Photographer Thomas Annan at the Getty
A Guide to Certain Places that You’ll Never Find
Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow (through Sunday at the Getty)
by Bondo Wyszpolski
A few more days remain to catch or revisit this exhibition of work by Thomas Annan (1829-1887), whom the Getty’s Timothy Potts describes as “the preeminent photographer of Glasgow in the mid-nineteenth century.” I confess to not having been overwhelmed when first walking through the galleries, but my opinion has changed (and for the better, I must add), having subsequently pored over the accompanying catalogue and looked more closely at each image.
Although, as co-author Sara Stevenson notes, “He was an artist moved by the poetic lyricism of light and the moral truth that might lie behind it,” not much is known about Annan’s personal life, which ended abruptly with his suicide at age 58. He seems, in retrospect, to have been a notable figure in his own time, but subsequently forgotten or marginalized. Perhaps this is reminiscent of Getty exhibitions devoted to Frederick H. Evans and P.H. Emerson, photographers who were, at least temporarily, given a rare public airing.
Stevenson, incidentally, is an independent curator and also founding curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, whereas her co-author (and curator of the exhibition) Amanda Maddox, is the Getty’s assistant curator of photographs. One of her recent projects was the show devoted to Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako.
Cited for “his role in the advancement of the carbon and photogravure printing process,” and a certain legacy “preserved and furthered” by his sons John and James Craig Annan, Thomas Annan stands out today largely because of one book, “Photographs of Streets, Closes &c., Taken 1868-71,” which crowned him as “a harbinger of the social documentary tradition in photography.” In that book, one of seven singled out for this exhibition, Annan turned his lens on the crowded tenements of the city center, packed with working-class laborers and their families. For a brief time, he was Charles Dickens with a camera. But we’ll save that one for last since it’s the equivalent of a grand finale.
“Views on the Line of the Loch Katrine Water Works” (1859) was published with 18 albumen silver prints. It documented the construction of a 35-mile-long aqueduct that brought fresh water into Glasgow. “Days at the Coast; or the Frith of Clyde: Its Watering Places, Scenery, and Its Associations” (c.1865) contained 12 prints. The area depicted became, increasingly, a getaway destination for Glaswegians. From what’s presented, some areas were pristine while others showed the first signs of development. Faded sepia images probably don’t do justice to the river and its environs, although one may wonder what these locales look like today, 150 years removed.
“Photographs of Glasgow College” (1866) contained 21 albumen silver prints, and this series is of historic interest because Annan was documenting a venerable institution, the University of Glasgow, that was soon to be demolished while being relocated away from the slum-infested inner city. What Annan photographed were the clean-looking and cleaned-out and abandoned buildings that had stood on High Street since 1460, the site having been purchased in 1863 by the Glasgow Union Railway Company. The sepia tones actually underline the nostalgic aspect of history about to be swept under the rug. To put it another way, the various buildings would have fitted in quite well as the backdrop to a Harry Potter movie.
“The Painted Windows of Glasgow Cathedral” (1867), with 43 albumen silver prints, proved to be another “lasting artistic record” of something no longer in situ. Well, it’s like this: In 1857, over 80 stained-glass windows were commissioned for Glasgow Cathedral. However, Maddox writes, “By the 1960s all the windows… had been permanently deinstalled because of color fading as well as deterioration that resulted from pollution.” (the “…” refers to the windows created in Munich, which might have been all of them in the cathedral, but I’m not entirely sure)
The book itself did not contain reproductions of all 80 windows, but only about 40, and the reason for that may have been due to inaccessibility and also the technical limits that would have prevented a clean, clear image. I’m guessing that Annan took photographs of other windows that he discarded because of their being too light or dark or shot from an awkward angle. But let’s keep my personal suppositions out of this.
The one real disadvantage that Annan was confronted with was simply that color photography did not exist 150 years ago. You can recall various Getty shows like “Painting on Light” or “The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral” to see just how much (and it’s a lot) color contributes to any reproduction of stained-glass windows.
“Photographs of Glasgow, with Descriptive Letterpress” (1868) contained 15 albumen silver prints, although some editions had more or even different images. This book is what it seems to be, a bit of time traveling (for us) to Glasgow, Scotland, 150 years ago. To better lose myself in such views as “George Square,” “Glasgow Bridge and Harbour,” or “Trongate and Cross,” I picked up a magnifying glass for a closer inspection.
“The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry” (1870) was published with 100 albumen silver prints, although you won’t find nearly that many in the catalogue. Anyway, as Glasgow expanded, it absorbed outlying farms and estates, simply gobbling them up (yes, like in Los Angeles), and that meant the demolition of dozens of mansion-like homes. It’s always sobering to consider what we lose through urbanization. As Maddox phrases it, “Old Country Houses has served as a time capsule, with the estates and their histories trapped in amber since 1870.”
As indicated above, we’ve saved the best for last, the series that will keep Annan’s name in circulation for a few more decades, maybe centuries. “Photographs of Streets, Closes &c., Taken 1868-71” (1871) had 31 albumen silver prints, almost all of them images of streets and narrow passageways (known as “closes,” “wynds,” and “vennels”).
This labyrinth of densely-packed tenement buildings was the spawn of industrialization, when rural poverty drove people from the land to the cities in search of employment. These winding concrete canyons were dangerous places to be at night, and couldn’t have been a cakewalk during the day either, probably like Rio’s favelas, many of whose inhabitants may have originated from Brazil’s dry Northeast, prone to drought and dead-end futures for the young.
At any rate, possibly commissioned by the City of Glasgow Improvement Trust, Annan ventured in and not only photographed the looming buildings but, in about half of the images, included various residents as well, thus humanizing his larger portrait. These people, often women and scads of children, don’t look like miscreants or beggars, but simply as human beings stuck and living in poverty and unhealthy conditions. What we don’t see in the pictures is the pollution that floated through the city, nor do we have the noises or the foul, unsanitary smells.
These dwellings were not historically significant (unlike, say, Edinburgh’s old town with its slum, which did have some historical value), and getting rid of them showed that a concern for proper sanitation had become a priority, as it must in any modern or modernizing city. There was, however, a moral imperative as well, a religious indignity at what was perceived to be dens of inequity, and breeding places of sin, from drunkenness to prostitution.
And, afterwards, where did these people go? How did they fare? What became of this location and what is the state of poverty and crime and pollution in Glasgow today? Books and exhibitions like this always leave us inquisitive. Well, what happened next?
Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow is on view through Sunday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Also on view, Now and Then: Chris Killip and the Making of In Flagrante. For hours and parking, call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu. ER