Keith Roberts has been researching the archive of Edward Chambré Hardman, a
commercial photographer active in Liverpool 1923 – 1963. He has been
publishing the unseen images from portrait shoots taken up to 80 years ago.
One family got in touch with him after he published shots of their relative Billy
(William) Walker who died in WW2. A single unquestioned image of him had been
in the family archive for seventy years, yet when other poses of the sailor,
including some where he was laughing and smiling, were revealed the family felt
it had to reevaluate its understanding of the previously fixed persona described
by their original portrait.
I sometimes feel like I’m just too argumentative in my responses to some of the coursework. Should I just ignore the questions which come to mind when I read this stuff? Relax a bit more, don’t take it too seriously? Or is this what it’s all about – stimulating engaged responses and lively discourse? OK here goes…
I put myself in the place of a Walker family member here, errant grandson of Billy Walker whose photograph held an informative if singular place in the family album:
“Sure, we was all proper proud of grandad Billy, he was a real hero in the war, on the Atlantic convoys, it were so cold some blokes couldn’t stand it any more, just jumped off into the sea. We’ve got this photo of him, just the one, wearing his sailor hat and looking a bit pensive. Imagine our surprise when we got sent a load more photos of him actually smiling and larkin’ around a bit!! Who’d of thought it? We always had him down as a bit of a miserable so-and-so, what with the ice and all, but it turns out he could have a laugh and a joke just like an ordinary feller! Now we can see the true human side to him, it’s such a relief”
(I don’t think the RN did the Atlantic Convoys, probably the merchant lot, but just to make a point…)
Keith Roberts, in his 2016 lecture to the OCA, explains the origins of the Edward Chambre – Harman collection as the accumulation of work by the eponymous photographer, its eventual acquisition by the Liverpool Library and subsequent assignment to the National Trust. Curatorial, archival and legal difficulties surround the asset, not least because it was never a collection in the first place but the result of many years commercial and enthusiast activity. Well over 100,000 negatives reside in numerous biscuit tins (the rusty antique two-gallon variety) where they would remain were it not for Keith’s determined efforts. He has catalogued the entire oeuvre along with the meticulous handwritten studio records.
Roberts suggests that a negative should be distinguished from a print because it is different in the sense that it cannot be read without an intermediate process – printing or scanning. He says that museums consider this a tiresome process and as a result, prints are held to be more curator-friendly.
Roberts stated aim is to ‘raise the profile’ of the commercial portraiture within the collection; negatives tend to languish unseen and he wants their content to be available to the public – as prints.
He is looking for interesting historical trends in the studio records and finds out, among other things, that 35% of the entire portrait work was made in the six years of WW2. That’s an interesting sociological observation – it would seem that people wanted their portraits made (or those of their relatives) so that they had something to remember them by should they be killed in the war.
Roberts is enraptured by the process of inverting a negative from the collection,calling it a ‘magical moment… Breathing life back into [the sitter]’. I can see his point – watching the image appear in the tray (or screen) is fascinating. So far I have seen that the photographs are an intriguing adjunct to local history research but they don’t do much as and of them selves.
One aspect of the work (by Roberts) is the production of ‘chronotypes’ series, where pictures of people who visited the studio on a number of occasions over the years are collated and presented together. Roberts’ diligent record scrutiny allows him to find these negatives by searching for a single surname. Of particular interest is the ‘paired’ sets, where the first picture is of, say, a young recruit in uniform taken during the war years and a later picture, taken post-war. In the case of JJW Davies Esq, Roberts isolates the central facial features and notices how feminine they appear. Unfortunately no further mention is made of this, nor any speculation on its relevance. But he does embark on a speculative assessment of the sitters mood at this point, which may or may not be accurate. I have no problem with these personal interpretations but I would prefer them to prefixed with “he looks as if…” or “I imagine he’s thinking…”
Roberts considers the changes evident in Davies’s facial features over the six year time gap; he notes that the later picture reveals some skin changes, lines but acknowledges that we ‘cannot be certain what has driven [the] change without the facts” before ignoring his own caution and assigning to Davies a “haunted look”. My reading is on that particular Saturday morning he was enduring a crippling hangover after a night out with the lads. Or he had just seen his girlfriend chatting to a man in a cafe when she said she was going to Jenny’s. Or the absolute certainty in the 2.30 at Haydock turned out to have three legs.
We shoehorn his expression into our own view of people like him, at that time, under those circumstances. Even though the shell-shocked war hero is a plausible reading, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that his expression was typical of a ‘man having his picture took’ and the archive is full of shots like that; they can’t all have been having a ‘Month in the Country’ moment. Going to have a portrait photograph taken was not an opportunity to have your ‘inner-self’ revealed, rather a chance to present yourself as you would have others see you. The result should be a ‘good likeness’. It should depict a well groomed and generally clean shaven individual with a sober and dignified expression. Smiling for the camera was at least a decade away.
Roberts’ Intermissions exhibition looks thought provoking and I respect his integrity, enthusiasm and commitment to the collection. His explanation of the considerable curatorial challenges is illuminating. I’m probably being a bit hard on the photograph-as-mouthpiece stuff, it’s just that I’m a bit preoccupied with that aspect at the moment and it’s increasingly taking the form of a photographic Rorschach blot.