds in on itself: it allows us to dive into the Langford Brooke family past, capture its present, and create a legacy for the future.
A [professional] photographer captured in action by another photographer
The large group portrait came to commercial prominence in the 1880s, probably as a result of the widespread introduction of dry plate negatives.
The image below represents a side view photograph taken from a distance, depicting a photographer with a large camera under a black cloth in action photographing a group of people as they pose in an open field.
An amateur photographer photographing oneself – The Reflected Selfie
Photographs offer great historical and social significance as primary sources of information and provide a window into the past and future. The early 20th century “selfies” presented below have captured and are contributing to the zeitgeist of the 21st century.
The selfie concept feels like a modern trend but it is only the widespread use of the actual term that is rather new (apart from its extensive rate of recurrence). Photographic self-portraits (best known as Selfies) can be traced back to the origins of photography. People had the urge to take self-portraits long before the global explosion of smartphones, at a time when cameras were far from affordable and anything but technologically advanced.
The Reflected Selfie can be either Intentional (as a reflection in the mirror), or Unintentional (as a reflection in a window):
- Unintentional – window reflection “Selfie”
Glass is a unique material that presents a major challenge for both the professional and the amateur photographer. We are so taken by our ability to see through glass that we often forget it is there. Most of the time, we fail to notice reflections that interfere with our ability to capture what interests us on the other side. That’s because glass adds reflections to a photo, and these are usually unwanted. But there are often occasions where glass acts like a mirror and this is when reflections can be put to good use. In such context, a photograph can tell us more than it would appear to at first glance.
In this case the photograph below depicts a poster of an unidentified parliamentary candidate on a house window during election time, at 103 High Street in Redcar, Yorkshire, circa 1908. Also through the window, partially behind white curtains, is Jessie Langford Brooke (William’s wife) in a light-coloured striped shirt with white collar and a tie, looking directly at the camera. What is also present is the reflection of [presumably] William photographing against the glass window. The result of this shot – similar to what double exposure would produce – is two images: one real image (before the glass) and one reflected. In capturing both the view through the glass window and a reflection of himself and the scenery behind him at the same time, William has inadvertently “included” himself in the picture with his wife and has simultaneously become a central subject in the composition of the photograph.
- Intentional – mirror reflection Selfie
Since the inception of the camera, women have been fascinated by photography’s ability to recount the past and to construct the future. From the 1850s, women of the upper and middle classes experimented with photography as a space for self-expression. Mirrors and photographs have always been interlinked and the early history of photography, like photography today, includes both self-portraits and mirror selfies. By the 20th century, photo self-portraits had become reasonably common. Self-portraits of women from this period continued to be taken by amateurs – usually wealthy women who had the funds to take up photography as a hobby.
Two photographic plates in our collection offer us a glimpse of a female photographer experimenting with self-portrait photography using mirrors.
Taken in a room decorated with floral wallpaper and wall frames, the first capture depicts the reflection of a young (as yet) unidentified woman wearing a checked suit, a white high-collared blouse and a black necktie. She is taking her nearly full-length self-portrait using a mirror and a folding plate camera mounted on a tripod.
The photograph below depicts a middle- or upper-class domestic interior entrance hall, decorated in a typical Victorian/Edwardian style, rich in furniture, paintings and ornaments, including sculptures. In this eclectic display, the reflection of a dark, full-length silhouette standing next to a camera mounted on a tripod can be seen in an oversized mirror at the far end of the room; presumably the same young (as yet) unidentified woman.
And last but not least… as temporary finale…
The Shadow Selfie
I rarely do Selfies. However, I can vividly recall the gleaming light coming through my flat’s window in June 2006. Manchester obviously doesn’t get sun very often, but when it does… Anyway, the light reflected my shadow on the wall and was too perfect to ignore so I naturally felt that I had to capture it. Utilising the technology available at the time and using a Nokia 6230 mobile phone camera, here is a contribution from my personal private photography archive.