Friday, July 10, 2009

No Photos of British Land Landorama by Windowless Consultant

I've been growing increasingly aware of the need to improve my knowledge of at least the rudiments of photography to help upload some more professional images here. It was as part of that search that I came upon the most extraordinary book, A Secret History of Photography. I was visiting Central St Martins at the time to give a windows lecture, and stopped briefly into the library.

I couldn't do cover to cover, but I grasped most of an interesting chapter. The man generally credited with having produced the first viable means of photography is, along with William Henry Fox Talbott and his calotype, of course Jacques Mandé Daguerre with the Daguerreotype. At the time that he made his invention, the authors inform us, the London Society of Amateur Philosophers questioned it on the basis that, since the appearance of what we call the world is a mental construct, the very fact that the Daguerreotype was recognisable to us as a representation of the world - of, that is, a mental image - proved that it, too was a product of a mind. There must therefore be within the light box not simply, as was claimed, chemicals receptive to light, but machines able, by whatever means, to observe, interpret and reproduce the scene before them in the same way as we do: machines endowed not only with movement, but also with some form, however rudimentary, of consciousness.

When those critics were asked how such a procedure could work, they pointed to Daguerre's other illusions, including, apparently, the Diorama by Regent's Park. Just as there, they said, hidden boys operated machines behind the scenes, so, too, in his box, with effects no less admirably beguiling, but not to be believed any more than the magic of the ancient Egyptian priesthood, at our own peril as a society.

The Secret History moves at pace, however, and the writers were soon discussing a counter-argument hardly less intriguing, by the rival Philosophical Society of London Amateurs. Here it was claimed that these earlier critics had everything back to front. Daguerre, they suggested, had in fact been exploiting his photographic machines long before people realised: the Diorama, they held, was itself nothing other than a vast camera, projecting images from the world around it in onto interior walls, screens, lenses, reflecting or diaphanous surfaces cleverly obscuring the source. Daguerre, who had at first believed that what would most impress the public would be the humanly produced illusion of reality, had decided to conceal the mechanical means wary that, should he tell them that what they admired was in fact not illusion at all, they would simply yawn and wander off to the rival panoramas, themselves produced by genuine humans, brush in fleshly hand.

I didn't get as far as the authors' interpretation of this debate, but I did feel that, however extreme the positions, something about it squared with my own doubts as an amateur, and, in a bid to locate a middle ground, I decided to investigate the location at the centre of the row: Daguerre's London Diorama, of which I'd always wanted to get a clearer picture anyway.

Longer-term readers may recall a post of the Archaeologist's with a Dutch panorama. I myself have visited the place - indeed, at around the same time, since I was in the city taking advantage of the slow-down to accompany my husband on a business trip. The Archaeologist and my mutual interest in the rama goes back to our time as a couple, and was in fact bound up with our first date. That we should both have visited the Hague panorama, then, is as much a part of who we are as our having once been, as they say, one.

Who with the remotest breadth of interests isn't struck with fascination on encountering the rama? Just enough but sufficiently little is known to fill the mind with images at once vague and vivid, historically true and imaginative, the facts requiring creative investment to bring a remotely accurate picture to mind of a thing itself an illusion.

A quick tour of relevant entries in the Oxford English Dictionary only adds both to the allure and the obscurity, since the name alone raises questions threatening the legitimacy of the concept: an exhibit, event, etc., we are told, with a name incorporating the element -rama. As it comes, etymologically, from the Greek -orama 'that which is seen, the visible', the partial nature of the particle as word, gratuitously occluding its origin, seems strange: why not 'oramas'? Perhaps an answer is hinted at, though, in the citations. The first known instance, from Wheeton's 1824 Journal, reads 'Visited the Cosmorama… I had now seen many of the -ramas in London, Ignoramus' and all.' Following the links between definitions, we quickly learn to beware of taking it all too seriously as we hear of laugharamas, striporamas and donutoramas. The word was created in a spirit of popular amusement, whether respectable or otherwise, and we shouldn't look too closely there for fact.

But historical fact there is, and, though few of the world's remaining are still visitable, least of all in the entirety that made them what they were, the fact of the rama, be it dio-, pano-, cosmo- or cyclo-, won't go away, and, ever since discovering them with the Archaeologist, in the line of my windows research my interest has often been roused.

Hibbert and Weinreb's London Encyclopaedia quotes a contemporary account of scenes of a midnight mass rich in detail: 'At first it is daylight; we see the nave with its chairs; little by little the light wanes and the candles are lighted. At the back of the choir the church is illuminated, and the congregation arriving take their places in front of the chairs, […]. The midnight mass begins. In this reverent stillness the organ peals out from under the distant vaults. Then the daylight slowly returns, the congregation disperses, and the church with its chairs appears as at the beginning. This was magic.' And the Encyclopaedia explains the operations of the magic in detail: how diaphanous paintings (overlaying the previous etymological anomaly with another, of course: why the dia- - Greek 'through' - unaccountably distorted) rolled in and out from vast cylinders, translucent paints, filters, and cord-operated shutters could be used to trap, reflect, interrupt, distort, focus and colour light coming in from tall windows and skylights, how a boy operating hydraulic machines would, revolving the auditorium, supply the seated audience with an evolving vision of the whole.

'In 1852 the building was converted to a Baptist chapel', the encyclopaedia tells us, on the site near Regent's Park. I tend towards the belief that religion is a spectacular illusion. Since the same was true of the diorama, it was a good bet that the change of use might have left much of the original experience intact.

The location given in the Encyclopaedia is less than exact, and I'm not convinced this story would have been written had I not come upon a sign on a nearby building development. Although the appended map was less helpful, a round church that way wasn't hard to find.

When I arrived it was closed, but I took out my camera and made a couple of snaps, walking backwards over the road to try to fit it all in.

At this point I was surprised by a tap on the left shoulder. It was a man in a suit with a wire snaking into his ear, offering what turned out to be something of a revelation. 'Sorry, love, there are no photographs here,' he explained. I looked down at my camera, and the image that had formed on its little screen, showing what had once been the diorama, and now looked very much like the church before me in photographic representation.

I'm as averse to the idea of being caught out gullible as anyone else determined to survive in the competitive world of retail business. To be gullible is to be over-ready to believe, and, in my experience, its form least guarded against is that of being too ready to believe one's preconceptions when argument against them is offered. For that reason, instead of dismissing the man's suggestion as patently contrary to the evidence before us in my hands, I instead thanked him and considered in what way it might be true. Perhaps, for instance, he knew of the controversy surrounding Daguerre and the diorama. Perhaps he was of the camp that saw the photograph as a painting produced by mechanical mind. He wasn't, then, denying the existence of the image that he himself had seen me creating: rather, he was denying the concept that it had somehow been produced by the light alone. It was, to him, a drawing in colour - a painting in bits, or whatever - mechanically but consciously produced. An interpretation rather than some sort trace of the diorama in front of us.

Thinking my way into the man's opinion in fact proved profitable. As so often, I'd found myself frustrated by the images I'd been taking, limited as much by my poor knowledge of how to use a camera as by the low specs of the camera itself. Frequently, confronted by an extraordinary scene, glad to have the machine on me, I raise it, get everything in the frame and click, only to find the result disappointing to the point of provoking a disgust with the image that often taints my feelings about myself, too, leaving me miserable. On other occasions, when I need a record of a scene in itself banal, I'm surprised to find that the image of it is interesting, unexpectedly exiting. For this man to be suggesting that in fact the camera should in some way have a will, like the team of boys in Daguerre's pay in the building before me, with their hydraulic engines, cylinders, shutters and screens, suddenly made sense not only in itself, but also in relation to my own earlier discoveries, and I thanked him genuinely for the information before turning away, looking with renewed interest at the camera and back at the church over my shoulder.

In the spirit of enthusiasm that followed, I soon found myself trying out the effects on almost anything that came in front of me, holding up the machine, pointing, pressing, seeing what would result. The passer by's idea that this was a little diorama was hard to dispute and seemed to change everything.

This, I realised, was at the heart of whatever it is I've set myself to research; pictures of this I had to have. I might see it, in the terms of my earlier posts, as the window opening onto the street or the street entering the window, the world as prop or the prop as world, or perhaps the terms themselves, it occurred to me, were inadequate. It didn't matter then and there, as long as I kept recording, feeding the 'sensor', whatever that was, at the back of the box, having it make its images. Once home, posting, I'd order it all if I could, describe it better, find more appropriate terms, if necessary, for these pictures that aren't pictures, of things that aren't things.

So when, as I used the machine to draw a Sarah Morris painting through the glass wall of one office into the concrete frame of another, I was approached by yet another passer by, similarly dressed, and told I couldn't take photographs there, I told him with complete assurance that I knew that, but thanked him anyway. 'You can just there', he said, pointing at the ground, 'on the other side of that line'. This I found truly disconcerting. On the ground there was a slice through the pavement in which a little sliver of what appeared to be the same grade of concrete snaked along between the office development and Euston Road. What about the nature of the camera should change once that line was crossed? What about that line could change it? Behind me was the church, though now obscured by intervening buildings.

'Is it related to the distance from the diorama?' I asked, but he looked blank. 'The church?' I suggested.

At this point I noticed that he, also, had a wire snaking into his ear. Although the men looked different, the repetition of the clothes, the idea, something in the manner, and now this wire, suggested some kind of unity, as though their being different people was down only to some trick of appearance.

'This is British Land Land,' he said, and, lifting out a hand again, 'That's not.'

The reduplication in the phrase seemed provocative, the redundancy, that photography could only begin beyond it, where British land again was rebegun.

Continuing on my way, then, I tried several pictures both of the line and on the reduplicated and the simple side, looking out and looking in. As the afternoon wore on I spotted more and more men in the uniforms of building contractors carrying out work, barricades, dust, smoke, the work itself. Regent's Place was in a state of great upheaval. Perhaps the reduplication in the man's phrase represented this in some way. But still, the difference between what the men suggested were not photographs, and those to which they accepted the term applied I found hard to convince myself I could necessarily see, although, on the assumption that the more I took the clearer the distinction would be, it seemed best to continue trying. Perhaps it was normal that I couldn't spot the difference. If I was in a space, for instance, that in some way wasn't a space: for it nevertheless to be one, even if it wasn't, would require that it at least appeared to be one, and that, as that appearance reproduced not only what things seemed to be, but what they were, it should be indistinguishable from fact. Pictures of that would be invaluable evidence in a blog like this, and, if originally I'd gone there just to sharpen the eye of my camera against the church, I was now attempting to select with a view to a post.

When a third person, this time in a yellow bib, came up and told me the same thing about the status of photographs on the site, the tone this time was almost menacing, and this time it was the man who seemed bemused. I'd been told before, he said, why was I persisting? There were radios, he raised a hand to point at his ear, security cameras, did I think they wouldn't notice me? Again he pointed to the other side of the snaking concrete line: why didn't I just take them there?

Out of politeness, then, I walked that way before continuing, and not till nightfall did I stop trying, understanding now that all pictures from within the Diorama space, whatever they were to be called, should be taken in secrecy lest I offended those who, rightly or wrongly, did not believe in them. Certainly they had an enticing case, and one that perhaps could be true of necessity simply for their being in agreement about pronouncing it to be so, like a promise or other agreement, or an act of naming, but binding on the world itself. Imagine a space in which you could simply say 'there are no trees in the world' and it would be true. Simply for there to be people in that space who believed in that possibility would alone be worth recording, and, whether or not it was true, it was of that that I knew I needed images for the blog, would cease collecting only when I'd squeezed out all I could.

When I discussed this with the Archaeologist later, he seemed, I have to say, though interested, amused. That, he claimed, pointing at my images of St Anne's, is not Daguerre's Diorama at all. This time, my patience to suspend disbelief cracked, and I demanded explanation. We were in Foyle's café at the time, which has become our regular meeting point. Taking me into the body of the shop, using the resources there, its maps and books, he did manage, I have to say, pretty much to convince me that the original London diorama is generally supposed to have been a little to the West of where I'd been. A rather interesting site I've since discovered not only has a Google Earth image of what appears to be the basic structure still standing, but mentions that the well on the ground housing the shaft of the turning auditorium once served to bath patients during the Middlesex Hospital's tenure of the site.

However, all of this only adds to the mystery shrouding what happened at Regent's Place, where sign posts, men in semi-uniform and the images themselves appear to conspire so systematically to create the impression that the Frenchman's illusion still exists that it's impossible not to conclude that in some way it still does.

In what way this relates to the conclusion of Marks and Umbridge's Secret History I will only be able to check when I again have access to Central St Martins on the basis of another visitor's day pass; watch this space.

For the time being, I offer the following hypothesis: at Regent's Place at the moment there is massive development going on, involving both destruction and construction. Might it have been, I wonder, the contention of these authors that Daguerre's invention somehow enabled certain spaces themselves to become recording devices able to create exact reproductions which, though we have come to call them the photographs that in appearance they resemble, are in fact the product of agents within them which, though involving mechanical parts, have something like mind? If that is the case, it may be that the men in suits and bibs, just as much as the signposts, the site workers with their machines, scaffolding, screens, barriers and tools in fact had the task in some way of managing the illusion in order to make of it a reality. With the help of these devices, simply by this group's declaring it to be the case they were able collectively to make it so: to arrange that the pictures in this post, taken outside British land in the obscurer British land land, are something other than the photographs they so manifestly appear to be.


  1. well, balzac in le père goriot says (i lmean vautrin as far as i recall) a lot about 'rama',
    and : i suppose the archeologist is about to have some vacation ; maybe in an island , or a non-island ?
    can't wait for the cyclorama !

  2. I'd forgotten all about that in Le Pere G. - have to look back at it. Makes me wonder what other contemporary novelists might have set scenes in those those amazing spaces - did Dickens? Zola? As for vacations, I do indeed feel the call of the coast - somewhere on the North Sea, perhaps, a place to connect nothing with nothing.