Saturday, 11 August 2012

Tom Phillips' Readers (ca. 1900–1940)

My copy of Readers: Vintage People on Photo Postcards from the Tom Phillips Archive (The Bodleian Library, 2010)—see here—has now arrived. It is full of great images and has two very useful but also very brief essays by David Lodge and Tom Phillips.

Phillips sketches out the utility-function of books in the formal portraits taken in photographer's studios (something to occupy the hands and to act as a focus for attention for a nervous subject). But Lodge observes that books "served as indices of culture, education, and in some cases piety" (5), and gives examples which are enigmatic or transparent in their symbolism and symmetry.

A father and son portrait, where both are holding books looking at the camera may symbolise the passing on of wisdom. A man reading and his wife observing him is unclear. Is he reading to his wife, or is she "self-effacingly admiring his absorption of higher things"?

Lodge also notes how, because of "the limited repertoire of body-language and facial expressions associated with reading" (5), the viewer searches "for other kinds of human interest, behavioral and sociological" (6)—and historical. Whether posted/contrived or candid/näive all the photos provide "invaluable clues to the way people lived in the past" (6).

Both writers stress the changing role of photographs, and the progression from studio settings (plain or exotic), to domestic interiors, to outdoor settings and holiday snaps. The two hundred photos in this books cycle through different types of readers in each of these stages.

So, we get studio photos of children, children with parents/grandparents with children, parents, grandparents; then domestic interiors of children, children with parents/grandparents etc; then outdoor settings and holiday snaps of children, children with parents/grandparents etc.

There are probably only a dozen images here that I would add to my own collection, and there are many representation of reading not represented in this book at all that I would like to have seen represented. Where, for instance, are the risqué postcards of naughty readers that I included in my last post? Where are postcards of people reading letters?

The Tom Phillips Archive is vast (50,000 cards), the images "arranged by subject" (8), and the books based on the archive have also been arranged by subject: Bicycles, Fantasy Travel, Menswear, Weddings, Women & Hats—and Readers. Note, no risqué subjects.

It is possible—likely even—that Phillips eschewed risqué French postcards because they were French and Phillips clearly had a nationalistic drive. He wanted to document "British people in the first half of the 20th century" (8). (My own collection is international.)

If there were any risqué British postcards these might have been excluded because they did not document real British people. If so, this would be a curious and inconsistent omission. The non-risqué portraits are no more real than the risqué ones, and the pretense of mimesis in the photos Phillips includes are even more false than the clearly-posed risqué "portraits" I posted.

Because I have conducted so many eBay searches for "women reading" I am acutely aware of how many images thus listed are of women reading letters (when you are looking for images of people reading books, you only get magazines and letters!). These vary from the risqué (woman in dishabille reading a love letter) to the poignant (mother/sister/lover reading a letter from son/brother/lover at "the front"). There are none such—risqué, poignant or otherwise—in this collection.

Both omissions stand out to me because the images concerned focus attention on the encoding of privacy with reading (and, often, privacy with eroticism).

Lodge reminds us that reading is "mental and invisible" (5), visually inscrutable. Because the real world is displaced by reading, a reader's focus is within, in a private and invisible world (in-scrutable, meaning "unable to be seen").

Between this private/invisible inner-world and the public outer world a reader is prepared to share with others—in photographic form—is the private world that a reader will not normally share with others.

My own experience suggests that a lot of reading occurs in—and a lot of candid photos occupy—this private space. If you are reading in bed, few people have access to this private space to photograph you in the first place.

And if you are photographed reading in repose, you are unlikely to be happy to keep the resulting photo, or happy enough to have this photograph printed in, and sent through, the public spaces of photographer's studio and post, to share it with someone else.

Lodge mentions an image "which seems un-posed" depicting a couple reading. The husband wears a suit "though this is his leisure time"—Lodge implies this was normal uptight middle-class behavior at the time.

Perhaps it was, but if the husband had been wearing silk pajamas, would the photo have been taken? And if taken, not destroyed? And, if not destroyed, shared? And if shared, printed as a postcard and sent through the post?

It seems likely that very little of the genuinely private world of readers is visible in Phillips' photos because these postcards were sent through the post. One John Cartell wrote: "I refrain from commenting on my expression in them [photos previously sent] since this p.c. is liable to be read by chaste postmen etc" (112).

So the decision to limit photographic images to those turned into postcards and sent to others likely excludes many of the most interesting photographs of reading—not just the risqué ones likely to offend chaste postmen, but the ones likely to embarrass their subjects by breaking down the division between the public/private world of Jane or John Doe, reader.

* * * * *

Phillips mentions an exhibition of photographs he had recently encountered by André Kertész at the Photographer's Gallery in London. A bit of searching revealed that this 2010 exhibition is actually based on a collection of photographs first published forty years ago under the title On Reading (New York: Grossman, 1972). I have ordered a copy (a first) and will say something about it here when it arrives.

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