In the first of our texts looking ahead to Developed in Birmingham, artist Jo Gane discusses her exhibition A White House on Paradise Street, which takes inspiration from a lost photograph made by George Shaw. The exhibition opens at Birmingham Open Media (BOM) on 15 June.
Can you tell me how your research into Birmingham’s connections with early photography began?
Really when I started working with historic processes such as wet plate collodion in 2008. I then worked on a project with Pete James about Harold Baker’s wet plate images of the city in the library collection which was shown at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) as part of Birmingham Seen in 2009. This got me thinking about how photographs have documented a continuously changing cityscape from early on. I’ve since started looking at and making images with earlier processes such as daguerreotypes, which led to a conversation with curator Pete James about George Shaw’s early image making in the city.
I like to make work about people who are strong characters. This normally comes across by looking at their portraits. Shaw looks like a good man, he has an interesting, ambitious glint in his eye in the daguerreotypes I’ve seen of him which connected directly with me, a bit like the images I looked at of artist Jo Beck when I made work with his archive.
From this connection with Shaw’s portrait, looking into his archive of exceptionally detailed daguerreotypes was captivating and made me want to know more about what Shaw was doing with the process in the city. His images are so detailed – they sing out as if they were made yesterday – that’s what gets me with daguerreotypes, they are like miniature holograms because of the way the light bounces off the mirror. This crossover of time in photography is one of my key research interests – photographs as a form of time travel. Shaw’s images transported me back into 1840s Birmingham and made me want to make work about this fascinating time in the city.
Shaw was a man with many and varied connections, often through his work as a patent agent as well as his links with science and industry from which interesting theories can be drawn about him as a key figure in developing early photographic technology. Shaw had his fingers in lots of pies, which all came together to create a complex web ideal for developing photography – which would have been incredibly hard for anyone else in this place, with his knowledge and connections, pre-internet.
The project draws inspiration from an early daguerreotype thought to have been made in the city. What attracts you to the narrative of Shaw’s missing photograph? Why is it missing?
For me, the most interesting thing is always the gap where the solid facts of research have been eroded by time and speculation can create an image and a story. The idea of a missing, super-early daguerreotype of ‘A White House on Paradise Street’ (said to be made within days of the release of operational details of the process in Paris on 19th August) was what stood out to me as an exciting gap that could be filled in with an artwork. Simply the written description of an image taken of ‘A White House on Paradise Street’ sounded so idyllic and perfect I had a picture in my head that I wanted to play with. The importance of the daguerreotype plate as potentially the first one made in England also excited me.
Tracing the trail of historic events that made this image possible is fascinating. The accounts suggest Shaw’s position as a patent agent gave him advanced access to information about the patent information. There also a number of potentially key connections between people in Birmingham and Paris which might have served as a conduit for this information. Shaw’s encyclopaedic knowledge of chemistry, and of sources for the component parts required to make a camera and produce such an early image from local manufacturers add plausibility to the whole story. You can imagine the myriad of discussions and experiments that went on to allow Shaw to produce this image and the excitement when it worked.
Although the actual plate was referred to in several accounts its now seems lost. I think it is missing because of the turmoil of two world wars in the city, although who knows, perhaps it will turn up? Pete has described the image as his ‘holy grail’ of relics he has been searching for, so I think he’d be happy if he found it, although I think I now prefer the image I’ve imagined of it and would be disappointed as it would inevitably be very different. Although I have looked at later images of the building we believe it was taken of, these don’t have the same air of mystery and importance around them. In fact, the ‘White House on Paradise Street’ was the White Hart Inn and above was the office of the Birmingham Water Works company of which Shaw was a director. That is enough knowledge for me – already it starts to lose its mysterious appeal. I am making an art project after all, not a historic document and need some wiggle room in that gap to make it interesting for me to play with.
How and where will A White House on Paradise Street be manifest? And what exactly is a ‘time machine camera device’?
The project will be an exhibition at BOM (Birmingham Open Media) from 17 June 17 – 19 August containing a new series of daguerreotypes inspired by the absence of Shaw’s original plate and the live streams from the cameras. BOM has been an essential breeding ground for the project as it has become a collaboration between BOM Fellows – myself, Pete James and Leon Trimble. Cameras will be spread across the city in locations that are relevant to the early history of photography at Queens College Chambers, Waterstones, the Great Western Arcade and BMAG.
The ‘time machine camera devices’ are small replica Wolcott cameras fitted out with a Raspberry Pi and a micro camera inside the camera body which films and live streams the analogue projection from inside the camera. The cameras were built using historic techniques in mahogany by master cabinet maker Jamie Hubbard and are beautiful objects, with a contradictory contemporary feel due to the visibility of the Raspberry Pi on the back which has been programmed by Trimble. They are time machines as they collapse the gap between the historic and the contemporary through the collision of these two methods of image making.
The design of the camera is based on a Wolcott which was patented in 1840 as a faster way of making a daguerreotype using a mirror rather than a lens. The spirit of invention that went into the lateral thinking design of the Wolcott camera appealed to me in this project. We also know Shaw made views of New Street with a camera of this plate size and type. There are only two existing original Wolcott cameras in the world, one of which is in the museum collections centre, which could speculatively even have once belonged to Shaw. This original camera has been 3D scanned by Coral Monton and a visualisation of it will also be in the exhibition at BOM.
I’m interested in processes of image making and how these play with the reading of time within an image. Contemporary technology colliding with historic processes makes for an interesting, complex reading of time which I enjoy.
The exhibition has an idyllic, utopian title. How does this fit with the city as we know it today?
I like the contradiction between the feel of the title and the actual area of Paradise in Birmingham it refers to which is currently a construction site. The gap between representation and reality in photography is an interesting space and this gap is made apparent by this descriptive text. The title harks back to simpler times in the city, although Shaw was living in a very complex, interconnected place which made his work exciting and possible.
What are your hopes for the exhibition?
I hope that the exhibition and the wider projects start to give Birmingham some visibility in its rightful place in the history of photography. Its role is often overlooked, however developments in science and industry within the city moved photography forwards and brought the technology from its birth into infancy. The city has been described as the ‘midwife’ to the birth of photography.
Developed in Birmingham is a series of events devised by curator Pete James which explores early photography in the city and runs until 3 September 2017.