In the Shadows of the Old Town: Thomas Anna and 19th-century Glasgow

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    In 1858, a volume entitled Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs – being sketches of life in the streets, wynds and dens of the city of Glasgow was published under the pseudonym of ‘Shadow’ by Alexander Brown, a Glaswegian flâneur and reformer. Its frontispiece is an etching which depicts a theatre-like proscenium arch whose curtains have been withdrawn to reveal to the audience all the poverty, destitution and disorder that one was likely to find after dark in the insalubrious quarters of the city. At the extreme left-hand side, partly obscured by the curtain a silhouetted figure stands behind an unwieldy camera perched on a tripod. Distinctly unaffected by the mêlée, an arm is calmly raised and a finger precisely arched in the moment before the shutter is clicked and the scene committed to record. The volume, however, relies exclusively on textual descriptions to evoke the underside of the city and contains no photographs at all. Instead, the use of the word photograph in the title can be understood as a metaphor for detached scientific objectivity, a quality much celebrated by nineteenth-century reformers and investigators of social ills. As it happened, a decade after Shadow disappeared into the labyrinthine back-lands of Old Town Glasgow, he was followed there by a real photographer. In 1868, Thomas Annan was commissioned by the City Improvements Trust to take photographs of the Old Town in its last moments of existence before it was pulled down under a series of legislative acts. But perhaps paradoxically, given Shadow’s faith in the analytical properties of photography, Annan’s work seems to refute much of the material contained in Midnight Scenes and other similar tracts. Instead of the dens, shebeens, labyrinths and rowdy crowds described by Shadow, Annan’s depictions of the Old Town convey a static, calm environment, one which is often sparsely inhabited by a curious but apparently orderly population.

    Taking account of the sensational tendencies of many reformists’ texts, this paper investigates the discrepancies between the two representations, focussing in particular on the constraints which operated on Annan during his commission. It argues that Annan’s compositions – which became very influential on other 19th century photographers of everyday life such as John Thomson or Jacob Riis – far from being dispassionate analytical works, emerged as a result of a matrix of factors which included: photographic and artistic precedents; Annan’s own predilections as a photographer; technological limitations; the nature of the commission from the City Improvements Trust and political climate in which it was given; the medieval urban fabric in which he had to operate; and, perhaps, most importantly, the identity of the Old Towns inhabitants themselves.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages10
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2006
    EventPhotography and the City - Clinton Institute for American Studies and University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
    Duration: 29 Jun 200601 Jul 2006


    ConferencePhotography and the City

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