Picture this: art and photography

SOME OF MY REGULAR readers will know that recently I published a short book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Her photographic creations, which she produced mainly between 1863 and 1875, differed significantly from those of her contemporaries. At the time that she was taking pictures, most other photographers concentrated on using their cameras to produce slavishly accurate renderings of their subject matter – often portraiture. In contrast, Julia experimented with her focussing, film processing, and other aspects of creating photographic images, to create imaginative artworks, often achieving effects that had been hitherto impossible for painters to produce. She used the camera not to reproduce nature but to produce often expressionistic or impressionistic renderings of her subject matter. For her, the camera was not merely a method of mirroring reality, but a pathway to creating works of art.

Today, the 23rd of May 2023, I visited the Waddington Custot gallery on London’s Cork Street. My wife and I enjoyed viewing an exhibition, “Picture This: Photorealism 1966-1985” – Photorealism was a term created by Louis K Meisel in 1969. The show continues until the 24th of June 2023. At first sight the pictures on display seem to be enlarged, well-focussed photographs. Soon, you will notice that these fabulous pictures of scenes in the USA are not photographs, but paintings created using oil and acrylic paints. One of the gallery staff explained that some of them are not images of actual places, but scenes imagined by the artists. Furthermore, he made an interesting point about them. He remarked that the artists have not painted the scenes as they would have appeared to the naked eye, but instead they have painted them how they would have looked if the images of them had been created using photographic techniques. In addition, by making their paintings of often imagined scenes in this way, the viewer is forced into questioning the assumption that photographs capture the truth.

After seeing the exhibition, it occurred to me that whereas Julia Margaret Cameron was using her camera to create art, the Photorealists were doing quite a different thing – creating artworks that imitate what can be achieved by accurate photography.

[You can get a copy of my book from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0BZFCVLX9/]

19th century photographers in Madeira and elsewhere

ALMOST WITHOUT REALISING IT, it seems that I have developed an interest in 19th century photographers. A visit to the Isle of Wight in 2022 led to me becoming interested in the life and work of the pioneer of artistic photography – Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). She lived at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight between 1860 and 1875. It was here that she produced most of her highly creative photographs. I have written a book about her: “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and Her Circle”.

Five years after Julia left the Isle of Wight, my great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg travelled from the German Empire to King Williams Town (‘KWT’) in the eastern part of what was then the southern African Cape Colony. Aged 18, he arrived there with his future brother-in-law Jakob Rindl. The two men set up what became a successful commercial photographic studio in the town, which they might have chosen because many of its European inhabitants were German speakers. Although Jakob continued the studio after 1885, Franz diversified his activities by founding soap, match, and candle factories in the town.

I believe that despite becoming a successful industrialist and politician, Franz continued taking photographs as a hobby. Because of his success in KWT, other members of his family came out from Germany to work in the town. Amongst these were Franz’s nieces, Anna and Else Ginsberg. These two intrepid ladies founded a photographic studio in KWT. They were the first ladies to have opened a commercial photography studio in what was to become South Africa. Of interest, amongst each of the generations of Franz and Jakob’s descendants, there have been keen photographers including myself,

In May 2023, when we visited the city of Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, we came across a museum that helped to bring 19th century photography back to life for me. It is the Museu de Fotografia da Madeira in Rua de Carriera. The museum is housed in what had been the premises of the commercial studio founded by Vicente Gomes da Silva (1827-1906) in 1863. The studio remained in business until 1978. In 1982, the Regional Government of Madeira purchased the building – Atelier Vicente – and used it for a museum of photography.  

Vicente Gomes da Silva became interested in photography in 1856, and by 1859 he was recorded as an amateur photographer in a local newspaper published in the June of that year. By 1863, he had made photography his business venture, and moved into the Atelier on Rua Carriera in 1865. A year later, he was appointed photographer to the Empress of Austria. His son, also called Vicente, continued the business, and was appointed photographer to the Portuguese royal family in 1903.

The museum is interesting not only because it exhibits the sorts of cameras that must have been used by my ancestors in South Africa and by Julia Margaret Cameron, but also because features that were characteristic of early photographic studios have been maintained and explained. The Atelier was opened before there was electricity on Madeira. The main studio area was arranged so that it was lit by northern light that filtered through skylights and curtains designed to make it a homogenous light source. Part of the studio’s laboratories had skylights that allowed ingress of sunlight that was required at various stages of preparing the photographic plates. At the back of the studio, there are a set of sliding panels, each painted with a different scene that could be used as a background to the people being photographed. The desired scene could be slid out behind the area where the subjects posed for their pictures. In other rooms, there are exhibits illustrating the history of cameras and photographic processes, as well as a fine collection of reproductions of images captured by some of the many photographers – both Portuguese and others – who worked in Madeira.  Some of the foreigners who took photographs on the island included British photographers such as Russell Manners Gordon (1829-1906) and Alexander Lamont Henderson (1837-1907).

Although I have no information about the appearances of the photographic studios used by my relatives in 19th century KWT, seeing the museum helped to give me an inkling of how their workplaces must have been. In the case of Julia Margaret Cameron, the places where she created images in her home, Dimbola, were far more makeshift from what I can gather.

Except for Julia Margaret Cameron, all the photographers I have mentioned, and many others working in the nineteenth century, aimed to create visually accurate images of their subjects. Often crystal clear, these pictures are fascinating but usually lifeless. What made Julia Cameron’s photography both unusual and full of life was her experimentation with focussing and processing. She used the camera not as equipment for capturing real life accurately on film but as a tool for creating works of art, in the same way as a painter uses the brush and the sculptor uses chisels. By doing this, she was far in advance of her time; experimentation with photography as a creative art form really only took off in the 20th century. The portraits and other composition that she created on film successfully captured not only their external appearance but also her astute interpretations of her subjects’ personalities.

My book about Julia Margaret Cameron can be obtained from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0BZFCVLX9/ ,

and at the museum shop at Dimbola at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight

Photographs taken in a garden

IN 1960, when I was 8 years old, I was accepted as a pupil at the Hall School in London’s Swiss Cottage area. Recently, I received some photographs of me in my newly acquired Hall School uniform. They were taken in the garden of our house in Hampstead Way in the Hampstead Garden Suburb, Maybe, it is fortunate that the photographs are in black and white because the Hall’s uniform was pink trimmed with black. The Hall’s ‘logo’ was a black Maltese cross – also a symbol used by the German army. I remember occasionally, children from other schools used to shout “Nazis” at me and my friends when we were wearing our uniforms in the street. The photographs were taken by my uncle Felix, who was born in South Africa.

When Felix came to London from South Africa in the second half of the 1950s, one of his first jobs was working in a photography shop in London’s Holborn. Like other members of my mother’s family, he was a keen photographer. His grandfather, my great grandfather, opened a photography studio in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape in 1880.  It was while Felix was working in the shop that the photographs of me in my new uniform were taken.

I remember the occasion vividly. Felix arrived at our house in the Suburb, carrying with him a great deal of equipment borrowed from the shop. Most of it was professional lighting on collapsible stands. Felix spent some time setting up a photographic studio in our living room. There were wires all over the place, and every electric socket in the room was used to power the lighting. I was positioned in a suitable pose. When he was ready, my uncle began switching on the lights. Then, it happened. The house’s electrical fuses blew, and all the lights went out. I remember that my parents were not too pleased with what had happened.

Because of the electrical problem, the much-wanted photographs, which were to be sent to relatives in South Africa, had to be taken outside in the garden. Seeing these pictures six decades later brought that occasion to the forefront of my memory.

Felix was a delightful, kindly man. He was everyone’s friend, and never harboured a grudge against anyone. Although he never had any children, I believe that he regarded the whole world as his family.

A bigger pool

IN COMMON WITH most people, I have little or no memory of the first two or three years of my life. My earliest recollections are the birth of my sibling when I was four years old, and walking with my parents to St Albans Church Hall in Golders Green to collect the free orange juice that the government provided in the 1950s. That was issued to children under the age of two, so it must have been for my sibling within the first two years of her life. At that time, I would have been less than six years old.

Recently, a cousin sent me scans of some family photographs. They include several of me before I was four years old. One of them taken of me in our garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb shows me standing beside a circular inflatable swimming pool filled with water. In the photograph, I am bending over the pool with a small jug in my right hand. None of this can I recall, except the crazy paving garden path behind me, which remained in existence until the 1990s, and might well still be there.

Seeing the photograph, which must have been taken before 1956, did jog my memory. I recall that after my sibling was born, my parents bought a bigger paddling pool for use in our garden. This was a rectangular affair. It consisted of a metal framework that had to be assembled and a plastic pool that was hung from its four sides before being filled with the garden hose. At each corner there was a small triangular metal seat. Well, I doubt I would have remembered this had I not seen the image of something I cannot remember at all.

A female pioneer of artistic photography

Many people will have heard of at least one of the following: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Edward Lear, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and William Dalrymple.

Fewer might be familiar with George Frederic Watts, Valentine Prinsep, Julia Stephen, and Dejazmatch Alamayou Tewodros.

One thing that all of the people listed above share is that they were in diverse ways connected with a Victorian pioneer of artistic photography – Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).

To discover about this fascinating woman and how her story involves all of the above-mentioned, please read “BETWEEN TWO ISLANDS: JULIA MARGARET CAMERON AND HER CIRCLE” by Adam Yamey. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book from Amazon:

Caught in the act midair

TO CAPTURE A DETAILED IMAGE of a hawk attacking a bird in mid-air using photography would require a decent camera with a good lens and a high shutter speed. Yet, in about 1832 – long before cameras with high shutter speeds existed – the painter Edward Landseer (1802-1873) depicted a hawk attacking another bird high above the ground. He did not use photography. He created his picture on canvas with his paintbrushes and oil paints. His painting, “Hawking in the Olden Time”, hand in north London’s Kenwood House where I saw it today, the 11th of April 2023.

Clearly, Landseer’s image is a painting, but it contains as much detail as a reasonably good photograph. It must have taken him very much longer to execute than the fraction of a second that the event – the attack, which he captured on canvas, lasted in real life. Was his visual memory so good that he was able to hold a detailed memory of that instant in his head whilst he painted it? Although I doubt it, that possibility cannot be ruled out.

As I stood in front of the picture, pondering about it, another theory entered my head. During the nineteenth century, the art of taxidermy had reached a high degree of development. For example, the British ornithologist John Hancock (1808-1890) was an accomplished taxidermist. One of his works, “The Struggle with the Quarry”, which is in the Hancock Museum (in Newcastle upon Tyne) consists of one stuffed bird attacking another, and at first glance makes one think of Landseer’s painting. Although this was created after Landseer made his painting, the art of taxidermy had already begun to be perfected by taxidermists such as Louis Dufresne (1752-1832). So, when I was standing in front of the painting at Kenwood and thinking that Landseer might well have used a work of taxidermy as a model for his picture, I might not have been mistaken.

Kenwood House contains one of London’s best collections of old master paintings outside the city’s major public art galleries. Each time I visit it, I discover something that I had not noticed before. I am sure that I had seen the painting by Landseer, but it was not until today that I gave it more than a passing glance. Today, while walking around the house with some friends who had never been there before, we stopped in front of the painting of mid-air carnage and wondered how this image had been created before modern photography had been invented. Maybe, what I have written provides the answer.

A new museum on the map

THE MUSEUM OF ART and Photography (‘MAP’) in central Bangalore has just opened (on the 18th of February 2023. Facing the Visvesvaraya Industrial & Technical Museum, MAP is housed in a brand new building with some attractive architectural features.

The edifice has five floors and a basement, which is home to an exorbitantly priced café, run by a company called Smoor. The ground floor has a reception area, a book/gift shop, and some gallery space. This is currently housing an exhibition of fascinating, attractive sculptures by LN Tallur. Some of the works of this contemporary artist allude to Hindu deities in a novel way.

The first floor is home to an auditorium, named after one of MAP’s major donors, Mazumdar-Shaw. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, a childhood friend of my wife, is a keen collector of art and has helped finance many other cultural establishments. On the same floor, there is a digital exhibition, whose subject matter can be chosen by the visitor.

The second floor is dedicated to offices and a library. Above this on the third floor, there is currently an exhibition of photographs by Jyoti Bhatt (born 1934), who began his artistic career in the famous art school in Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat. His works range from excellent straightforward documentary photography to highly creative artistic photography and collage work.

On the fourth floor, we enjoyed a beautiful exhibition called “Visible/Invisible”. Curated by Kamini Sawhney, Arnika Ahldag, Vaishnavi Kambadur, Riya Kumar and Arshad Hakim, this show explores the visual representation of women in artworks through the ages. Words alone can not do justice to the impactful nature of the display, but I will give you a rough idea of its range. In addition to paintings, modern and old, there are sculptures; photographs; tapestries,; traditional textiles; prints; and a video installation. Most of the artworks in this show were created by Indians or members if the Indian diaspora. The show successfully demonstrates how women have been portrayed over the centuries and how this has changed, especially more recently.

The fifth floor has a terrace from which there are some great views. There were some tables and chairs up there, but the café, if it exists, was not open.

Some years ago, we were in Bangalore when its branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) was opened in a restored palatial mansion near the Bangalore Golf Club. A beautifully designed annex was built next to the old building. When it was opened, I decided that it was a ‘must-see’ attraction in Bangalore. It remains so, but MAP in its newly constructed home will join NGMA amongst my suggestions of what should not be missed by visitors (and inhabitants) in Bangalore.

Art and documentaries at the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale 2022

ASPINWALL HOUSE IN Fort Kochi is the epicentre and largest exhibition space of the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale. We have attended this event four times to date – 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2022. Outside the main entrance to Aspinwall House, there is a list of those companies, organisations, and individuals, who have donated money to the Biennale. The current (2022/23) list has the following heading “Principle supporters”. Is this wording an undetected typographical error, or is it intentional, or is it a Freudian slip? I ask this question because the sentiments expressed in many of the exhibits question the consequences of the activities of some of the donors.

Far too many of the exhibits in Aspinwall House are more like well-made documentaries than what has until recently been regarded as art. The documentary exhibits are mostly well put together with superb still photography and cinematography, and quite a few of them are highly informative – akin to, for example, National Geographic productions.

The majority of the documentary-like exhibits have elements of political protest, often leftward leaning. Now, I have no objection to political protest in art, but I wonder whether some of these exhibits have strayed too far from what used to be considered art, and have become more documentary than artistic. In the past, to mention but a few, artists such as Picasso, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Joan Miró, Subhi Tagore, Diego Riviera, and currently William Kentridge, have made artworks with political content. These artists and some of their contemporaries produced artworks which are not purely political or polemic, but can also be enjoyed as purely visual experiences; knowing the message is not important to the impact the works make on the viewer, but can add to that. Much of what is on display at Aspinwall House during the current Biennale simply thrusts political messages at the viewer. There is little else to appreciate but often depressing messages and images.

As for the abundance of photography it is mostly superb. Since the invention of photography, it has been used highly creatively by some photographers. Examples of these include Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dodgson, László Moholy-Nagy, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Artists like these were competent photographers who exploited the camera to create original images that would have been difficult if not impossible to produce with other artistic materials. In contrast, many of the beautiful photographic works in the current Biennale seem to be aiming at documentary or archival accuracy rather than creative images – works of ‘pure’ art.

Having blasted at what I did not like about the Biennale, I must point out that there are many artworks that satisfied me purely visually. Some of them are in Aspinwall House, but many of them are elsewhere, notably in the Durbar Hall in Ernakulam. The works that impacted me positively because of their purely aesthetic 7characteristics might also be conveying political sentiments, but the nature of these did not impede my immediate, visceral rather than cerebral enjoyment of them.

Returning to the predominantly documentary exhibits, those that made most impact on me were housed in the TKM warehouse complex in Mattancherry. Some of the works there are not only political or polemical, but also highly creative and artistic (in the old sense of the word).

As for the odd use of “principle” on the list of donors mentioned above, I found this not only careless but ironic. Many of the artworks in the current Biennale question the principles of some of the donors, who funded the show.

Having read this, you can call me ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘politically incorrect ‘ if that makes you feel better. I might well be both, but I was brought up by my artistic parents to appreciate the works of both old masters and contemporary artists equally, be they works by Piero della Francesca or JMW Turner or Brancusi or Barbara Hepworth or Rachel Whitehead or Anish Kapoor.

Visit the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale if you can before it ends in early March 2023, and judge it for yourself. Almost all of the exhibits are housed in heritage buildings, which are alone worth seeing. I look forward to the next show in 2024/25.

Faces of India for Queen Victoria

THE CORRIDORS LEADING to the spectacular Durbar Room in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight are lined with portraits of people born in pre-independence India, either painted or photographed during the 19th century. Most of these images depict members of the Indian aristocracy (e.g., rulers of Princely States). A few depict less exalted persons, such as craftsmen and the designer of the Durbar Room.

Maharajah Duleep Singh (1838-1893), who surrendered the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria, is portrayed in a few pictures, notably one by the famous German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). Many other paintings were created by the Austrian painter Rudolf Swoboda (1859-1914). Queen Victoria liked his painting style and commissioned him to create more than 40 portraits of Indian people. In 1886, the queen paid for him to travel to India, and gave him £300 in travelling expenses. Her instructions to the young artist were:

“The Sketches Her Majesty wishes to have – are of the various types of the different nationalities. They should consist of heads of the same size as those already done for The Queen, and also small full lengths, as well as sketches of landscapes, buildings, and other scenes. Her Majesty does not want any large pictures done at first, but thinks that perhaps you could bring away material for making them should they eventually be wished for.” (www.rct.uk/collection/403755/gulzar).

Many of these can be seen hanging in Osborne House. Amongst his many Indian portraits, there is at least one painted not in India but in England. Queen Victoria had several servants, who were born in British India and the Princely States associated with it. The best known of these ‘imported’ servants was her favourite Mohammed Abdul Karim (1863-1909), her ‘munshi’ (teacher), who helped her study Hindustani, which she learned to write competently in the Urdu script. Amongst Swoboda’s paintings of Indians hanging in Osborne House, there is one of a non-Indian, a lady from Cyprus, and another, a Cape Malay woman from  Cape Town (South Africa). Why they are there, I have not yet found out, but maybe Swoboda spotted them at the Colonial Exhibition held in London in 1886.

Not all the portraits of Indians are painted. Some of them are hand-coloured photographs. A few of these photos are signed by their creators, one of which was the photographic studio of Gobind Ram and Oodey Ram in Jaipur. Along with a studio in Calcutta the Ram brothers were pioneers in photography in 19th century India. One source (www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/whats-hot/story/tryst-with-colonial-india-205124-2014-08-22) stated:

“Apparently, studio photography was practised by many Maharajas as a means of leisure, mostly using their courtesans as subjects. The Ravi Varma Studios of Calcutta and Gobind Ram-Oodey Ram Studio in Jaipur are just two examples.”

As can be seen at Osborne, these photographers also made portraits of the maharajahs and their families.

Although Queen Victoria loved Osborne House, I cannot see its appeal apart from the wonderful Durbar Room. For me, seeing this lavishly decorated hall and the collection portraits of the Indian people are the main delights of this otherwise rather gloomy residence.