The Fleeting and the Enduring: A Salt Photograph of Nelson’s Column

nelsons-column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, William Fox Talbot, 1843 ©The Wilson Centre for Photography

During a recent visit to the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, which displays early salt print photographs, one image in particular caught my eye. Nelson’s Column (1843) shows the construction of the eponymous column on Trafalgar Square. The viewer sees the bottom of the famous London landmark, shrouded in scaffolding. In the background is St Martin-in-the-Fields church. What most interests me, however, is an apparently irrelevant detail: the advertising posters displayed on the hoarding around the column. The contrast between the enduring column and the ephemeral posters and playbills is mirrored in both the transience and permanence of the photograph itself.
Salt photography was one of the earliest types of photography, invented in Britain in the 1830s by William Fox Talbot, who also took the photo under discussion. This type of photography used a salt-based solution to fix images created by a camera obscura on paper. [1] Along with the French invention of the Daguerreotype this innovative process gave photographers the ability to record a fleeting moment, seemingly forever. Over time it became apparent, however, that the photographs printed on paper were not enduring; any exposure to light degrades the image. Talbot’s photos, although an attempt to capture the beauties of the world forever, in fact turned out to be most ephemeral.
The image shown on the photograph Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square reflects this tension between the lasting and the fleeting. The column was built between 1840 and 1843. As a commemoration of one of the greatest naval commanders in British history the column is closely linked to Britain’s imperial identity. The column was built to last, and serve as a constant reminder of the country’s achievements. The church of St Martin’s was erected, in its current form, in 1726 and represents the enduring importance of the Anglican Church to the British state and society.
These two Classical structures are the centre of the viewer’s focus. At the bottom of the photograph, the posters on the hoarding around Nelson’s Column represent the transient aspects of the built environment. They display a mixture of text and images, advertising shows and spectacles which could be visited around the capital. The display as a whole would have been ever-changing as billposters layered new adverts over the old ones. The use of advertising posters became mainstream practice at the start of the 19th century, and is perhaps most famously represented in John Parry’s ‘A London Street Scene’ (1935). As Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates, Parry’s image also juxtaposes the transience of the posters ‘to the seeming permanence of St Paul’s Cathedral.’[2] Nelson’s Column serves a similar purpose in Talbot’s photograph. Whereas in Parry’s drawing the juxtaposition is an artistic invention, Talbot merely captured a scene already available on the street. His artist’s eye spotted the suitability of the composition, but the posters were already there, right around the column. His photograph shows that on the streets of the Victorian capital, there were tensions between the permanent and the temporary. At the same time, the newly invented art of photography was trying to find ways to make fleeting moments last forever, but was not able yet to shed/overcome those tensions between the eternal and the ephemeral.

[1] For a more extensive discussion of the invention process see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

[2] Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 49.

Person of Interest: Site-Seeing 2.0

The establishing shot is a device of the filmic language to situate the viewer in cinematic space. Here, I briefly trace the history of this practice of filmic mapping and discuss its use in the American television show Person of Interest. Currently in its fourth season, Person of Interest is a science fiction crime drama revolving around secret agents, a billionaire tech genius and the prevention of violent crimes in New York City with the help of an A.I. mass-surveillance system.
From its inception, film sought to take its spectators to new, and exciting locations on far-reaching journeys. Giuliana Bruno, in her seminal book Atlas of Emotion, contends that film transports the spectator to these locations, turning them from voyeurs into voyageurs. She argues that the visualization of filmic travel, through the simulated cinematic movement in space, turned sightseeing into site-seeing.[1]
Traditionally mainly used at the beginning of a film, the establishing shot, just like a map used by the traveler, introduces an unknown location thus making it familiar. To further inform about and position the viewer in the filmic space, actual maps or street signs were used.

Person of Interest is a show that reframes the mapping of space while challenging attitudes towards the question of who is looking. Throughout each episode, the viewer is presented with an abundance of establishing shots, almost obsessively tracking every move of the characters while illustrating the possibilities of modern mass-surveillance techniques. Its two A.I. characters, the Machine and Samaritan, do not simply offer the viewer reassuring security by informing them about their current location. These images make it very clear that the spectator is being situated within the cinematic space as well as being watched. These two differing A.I. characters, one ostensibly imbued with ethical values, the other obviously weaponized, further problematize the importance of who is watching and with what agenda.
In its treatment of terrorist threats, the show also re-appropriates the practice of sightseeing. In “Control-Alt-Delete” (S4E12), various historical landmarks in downtown Detroit become merely endangered sites flagged by Samaritan’s all-seeing gaze. This representation of the mapping of space is Person of Interest’s dystopian vision of site-seeing 2.0.

 

[1] Bruno, Giuliana. 2007. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.

On the Edge of Your Seat

Are you as excited as I am about the new ‘Don Draper’ bench in midtown New York? It is a recently unveiled piece of public art created to celebrate the acclaimed AMC TV show, Mad Men, about an advertising agency in 1960s New York, and surely an ideal selfie-spot for any fan. As I wait on the edge of my seat for the final episodes to air over the coming weeks, I am wondering how inviting this bench might be? Situated on a public square in front of the Time & Life Building in Manhattan, it does look rather dapper, as well as roomy and comfortable. Promising you the opportunity to become a part of the Mad Men world and its desirable lifestyle, this piece of art expresses the essence of the show: Not only by paying tribute to its iconic character and opening sequence, but also by masterfully promoting itself. After all, advertising is what mad men and women do best. Buying into the glam and glitz, fans indulge in the consumerism that rose to international heights in the postwar boom years.
But what happens if an individual is unable to join the capitalist frenzy? Is social distance equated to spatial distance? Is it fair to assume that this ‘public’ art is for ‘everyone’ or are there perhaps members of the public that are less ‘desirable’ occupants of this space and its bench? In summer of last year, several articles in the press, such as this[1] and this one[2] in The Guardian, discussed the impact of anti-homeless architecture designed to repel such ‘undesirable’ groups from using street furniture and to prevent anti-social behaviour. In his article, Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm[3], the architectural historian Iain Borden questions this desire to control the character of a public space. He explores issues of ownership of public space, the right to use it, and how it may be used. These articles explore the notion that public spaces are designed to determine people’s actions[4]. Furthermore, even in our mass-communication age, marginalized groups such as homeless people are simply not part of the picture: they are very rarely represented in the media and thus rendered invisible. Since they have no buying powers, their ‘desired actions’ seem to be to stay out of sight and off the public architecture. Given the plight of tens of thousands of homeless people in New York alone, this discrimination is striking in its invisibility.
A recent initiative in 2014 in Vancouver invited homeless people to use specially designed public benches. As I am preparing for my first trip to New York, I am wondering how likely it is that homeless people will be welcomed on this particular bench in Manhattan?

– Sigrid Preissl

 

[1] Omidi, Maryam. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Just the Latest in ‘Defensive Urban Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 12, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/jun/12/anti-homeless-spikes-latest-defensive-urban-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[2] Quinn, Ben. “Anti-Homeless Spikes Are Part of a Wider Phenomenon of ‘Hostile Architecture.’” The Guardian, June 13, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/13/anti-homeless-spikes-hostile-architecture. Accessed April 3, 2015.

[3] Borden, Iain. 2005. “Stimulating the Senses in the Public Realm.” In What Are We Scared of?: The Value of Risk in Designing Public Space, by Charles Landry, 20–33 and 44. London: Cabe Space. pp. 22-23, 29.

[4] See Borden and Quinn.

Silentium: Ornaments and Crime Scenes

Silentium (Wolfgang Murnberger, 2004) is an Austrian crime film set in Salzburg. Brenner, a former police detective turned private gumshoe, is hired by a high-society widow to investigate her husband’s alleged suicide. In the course of the film, Brenner unearths a network of crime and corruption involving the most important institutions that have constituted the essence of this city for centuries: the Catholic Church and the Opera.
Salzburg’s baroque buildings take its visitors back to the era of 16th-century Italian architectonic expression of the triumph of the Catholic Church. The city also has a long and internationally renowned history of music, which it celebrates through frequent festivals in grand settings. In Silentium, woven into and hidden beneath the ornamental façades of Salzburg’s built environment, as well as its theater performance, are the most heinous crimes. To expose the city as illusion, I consider Janet Ward’s work on urban visual culture in 1920s Germany. In Weimar Surfaces, she identifies the cult of surface: external appearance (in architecture, advertising, film, fashion) without substance. She contends that in this era transparency was sought through the functionalism of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which rejected the visual codes of ornamentation from the past[1].
The film emphasizes throughout that nothing is as it seems: an alleged suicide is calculated murder to keep the silentium (silence) about sexual child abuse by a bishop; a humble priest helps the homeless by day and organizes murder, sex trade, and corruption by night; a brilliant opera singer enjoys raping virgins. Navigating through this existence of Sein (to be) and Schein (to seem) is Brenner, the reluctant hero undeterred by neither high art nor high society.
The pious architectural past is juxtaposed with the criminal present. The recent sexual assault allegations against the bishop of the Christian boarding school, Marianum, permeate today’s crime scenes. On the surface, the Marianum is a place of benevolence and religious worship. Magnificent surroundings honor the presence of God. Underneath, however, are cold and dark basements devoid of any adornment – spaces ideal for committing as well as hiding crimes.

The film’s most monstrous criminals circulate in and enjoy the most splendid surroundings. Golden ornaments, light, and luxury mislead the characters as well as the spectators. The sumptuous festival hall and a 19th-century mansion become the setting for great deceptions by opera stars and criminals alike. Nevertheless, as Brenner perseveres, the facades start to slowly crumble, if only metaphorically. In the end, the city’s urban fabric remains magnificent with its religious and musical essence intact, while the experience makes transparent the true depths of human nature.

 

[1] Ward, Janet. 2001. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press.