05
Nov
14

Exhibition / text: ‘From Steam to Diesel’ at the Portobello Library, Edinburgh

Exhibition dates: 20th October – 7th November 2014

 

This is a great project. The photographs are wonderful. At one time they could have almost been made here in Victoria, Australia.

Archie Foley who found the 500 or so railway related negatives taken by, at this stage, an anonymous British Railways engine driver was quite taken aback to get an email from half way around the world asking for some press images – but this is what this blog does, promote eclectic exhibitions of interesting photography from around the world, no matter how small they are.

I have always loved trains and the photographs of them (including the ones by Winston O. Link). Once I saw the images I think I shed a tear at the beauty of them. Archie informs me that the negatives are a mixture of 127; 6cm square and a larger 6cm x 8cm. There are notes of the cameras the photographer used and his favourite appears to have been an Isolette 11 (see below). However he also used Ikonta; Suprima; Isola and Super Isolette. These cameras have reasonable optical quality (not as good as a Rollei twin lens for example) with the advantage that they have a large negative and can be folded up and put in a jacket pocket, to be taken out when needed.

As a good friend of mine Ian observed,
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I nearly said 6×8 cm last night – I know its difficult to believe after the event, and the Isolette has the same basic shape as the Voigtlander I suspected. The Voigtlander was like some of the Rolleis and you could put in a metal mask that would allow 6 x 8, 6 x 6, 6 x 4.5 as well the full 6 x 9. I suspect the Voigtlander was a bit upmarket from the Isolette: the Agfa cameras at the time of these pictures were good cameras and (obviously) with German lenses. I don’t know if they had those masks but I am guessing you could do the same with the Isolette. One claim I have seen is that the lenses were more matched to emulsions of the 50’s and were contrasty with later emulsions. I would have to know a lot more to verify that. The pictures look optically good to me. There were some extraordinary European films in 120 stock – I caught the end of them – 12 ISO and wooden spools – and  SENSATIONAL tonal scales. 

Of all cameras (even 35mm), the drop front cameras like the Isolette had the best connection to the people you were photographing. I don’t mean through the  viewfinder – I mean that the viewfinder was just for checking the composition – you really had to do a lot of looking over the camera. Probably the old Stieglitz Graflex was just as communicative. With the bellows extension there would be a scale on the focussing track that would tell you the distance the camera was focussed to – no other way to check!

As a kid I played with Marklin toy trains and they published a book that I still have called “The Marklin Miniature Railway and its Prototype”. It is old  and faded now, but there were sections on how to do signalling etc. on your train set so that it matched the real thing etc…

 

What interests me most about these stunning images is the use of space by the photographer. These railway photographs with their beautiful but naive space have an almost mythic quality to them. I know a little about photography and from my knowledge I cannot think of anyone else that handles space like this in a photograph (save for perhaps Thomas Struth and the space around the people in his museum photographs or his group portraits of people in Japan, and even then he blocks the exit for the eye behind his tableaux vivant).

I have been racking my brains but these are really unique, especially the square format portrait shots. Look at the first photograph Four men with loco 55210 (below) and notice the expanse of platform and line of the train that leads the eye into the depiction of the four men. The light that falls on them is superlative but notice how the photographer keeps a respectful distance for this is not portrait photography which attempts to capture a fleeting, revealing moment or expression. The photographer places them as though to “encourage contemplation and investigation, inviting the viewer to reflect upon the limits of his or her knowledge of other people.” The eye scans the image for clues, giving the viewer pause to take in the scene: and low and behold what opens up behind the four men is this most magnificent space with the curve of the platform, the girders and the silence of the dark train in the distance.

As in Thomas Struth’s photographs of architectural East Berlin these photographs bring about ‘a move to investigative viewing’ which is also a ‘call to interact’. But these photographs don’t possess the base objectivity of Struth for they are a little too engaging of their space (their antithesis being the photographs by Alec Soth from his series Niagara).

Further evidence of the sophistication of the composition of these images can be found in the two photographs Shotts Iron Work’s Signalbox and Man on platform in front of signal array (below). In the first photograph the man is embedded in the landscape, his weight shifting slightly to his right foot as his shadow falls on the fence beside him, the fence line and train tracks lead the eye into the image and off into an amorphous, infinite distance. Again, in the second photograph the figure is not front and centre but part of an ensemble as the eye is led this time by a massive horizontal plane into the image. He stands on the platform as if on the deck of an aircraft carrier. And then there are the two close up portraits, Jackie Collett at Beattock and A smiling fireman (below) where the photographer has climbed up into the intimate space of the drivers cab and got them to be comfortable enough to reveal themselves to the camera -in that light! -with those backgrounds!

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The use of lenses today is proof of how difficult it is to think and feel space while taking a picture. These days everyone has a zoom lens but it is nearly always used by people to fill the frame with the main subject. But with a zoom there are infinite relationships between foreground and background if the photographer is free to move in relation to the main subject… and sometimes we are. Or to put it another way, we are able to control the degree of flattening of space with a zoom lens infinitely. If we have 2 fixed lenses we have 2 controls of space. This anonymous photographer and the German photographer Thomas Struth in particular seem to have the ability to think about this space control, and resolve it in different ways. Sometimes for Struth the quality of the space in the city streets or in a museum announces these places as pictures.

Struth is someone who has an affinity with the railway group photographs for his photographs, like these, resist immediate consumption. They make the viewer pause and think. “Discussing Struth’s work, the critic Richard Sennett has written: ‘We relate to these images as we might appreciate strangers in a crowd; we feel their presence without the need to transgress boundaries by demanding intimacy or revelation … people guard their separateness even as they present themselves directly to us.’ (Sennett p. 94.) Struth’s portraits encourage contemplation and investigation, inviting the viewer to reflect upon the limits of his or her knowledge of other people.”1 And, sotto voce, so do these photographs… The speaker gives the impression of uttering a truth which may surprise and delight.

As Archie has noted in his correspondence with me, the exhibition has been done on a shoestring budget but from small beginnings – and acorns – mighty oaks grow. All power to both Archie Foley and Peter Ross for arranging it. A book and larger exhibition would be a wonderful representation of this work. All I can say is this: that I hope this posting helps that process along for these photographs have a magnificent soul. Simply put, they are great.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

Footnotes

1. Richard Sennett, Thomas Struth: Strangers and Friends, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1994 quoted in “Thomas Struth: The Shimada Family, Yamaguchi, Japan 1986” Text summary on the Tate website [Online] Cited 04/11/2014

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Many thankx to Archie Foley and Peter Ross for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All images © Archie Foley and Peter Ross and may not be used without permission.

Acknowledgement: Thank you to John of Print Vision (0131 661 8855) for his advice during the preparation and for producing such excellent prints.

 

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Four men with loco 55210' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Four men with loco 55210
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Women workers in front of posters' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Women workers in front of posters
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Shotts Iron Work’s Signalbox' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Shotts Iron Work’s Signalbox
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Man on platform in front of signal array' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Man on platform in front of signal array
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Jackie Collett at Beattock' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Jackie Collett at Beattock
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'A smiling fireman' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
A smiling fireman
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

 

“This exhibition has been compiled from a collection of photo negatives found by Archie Foley in a collector’s fair in Portobello. As he went through the collection he was able to extract 100s of railway related negatives dating from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s that showed that the photographer must have been a British Railways engine driver. A chance meeting and conversation with local photographer and video producer, Peter E. Ross, on a bus going into Edinburgh led to the decision to mount an exhibition of photographs made from selected negatives.

As a colleague the driver/photographer was able to snap drivers, shunters, platelayers, signalmen, cleaners and others at work in locations in and around Edinburgh and, occasionally, a bit further afield. The photographs are a unique behind the scenes record of the men and women who worked on the railway and how it looked before diesel power finally replaced steam in 1968.

This is the first time that the photographs have been on public show and Archie and Peter feel privileged to be able to display, and pay tribute to, the dedication and skill of the, as yet unidentified, photographer. Neither Archie nor Peter is an expert on railways and invite visitors to use the Visitors’ Book to suggest possible locations for photographs where these are not given. Please also suggest amendments if you believe any of the captions are incorrect.

The exhibition is at Portobello Library, Rosefield Avenue from Monday, 20th October to Friday, 7th November.

Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'The game's a bogie' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
The game’s a bogie
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Duchess of Buccleuch on turntable' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Duchess of Buccleuch on turntable
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Duchess of Buccleuch bearing "Royal Scot" headboard' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Duchess of Buccleuch bearing “Royal Scot” headboard
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

The two photographs above were obviously taken at the same time as each other (look at the tall trees in the background). I love how the photographer has moved across the tracks from the distance shot onto an oblique angle with the twin arches of the bridge in the background for the closer photograph. You can seen some unevenness in the development of the film in the foreground of both images but no matter, these imaegs give real insight into how this artist was operating, what his thinking was when photographing their behemoths.

 

Anonymous photographer. 'The photographer in working clothes' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
The photographer in working clothes
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Six cleaners, one man and three buckets' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Six cleaners, one man and three buckets
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Colinton Station with guard on loco' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Colinton Station with guard on loco
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Anonymous photographer. 'Diesel unit with guard' mid-1950s to the early 1960s

 

Anonymous photographer
Diesel unit with guard
mid-1950s to the early 1960s
© Archie Foley and Peter Ross

 

Agfa Isolette II camera 1960s

 

Agfa Isolette II (1950-60), showing the characteristic wide raised centre of its top housing. The thick knurled disc on the right (of the picture) is a film-type reminder dial.

 

Isolette II

The Isolette II (1950-60) was sold alongside the ‘I’; it is an alternative model offering higher specification than the ‘I’, not a successor to it. The camera was available (for at least some time) with coated 85 mm f/4.5 Agnar or Apotar or 75 mm f/3.5 Solinar lenses; however, most examples seen have the Apotar. McKeown gives a very wide range of shutters (Vario, Pronto, Prontor-S and SV, Compur Rapid and Synchro-Compur). This reflects changes in the specification over the period the camera was made (i.e. not all of these shutters were available at the same time): for example, a user’s manual (of unknown date) only lists the Pronto and Prontor SVS. The range of shutter speeds is therefore variable between examples. Some of the shutters have a delayed action. Most are synchronised (some have switchable M and X-synchronisation). On some examples of the camera, there is a shutter locking lever on the back of the top housing, to provide ‘T’ shutter by locking the release button down, where the shutter itself does not have a ‘T’ setting.

Unlike the Isolette I and all the preceding models, the film advance knob is on the right. The camera still has a swing-out spool-holder on the supply side of the film chamber.
There is a double-exposure prevention interlock; this engages after releasing the shutter, and is disengaged by advancing the film. It has a red (locked) or silver (unlocked) indicator in a hole in the top-plate, next to the advance knob. Like the ‘T’ lock, this interlock acts on the body release button, so if the lock engages accidentally, or a double exposure is desired, it is still possible to release the shutter by pressing the linkage on the shutter itself (or with a cable release, on versions of the camera on which the cable attaches directly to the shutter, not the body release; they vary in this respect).

Like the Isolette I, early versions of the II have a disc-type depth-of-field indicator on the left of the top plate.[6] On later cameras this is replaced with a film-type reminder, and the DOF scale, if any, is on the shutter face-plate. (Text from the Camera-wiki.org website)

 

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'From Steam to Diesel' at the Portobello Library, Edinburgh

 

Installation photograph of one half of the exhibition From Steam to Diesel at the Portobello Library, Edinburgh. The other half of the exhibition is off camera to the right.

 

 

Portobello Library
14 Rosefield Avenue, Edinburgh,
Midlothian, EH15 1AU

Opening hours
Monday 10.00 – 20.00
Tuesday 10.00 – 20.00
Wednesday 10.00 – 20.00
Thursday 10.00 – 20.00
Friday 10.00 – 17.00
Saturday 09.00 – 17.00
Sunday 13.00 – 17.00

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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