Draft Paper from Charlotte Mullins on early photographic travel albums

Draft Paper from Charlotte Mullins on early photographic travel albums

Out with the old, in with the new: the role of the photographic album in the visualization of modernity

Paper given at the Ph photography research group monthly seminar, 8 December 2010

This paper, for me, is an early attempt at articulating a new way of looking at a discrete body of nineteenth-century albums I have been researching at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is by no means conclusive, but I hope it can initiate a dialogue (both today and online) regarding the role of the photographic album in the visualization of modernity and the development of Modernism.

> ALB282/302-320 Topside Gallah
> ALB282/Front cover

This is a page from an album begun in 1870 by Royal Naval officer Tynte F Hammill. The album holds 666 images, and is bound in a large-format leather album, embossed with Hammill’s name, a date – presumably the date it was acquired – and the letters R.N., for Royal Navy. This page includes a photograph of the HMS Rodney at its centre, the ship from which the eighteen-year-old Hammill, then a midshipman, viewed Japan. A further seventeen images surround it, including four views of Nagasaki, the Daibouts Buddha near Yokohama, anonymous portraits of Japanese men and women posing in a studio with Western props and four photographs of an illustrated poem called ‘Topside Gallah’ – a Chinese-pidgin version of Tennyson’s poem ‘Excelsior’ that Hammill references in the caption below.

Nineteenth-century travel albums of military and touristic origins have been approached from a range of perspectives. James Ryan and Christopher Pinney have aligned elements within albums with an imperialist discourse, the elevated viewpoints of city panoramas, such as Nagasaki in this example, suggesting a Foucaultian domination or possession of the view. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart have investigated the materiality of photographs noting that a photograph: ‘cannot be fully understood at any single point in its existence but should be understood as belonging in a continuing process of production, exchange, usage and meaning.’ Alison Nordström has applied this materialist discourse to her research into tourist albums from the 1890s, noting that travel albums are valuable in terms of revealing how images were once used and understood.

The National Maritime Museum’s collection of nineteenth century naval albums has not been collectively studied , despite including over one hundred examples. In this paper I wish to build on Nordström, Edwards and Hart’s research into the materiality of photographs and travel albums, and argue that the naval officers’ albums should be considered as manifestations of a modernity of vision, of a new way of visualizing the world, in marked contrast to the print and photographic travel portfolios of the mid nineteenth century. Beginning with an analysis of individual images relating to the naval world, this paper will then focus on how the photographs selected by the album compilers were presented, and how such albums visualized a societal shift in thinking and recording the world.

> ALB29/117-119 North
> ALB282/641 Hammill

The two albums I am drawing on today were compiled between the 1860s and 1890s by Royal Naval officers Captain Tynte F Hammill and Paymaster Frederick North. They are both held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Using photographs bought in ports around the world and at home in England each officer constructed his own narrative of his global experiences out of a disparate collection of photographs. Frederick North’s album includes photographs of and from Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, Burma, China and Japan; Hammill included photographs bought in Constantinople, Yokahama, Rio, Melbourne, Alexandria, Bermuda and Malta. As Nordström has noted in relation to William Vaughn Tupper’s albums of the 1890s, ‘they present a personal journey as something true, certain and complete, and one that is formed by its linear structure as a sequential narrative with an air of inevitability.’ And yet the subjective choices made by the compiler, both in terms of his initial selection of images in the photographer’s studio and for the final album, are necessarily fragmentary and not objective. The journeys between ports and naval stations, for example, rarely feature, and photographs are included of places the compiler is unlikely to have visited in person. For example, in North’s album he includes a rooftop view of Yeddo, now Tokyo,

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that at the time was only accessible to foreigners who comprised a diplomatic legation. There is no record of North, a naval paymaster, being involved in diplomatic affairs.

The pace of life for naval officers’ had quickened in the nineteenth century, with the advent of steam to supplement sail and improved communications via the telegraph. The camera, with its indexical plates that could be quickly reproduced, provided the officers with an affordable and modern method of marking their peripatetic lives, both through purchasing photographs of themselves with fellow officers or the ships they served on, and by visiting studios and selecting a range of views and portraits to typify each location they arrived in. Photographers including Felice Beato, John Thomson and Fiorillo all established studios in ports with a significant naval presence such as Yokohama, Hong Kong and Alexandria. The Royal Navy represented a significant early market for photographers working beyond Europe and America in such ports. The travel specialist Thomas Cook didn’t organize his first world tour until 1872-73, and by that date many photographers were already well established overseas. Beato, for example, had run a photographic studio in Yokohama for ten years, and Thomson had studios in Hong Kong and Singapore. Many officers such as North travelled around the globe several times during their years of service, buying photographs en route from such studios.


Jonathan Crary cites Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s description of modernity as a period marked by a capitalist mobility of what was once grounded, with improved circulation and a making exchangeable of what was once singular. Crary, whose observations on vision in the nineteenth century in his book ‘Techniques of the Observer’ underpin this paper, considered the nineteenth-century observer ‘a mobile consumer of a ceaseless succession of illusory commodity-like images.’ Through selecting and presenting photographs of the world in albums, naval officers revealed the modernity of their own position and vision. Crary describes the observing subject, in this instance the naval officer, as: ‘both a product of and at the same time constitutive of modernity in the nineteenth century. Very generally, what happened to the observer in the nineteenth century is a process of modernization; he or she is made adequate to a constellation of new events, forces, and institutions that together are loosely and perhaps tautologically definable as “modernity”.’


> ALB29/206v Hydra

The photograph of HMS Hydra occupies a whole page in Frederick North’s album. The armour-plated turret ship on which North served for several months in 1878 was a double-screw steam ship and has been photographed centrally. Behind it is anchored a three-decker line of battle ship, retired from service and used as an accommodation or training vessel. Captioned simply ‘HM Turret Ship Hydra’ this photograph functions for North as a ship’s portrait, chosen as a sign to indicate his period of service on board. However, this photograph also connotes the technological advancements of the navy in a manner reminiscent of JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. The foregrounded Hydra is a statement of imperial power and technological achievement. It represents the future, in contrast to the partially dismantled three-decker behind (literally in the distance, or past).

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> ALB29/78

A further photograph in North’s album, captioned ‘Last Cruise of an English Three-Decker. H.M.S. Victoria, 121 Guns’ shows a similar lack of sentimentality towards the past, with steam-driven ships puffing smoke into their sails all around the Victoria, metaphorically speeding them into the future as HMS Victoria sails to the wrecker’s yard.

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Elizabeth Edwards, following Barthes’ notion of connotation, has written that ‘photographic inscription is not unmediated; the photograph is culturally circumscribed by ideas of what is significant or relevant at any given time, in any given context. Hence, as in any primary historical document, the inscription itself becomes the first act of interpretation.’ A photograph of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire was included by Hammill in his album, with the caption ‘The Old Temeraire’. The foreground is occupied by a steam vessel, a black tug belching smoke as it tows the redundant ghostly hull. When this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839, it was titled ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’. Hammill’s amendment to ‘old’ from ‘fighting’ suggests a lack of nostalgia for the old-style warship. Barthes wrote that ‘the caption… appears to duplicate the image, that is, to be included in its denotation,’ but, as can be seen here, it can manipulate the image presented. For Hammill, Turner’s painting is no longer a unique entity – a painting in an art gallery or on a drawing room wall – but a photograph of a painting that can be manipulated and controlled. The reading of the image, through its photographic reproduction and caption, is now being directed by Hammill, the album’s compiler, and no longer just the artist. (While this suggests Barthes’s death of the author, I am not suggesting this empowerment of the reader operates as a binary switch by killing the primary producer, but rather that a complex arrangement comes into being with the coexistence of both the author – or artist, in this case – and compiler as authorial voices.)

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Abigail Solomon-Godeau has described photography as a tool for ‘listing, knowing and possessing, as it were, the things of the world’ , and through pasting photographs into an album the naval compiler was literally constructing his own version of the world, a world – the album suggested – they had seen with their own eyes and ‘possessed’. The personal photographic album presented the world, its people and its commodities homogenized by scale and uprooted, devoid of the history and context in which they were first produced and consumed. Frameless, each image was pasted into the album, sometimes juxtaposed with contrasting photographs and with no regard for formal hierarchies of imagery. Reproduced in black-and-white, at times without captions, the images became visual jigsaw pieces for the compiler. They appear without the photographer’s name, or the name of the original artist. Turner’s well-known painting is dwarfed by a reproduction of T. Lane’s 1850 genre painting ‘The Enthusiast’ and two photographic copies of sentimental prints ‘Joy’ and ‘Grief’. ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ also shares the page with photographs of grottoes including ‘Robin Hood’s Hut’ at Halswell in Somerset.

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Crary has written that: ‘The circulation and reception of all visual imagery is so closely interrelated by the middle of the [nineteenth] century that any single medium or form of visual representation no longer has a significant autonomous identity. The meanings and effects of any single image are always adjacent to this overloaded and plural sensory environment and to the observer who inhabited it.’ He associates this pluralism with what Foucault expressed as the demise of an aristocratic hierarchy of signs and the rise of the middle class that had led to an empirical homogeneity. (This class shift had widespread ramifications in the military and navy following the Crimean War in 1854-56, when a meritocratic method of promotion began to be favoured over an aristocratic system of buying commissions.) Modernity was the result of this breakdown of a single way of seeing the world, and was characterized by what Christopher Pinney has called ‘multiple scopic regimes’. The new officer class found, in photography, a way of visually responding to this shift. Photography was affordable, with a large view costing around five shillings – less than the cost of a novel. Photography wasn’t unique but was egalitarian in its reproducibility. It was widely described by photographers and the media as offering ‘faithful’ and ‘accurate’ views. And it could provide views of everything from their own vessels and colleagues to views and types such as these Japanese geisha and samurai, images from countries that Western naval fleets were forcing to open their doors to foreign trade.

> MORSEPAINTING1833 [contrast to albums/no frames]
> ALB282/302-320

The photographs within Hammill’s album often jostle for attention, presented as if hung in the Salon or Royal Academy. Brian O’Doherty, in his book on modern gallery aesthetics ‘Inside the White Cube’, described the nineteenth-century Salon-style hang of Samuel F B Morse’s 1833 painting Exhibition Gallery at the Louvre [Terra Museum of American Art, Evanston, Illinois] as ‘upsetting to the modern eye’ in that it treated ‘masterpieces as wallpaper’. It may be upsetting to an eye trained to appreciate the white cube of a modernist gallery, but for the nineteenth-century viewer it was the standard form of presenting artworks in an exhibition. Early photographic exhibitions also mirrored this method of hanging pictures, and it is not surprising that album compilers similarly did not shy away from displaying multiple images of varying genres and styles next to each other.

The flatness of the image is not hidden, as it was by decorative frames at the Salon, but left bare. When a framing device is included it is drawn directly on to the album page, a border that, while directing the eye to the photograph’s content does nothing to cover the edge or suggest the image is anything but a flat sheet of paper. O’Doherty, when describing easel painting, talked of frames as being ‘as necessary as an oxygen tank is to a diver’ in terms of controlling the trompe l’oeil of Albertian perspective. In these albums the images appear flattened, pasted on to the album page that functions as a substitute for a gallery wall. The album allowed the compiler to become a curator of visual information rather than a passive observer, to turn their experiences into a narrative constructed from fragments that are experienced over time. Nordström has compared travel albums to books in terms of their pace and structure, but I would argue they are more closely aligned with the nineteenth-century gallery experience.

Nineteenth-century personal albums mostly had white or cream pages and were bound within heavy leather, fabric or lacquered boards that operated like gallery doors, keeping viewers away until they were opened. The viewer had therefore to approach the album as a visitor would a gallery. The album demanded physical engagement as the personal narrative unfolded as the pages were turned. Whether designed to be seen by third parties without the compiler present or as a visual aid to the compiler’s verbal narrative of life overseas, the album demanded time from the viewer and an enfiliade progression between groupings of images in much the same way as an exhibition might be negotiated. This experience replicates the traversing of other modern spaces such as department stores and arcades, spaces Walter Benjamin saw as temporal and kinetic, and necessarily activated by the viewer.


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Rosalind Krauss has described modernism in relation to landscape as a ‘flattened and compressed experience of space spreading laterally across the surface.’ While I do not wish to suggest that naval officers were purposely exploring the flatness of these images, by presenting views and artworks in this way they revealed that images – thanks to the camera – were being seen and manipulated in a new way, viewed as two-dimensional discrete units that signified the painting or print they reproduced, rather than the subject within it.

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While at times simulating a museum exhibition, an album compiler did not feel compelled to following traditional methods of image display as seen at the Royal Academy and Salon. They ignored (or were unaware of) the Salon hierarchy that placed religious painting far above landscape and portraiture. In Hammill’s album a single photograph reproducing sixteen religious paintings, including a Raphael Madonna and several works by Joshua Reynolds, is pasted in between a reproduction of a lithographic portrait of the Royal family, photographs of English church exteriors and a much-reduced reproduction of the front page of The Times from January 19, 1871 that can be read only with a magnifying glass.

The naval compilers of photographic albums, such as North and Hammill, used photographs of views alongside photographs of paintings, and even photographs of photographs.

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> ALB29/315 (detail b-r corner, nail)

This photograph by John Thomson is a reproduction, the nail holding down the original photograph to be copied visible in the bottom right corner, a process used by photographers to speed up printing rates of their most popular images.

> ALB282/black cutouts and Napoleon I leaves
> ALB29/101 anchor

Album compilers added memorabilia and decorative items, pressed leaves and cropped and mutilated images. Hammill has included black paper cut-outs, covered by tissue paper, alongside a small sprig of leaves, his caption explaining he picked them from a willow tree planted by Napoleon I on St Helena. North has used photographs of navy colleagues, a lighthouse, a ship and a woman
to create his anchor collage.

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The homogenization of images in albums such as Hammill’s could be seen to adhere to Rosalind Krauss’s description of postmodern art books and their ‘leveling of formal value, …interest in the constant play of exchange, and …practice based on the interchangeability of style and form’. Taking her concept from André Malraux’s 1947 essay musée imaginaire, the camera, she argued, allowed for an ‘unmooring from their original scale, every work whether tiny of colossal now to be magically equalized through the democratizing effects of camera and press.’

> DAVID ROBERTS, coloured lithograph of the Sphinx and Pyramids of Geezeh from The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia, 6 folio volumes, 1842-49
> Maxime du Camp, ‘Vue du grand Sphinx et de la grande pyramide de Menkazeh’ from Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie, 1852

The albums visualized a new way of looking and understanding the world. When compared to the picturesque landscapes of a successful travel painter such as David Roberts, who published a six volume of lithographs between 1842-49 called The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia, or the early photographic portfolios of Maxime du Camp that competed against such print folios, this page from Hammill’s album

> Maxime du Camp and DR images small
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reveals how far officers were prepared to manipulate and juxtapose material.

For Krauss, Modernism in the visual arts was a progression towards an ordering of the surface. The presentation of the photographs in these travel albums – frameless and pasted flat on to the album page – appear as an early but significant step in this direction. The albums are comprised of fragments of time, positioned together to create an artificial whole. They deny the hierarchies of image presentation seen in the leading exhibition venues of the day and support a rabid juxtaposition of high art with popular culture. In so doing they reveal a modernity of vision that predates, or at least coincides with, developments in painting in France and yet has not, to date, been fully considered.

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