Victorian Photos of Hackney Residents: Volunteering at Hackney Museum

The Great Atroy, Image from the 'Peculiar Portraits' at Hackney Museum from Culture24.org.uk Copyright held by Anderson/Four

This is just a quick post about some work I’ve been doing for Hackney Museum. I have been volunteering with the Collections and Exhibitions Manager and had the pleasure of cataloguing a collection of photos by the Hackney photographer, Arthur Eason.

The story behind these photographs, as well as the content, is fascinating. Over 2000 glass plates were discovered several years ago in derelict school in Hackney. These glass plates were in their original boxes and accompanied by the photograph studio’s original office stationery. From this it was discovered that the  plates were from Eason & Co. studio, run by Arthur Eason, and based on Dalston Lane. With no clue as to how they got to the school or who had owned them between the closure of the studio in the early 1900s and the discovery in the early 2000s, their life as objects remains a mystery. We know that the majority of images are from the 1890s and were taken in Eason’s Hackney studio.

Most of these images are portraits and they represent a rare historical window to life in Victorian Hackney. Subjects include newly wed couples, family portraits, possibly to celebrate a child’s birthday or other life milestone, and also promotion photographs for music hall acts. These promotional images even include some Victorian photography trickery with additional effects added by drawing on the negative.

In addition to these there are fascinating images of Asian and Chinese people in both national and Western dress. It is thought that most of the images are of international Salvation Army delegates in Hackney to attend the International Salvation Army Congress of 1894. This is supported by the fact that many of the subjects have Salvation Army badges, but it is also supported by the Eason’s connection to the Salvation Army.

The Easons were very active within the Salvation Army; Arthur’s father, John Eason, was a close friend of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, and Arthur went on a missionary trip to China in early 1880s. The relationship between the families was clearly maintained and there are even photographs of Booth’s grandchildren within the collection.

I have been cataloguing Hackney Museum’s collection of Arthur Eason’s photographs, preparing them to be accessible through their online catalogue and so accessible to more people. This is a fantastic resource of the public and historians alike and I hope they are used in the future to tell many stories, from life in Victorian Hackney, Victorian photography and the history of the Salvation Army to name a few! Until then I will continue to catalogue to attempt to ensure they can be found by as many people as possible.

Update: I should note that the legal owners of the copyright of the images belong to Bridgit Anderson and Jim Four, who kindly donated copies of some of the images to Hackney Museum.

The images are up on Hackney Museum website now – go to their collections website (http://museum.hackney.gov.uk/home) and search ‘Eason’ and they’ll appear. Have fun!

Links:

Hackney Museum: http://www.hackney.gov.uk/cm-museum.htm

Salvation Army History: http://www1.salvationarmy.org.uk/uki/www_uki_ihc.nsf/stc-vw-dynamic-arrays/576D5B691C7BD8978025704A0055741F

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Museum Of London’s ‘London Street Photography’ Exhibition: An Introduction

A magazine seller at Ludgate Circus, 1893. Paul Martin

Yesterday I went to one of the ‘Meet the Expert‘ events at the Museum of London, held on the last Wednesday every month. The event normally consists of a curator, or other resident expert, talking about an area of their research or recent discovery. It’s held in the theatre on the 1st lower level of the museum – something I didn’t realise and was late for the start!

This was held by Mike Seaborne, the Senior Curator of Photographs, on the subject of the Museum of London’s newish ‘London Street Photography‘ exhibition. This exhibition has met with huge success, and I know the couple of times I’ve gone to have a nosey it’s been full of people absorbed in these intriguing images.

Admiralty Arch on the day before Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, June 1st 1953. Bob Collins. London Street Photography Exhibition, Museum of London

I know nothing about photography, I was a little familiar with the history of the development of the technology, but as a practice I am clueless. Consequently the talk by Mike Seaborne, was great for filling in some context and history of some of the images on display. I also learnt a bit about the theory of ‘street photography’ and recent debates on the subject matter.

For the Museum of London’s exhibition, they took a strict definition of street photography; that people should be the main focus rather than landscapes, that it should be in the street (though there are a few exceptions in parks), they should look at the everyday rather than important or unusual events, like festivals or protests, and finally the best ones, or perhaps the most interesting visually, have an element of chance or a juxtaposition of people and place.

The historical significance for these sorts of images almost goes with saying, but I’m going to say something anyway. As with written documents, photography all too often focusses on the big events and the important people. Street photography gives social historians, as well as architectural, cultural, and many other sorts of historians, an insight into the everyday life of the everyday person. From simple clues as to what people are wearing or carrying, to looking at more complex relationships, such as how people appear to be interacting, and what sort of people are in this particular place at a particular time.

As with any historical document the context of the creator, the photographer, is an important, if not crucial, part of understanding the image. I think this was the main point that Mike Seaborne was able to put across in his talk. He told us about the nineteenth photographers like John Thomson, who worked on a project with a journalist and would normally have some sort of arrangement in his photographs, but was not afraid to let the unexpected interrupt his composition. Also Paul Martin, who was one of the first to disguise his camera and take pictures of people on the street who were unaware of the camera under his arm. What was interesting about Paul Martin’s work, recording life at the turn of the century, was that he was an amateur photographer and part of a camera club and consequently expected to be trying to take more artistic photographs. His work was eventually appreciated later in the mid twentieth century, thankfully when he was still around to discuss his work.

Big Ben, April 2007. Stephen McLaren. London Street Photography, Museum of London

 

Paul Martin eventually became a photo journalist, an occupation that became possible from the 1910s due to developments in technology to print photographs, and over the course of the twentieth century the role of the photo journalism in street photography began to increase in significance. By the 1930s the genre was reaching a wider audience than ever before through the publication of specialist magazines, in which photo stories were featured. Seaborne described the post-war period, approximately 1950-1970 as the hey-day of street photography, possibly because it was a time of such change and redevelopment, photographers saw their role in recording the here and now.

Roger Mayne worked predominately in North Kensington and his photographs looked at the use of the street as a social space, being from North Kensington myself these images really intrigued me, especially as you realised that some of the streets in his images no-longer exist, torn down from redevelopment possibly replaced by Trellick Tower. The work of Charlie Phillips from the 1960s also captured the changing face of North Kensington, as he looked at the social interaction between the white and newly arrived West Indian residences.

Charlie Philips was born in Jamaica and is evidence of the increasing role of the immigrant photographer in twentieth century, bringing over new ideas and concepts they play a significant role in the street photography exhibition. They also continue to play an important role in street photography as Mike Seaborne informed us that many photographers make the trip to London specifically to take street photography here. Don’t we have very special streets?!

The final thing I’ll mention is the question Mike Seaborne left us with, which is where is street photography going? Photo journalists are now focused on either international disaster or celebrities in the street, and digital advancement allow photographs to be manipulated in ways never possible before. Many of the modern street photographs have a humorous element to it, but is there any documenting going on? And what can be call documentary now and at what point does photography become art? It seems street photography will continue to evolve and throw up interesting themes and maybe tell us something interesting about ourselves.