Category Archives: Photography

Inspiring, appalling, amazing…

AFTER THE WAR WAS OVER: a photographic recordby assorted Magnum photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Inge Morath, Werner Bischof, David Seymour… Published 1985

coverWhen I bought this book, I could barely afford it. I was a baby bookseller, and anyway the book industry has never been noted for lavish (or even sustainable) levels of remuneration. Even with staff discount, I had to save up. But it was worth the money. It’s a superb collection of photographs taken in, roughly, the ten years following the end of World War II, by some of the best photographers of the last century. And probably this one, too.

It’s strange to think, now that – as Grayson Perry put it in his recent Reith lecture – photography ‘rains on us like sewage from above’, just how powerful the photographic image was, and not all that long ago. It can still be incredibly strong, of course; it’s just that it can be difficult to pull the powerful out from the welter of everything else. Not so, once upon a recent time.

wow(Ernst Haas, Returning prisoner of war, Vienna, 1945)

In the aftermath of WW2 a group of photographers (photojournalists, I suppose) met in New York and talked about forming a different sort of photo agency, a co-op – Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Robert Capa, George Rodger and William Vandivert. The last named dropped out; Rodger was often away and that left the other three founder members, so Paris became the base for what was to become the most famous photo agency ever: Magnum. Gradually many others joined, some of the most illustrious photographers around, and the same is still true today. (And today, 22 October, would have been Robert Capa’s 100th birthday – a happy coincidence.)

Some of the photographs in this book date from before 1947, but the aftermath of the war very much informed Magnum, especially in its early days, and many of the shots included here come from that immediate post-war period.

refugees(Henri Cartier-Bresson, Deported Russians leaving Germany for home, 1945)

They show the wreckage of Europe, described as being ’empty, quiet and it stank’. The word ‘peace’ had a hollow ring for many of the Magnum photojournalists; apart from anything else, the war in Indochina kicked in in 1946, and the reality of a Europe with 30 million refugees was never far away. Hindsight gives a terrible reality to images like the one above – what awaited the refugees there was not known when it was taken, of course, though many people suspected the worst. IMG_7411

Others do not need hindsight; the traumatised child photographed by David Seymour in Poland in 1948 – the title is ‘disturbed orphan drawing her home’ – is powerful enough. You don’t need to know what this girl has been through in any detail (probably just as well) in order for the image to have a powerful impact; it bears witness all by itself.

If there is any one theme that runs throughout this book, it is people. People, their strength, their resilience, even though they might be ‘swept along on the winds of history’. And of course not all the photographs are of war; as time goes on there are portraits of famous people, shots of artists (Picasso, Matisse, Giaciometti), writers (Colette – and her maid – or Francoise Sagan or Simone de Beauvoir), singers and actors (Jaques Tati, Maria Callas).

HCBFor me, though, it’s the ‘ordinary’ people, the prostitutes working in 1947 Essen (David Seymour); the women chatting in Paris (Werner Bischoff, Ernst Haas) or coralling children in Naples (David Seymour) or  being chatted up by British troops in Berlin in 1945 (Robert Capa). The dignity of everyday, ‘normal’ human beings is expressed in shot after shot, such as this one by Henri Cartier-Bresson of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, taken – amazingly – in 1951.

So when does ‘post-war’ end? The photographers had different answers. For Ernst Haas, it was the early 1950s when he began taking his famous colour shots. For Inge Morath, it was the day in 1959 when she was unable to park her car in Paris because there were too many others using the available spaces. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it as the 1958 Brussels World Fair, which he shot and where he ‘scented hope’ – but, he said, he felt wary because he thought photography was a way of feeling a pulse, of sensing things in advance, of metaphorically sniffing the smoke in the air which becomes a blazing fire. He went on to say ‘…the world had been totally changed by scientific discoveries made during the war. These technological changes became a part of our lives, creating deeper and deeper tensions so that we are in a world that seems headed for suicide.’ Prescient, or what?

One final note: this is a beautifully edited book (says moi, ever the editor). Time and again photographs are shown in parallel, but in an understated way that informs and doesn’t distract. Take this pair,

men at work

by Werner Bischoff (London, 1950) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Tancarville, France, 1955). Understated symmetry.

Boy, am I glad I saved up my pennies and didn’t spend them all on beer.

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Glorious pictures – but there has to be a ‘but’…

TEXTILES: A WORLD TOUR – Discovering Traditional Fabrics and Patterns, by Catherine Legrande, published in 2008

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 18

coverThere are some books which have been lurking in my collection for a while, and yet I’ve barely looked at them. No, let me correct myself: this tendency is largely confined to the illustrated books, where I’ve looked at the pictures but either ignored the text or just skimmed through it. In some cases, as I’ve mentioned before, this has definitely been a mistake. Reading the text has given me a lot and added to the power of the illustrations.

In other cases – nah. Unfortunately, this book is one of these.

Textiles: A World Tour is also badly titled, because this isn’t a world tour. It’s selective and can be extremely sketchy, even when it does consider an area. Yes, it covers some diverse parts of the world – Laos, Romania, Rajisthan, Guatemala – but it is by no means as global as the title implies. And though there may be something on the textiles of somewhere specific which interests you, that something will probably be confined to two double-page spreads.

However, it is also inspirational – if you concentrate on the illustrations.

inside1

There is much to enjoy, and I’ll extend my positive feedback to the image captions, as well, which are often excellent. Nor, unlike some books on this subject, is male dress ignored (that would be next to impossible, you might think, when looking at places like Rajisthan or Romania, but it has happened before in books of this type).

inside 2

I find the mix of photographs and illustrations compelling. After all, a costume illustration can reveal details of construction which a photograph cannot, and they are vital in any serious book. They are good here, and the captions often help you understand what is going on.

The shots of details are superb, whether they are of Indian embroidery or Romanian printing, and there are some lovely montages, like this one of South-East Asian traditional bags.

inside3

Perhaps I’ve been too tough on the text. It’s also acceptable where it concentrates on the textiles and dumps the ‘we saw X going to market and she said…’ gubbins. This book doesn’t go into anything in detail, though – if you want to serious information about, say, ikats or indigo, then you’re better going to a more specialist work. If you want lovely photographs and excellent drawings, you’ll get those here.

inside4So, yes, I would recommend this, and I have enjoyed getting into it – perhaps you need that grit in your oyster. Ignore what it pretends to be (especially wise in the sections of text that read like a 1950s National Geographic travelog; this tone may be partly down to translation) and concentrate on what it is, and you have something worthwhile: a collection of gorgeous photographs and illustrations of traditional textiles from some parts of the world.

Back to the trees

MYTHIC WOODS by Jonathan Roberts, published in 2004

Bookcase 8, shelf 2, book 17

I do love trees. I spent a large part of my teenage years up in an old tree, reading. Now I’ve got quite a few in the garden (er, 20 at the last count, though they’re not all huge), and more than a few books about them on the shelves. Some are field guides, some focus on a particular tree, some are tours of specific trees – but this is the only one which focuses on woods. Well, on a perhaps surprising interpretation of ‘woods’.

OK, I admit it, I’m a sucker for books on trees. Some of the books I’ve bought on impulse and the strength of  a few positive words on Amazon have made their way to the charity shop fairly quickly, and for a moment this one nearly joined them. I’m not quite sure why, but it found its way back onto the shelves, where it remained unexamined until I rolled the dice and got it. Now I have read it and looked at it properly, I’m very glad that I changed my mind. This dice-rolling thing is having all sorts of unexpected benefits…

One reason why I nearly got rid of Mythic Woods was because of the fact that it is illustrated with what are, essentially, library shots. I’d hoped for a unified vision, and rather snottily decided that this wasn’t it. I was wrong. Yes, the photographs do come from a variety of photographers, but the photo editing is excellent, and there isn’t really a sour note.

I do think, though, that the title is misleading as well as being a little ‘away with the fairies’ with the ‘mythic’ tag. If it was full of legendary woods, woods like Sherwood, perhaps, redolent with stories and tales, then I wouldn’t have much of  a problem with it as an echo of the book within. But this book isn’t like that at all; it’s much more down to earth than the title implies. It’s also about forests than woods, and that’s forests in the old sense of the term – where a forest can be a bleak area of upland with a few trees dotting the hills, as in the Atlas Mountains,

or an ancient petrified / fossilized forest in Arizona, or a wilderness of kelp off the California coast. Oh, I know I’m quibbling, but I am an editor and that’s my job. Time to ignore my inner nit-picker and just enjoy the book, because it is eminently enjoyable. Here’s the kelp:

More conventionally, the book moves across the whole world in a way that some books of this type just do not. It includes, for instance, Canada’s Great Bear Forest (boy, would I like to see that some day) and the Kauri forests of New Zealand (ditto). I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the mix of photographic sources: it would have been extremely expensive as well as time-consuming – hang on, the Inner Editor is out again. Go away.

But of course it’s not just about the photographs. The text is good, even if the font size is suspiciously large (a sure sign of trying to spin text out – go away, Inner Ed, I said). There’s a strong environmental message. This wasn’t, however, what Jonathan Roberts originally intended. He is quite open about it: saying that the green agenda wasn’t what he wanted to focus on at the start. However, as work progressed, that attitude became impossible to sustain. The sound of the chainsaw rang through many of the woods he visited, and there were clear signs of destruction caused by logging (napalm has even been used to clear the ground after the removal of trees, so that’s not surprising). As he says:

‘Trees can barely keep up with axes. With chainsaws they do no stand a chance. A thousand years a-growing destroyed by fifteen minutes with a chainsaw.’

There’s also a focus on those who have fought or are fighting for the forests, people like Lyautey with his aim of re-foresting the Atlas Mountains in Morocco just after the First World War. His civil servants had protested that old-growth forest, such as that which had once covered the Atlas, would take thousands of years to establish. Re-establish. Apparently he responded with ‘That, gentelmen, is why we will start immediately’. Quite. Go out and plant trees – though I, perhaps, should stop. At least in my own garden.

But I really, really warmed to this book when I found a quote from an old, completely inspirational archaeology book, one that turned me on to the whole idea of European archaeology in the late 70s, and provoked my deep and abiding obsession with the Mesolithic.

It’s probably too small or faint to see, certainly on a mobile device, so here goes:

“‘If one could have flown,’ wrote J G Clark in 1952, ‘over northern Europe during Mesolithic times [c 5000 BCE] it is doubtful whether more than an occasional wisp of smoke from some camp fire, or maybe a small cluster of huts or shelters by a river bank or old lake bed would have advertised the presence of man: in all essentials the forest would have stretched unbroken, save only by mountain, swamp and water, the the margins of the sea…'”

Hmm. Maybe ‘mythic’ isn’t that bad a word. The forest here, by the way, is the wonderful Black Wood of Rannoch. Now that one I do know.

Forgotten – New York

FRONTIER NEW YORK, by Jan Staller, published in 1988

Bookcase 7, Shelf 3, book 25

This whole ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise is fascinating. I think I’d got used to looking at particular bookshelves, or picking up books on a single subject – travel, say, or history (I’ve got lots of both, which is why they keep coming up). Basically, I’d got lazy. Intellectually lazy, and maybe physically lazy too, because there’s no denying that the shelves that are easy to reach undoubtedly get the most attention.

But the throw of the dice made me stand on the back of the sofa, hand on one shelf to make sure I didn’t fall down the gap behind,  stretch out – and pull out a book I’d forgotten I owned. And it’s wonderful! Since I hauled Frontier New York out from between two larger, beefier, altogether heavier photography books I’ve been carrying it around with me, urging people to have a look at it. Surprised the postman, anyway.

I can’t claim credit for having discovered FNY. That belongs to my photography tutor from my City and Guilds in the 1990s, who pointed me in the right direction. I was working on a project which involved getting up at about 4 a.m. and being in run-down, ex-industrial areas by the Thames as dawn broke. I was working in black and white, but Gus suggested I look at Staller’s work, and I found the book in the old Photographer’s Gallery bookshop. Isn’t it strange, the way you suddenly remember little, specific things like that so very clearly, even though you’d not thought about them for years?

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, because I fell in instantly love with Staller’s images…

Boy, oh boy, oh boy. And now I’ve fallen in love all over again.

Staller wasn’t a huge fan of New York, though he moved there in 1976. But, by exploring and investigating, he found a different city, found what he describes as ‘many pockets in and around New York that are relatively unused and ignored’. In his brief introduction, he adds that as life had almost withdrawn from these locations, they had become ‘a neglected frontier abutting the functional metropolis’. What he means is made quite clear in his shots of the abandoned West Side Highway (left above and below), awaiting demolition,

and the strange, often dreamy, images of the edges of the Hudson River.

The shots of and from the old West Side Highway are amazing. Staller apparently ‘discovered’ the location while looking for somewhere quieter, more withdrawn, less frantic. What he found was somewhere that was all that, but which also gave him ‘unblocked sunlight, an open horizon, and all varieties of weather’.

Beautiful. Well, I think they are anyway. My own New York was quite different – as a visitor, albeit a working visitor, in the 90s, I knew frantic energy and life. I hardly stopped to appreciate colours, or the forms of buildings, or the typeface of an old ad on the side of a building, or the reflections in a large puddle. Wish I’d known this book then; it would have given me quite a different perspective.

There’s much more than a heap of gorgeous shots of the West Side Highway, though. In other places Staller created his own frontiers, notably by being out and about very early or in weather conditions that are best described as ‘challenging’ – like the shots he took during the night of the 1983 blizzard. They are, quite simply, magical. My own personal favourite is one of traffic lights, colour blurred in a hazy, snowy, almost-monochrome-but-slightly-indigo vision. Sigh.

In other shots the city is dystopian, a John Carpenter vision of Manhattan.

But again there’s this sense of frontier, here almost of a stage or film set (or maybe I’ve just seen Escape from New York too recently). It doesn’t matter how conventionally unappealing the subject matter, either; the colours are still terrific. Love that electric blue.

So how did he achieve these shots, technically? Well, he used existing light sources, so exposure times for his signature twilight or night images could be as long as 8 minutes. In addition, the nature of the light source in those shots – incandescent, sodium vapour, whatever – added an unexpected element. He was using Vericolor L Colour neg film, and colour film is not formulated for these lights, so the colours are rendered differently, are altered, unearthly and intense. I’ll say.

I’ll leave the last word on this book (almost) to Jan Staller: ‘…I find the atmosphere to be rich in mystery, reminiscent of a lost city’. Yup, me too.

Staller is still working in interesting ways. It’s worth checking out his website to see what he’s up to – and there are more shots from the fabulous Frontier New York there, too.

Op the rigging

THE LAST GRAIN RACE, by Eric Newby, published in 1956

Bookcase 10, shelf 9, book 3

What a winner, getting this – one of my all-time favourite travel books. One of my all-time favourite books, in fact. And in this case I am including the actual, physical book in my remark, because this is a first edition I found several years ago at a book fair when I was on holiday on the north Norfolk coast. It replaced a Picador paperback which had been read so often that it fell apart (not always that difficult with some of those white-spined Picador titles, mind).

I remember once hearing The Last Grain Race being discussed on Radio 4, and somebody dismissed it as ‘very much a bloke’s book’. Rubbish. I am most definitely not a bloke, and I adore it, so perhaps I should explain why instead of simply repeating the fact that it’s a wonderful read.

A large part of its appeal is down to Eric Newby’s attitude and the sheer style and class of his writing, writing which is never over the top or remotely purple, writing which nonetheless conveys the wonder of the world, whether that is rounding Cape Horn on one of the last grain clippers here, hiding from Nazis in Italy (Love and War in the Appenines) or trekking through Nuristan with a maniac friend (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). Lest anyone who doesn’t know Eric Newby assume he was a cross between James Bond and Richard Hannay, I’ll add that he is equally evocative describing his youth in Barnes or his work in the post-war rag trade (Something Wholesale). And of course he is also self-depreciating (the classic anecdote is one from Hindu Kush, where he and his companion encounter that legendary traveller Wilfrid Thesiger. They blew up their inflatable matresses at night, getting a predictable reaction from the Great Man: ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’…) and immensely funny.

The Last Grain Race is the story of his voyage around the world as a young apprentice on board Moshulu, one of the last of the great windjammers, in 1938-9.

(Moshulu, incidentally, has a brief role in Godfather II, where she carries the young Vito Corleone to America – watch out for it, as it gives an idea of the scale of these huge but lightly crewed grain ships.)

Newby had always been tempted by the sea and finally gave in to romanticism, bad influences (Mountstewart, an elderly friend and possibly certifiable lunatic), heredity (his father ‘had once tried to run away to sea and been brought back from Millwall in a hackney cab’) and the growing realisation that this was an opportunity which was about to disappear from the oceans of the world for ever. He kept a meticulous record during the voyage, as well as writing letters and taking many remarkable photographs, all of which enabled him to write Grain Race so evocatively nearly 20 years later.

After a laborious attempt to locate a caribou-skin sleeping bag – ‘it took up a great deal of time which I could have spent more profitably in eating’ – which he had become convinced was necessary (the salesman: ‘The last one gave the man who slept in it anthrax’), and lugging the second-hand Louis Vuitton trunk found in a lost property shop, Newby set off for Belfast, Moshulu and – eventually – the Southern Ocean. All in all, for a voyage of some 30,000 miles.

The ship finally left the unappealing docks of pre-war Belfast on 18 October, and EN began a steep learning curve in everything from getting on with his variously eccentric shipmates to climbing the rigging in all situations (above a dock, in a storm, when someone is throwing up on your head), to what happens if you lose a hammer over the side and how bad a dead dog smells when you excavate it from the ballast four months after the Belfast stevedores have amusingly placed it there.

There is a lot of detail about the organization of a sailing ship, but it can easily be skipped; in fact, Newby tells readers where to jump to at one point if they don’t want to follow his ‘technical interlude’. Even without reading that, though, you inevitably pick up a lot of vicarious knowledge – how slippery the ratlines could be, and how dangerous; how to clean the revolting heads; how to set a course in Swedish, the working language of the ship.

And so the outward journey to Australia continues, Moshulu crossing the equator (with a horrible initiation ceremony for those who had not done so before, including EN) about a month after sailing.There is some wonderful writing about the sea, evocative in the extreme:

‘On Christmas morning the weather was cold and brilliant. Big following seas were charging up astern in endless succession. They surged beneath the ship, bearing her up, filling the air with whistling spray as their great heads tore out from under and ahead to leave her in a trough as black and polished as basalt except where, under the stern post, the angle of the rudder made the water bubble jade-green, as from a spring. From the mizzen yardarm, where I hung festooned with photographic apparatus, I could see the whole midships…’

Now is the time to mention the photographs – the extraordinary photographs. They are so good, and so comparatively rare, documenting life on a windjammer, that at least one commentator has described them as the most important aspect of Eric Newby’s work. They are indeed excellent, and in my edition are reproduced particularly well. In fact a book entirely devoted to them was published in 1999 – Learning the Ropes.

The ship arrived in Australia in early January, loaded and left in March 1939, and arrived back at Queenstown (now Cobh) in June, 91 days out. Moshulu was the winner of the ’39 grain race. But this was just before the outbreak of war and everything was to change, and change extremely fast, just as EN had anticipated. One of the other ships in the race, the Olivebank, hit a German mine in early September, but Moshulu herself survived, and is now – wait for it – a floating restaurant. And occasional film location.

Throughout The Last Grain Race, as with his other books, Eric Newby’s essentially genial and humane personality comes through. Yes, he’s a romantic, but he finds that characteristic amusing and gently pokes fun at his younger self (as in the affair of the wretched sleeping bag). He genuinely likes people and finds them interesting – and that’s not something you can say for every travel writer, or indeed every writer. There’s no need to explain away undesirable attitudes as being ‘common at the time’ or ‘simply reflecting the times in which the book was written’ because there aren’t any such attitudes in evidence. Having met the man himself when I was a baby bookseller, I can testify to his genuine niceness – an often under-esteemed quality.

A wonderful book, and a wonderful author.

Bars, brothels and the bals-musette…

THE SECRET PARIS OF THE 30S, by Braissaï, English translation published in 1976 (original Le Paris secret des années 30)

Bookcase 7, shelf 2, book 22

From one classic to another, and I was tempted to say that they couldn’t be more different – except that the night is a central feature of both. Oh, all right; they couldn’t be more different. This book is also a legend, though, an inspiration for generations of photographers and stylists (If you know The September Issue, the documentary about Vogue magazine, you’ll know that Grace Coddington uses it to spark a series of fashion shots).

Brassaï (it’s a nom de plume derived from his birthplace, now Brasov; he was actually Gulya Halasz) was a Hungarian immigrant in Paris, whose love of photography developed from his love of the city at night – and his first book, Paris de Nuit, was published in 1933. It was a great success…

But one of the reasons for the success of this particular title is the text. Some photographers can write; some cannot – and Brassaï falls wholeheartedly into the first category. His text combines perfectly with the images, creating a complete picture of a vanished world. This isn’t surprising, really; he actually started as a writer who used his photographs to illustrate articles. Brassaï’s photographs are much more than illustrations, though. They stand alone, a highly atmospheric testimony to a world which disappeared not long after they were taken.

Brassaï loved the hidden side of the city, and its more secretive inhabitants. These might be people whose occupation was purely nocturnal, such as the cesspool cleaners above, or those who chose to live mostly by night, the prostitutes, petty criminals and barflies. His concise and misleading reputation is as a photographer of streetwalkers, but these shots are a relatively small section of his work. Of course they’re in here; they were an essential part of the nocturnal city which he documents. And so are the madams…

This is the madam of Suzy,

‘…a small brothel in the Quartier Latin, on the Rue Grégoire des Tours. At night, with its coloured windows, it looked like a chapel lit up for midnight mass … At Suzy, a bell went off as the client opened the door, and he found himself in a kind of booth, as though he had gone to vote. The madam appeared with a wide, salacious grin. She would clap her hands and call out, “Choosing time, ladies!”…’

There was another side to her (but of course), and Brassaï came to know her better and was invited to spend an evening behind the scenes, celebrating her saint’s day. She also had a little salon, quite apart from the ‘work rooms’ upstairs ‘for good clients who just want to drink some champagne with the girls’…

That conforms to the shorthand image of Brassaï’s work, but there’s much more to it. His portraits of individuals are wonderful: people like La Môme Bijou, an extraordinary bejewelled drinker; the beggar in his top hat, and again with his cat Doudou; the cross-dressing drinkers at Le Monocle… There are photographs taken in an opium den, behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, at the Foire du Trône, in gay bars and at the notorious artists’ balls. This was a largely undocumented Paris, well known to its habituées but brought to a much wider audience by Brassaï.

Generally, he worked alone. He did run into problems but not as many as might have been anticipated, given that at the time ‘no one had heard of night photography’. He expresses surprise both at how many doors were opened to him, and at not being shot. The police hauled him off for questioning only three times: they ‘refused to believe that anyone might want to take pictures by the canal at three a.m., and were more inclined to think I had been dumping a body into the greenish water.’ He eventually took to carrying some finished photographs to prove the truth of his tale should it prove necessary.

And through all the book runs an elegiac tone, most apparent in the more general shots of the city in the dark. From up on one of the towers of Notre-Dame, a gargoyle watches over the night-time city; crowds on the terasse of a brightly lit cafe are indistinguishable as individuals from Brassaï’s viewpoint high in the building opposite, and a cop and passerby exchange words under a street light.

Even at the time the photographs were originally taken, there was an air of teetering on the edge of an abyss. Away from the night-time streets, and frequently on them, this was a world of uncertainty and inflation, of widely polarised political opinions and the build up to the Spanish Civil War. Plus, of course, the Occupation – often referred to as ‘les années noires’, the dark years – was just around the corner…

I’m so glad the roll of the dice picked this book for me to read. I’d not looked at it for a while, and it was like running into an old friend.

Someone said to me that I seemed to enjoy all the books the dice selected for me, and questioned whether or not I’d just been picking my favourites. No, I haven’t, but of course the dice have been ‘selecting’ books I like. They’ve already been pre-selected. Anything I don’t like goes straight to Oxfam; not much chance of that happening to this one. Now that would be an exercise of faith, reading only from local charity shops. Hmm…

A vanished world

A PHOTOGRAPHER IN OLD PEKING by Hedda Morrison, published in 1985

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 9.

It’s very strange. This ‘reading what the dice select’ exercise has thrown up some oddities, and in this case it’s given me a book I cannot recollect buying. I can’t remember it at all, though I have a vague recollection of finding some books on China in a second-hand bookshop when I was on holiday once. I wonder if this was one of them? It’s been driving me mad. After ages in the book trade, I do not forget books.

Er – except I evidently do.

The next thing that baffled me about it was why I’d not shelved it with my photography books. And then I opened it, and I knew why (so I’d evidently looked at it at some time to make the assessment). There’s a fine line between a photograph which is simply a document and one which has artistic ambitions, and sometimes time alone is enough to cause an overlap. Sometimes it isn’t – and there’s nothing wrong with documenting what you see, of course.

For me, Hedda Morrison’s photographs fall onto the documentary side. What is most interesting about them is the time and place, not the composition, lighting, thought processes. But that was probably inevitable, given the circumstances in which she worked…

Hedda Morrison went to Peking in 1933. A German national, she ‘was anxious to work overseas as I had no sympathy for the Germany of the time’, and answered an ad asking for someone to take charge of a German-owned photographic studio in China.

Her family saw her off in 1933 a little apprehensively – really, Hedda? – and gave her protective gifts: an umbrella and a pistol. The way you do. Her contract was for five years; she stayed on, finally leaving in 1946 when she got married. (I know all this because A Photographer in Old Peking isn’t just a collection of photographs; there is plenty of background text to set both the shots and the photographer in context.)

Most of the time she used Rolleiflex twin-lens relax cameras, which were ‘perfect’, she says – but the same could not be said of the flash available, of course. It could be dangerous, and on one occasion she did manage to set herself alight, so there are not many shots of interiors. As a result she had to either work outside or ask people to keep as still as possible. This is part of the reason why so many of the photographs look rather carefully posed: they were. 

But they are often fascinating, too. The cut-out maker, surrounded by his delicate stencils (‘in a multitude of patterns, for home and window decorations’) is one example, and there are many others. The text is a mixture of informative – and occasionally slightly didactic – and atmospheric. Morrison manages to conjure up the atmosphere of pre-War Peking – streets sounding with the noises of hawkers’ clappers; funerals and weddings; lofts of pigeons; crickets in cages, night-watchmen patrolling the streets. And very, very, very different streets (not many camel trains). She isn’t romantic about it, however.

They seem to belong to an unchanging China – a complete illusion – though one, of course, which was about to undergo the most massive change which no-one could fail to notice. When Hedda Morrison went back (which she did in 1948 and then, later, in 1979 and 1982), she was stunned by the extent of the changes, even though many significant ones had already begun while she was already there.

Despite appearances, her China was not an imperial one; the Forbidden City was already largely open to the public. But the later developments were massive, and it’s one thing knowing about them in theory, but it’s another being confronted with the reality. And for a photographer, the most significant one must have been the pollution, as she laments: ‘the brilliant light of north China has lost its shine to a layer of smog.’ But ‘change had to come and I have no doubt that the people today are infinitely better off and live under a much fairer system’. Check out the photograph below, and the size of the woman’s feet, for instance… hmm.