We Smile: Photographs of Modernity

This week Librarian Antony Ramm offers a sequel to an article first published in 2017.

Readers of this blog who are also readers of the Public Domain Review website (if you’re not, do think about subscribing; it’s a fantastic and always-intriguing look at long-forgotten printed texts) may have seen a short article by Hunter Dukes exploring a collection of photographs from the start of the 20th-century. Taken by the little-known Theresa Babb (1868 – 1948) in and around Camden, Maine, U.S.A., the photographs capture, in Dukes’ words, “a personal world of female friendship, [seen] in such a way that seems both timeless and strikingly modern,” with some “remarkably contemporary” camera angles, staging and framing.

The Babb photographs are, indeed, wonderful – and well-worth a look if you’ve not already seen them. But what is interesting from our perspective at Leeds Central Library is that those photographs – taken many hundreds of miles away from Leeds – mirror, in many respects, a small collection of photographs held in our local history collection and previously written-about on this blog: our collection almost exclusively features women, mostly seen in various states of comradery and companionship, largely during holidays in the North of England during 1920 and 1921 – and employing some similarly modern visual techniques.

The album was donated to us in the hope we could identify the people depicted in the photos and then – perhaps – trace their descendants. To date, that hasn’t happened – but, as the Babb example shows, a lack of information about the people who took and who are seen in the photographs does not mean interesting things cannot be said about those images.

We do know that some, at least – if not all – of the people seen are family members, with several generations shown together in some images; one image, in fact, is specifically entitled “three generations”, as you can see below, and there are children in some of the later ones.

But, given that we don’t know a huge amount more than that, what can we say about these photos and the experiences of the people shown in them? Well, one initial impression might be that there’s a kind-of informal, spontaneous, intimate and improvised feel to these images, as well as a huge amount of joy; joy of being away from home, the joy of a shared experience with the family unit – and, yes, the joy of female friendship.

Can we also frame these images in the the social history of holidays and days out? – that the joy we see in these photos is a very direct window into the past, capturing a moment in time, a shift in the ways people, especially families, enjoyed and experienced holidays and days out; that, for instance, all the smiling we see is a reflection of the genuine, very real excitement felt by people, particularly young women, enjoying regular holidays and days out for the first time; a break from everyday life; the chores of domesticity. The “We smile!” image, on the left below, is, in this sense, the defining photo in the album.

But equally it might just be that what we’re seeing is more about the technology than anything else – that cameras are sufficiently cheap and light by the 1920s that people are able to permanently capture spontaneous moments for the first time. That would explain some of the improvised feel, the slightly off-framing – and the smiling: it’s not that people didn’t smile before the 1920s, or even that they didn’t go on regular holidays or days out – just that the technology now exists to easily capture those experiences and those moments as they happen.

We could go even further: rather than an authentic record of how people experienced holidays and days out, we might see these images as a performance, a self-aware mode of behaviour intimately connected to a shifting individual and social relationship to the medium of the image itself. If all this sounds very ‘now’, it’s a reminder both that the hundred years between 1921 and 2021 is just a flicker in the Longue Durée of the machine age – we, too, still live in the long shadow of the industrial revolution – and that our recent ancestors were self-conscious ‘moderns’ just as much as we fancy ourselves to be.

There is, indeed, a lot of performing taking place here – both in the way people seemingly captured in the moment are perhaps acting for the camera, striking a pose, as in these two images:

But also ‘performance’ in the more literal sense of dressing-up, and role-playing: see, for example, these images – knowing, self-aware, referential; invoking the worlds of cinema, fashion, and art. Many of these images feel very modern, in their playfulness and their gesturing to a world outside themselves; a performance for an unseen audience. What, in truth, could be more modern than that?

The photographs are poignant, too, with their in-jokes and references to now long-forgotten conversations, events, people and places. Perhaps that is the fate of all family photograph albums, to be forgotten and eventually discarded – no matter how cutting edge the tastes and behaviours captured by those images may seem at the time. But thankfully reclamation, resurrection, and redemption is possible through sites like the Public Doman Review – if only for a fleeting moment.

You can find the photograph album on our library catalogue under the title Photographs of a Leeds family taken mainly in Yorkshire locations in the 1920’s. It’s kept at shelfmark Y Q 779 PHO

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.