January 29: Fashion photography from the 1940s onward often weirdly combines street photography with fashion. In these cases high and low culture sometimes meet.
Conversely, ‘low’ culture has become a fascination in the work of curious ‘upper class’ photographers, for whom ‘slumming it’ has an erotic or morbid fascination (or both combined).
Two photographers who share anniversies on this date converge on these ideas in their work. Arthur Joseph Munby died on January 29 in 1910, while Walde Huth was born in 1923 on the same date.
Munby’s own words will introduce his interests;
“In the fork of the two railways … a very dreary, lonely way, I met a very strange looking girl, without a bonnet or shawl, wearing a soiled, ragged gown, and boots to match;” writes Arthur Joseph Munby in his dairy of 27 May 1864,”her arms bare, and her throat wrapped up in flannel; for she was very hoarse. A tall, hulking wench of eighteen, rolling along like a sailor; but with a simple and modest countenance. Considering her in vain, I asked her I asked her if she worked in the market gardens. No, she did not, she answered civilly. “Then,” said I, “what is your trade” “Sir,” she meekly replied, looking me straight in the face, “I scrapes trotters””
He learns from her about the glue works and bone trade, noting;
“Now, can anyone imagine an occupation more loathsome, more certain (one would think) to coarsen and unsex a young woman and destroy all grace of form and character, than to sit amongst heaps of offal all day[…]? Yet the two girls, who do this daily, were not gross and unsexed; they did not grin or giggle or stare impudently at the stranger, or make ribald innuendoes one of another, as sewing girls and suchlike often do; on the contrary they were thoroughly respectable and respectful in behaviours; and one of them, at least, was brisk and clearheaded, and equal to any country girls for beauty .”
These are unusual sentiments for a Victorian gentleman, and unusual he was! That he was secretly married to a Hannah Cullwick, a servant, whom he had met in Grosvenor Street in London in 1854 was revealed when his will was read. Furthermore, his will specified that the deed boxes he had left behind were not to be opened until the year 1950.
When they were, his strangeness became very clear. The deed boxes contained 66 diaries in 28 volumes from the years 1858-1898, 31 notebooks about Hannah Cullwick (who came from the large family of a well-to-do saddler whose fortunes turned sour) and her own diaries in which she discusses often in great detail the dirty work she undertook for him as she continued to work as a ‘maid-of-all-work’ while also being his wife. This she also writes about in two separate accounts of her own life. The boxes also contained poems by Munby, including Doris: A Pastoral in which he woos a shepherdess…
I SAT with Doris, the shepherd-maiden;
Her crook was laden with wreathed flowers:
I sat and woo’d her, through sunlight wheeling
And shadows stealing, for hours and hours.
…and his rather mawkish verses conclude as he successfully proposes marriage…
And now in beauty she fills my dwelling,
With love excelling, and undefil’d;
And love doth guard her, both fast and fervent,
No more a servant, nor yet a child.
The poem no doubt reflects his sentiments, not only for the statuesque and powerfully muscled Hannah Cullwick, but also for countless other working-class women and girls, because, most remarkably, his estate also includes 600 photographs of working women, female acrobats, artist’s models, barge women, bondagers, bookbinders, brick-makers, charwomen, cheese-makers, clerks, Belgian coal workers, Wigan colliery girls, comic singers, female criminals, crossing sweepers, drivers, dust women, farm labourers, ferrywomen, fisherwomen, female gaffers, gatekeepers, glassworkers, governesses, gypsies, iron-workers, milkmaids, mudlarks, market gardeners, newspaper girls, nailers, orange girls, ostlers, pecheuses, prostitutes, reapers, sackmakers, saltworkers, sempstresses, servants, shepherdesses, shop girls, shrimpfishers, telegraphic clerks, tinkers, washerwomen, waitresses and Whitby whale fishers, along with an album of sketches.
His diary explains…
…always to be among the sparkling froth atop of society has one sad delight in that it keeps vivid before me that gentle misplaced creature who lies grovelling among the dregs: that toiling maid of all work who might have been a drawing-room belle, and is a kitchen drudge.
Not only did he have this secret personal relationship with Hannah who was well ‘beneath his station’, but the diaries detail his habit of visiting working class locales, such as Wigan in Lancashire and Filey in Yorkshire, and of engaging women working in heavy outdoor industries in conversation, and often taking them to have their picture taken at local photographers’ studios.
Here he is in a Wigan studio with one of the girls, with her shovel, who worked at the top of coal mines to heave the chunks of coal into waiting railroad trucks.They wore trousers and would come home black with dirt. Other women worked inside the mines, crawling on their hands and knees, pulling mine carts with chains attached around their waists.
The details of Ellen Grounds’ costume make a valuable anthropological study incidental to Munby’s personal interest, and since his observations were recorded over twenty-eight years they have proven invaluable to historians of the coal industries of England (as testified by Angela V. John in her By the Sweat of Their Brow: Women Workers at Victorian Coal Mines). Indeed, Munby’s observations were far more substantial and detailed than the philanthropic journalism of Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), and might be favourably compared with the vast sociological surveys of Charles Booth (1840-1916) and Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1859-1947 and 1858-1943 respectively) for sheer volume of data. Only for his lack of analysis and synthesis in his voluminous diaries and any contemporary publication, is he not considered a pioneer sociologist.
Grounds wears stout leather-topped clogs with pointed, upturned toes laced around her ankles and seemingly over light shoes, her canvas trousers have been patched many times and she wears a skirt of cheap but tough material like mattress ticking, tucked to form an apron. Her shirt, with overlong sleeves rolled tight at the wrist, is of a surprisingly light tone and appears to have wide lapels that are crossed over and tied at the side for extra protection from coal-dust and exposure cold weather high on the heap. Her hair is pulled back and protected with a generously sized kerchief.
She faces the camera steadily (though she looks at the photographer and not into the lens) with a muscular contraposto, hand confidently on hip and a bemused smirk on her face. Studying so close as to invade her personal space is Munby, who has moved, turning slightly toward the photographer. Their close proximity may perhaps be explained due to their need to rest for the long exposure against the posing apparatus bolted to the floor behind them, which may be set up to accommodate married couples.
Others of his imagery were shot on location, predating John Thomson’s monthly magazine, Street Life in London (1876 to 1877).
Only some present women actually at work as above. Most are studies of the individuals, showing them full-length in their work-clothes.
Might we consider Munby’s location shots examples of ‘street fashion’ or ‘street style’ photography such as that of Bill Cunningham or Scott Schuman, if taken today?
The city began to be used as a backdrop to fashion photography in the second half of the twentieth century when photographers such as Norman Parkinson, David Bailey, Walde Huth, Erwin Blumenfield, John French and Willy Mayfield moved out of the studio and into the street to accessorize fashion with the familiar monuments and vistas of renowned fashion cities Paris, London, Rome, Milan and New York.
Walde Huth (1923 – 2011) studied photography from 1940 to1943 at the State School of Applied Arts in Weimar. Until 1945 she worked in the color photography development area at Agfa Wolfen. In 1953 she opened her own fashion and advertising photography studio in Stuttgart. She rejected a contract offered by Vogue and with her husband, the architectural photographer Karl Hugo Schmölz, in Cologne in 1958 she founded a studio for advertising and public relations, called ‘Schmölz Huth’, until 1986. Huth photographed star designer pieces and orchestrated the staging in the city environment, her most famous photographs being those taken in Paris, not in the studio, but in the city space: in front of the Eiffel Tower, along the Seine, in an interchange and contrast with the architecture and the life in the metropolis.
Incidental to the image of fashion here is the presence of ordinary men encountered on location and included by Huth as a sign of the quotidian. Their expressions may be accounted for as a sign of their enjoyment of being included in the image, and having a close-up view of an attractive model, but on reading he photograph back, we see their blithe smiles as representing their appreciation of the fashion itself.
Of course, the model herself is a ‘working girl’ paid for her looks and ability to act in front of the camera, just as, no doubt, the colliery girls were hired for their strength and endurance. Employed to display the vision of a fashion designer or photographer, models cease to be seen as individual women. Designer Poiret puffed, ‘do not talk to the models, they do not exist,’ while to 1940s photographer Victor Keppler regarded ‘a model as a tool, not a human being.’
Most likely she is not well paid enough to be afford the clothes she models. It was only in the 1940s, and then only in New York, that model agencies started to appear, such a Ford Models, who negotiated payment and acted as finders for models and photographers. Only gradually though the 1950s and 1960s did models become recognised. Though some, like Lisa Fonssagrives who started modelling in the late 1930s were paid well, the ordinary model lived a precarious existence in the 1950s.
Here two elderly fishermen on the Seine serve to represent a particular ‘ethnic’ facet of the city that is as characteristic of the city as is the Eiffel Tower and the bridge in the background. Their interaction with the models sets up a narrative that owes much to the work of Huth’s near contemporaries, the postwar Humanist photographers known for their humanist values of empathy, solidarity, and sometimes humor, represented in iconic books including Doisneau’s Banlieue de Paris (1949), Izis’s Paris des rêves (1950), Willy Ronis’ Belleville‐Ménilmontant (1954) and, most importantly, Cartier‐Bresson’s Images à la sauvette (1952); better known by its English title, The Decisive Moment, which defines the ethos and working method of all these photographers. These photographer prided themselves on their status as auteurs, most being editorial freelancers, who considered themselves as equal to other artists, and photography as amongst the fine arts.
Walde Huth’s fashion photographs in Paris are thus a superimposition on previous and contemporary modes and genres of photography, borrowing from their style. This mis-en-scène is evidenced in the painstaking use of focus and lighting in her pictures. The model stands full-height against the background, taller than the other figures because she is photographed from a low angle. In each case she is sharply in focus and they sufficiently blurred to obscure detail of their own clothing – this is haute couture after all!
Interestingly it is only in the Christian Dior fashion shoot above, the earliest (1954), that artificial lighting seems to have been used in the form of fill-flash. In the Hubert de Givenchy shot of the year later, the model is standing in open shade, correctly exposed, while all behind her – the Arc de Triomphe and passers-by – are overexposed and washed-out. The atmosphere between the model on the steps and the Eiffel Tower is sufficient to play a similar role in the Jacques Fath fashion shoot, while in other shots the contrast between the tone of the model’s costume fabric and the background provides the crucial separation. Crucial it is because these pictures present two worlds at once; a fantasy of romance, excitement and glamour is set against a gritty reality, the city, which serves as another character in a narrative dialogue.