Last week I boarded a train from Aarhus to a small town called Herning. After some serious delays, several buses, getting back on the train and an Entitled Opinions podcast (marry me Robert Harrison), I finally reached my destination: Danmarks Fotomuseum.
I have a strange relationship with photography. As a teenager, taking pictures was a major hobby, but as I got older it sort of fizzled out. I wound my way through countless disposable cameras and compiled albums of film photographs at university, but I wasn’t using a camera in the same way. Despite not taking pictures, my interest in the medium as an art form didn’t waver: rather than taking pictures, I began to read about them instead.
“I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs, but by reading about them. The names of the three writers who served as guides will come as no surprise: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and John Berger.” – Geoff Dyer.
In my final year of university, my mind was filled with photography as I worked on my thesis, which was about the impact of the medium on modernist literature. Reading about photography introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about what happens when we make photographs, encounter them, hold them; what they mean ontologically and epistemologically (how does photography change the way people engage with the world around them at different points in history?). I taught myself the history of the medium, and basically fell head over heels in love with it again, just in a different, more theoretical way.
What started that year has transfixed me ever since. Photography also formed the backbone of my MA thesis, a project about the violence and aggression of the medium (both metaphorically and physically). Next month, I’ll be giving my first conference paper at the European Network for Short Fiction Research conference in Liverpool. My topic focuses on the history of flash photography and how it relates to ideas of sight and knowledge in both image and text. Therefore, as soon as I found out about the collection of flash equipment in the Herning museum, I made an appointment to meet the curator.
When writing my thesis last summer, I spent months researching flash, both as a theoretical concept and as a material technology (magnesium powder, foil, bulbs, flash guns…the works). Many happy hours were filled reading photography books in the draughty Art Library at the V&A and the tranquil reading rooms at the British Library, or simply at my best friend’s side in our university library in Brighton. Having never had/made the chance to visit the National Media Museum in Bradford, this was my first time seeing these objects and talking to a professional about them.
The collection of early flash equipment is extensive, including original bottles of Agfa Blitzlicht powder, flashguns and magnesium ribbon, amongst other things. Unfortunately there were no pistol shaped flashguns, my absolute favourite piece of kit that I am yet to see in the flesh. Flash powder was used by photographic pioneers such as Jacob Riis to illuminate dark spaces, but it was not without its consequences.
Early forms of flash technology burned very intensely and were therefore highly hazardous, as the stains and burns on the fabric in the photo above demonstrate. I was very excited by this dirty old rag. The caption reads “Indretning til afbrænding af magnesium (kraftig blitzlys) med røg og støvfanger.” Rough translation: “Device for the burning of magnesium (heavy duty strobe light) with smoke and dust trap.”
Here we have the evolution of the flash bulb, an invention that contained the explosion inside a glass envelope. However, this containment did not completely negate the hazards of flash, as bulbs often shattered, sending shards of glass flying in all directions. Hazard-free flash only came with the later introduction of electric flash.
Note that delightful Vacublitz typography. I love how dynamic it is, almost coming off the surface of the card, pushing forward like the light that would surge out of the product. Sometimes the literature that accompanies old technologies, such as manuals and advertising campaigns, is just as intriguing.
Besides the marvellous flash equipment, the museum boasted a wealth of other curiosities, including stereoscopes, umpteen cartes de visite, a Victorian album with a built-in music box and some of the cutest cameras I’ve ever seen (that gold Rollei!).
The museum also had a mock-up of a nineteenth century photographic studio. I’d read about the neck vices that were used to keep people still for the long exposure times, but I didn’t know that there were also chairs with holes in the back: a parent could put a hand through this hole and get a grip on their child’s clothing, forcing them to sit tight for a clear image. Yet another example of the constant aggression and artifice that is knotted so tightly together with a medium that is supposed to be authentic.
Although this isn’t Denmark’s primary photography museum or collection, it’s important to give institutions outside of a country’s capital a bit of attention, don’t you think? However, the very fact that this little gem of a museum will be closing later in the year (due to its loss of Kommune funding) is an example of how society on the whole is failing to cast its net of attention wide enough. The situation here in Denmark reminds me of the current U.K. issue between Bradford’s National Media Museum and London’s V&A over the movement of around 400,000 photographic objects from north the south. Photography, albeit the most democratic of visual mediums, is here a primary example of how seemingly impossible it is to pry art and metropolitanism away from one another, especially when culture holds hands so very tightly with wealth and privilege. Cultural capital should be spread around a country and benefit its entire population, rather than being concentrated in a metropolitan bubble, and yet the impending closure of DFM and the near closure of the NMM in Bradford in 2013 demonstrate that this principle is far from being achieved in practice.
When Danmarks Fotomuseum closes in October 2016, the objects in the collection will be sold, given away, or returned to those who donated them in the first place. Whilst this temple devoted to the development of today’s most ubiquitous visual culture is dismantled, a new pedestrian street, composed of slick slabs of stone in a geometric design, is being built in Herning town centre; not only does it look ghastly, but it symbolises the diversion of essential funds from matters of substance to trivial superficiality.
Museum website: http://fotomuseum.dk/
Online archive of Danish photography: http://www.danskebilleder.dk/db/#1462014609406_0
Dansk Fotohistorisk Selskab: http://objektiv.dk/nyhome/