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Thomas Annan of Glasgow

Lionel Gossman

7. Epilogue

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1When the author of this short study was growing up in Glasgow in the 1930s and 1940s, “Clyde-built” referred to the ships built in the world-famous yards of Govan, Clydebank, Linthouse, Scotstoun, Whiteinch, Dumbarton, and other districts and suburbs of the city or nearby towns on the River Clyde. Though the industry was already in decline by that time, the term was used with pride throughout the West of Scotland. It denoted the honest, workmanlike products of inspired engineers and designers and skilled craftsmen (loftsmen, platers, welders, caulkers). As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Clydebuilt became an industry benchmark of quality.”136 It seems to me not inappropriate to use the term “Clyde-built” to describe Thomas Annan’s work. It too is honest, straightforward, technically advanced, often strikingly well-designed and stirring, but not “artsy.” As the writer of Annan’s obituary in the British Journal of Photography for 23 December 1887 observed, “Honourable in feeling and fastidious in taste, he was utterly intolerant of sham and of everything below the best.” At a time when many photographers were already producing work that would sell to the public — not only Valentine’s and Wilson’s landscapes, soon to be available as picture postcards, but even Hooper’s horrific images of victims of the Madras famine — Annan worked to a great extent on commissions received from public agencies and institutions, as well as industries, book publishers, groups, and individuals. He carried out these commissions imaginatively but always conscientiously.

  • 137 Sontag, On Photography, p. 6.
  • 138 See, for instance, the text accompanying Plate X, “The Haystack,” in The Pencil of Nature: “One ad (...)

2In “the shady commerce between art and truth” that characterizes photography for Susan Sontag,137 Annan managed to maintain his honesty and integrity. If today we are impressed by the formal composition of his photographs, it does not appear that this quality took precedence for him as a photographer over other considerations. As far as one can judge, he remained committed to the idea of photography as a faithful, conscientiously-made representation of “reality” (including works of art created by others) and retained a naïve conviction — which was probably also that of William Henry Fox Talbot himself138 — that the photograph can be at one and the same time an authentic historical record and a work of art. To be sure, in photographs of machines that were intended to explain or facilitate their workings, for instance, or in passport photographs, or in aerial photographs designed to assist bombing crews, the primary and dominant function will be that of replicating the object, though that function is always subject to supersession by other unintended functions. But a photograph of a landscape or a cityscape or a building or a person (a photographic portrait, as distinct from a simple mugshot), even if it aims at maximum fidelity, can hardly dispense with some attention to overall design and impact.

  • 139 On Photography, p. 103. David King’s extraordinary Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin (Londo (...)

3In the 1970s, Annan’s conviction received something like an endorsement from an unexpected quarter. “The distinctive achievements of photographic seeing,” Susan Sontag writes in what appears to be a modification of her critical judgment of the estheticizing effect of photography, “were until quite recently thought to be identical with the work of that relatively small number of photographers who, through reflection and effort, managed to transcend the camera’s mechanical nature to meet the standards of art. But it is now clear that there is no inherent conflict between the mechanical or naïve use of the camera and formal beauty of a very high order [...]. This democratizing of formal standards is the logical counterpart to photography’s democratizing of the notion of beauty. Traditionally associated with exemplary models (the representative art of the classical Greeks showed only youth, the body in its perfection), beauty has been revealed by photographs as existing everywhere.”139


136 Accessed 3.3.2015

137 Sontag, On Photography, p. 6.

138 See, for instance, the text accompanying Plate X, “The Haystack,” in The Pencil of Nature: “One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce to our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature. Contenting himself with a general effect, he would probably deem it beneath his genius to copy every accident of light and shade; nor could he do so indeed, without a disproportionate expenditure of time and trouble, which might be otherwise much better employed. Nevertheless, it is well to have the means at our disposal of introducing these minutiae without any additional trouble, for they will sometimes be found to give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented.” On Talbot’s hesitation between an “indexical definition” of the photograph and a “hesitant” claim, made in connection with three plates in The Pencil of Nature (VI, “The Open Door”; X, “The Haystack”; and XIV, “The Ladder”) “about the art-rivaling potential of photography,” between emphasis on the reproducibility of the photographic image and appreciation of the “variability of the print” in relation to the negative, see Carol Armstrong, Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book 1843-1875 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), pp. 107-08, 115, 123-24, 160-65.

139 On Photography, p. 103. David King’s extraordinary Ordinary Citizens: The Victims of Stalin (London: Francis Boutle, 2003), consisting entirely of full-page reproductions of mugshots from the interrogation files of individuals arrested and shot during Stalin’s reign of terror from the late 1920s until his death in 1953, demonstrates vividly that in certain circumstances (here the use of natural light and longer time exposure) even the mugshot can be movingly expressive and esthetically engaging.


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