Private pictures and public knowledge

A week or three ago I blogged about the great selfie crisis. Since then I’ve come across an interesting little problem.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that one of my interests is that chaotic period of Russian history between the February revolution and the end of the civil war in 1923.

I was putting together a little presentation about the roles of various fellow travellers and was looking for a photograph of Louise Bryant – who was the wife of John Reed – he of Ten days that shook the world – and a journalist and writer in her own right, and continued to report on the revolution and civil war after Reed’s death.

In the course of my searching I came across a picture of Louise Bryant sunbathing naked on Provincetown beach in 1916.

Provincetown is at the tip of Cape Cod and in the early years of the twentieth century was a summer time artists colony. Louise Bryant had a play performed there, and in the summer of 1916 had an affair with Eugene O’Neill while holidaying there with John Reed.

Given that Louise was a free spirit it’s hardly surprising that she did such a thing as sunbathe naked, and the existence of such a photograph confirms things that we might well suspect about goings on within the artistic community in Provincetown a century ago.

The picture itself is not a particularly high quality image, slightly grainy, suggesting it was taken on a fairly basic camera – it’s also almost certainly posed, which is not surprising given the slow film (and forgiving) emulsions in use at the time, especially for amateur roll films, suggesting that Louise both knew her photographer and knew she was being photographed.

However, the photograph was almost certainly intended originally as a private picture, which has somehow ended up in the public domain.

Given that the picture is almost a century old, and that Louise Bryant died in 1936, and her daughter, who did not have any children is also now dead, it probably doesn’t matter, but it does raise the question as to at what point private photographs can freely be considered to be in the public domain …

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bradshaw

If you have read any British Victorian era literature, you’ll have come across references to a Bradshaw – a guide to train times. So named because George Bradshaw compiled a compendium of the various and often competing companies train timetables as an aid to the nineteenth century traveller to find the best combination of train times and fares – just as we use flightfinder websites today to find the best value flight at the most convenient times.

They also tell us other things which we might not immediately guess – for example at the start of the railway era rail travel was expensive, and services were sparse.

For example, in 1843, a first class ticket from Edinburgh to Glasgow cost eight shillings (GBP0.40) and a third class ticket half that, at a time when someone in a would be middle class position with some responsibilities would be fortunate if they were paid GBP 150 a year (in comparison, Branwell Bronte, before he was sacked from his job as a station master in 1842 was paid GBP 130 a year by the railway company).

The other thing that stands out is just how few trains there were. Again in 1843, there were only four in each direction, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, plus as first train out, leaving at an inconvenient 7am, a parliamentary (public service obligation train) train, in which a third class ticket cost a mere 2s6d (GBP0.125) each way – although there was only one parliamentary train in each direction, meaning that while you could travel on a cheap (and slow) train in one direction, you couldn’t return the same way.

What this of course shows is that the adoption of new technology was slow – while the mine owners and industrialists probably appreciated the reduced cost of transport, people had to learn the habit of travel – after all if before the railway it took you a day by mail coach to travel between cities, you are not going to suddenly start travelling to meetings just because you can.

Bradshaw’s form a rich source of period information – and not just from the timetables – the adverts also are a rich source of source of social history with adverts for water proofs and travel coats, steel nibbed pens, essential for any nineteenth century office, pencils, patent medicines and so on

Now I know this because I found a digitised copy the March 1843 guide online. What was interesting was just how difficult it was to find other editions online – there are very few publicly available scanned editions.

Searching second hand book websites was no better. Very few original editions for sale although there were quite a few recent reprints of selected years available via the nostalgia trade. Yet this was a well known, widely available , widely used, culturally significant publication throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

What this means of course is that the survival rate for printed ephemera is very low, as who, other than a few obsessives, would keep old outdated timetables?

And yet this has quite major implications for social historians among others. Digitising ephemera has never been a priority, newspapers and books have always seemed more important, while something culturally important to nineteenth century Britain is being lost …

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Selfies …

Well this week we’ve had a bit of a moral panic over selfies of clothing challenged people, not in the least because a number of pictures of media starlets have been stolen from Apple iCloud servers, perhaps by brute force password attacks or perhaps not – time will tell.

A lot of the moral panic revolves around why people take and share photographs of themselves with less than the usual amount of clothing and shades into that other moral panic around sexting.

Without getting into the moral argument, lets just say that as long as photography has been around people have taken pictures of other people in the nude, whether for artistic, erotic, or just plain pornographic reasons. An image search for ‘nineteenth century nude photographs’ will bring up a fairly wide selection of images, albeit with some Edwardian images mixed in plus the inevitable leavening of contemporary pornography – in other words don’t try this in public or at work.

If you look at the images, you can see the whole history of photography laid out – in the 1860’s, when exposure times were long, and emulsions slow, the images tended to be of either reclining or posing nudes. It’s worth noting that the diarist Francis Kilvert on one of his trips to London goes to look at some photographs in a gallery ‘owned by a Frenchman suspected of selling obscene photographs’ towards the end of the 1860’s, suggesting that there was already a market for such images.

One, of course, always needs to take accounts of differing attitudes in differing times – Francis Kilvert, despite being a Church of England clergyman, enjoyed nude sea bathing and rails against resorts increasingly requiring gentlemen to wear cotton shorts for swimming, so it’s not necessarily the case that nude images were automatically viewed as obscene.

The other thing that is noticable about the early images, is just quite how many were of naked men – whether this is a result of the suppression of male homosexuality in Victorian times or contemporary preferences for digitising such images is an open question

Then, as film, and technology improves, including advances such as the cable release and the shutter delay one starts to get pictures which are more recognisable as what today we would call ‘selfies’.

And of course, as technology improved, it became cheaper, making it easier for people who were reasonably well off to take up photography as a hobby, and develop and print pictures at home. And as a consequence, from the mid 1880’s onwards they become more normal – private skinny dipping parties, amateur erotica and the like.

And as women started to be amateur and professional photographers in their own right one starts to get the occasional naked (female) self portrait.

So, we can say with some degree of confidence that as soon as technology allowed, those who could, did.

The difference between then and today was of course one of privacy. Intimate pictures would have to be developed and printed at home, which meant having the space to do it in, and the income to invest in equipment and chemicals and film. When I used to take a lot of black and white photographs in the seventies and eighties it was still a reasonably expensive business, even buying second hand tanks or getting access to the student photography club lab.

And for that reason the absolute number of such images was probably pretty low, printed at home, and kept securely locked in a folder in a filing cabinet.

What’s different today of course is that almost everyone in the developed world has a smartphone and can take pictures of their cat, their lunch, their partner showering, or whatever on a whim, and without complex processing, store their picture, quite often on a cloud based service, because after all it’s so easy to set you phone to backup your pictures, and of course the autobackup service does not know if it’s a picture of your cat, or something completely different.

And of course people choose insecure passwords, make mistakes on sharing permissions and the like, so it’s not in the least surprising that the odd private photograph gets out into the wild.

As for the moral panic – well for whatever reason, people have always seemed to want to do it. Why, I’m not sure, but my guess is it’s related to the urge to display, to stand out, to be attractive to the opposite sex, in the same way as some people seek to dress attractively or even provocatively to attract the attention of that special someone …

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Trains

I’m going to make a confession here.

I like trains. Or more exactly, I like the social history of trains and railways.

Admitting you like trains is always dangerous. It gets you lumped in with these people who wear unfortunate trousers and have a deep fascination with valves and train schedules, or even worse these people who stand at the end of railway platforms in England collecting engine numbers – something that makes these people who flock to see rare birds almost rational.

That’s not what interests me. What interests me is how railways changed society in the nineteenth century, much as the internet has changed ours by providing new ways of doing things, and new forms of interaction.

These changes were immense – they defined the way of doing things. It became possible to order goods from afar and have them delivered, to travel, even though initially it was slow, expensive and unpleasant.

It also meant that letters no longer went at the speed of a horse, and in time the needs of signalling systems and communications gave birth to the telegraph, arguably a precursor of today’s internet.

One could go on and on, but perhaps a single example can explain.

Branwell Bronte, brother to the Bronte sisters, managed a railway station for a few months in the 1840’s during his decline into alcoholism and laudunum addiction.

Which is kind of interesting

1) Branwell had a job which was new – ten years before managing a railway station probably didn’t exist as a job

2) Working for the railway was acceptable for sons of gentry – Branwell’s other jobs appear to have been the more traditional genteel ones of tutoring and schoolmastering

3) Railways needed middle class people to do mangerial jobs and were recruiting the poor sons of local gentry – in effect building a middle class reliant on paid employment rather than land and rents

Branwell didn’t last at the paid employment thing, but these three observations tell us a lot about the impact that railways were having on rural England and the social changes accompanying them.

And that’s why I like trains …

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Analog August

There’s a mini meme going around – Analog August which is linked to a book by Michael Harris as to how everything is hyper connected and only anyone born before 1985 remembers life without the internet.

There’s enough bits of writing out there to suggest that some people feel the need to escape the always on pressure of being connected, and of course it’s holiday time in the northern hemisphere, meaning a slew of angsty articles about what to do about email when you’re away and about being disconnected.

Well I’m wierd. I’ve been using email on a daily basis since 1986 and irregularly before then. Working in a university computing centre and having a PhD supervisor who had a year with the CNRS in Marseille while I was stuck back in the lab with my data meant a crash course in email, file transfer and marked up drafts.

But of course it was different. Go away on holidays for a couple of weeks and you were uncontactable – even a few days out in the field or a library research trip and you were uncontactable and would come back to some emails, some yellow while you were out slips and the occasional official memo.

And this carried on well into the nineties – sending an email to work in lieu of the traditional holiday postcard from Turkey in the late nineties was a minor sensation – ‘what you mean they have the internet there ?’ but on the whole you just disappeared – even though I’d had a dial up connection at home for a few years previously.

In fact it really wasn’t until sometime into the mid 2000’s that connectivity started becoming important and started to be expected, end even then people were pleased if you responded to them while you were away.

But of course, all this was before social media and its instant on. Email was really just an analog of the postal service, or the good old internal memo. Once cell and data coverage became near universal people started to use social media as a substitute for email, and this spread to an expectation that you’d answer your emails – well not quite – recently when I was away we were in places out of range, and, embarrassingly while we were out of connectivity my script to consolidate my work, personal, and other email accounts stuffed up and I lost a few days mail – it’s odd to find no new messages even if you know most of them are irrelevant.

And I discovered something – people cope.

I used to say that the best way of dealing with an overflowing post vacation inbox was to delete everything – if it’s important you’ll find out about it. In fact I used to use a modified version of that solution, skimming the subject lines and the senders and deleting everything that seemed to have no relevance or importance.

Losing a few days email has shown me that it’s still true.

As to Analog August – it’s a marketing trick – a nice one and one that ties into people’s holiday email anxieties.

Switching off is no big deal – it’s a matter of having the confidence to do so and to be in a position to do so. Obviously if you’re expecting an important announcement at the weekend you’re going to be connected.

Also, this stuff has taken over our lives – it is how you book ferries, buy tickets, confirm flights, and the rest, and you do need it when you travel. You just need to have some distance from it and realise it’s a life tool, not life itself.

It’s true I occasionally fantasize about buying a house at the edge of the world and playing chess by sending enigmatic postcards to my protagonists, but actually I’d miss Amazon, buying second hand books on Abe, or reading news from elsewhere. It’s part of our lives, but the real issue is how much it’s a part of our lives .

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century people agonised about not receiving their mail, or about delayed mail ships from overseas. But they coped. The same is true today.

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

African Iron age

I’ve already written about pre european contacts in Australia between the indigenous inhabitants and the populations of south east asia. Now, from South Africa a report on a dig at a pre-colonial smithy, which is interesting because among the trade objects found, they found glass beads from Asia – a long way from the high veldt of South Africa.

What of course it implies is a trade network, and one which ran down the coast of Africa from Somalia to the southern tip of Africa and one which extended across the Indian Ocean to India, Sri Lanka and South East Asia.

We’ve already had the Kilwa coins found on the Wessel islands – while I still incline to theory that they got there in someone’s lucky bag of trinkets, the excavations in South Africa makes it even more likely that there was direct trade between at the very least South Asia (India, Sri Lanka) and the various African polities – something suggested by the paintings of black concubines at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

It also quite clearly makes the point that when the first early modern voyagers rounded the Cape at the end of the fifteenth century they sailed into an existing trade network – the age of discovery was only an age of discovery for the Portuguese and the gentlement of the English Guinea company, not for the populations of the Indian Ocean …

Written with StackEdit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

C18 Chinese coin found in Arnhem land

One of the themes of this blog has been pre-european contacts between the Aboriginal populations of Australia and those of neighbouring parts of SE Asia. That’s clumsily expressed, essentially we mean contacts other than those documented contacts by european colonists and explorers from the early seventeenth century .

It’s clear that those are considerably more complex and extensive than originally thought.

Today’s news brings the discovery of a Qing period coin in Arnhem land - given what we already know, it’s not surprising but serves to confirm that there was commercial activity in the area – either by Chinese traders, or perhaps more likely Makassan traders as we know that Chinese coins circulated in what is now Indonesia as a local currency.

As an aside, when I was recently in Cooktown, so named as that is where James Cook beached his boat for repairs after a close encounter with the Barrier Reef, I went to the Cooktown museum, and in one of the exhibits is a quote from Joseph Banks about how ‘there was nothing but a few shanties, perhaps used by Indians for shellfish preparation.’

There is of course the question as to what exactly he meant by Indians – did he mean the local Aborigines or did he mean people from what he would have called the East Indies and we would call Indonesia? 

This is not quite so far fetched as it sounds – Alfred Russell Wallace gives a description of similar temporary fisherman’s camps he visited  on the coast of Papua when bug collecting in the 1850’s …

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment