Diane Arbus in Kirkcaldy


Following on from last week’s post, during our stay in Fife I was surprised (but why?) to find that the council-run Kirkcaldy Galleries was hosting an exhibition of the work of photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71.) It reminded me of my visit to the island of Capri five years ago, when I stumbled across an exhibition of original Leni Riefenstahl prints in a small room tucked away in a cobbled alleyway behind a church. It had the added bonus of being free, as is the one in Kirkcaldy.

Exhibition poster. The photograph shown is Arbus’ ‘A Young Man and his Pregnant Wife in Washington Square Park, New York City’
Born into a wealthy Jewish family of the name Nemerov, Diane began using a camera in partnership with her husband Alan Arbus, running a fashion photography business. From making images of conventional beauty and desirable opulence, she gradually moved away to concentrate on those at the opposite end of the social spectrum – those on the margins of society, including circus performers, transvestites and people with physical deformities – including the sort of human zoo pictures that I wrote about in an earlier post. In the last two years of her life, she was allowed access to mental institutions where she produced a series of images – both poignant and disturbing – of the mentally impaired inmates.



‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y’


‘Jack Dracula’, photographed in New London, Connecticut, in 1961


A Child Crying, New Jersey 1967

The image above, like the majority of Arbus portraits, is taken face-on, so that the viewer has a direct confrontation with the subject of the photograph. It is this aspect of her work, as much as the content matter, that is so unsettling. There is no opportunity to avert the eye, to focus on another portion of the image and try to alter the perspective. Unlike her early fashion shoots, these are not contrived studio sessions but are taken in the sitters’ own homes, institutions or workplaces, so that it is we who find ourselves in unfamiliar settings, alienated, confronted with people and places that may make us uncomfortable. The fact that many of her sitters appear quite at ease with their physical or mental awkwardness, or even proud of their disfigurements, challenges us to identify who it is that has the real problem.

However, not all the sitters appear comfortable with being photographed, and in the case of those with severe mental disabilities it is evident that their consent was never – and could never – be obtained. The photographer’s troubled life – after several bouts of depression Arbus committed suicide at the age of 48 – invites connections with these images of loneliness, marginalisation and suffering. Does evidence of her own unhappiness demonstrate a degree of affinity or sympathy with those she photographed? There is an honesty about her photography that undermines accusations of voyeurism or exploitation, although such charges have been made. Influential critic Susan Sontag expressed her unease about Arbus’s work in her 1973 New York Review of Books article ‘Freak Show’, which was later revised to form the central essay in On Photography (1977.) Surprisingly, for such a respected writer, Sontag never really strikes home with any critical insight about Arbus’s work. The essay is effective in articulating Sontag’s negative response, but reveals little about the photographs themselves. Her main charge – that of a lack of compassion – has ‘stuck’ nonetheless, and it is no simple matter to dismiss.

One might argue that developing a ‘lack of compassion’ is an occupational hazard for any photographer working in the documentary tradition, particularly those commissioned to record scenes of suffering in war zones or disaster areas. Maintaining a high degree of detachment is essential for professional standards: but where does one draw the line? And does the practice of enforcing such discipline not run a risk of psychological self-harm? The story of Kevin Carter (1960-94) remains a salutary warning; the life, work and death of the South African photographer was dramatised in the film The Bang-Bang Club (Steven Silver, 2010) and inspired Alfredo Jaar’s unbearably moving art-installation The Sound of Silence (2006.)

Diane Arbus’s life has also been depicted on the big screen, providing the inspiration for the film Fur (2006) directed by Steven Shainberg. Like his earlier Secretary (2002) it is an audacious portrayal of a woman’s unorthodox desires, but as a portrait of Arbus it is unsatisfactory. Those wanting to know more about her should begin by studying her photographs – and for anyone in the region of Kirkcaldy, their exhibition remains open for another month, until the end of May.


Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus in ‘Fur’ (Steven Shainberg, 2006)


The real Diane Arbus
For those interested in seeing more of Diane’s images, along with information about gallery exhibitions and sales of her work, check out this Diane Arbus page on the Artsy website.

Carte de visite of the week #9 – Ross & Pringle


Continuing on the Scottish theme, this week’s cdv comes from the Edinburgh studios of James Ross (1815-95) and Thomas Pringle (died 1895), who were in partnership from 1867 until 1883.

Pringle –   an assistant in the firm for many years – became Ross’s business partner following the retiral of John Thomson (born 1808/9) – not to be confused with another Edinburgh photographer named John Thomson (1837-1921) who became famous for his views of China and London street life.

James Ross was working with the calotype process when he went into partnership in 1848 with Thomson, a skilled daguerreotypist. They were appointed photographers to Queen Victoria in 1849, and later switched to using glass negatives following the introduction of collodion in the early 1850s.

James Ross has been in the news recently because of the hypothesis – advanced by American researcher Patrick Feaster – that he may have been the first photographer to produce a sequence of moving images, preceding the man usually accorded that honour – Eadweard Muybridge – by two years. Feaster’s theory is based on a reference in The British Journal of Photography, 14 July 1876, which describes a sequence of three photographs taken:

by Mr. Ross, of Edinburgh, in one of which a girl on a swing is caught just at the instant when the rope had reached the highest elevation; in another a girl is skipping, the picture showing the rope passing under her feet; while a third is that of a boy jumping over a large stone. The last is peculiarly interesting, as it was stated to be taken with a camera fitted with a number of medallion lenses, placed in threes, one above another. The exposures were made by causing a sheet of metal with a hole in it to fall so that the aperture was for an instant brought successively in front of each lens. To the lower end of the sheet was attached a heavy weight, and it was held up in such a position that the three lenses were all covered. At the proper moment the suspending thread was severed, and, although the time between the passing of the opening in the sheet from one lens to another must have been almost inappreciable, the plate showed the three pictures in very different positions.

It would appear from this passage that Ross used a single camera, but one that was specially-constructed with three lenses, allowing him to take three photographs of a moving person, animal or object in rapid succession. Muybridge used a line-up of twelve cameras to photograph a running horse in California in June 1878, with each camera activated by a trip wire as the horse passed by. His experiment was carried out to settle debate over whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves in the air at the same time. He was able to carry out a series of trials using an array of equipment thanks to the financial support of Leland Stanford, a wealthy horse-owner and businessman.  James Ross appears to have funded his own, more modest, experiments himself. For a fuller version of Feaster’s theory, see his article here.

This attractive little family group sat for their portrait around the time that Ross was working on his motion photographs, as a handwritten note on the back gives the date as July 1875 – shortly before Ross and Pringle moved from 114 George Street to 103 Princes Street. The studio was at the west end of George Street, close to Charlotte Square. The mother and her young children may have lived in the west end, but studios with a good reputation such as Ross and Pringle could attract clients from quite a distance. The only clue to their identity lies in the scribbled names and initials at the foot of the card.

The Song of Bernadette

Jennifer Jones in ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1943)

Today is the feast day of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, whose name is inseparable from Lourdes, the French town in which she claimed to have seen a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Almost immediately, crowds of the devout and the curious began assembling at the spot in the hope of seeing something themselves, and after Bernadette unearthed a hidden spring, it was not long before the healing waters of Lourdes became an international site of pilgrimage. She herself left Lourdes and became a nun, joining the community of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers hundreds of miles to the north. As Sister Marie-Bernarde, she died at the convent of Saint Gildard in Nevers on this day in 1879, aged only 35.

Bernadette’s story has inspired countless books and works of art but today I wanted to write a short post about the film The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943), starring Jennifer Jones as the young visionary.

The film was based on a book, Das Lied von Bernadette, by Franz Werfel (1890-1945), an Austrian Jew who had taken refuge in Lourdes for several weeks while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940. During his time there he heard firsthand tales of the apparitions from older inhabitants of the town, and determined to write about Bernadette if he escaped. True to his word, he completed the novel not long after he and his wife found safety in America. The book was published in German in 1941 (the title page of the first edition is dated Los Angeles, May 1941), followed by an English edition – translated by Ludwig Lewisohn – the following year. It was enormously popular, topping the New York Times bestseller list for weeks on end, and Hollywood producers were not slow to see the potential. The rights were snapped up by 20th Century Fox and workmen began constructing a mock French village on the back lot of the studio. Filming began in March 1943.

Given the popularity of the book, there was intense anticipation as to who would play the part of Bernadette. Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell were among those who did screen tests, but the coveted role was given to newcomer Jennifer Jones, whose only screen performances to date had been minor parts in the John Wayne western New Frontier (George Sherman, 1939) and the serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men (John English & William Whitney.1939), both under her real name of Phyllis Isley. At the age of 24 and possessing a youthful fresh-faced beauty, she gave a convincing performance in portraying the fourteen year old Bernadette.
The Virgin Mary was played by Linda Darnell, soon to appear in the racy Forever Amber, and at that time engaged in a scandalous affair with 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F Zanuck.


Linda Darnell as the Virgin Mary
Sadly, Jones’s married life was far from happy at this time. While still in her teens in 1939 she had married actor Robert Walker, with whom she had two young sons. Both actors were struggling until they came to the attention of MGM producer David Selznick, who gave Walker a contract, changed his wife’s name to Jennifer Jones and set her on a course for movie stardom. His plans for her were not disinterested, however, and their affair led to her separation from Walker in November 1943, a few weeks before Song of Bernadette was released in time for Christmas.

Jones and Selznick


Srs. Marie-Bernarde (Jones) and Marie-Therese (Gladys Cooper) in a poignant scene
On 2 March 1944, her 25th birthday, Jones was awarded an Oscar for her performance, winning out against Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Swedish actress was gracious in defeat, and the following year Jones was able to hand Bergman the Oscar for Best Actress in honour of her role in Gaslight (1944), MGM’s remake of the Anton Walbrook masterpiece of 1940.


Jennifer with her 1944 Oscar – her only one, despite being nominated on four subsequent occasions
Jennifer’s Oscar should not eclipse excellent performances given by other members of the cast, such as Gladys Cooper as Sister Marie-Therese Vazous and Vincent Price (below) as Prosecutor Vital Dutour, whose hostility towards Bernadette’s piety drives him to interrogate her without mercy in the hope of revealing her to be a fraud – although he is nowhere near as cruel an Inquisitor as Matthew Hopkins, whom Price would play in Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968.)


Vincent Price as Vital Dutour

In reality, Dutour was as much a Catholic as Bernadette, and the portrayal of Dutour as irreligious is just on example of the way that the film follows Werfel’s fictional embellishments. The novel is a thick tome of almost 600 pages, and the author used the story to explore related themes about religious experience, attitudes to the supernatural and the nature of miracles, weaving these into a multi-layered narratives of events that took place at the shrine long after the apparitions. One of the film’s flaws is the inclusion of too much of this material, which slows the pace and drags its length out to almost two and a half hours.

Other characters include the parish priest of Lourdes, Abbé Dominique Peyramale, played by Christopher Bickson who would reprise the role in a 1954 radio version. Bickson’s untimely death in 1967 so distressed Jennifer Jones that she attempted suicide. Selznick, whom she had married in 1949, had died in 1965 and their daughter Mary committed suicide in 1976. The third act of The Song of Bernadette depicts the saint’s suffering under humiliation and terminal illness, exploring the possibility that her trials may have been redemptive in nature; one can only wonder if the actress found any such meaning in the troubled years of her later life. Lee J. Cobb (Doctor Dozous) is perhaps better known now for his role as Lieutenant Kinderman in The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1971), which is one of the very few other Hollywood movies to take the supernatural aspects of religion seriously.

The subtle, almost understated handling of religion in The Song of Bernadette works in the film’s favour, keeping the human drama to the fore; it would have been so easy to sink on the one hand into saccharine sentimentality and on the other into strident piety repellent to a large part of the potential audience. Jennifer Jones’s performance brought out the elements of innocent dignity and strong-willed simplicity Bernadette’s contemporaries saw in the girl, although it is another weakness of the film that the more complex and ambiguous elements of her story are omitted. Those who wish to learn more about the discordant notes in ‘the song of Bernadette’ might like to read Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in a Secular Age (Allen Lane, 1999) or Therese Taylor, Bernadette of Lourdes: Her life, death and visions (Burnes & Oates, 2006.)

Carte de visite of the week #8 The Scott Monument in 1869

After spending the last few days in Scotland it would be churlish of me not to feature a Scottish cdv in this week’s post, so I’ve chosen one that depicts that most iconic edifice of the capital city – the Scott Monument, completed in August 1844.

The monument has been photographed from the north side of Princes Street, looking to the SW with the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy in the background, and beyond that, the hazy silhouette of the Mound and Edinburgh Castle.

The photographer was Archibald Burns (1831-80), who began taking pictures as an amateur in the 1850s before turning professional. He joined the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1858, but is first listed in the trade directories as a professional photographer in 1867.  The back of the card gives the date as August 1869, when his studio was still based at 22 Calton Stairs, a terrace building on Calton Hill. In 1871 he moved further up the hill into Rock House, the former studio of the great pioneering partnership of Hill and Adamson. Hill moved out of Rock House in 1869, the year before his death, and for a short period it was occupied by the Annan brothers, Thomas (father of James Craig Annan) and John. It must be remembered that at this time many photographers preferred to buy an existing photographic business – complete with a well-equipped studio and a ready-made customer base – rather than start their own one from scratch. Studios were therefore occupied by a series of photographers in succession, often over many decades.


The reverse of the card

Most of the cartes-des-visites I’ve featured so far have been portraits, and landscapes were far less usual as subjects. Burns was a prolific photographer of Edinburgh scenes, a large number of which were sold in the cdv format.  In 1868 fifteen of his photographs were published Picturesque Bits of Old Edinburgh, including albumen prints of Cardinal Beaton’s house in the Cowgate and John Knox’s House in the Royal Mile. After moving to Rock House, he was commissioned by the city’s Improvement Trust to photograph the ‘closes’ between the Cowgate and University’s Old Quadrangle (what is now Chambers Street), which were scheduled for demolition.  It was an area of overcrowding and poor sanitation, described in John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Scotland (1868) as ‘one of the poorest and filthiest lanes in the United Kingdom.’ Burns photographed the tenement closes in February 1871, just after they had been cleared of their inhabitants. This was a very different aspect of Edinburgh life compared to that symbolised by the carte-de-visite above.


Detail from the above, showing the photographer’s emblem

The Boy in the Train, Kirkcaldy

Kirkcaldy sea front, April 2015
This month sees me back in Scotland for a few days, and the first leg of the journey has taken me – somewhat unexpectedly – to Kirkcaldy. It’s not a town I know well – in fact, my one abiding mental association with the place is a poem, ‘The Boy in the Train’, which I once recited as a party piece:
Whit wey does the engine say ‘Toot-toot’?
Is it feart to gang in the tunnel?
Whit wey is the furnace no pit oot
When the rain gangs doon the funnel?
What’ll I hae for my tea the nicht?
A herrin’, or maybe a haddie?
Has Gran’ma gotten electric licht?
Is the next stop Kirkcaddy?
There’s a hoodie-craw on yon turnip-raw!
An’ seagulls! – sax or seeven.
I’ll no fa’ oot o’ the windae, Maw,
Its sneckit, as sure as I’m leevin’.
We’re into the tunnel! we’re a’ in the dark!
But dinna be frichtit, Daddy,
We’ll sune be comin’ to Beveridge Park,
And the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!Is yon the mune I see in the sky?
It’s awfu’ wee an’ curly,
See! there’s a coo and a cauf ootbye,
An’ a lassie pu’in’ a hurly!
He’s chackit the tickets and gien them back,
Sae gie me my ain yin, Daddy.
Lift doon the bag frae the luggage rack,
For the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!

There’s a gey wheen boats at the harbour mou’,
And eh! dae ya see the cruisers?
The cinnamon drop I was sookin’ the noo
Has tummelt an’ stuck tae ma troosers. . .
I’ll sune be ringin’ ma Gran’ma’s bell,
She’ll cry, ‘Come ben, my laddie’,
For I ken mysel’ by the queer-like smell
That the next stop’s Kirkcaddy!

The author of the poem, Mary Campbell Smith (1869-1938), was the daughter of the Rev. Andrew Edgar, D.D., minister of Mauchline in Ayrshire. She was born on 3 January 1869 and went on to marry George Smith, a teacher at Rugby who was appointed headmaster of Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, in 1890. They used to take their summer holidays in Elie on the Fife Coast, and while travelling there by train one year they had in their carriage a noisy young lady who was continually asking questions: his constant chatter provided the raw material for the poem, written in 1913 and published in the Merchiston school magazine The Total Eclipse. It wasn’t long before it become more widely known, finding its way into anthologies of Scottish verse. The poem is even reproduced on a board at Kirkcaldy railway station. The ‘queer-like smell’, it must be said, no longer hangs over the town like it did in 1913: this was a notorious by-product of Kirkcaldy’s once-thriving linoleum industry, centred upon seven factories that have long since closed their doors.  The impressive facade of William Nairn’s linoleum works on Victoria Road still stands, although the huge building behind was demolished last year. The glory, like the smell, has now departed.