Re-working the David Knights-Whittome Archive
Pamela Jane Wheeler
The Realm of Captured Shadows
They sat, they spoke, they stayed. Light and alchemy and optics worked together to immobilise the moment when these people were transformed, and ushered into the realm of captured shadows. The photograph can have the ability to morph into something more than just an image. It is not a purely evidential or documentary mode - it can have the power to transmute the human presences within into something magical. Something binding of the qualities of life and death, of person and presence, of reflections and impressions. A metamorphosis and transmutation of image back to body - and image to ‘life’.
The plates, the ‘doubles’ of the individuals that visited David Knights-Whittome in his studio are stored, lined up. Protected in paper cases like bodies in a morgue, or mummies in their bound linen - contained and preserved, attempting to defy all conditions of life. Surviving a century of continuous time and all its obstacles. Damaged by water, heat, pressure, movement - but still they remain. The ones that have adhered to and yet fight against time, their journey in their photographic life leading up to the moments where
my hands are holding them, my eyes staring directly into the eyes of the imprinted body. And I feel the profound sensation of a stayed moment. A moment captured and fixed within the photograph a hundred years old or more - where the spiritual presence remains. Roland Barthes may describe this as ‘punctum’ - but these are not people that I have a relationship with. At least, these are not people that I have talked to, shaken hands with or known when they were alive physically in this world. They are not people that I have had contact with on this earth before this moment of looking at the glass. Barthes discusses our relationships to a photograph of a loved one, and indeed the essences these contain. He brings to light the distressing inability to fully grasp his mother’s presence and ‘life’ within a photograph of her - to the extent that there is then no real truth in the photograph for him at all.
There is no sharp sting of a ‘wound’ that pains me in the way of Barthes’ notion of having a particular connection to the referent (other than purely looking). There is no issue with recognition, as Barthes had, with the photographs I look at in this collection. No struggle or straining for a lost or redundant essence of the individual within - these photographic traces that I hold are essences in themselves. Essences of the body replicated. Impressed on the emulsion that delicately rests on the polished, fragile glass. The referent within, like a shadow or a mirror image of an individual, cannot be separated from the body of the person captured. It is an intrinsic link and direct impression of the individual’s form into the photograph. They reside there, looking back at us, continuing their bodily existence within the photograph and the photographic image. Reaching out from the delicate surfaces with their expressions, their detailed presence spellbound within their emulsion world. The body that was, still is, within the emulsion, despite the continuation of time. The shadows of the individual exist and continue to persist after a century, leaving the individuals of the present to ponder their immortal remains.
"The photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both." Roland Barthes Camera Lucida
Lieutenant Coopar rests, folds his arms and prepares his face, his smile, shuffling his hand against his uniform and cocking his head; slightly defensive and welcoming at once, as he tries to feel comfortable in front of the apparatus. Miss Knight rests her hands delicately on her dressed lap, gazing wistfully into the back of the studio space; her own world, perhaps, or at a prop set up for another shoot. She keeps her gaze gentle along with her smile. Little Taylor, delighted with the bird propped on the stone pillar, stands and laughs, holding the picturesque pose for the picturesque moment.
Their activity is irrefutable; their presence undeniable. The two leaves of the lamination between subject and photograph begin to shift and flux. I am transported to the then, in the now. They are so very present, and through their persistent traces I am taken to the moment in which they reside. Taken to the atmosphere, the studio, the smell of painted backdrops and the attendance of the individual. The experience of the moment results in the creation of another lamination - of my irrevocable attachment of my memory and imagination. A photograph is experienced through seeing, feeling and thinking. We experience them as pieces of lost time, present in our hands and in our sights in the moment of looking. A lost piece of historical and personal interest, that will in the future have the same mysteries and questions surrounding them as they do today.
Because although the photographs have lost their information - their anchoring in time and place - they still have a story. They have a history. Who has touched them? Who has laid eyes on them? What has this plate experienced in its duration of photographic life? What will it experience in the future?
The mortality of the individuals are continued through this very action of looking, noticing, creating, imagining and remembering. Remembering the photograph in our minds and emotions, their faces welcoming our enquiries. Photographs and their subjects grasp our imagination in the second of looking. Our own memories and questions swirl around the photograph, reaching into the corners, touching the details. Arousing qualities of reality for the individual. Colour. Movement. Scenarios. Taylor smiles to me, imploring my fascination with the bird to be as much as hers. Coopar grins into my eyes, laughing whilst holding back something he chooses, and I grin back. I smile as I am touching these fragile imprints.
My touch of their traces contain me within their life, and I am bound to their imprints through my action of creating their image again, on a new surface, in a new photograph.
But I am compelled to animate these new photographs further, physically. It is not enough to have these transformations purely in my mind - I want to express to others my imagination and personal connection to these original traces. Creating a new negative, and subsequently a new photographic print, secures my attachment. But it is the application of colour that breaks the static of the moment. It reinstates the photographsâ€™ physicality as moments taken from time, gives them a quality of reality. Gives them animation. The paint rests on the surface of the paper, concretely securing my lamination, my traces - my devotion.
“... Reflections in the glass conflate self as subject and self as object into an insoluable enigma ... This extreme doubling turns the field of the visible into an extension of the beholder: a state akin to extreme delusion and mental disturbance.” Marina Warner Phantasmagoria
An individual stands before a mirror. Their image is presented, reflected back at them, inseparable and directly consequential from their body. Moving, swaying, reaching out to touch the mirrored surface - their reflection responds, copying and mimicking each and every fraction of movement. Reflection and shadows are only possible through the presence of the body. They can be seen as certificates - evidential and concrete proof of a person’s existence as physical beings in this world. There are no objects without some form of a shadow. There are no shadows without a physical, material mass of something. Therefore there are no images (reflections or otherwise) without that physical mass being present.
Just as a photograph is the lamination of the particular subject’s trace and imprint, so the mirror image and reflection is laminated to their subject. They are inseparable, sealed together and married through their individuality. Of one and the same being, merging and connecting in a permanent twinship. The photographs contain these reflections of the subjects. The glass plates hold onto the individual’s ‘twin’, their double, their material doppelgänger. This is what is presented back to us, and this is what certificates their existence.
But whilst this is something that each person can grow accustomed to - the seeing of one’s reflection (or the seeing of
another person’s image) - when it is re-presented back to oneself, doubled up and married together as a visual manifestation of the metaphor, there is the eery disturbance of the secondary being. The being split into two, whilst still retaining both.
The second becomes the double, the disturbing presence of the ‘other’. The other, that has many connotations throughout history and literature to power and control, fears and horror stories. When today, one’s double (in a reflection or shadow) is accepted as an intrinsic part of us, welcomed as a reference to oneself and one’s image, it seems odd to be scared of it. It is inherent and undeniable, belonging solely to us, and only us. And this is what, perhaps, can be so daunting to some when it is sealed in a photograph. The double is now manifested.
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“Everyday the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” Walter Benjmin Illumintions
The ‘one’ in any photograph is never purely just ‘one’ - their image has existed multiple times. In mirrors, in reflective surfaces, in the ground glass screen of the camera (or the digital pixels of today’s technology) and in other photographs. Other photographic negatives, or pixels, that can be created into a physical material over and over. What happens when one image becomes many? Is there an identifiable trace left within these replicates, and does the essence of a person continue with their infinite reproducibility? Or does each replication require a section of this trace to become lost and detached, or worse - to die.
As Walter Benjamin proposed, it is the aura that withers in the age of mechanical reproduction. As one photograph becomes reproduced, its precise placement in time and space differs from the original, disappears, withers in the new - and thus the new is quite separate from the original. There is no beautiful and fantastical aura that emanates from the reproduced. If this is true, if trace is erased through repeats and repeats, then what part am I playing in this process?
Destructor. Destroyer of essence. Through my touch and tampering, there is a changing of their course as fundamental traces. The unique distance that can be felt from an aura is gone, and the essences of the individuals within the photographs can no
longer be reached. Perhaps the essence still exists within the glass plates themselves, but my replications and edits continue to tear away at that lamination between image and presence.
But there is, however, a photographic life still current and relevant within the reproduced and re-printed images - their crops and edits containing the referent still within, purely though image. The photograph has become object - shapes are repeated, and movement is still possible through these new edits. Our viewing space creates imagined movement for these images as shapes, but activity is lost for the referent within. Animation becomes static and fixed. No fluidity is left in the notions of memory, recognition or imagination - where activity can flow and shift to recreate the moment of the photographic event. To attempt to recreate the mysteries and secrets and life for the individual person contained in the image.
But this doesnâ€™t mean that the photographic imagery in this new form isnâ€™t as interesting or as intriguing as the original. Even if their essences and traces, their indexical imprint, has dissolved, or been ripped away with each re-print and each copy creation, their bodily image still exists. Their mirror, their double, their replicates still continue to live on in image form through these new creations. And in time, perhaps these will grow an aura of their own.
Re ma ins
“Photographs, which cannot themselves explain everything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.” Susan Sontag On Photography
The surface is alive with details. Details of the face, the body, the atmosphere of the photograph. Details that talk - or attempt to mute. The dust particles from the then and the now build up different layers on the emulsion surface; specks that veil the subject with their complex patterns. The intricate scratchings of David’s hand on the plate, retouching the photographs. Beautifying further the delicate details of his impressive work. The infectious blistering of the emulsion, caused by water or perhaps a mould, that has spread across the plate. Splitting the surface, penetrating though the layers to create its very own detailed presence within the photographic event.
Then there are the other markings, that begin to create a possible narrative for the photographic event. A stamp, without a queen, placed directly over the face of a young woman. A cross, drawn directly over the face of another. These photographs were not desired by the sitter, or perhaps by David himself. Eliminations. Rejections.
However, their presence persists. Their details interrupted but not removed. We see the smiles, the eyes, the distinction of their faces. We see all of their imprint - they are still undeniable to our gaze.
Gregory sits, proud. The splitting surface reaching his face, but
not covering his expression. Miss Knight stares out behind the cross, determination in her eyes as the re-printed, renewed photographic image gives life to the outcasted selection. I wonder whether this is the first print, whether there was a proof before hand that Miss Knight had refused. Refused herself without her hat. Did Miss Edna Corris feel the same way about her side-on shot? When closed in on, these details become distilled. Enlarged. And so does their poignancy. They become strong and defiant, and strangely here. They are here, in our hands at this very moment. Their enlargement makes their presence so contemporary, and we are introduced as viewers. Invited to see them, truly, through the windows to their souls.
Is there an end? Can there be a mortal end for these magical objects? Magical objects that are far more than just an object. They are a subject. An individual. A stayed moment. A moment spanning more moments than we will ever have in our own lifetime. I believe that photographs have the power to contain - the power to hold an underlying presence of its subjects in the traces and certificates of participation. They offer a transcendence, a transmutation of our bodily image to reach into the corners of time and step out into the future. Step out into the imagination. Become the impelling emotion and longing mysteries. Become animate once more.
Notes on the Archive
The David Knights-Whittome photographic collection was discovered in 1978 in a basement of an old studio shop, dusty and dislodged from order. Some destroyed, most salvageable. Over 10,000 glass plates, of varying sizes and subjects, gasping through the dust and debris of time. Born in 1876, David Knights-Whittome became a talented photographer, owning studio shops based in Sutton and Epsom from c1907-1917. Not only did he shoot studio portraiture and set-ups, but location shoots, events, stately homes - even the then Royal Family.
During the 10 years or so which these plates are dated, David connected with a vast number of people and places. His skills with people are shown in the expressions and poses of his sitters, and the relaxed atmospheres surrounding them. It is my relationship to these touches and traces of the people in the plates that fuels this project. When I first laid my eyes on a few from the collection at the archives back in the spring of 2012, my heart fluttered. And from that moment, his work was embedded within me. These faces and imprints became alive.
This is their life. They are present and will be present after we are long gone, too. And more so within these new furnishings. These new photographs and prints that now contain my touch, my layers of care and emotion. This is my contribution to the archive. My contribution to Davidâ€™s relatively unknown legacy.
Perhaps these same thoughts and attachments can arise, still, when this book is found in a basement. Fallen from a shelf, pages upturned. Lying in the dust and debris of forgotten memories and one hundred years.
Coopar, Lieutenant Date Unknown Ref. 35725A
Corris, Miss Edna 12.01.1912 Ref. 32175
Gregory (Mr) Date Unknown Ref. 21952+A
Grey, Mr C.J. Date Unknown Ref. 23843B
J. de Solla 13.01.1911 Ref. 31239
Knight, Master 09.05.1908 Ref. 29517A
Knight, Miss 06.10.Unknown Year Ref. 23322A
Knight, Miss 14.12.1916 Ref. 34856
Knight, Miss 21.06.1916 Ref. 34646
Knight, Miss 18.12.1907 Ref. 24276A
Knights Whittome, Mrs 08.02.1909 Ref. 30078B
Schultz, Mrs 16.12.1912 Ref. 32334D
Taylor Date Unknown Ref. 23867
Walkley, Mrs and Baby 16.11.1914 Ref. 32791
Wilcocke, J Date Unknown Ref. 22043
Wiles (Mrs?) Date Unknown Ref. 32579
Wiles, Baby Date Unknown Ref. 32574A
Wiles, Mrs 04.09.1907 Ref. 24004
Williams (Miss?) 04.03.1907 Ref. 23400B
Williams (Mrs?) 26.11.1907 Ref. 24223B
Williams, ESQ H. 10.07.1915 Ref. 32970
Williams, Master Date Unknown Ref. 22599
Williams, Mrs Date Unknown Ref. 22838E
Animate : Re-working the David Knights-Whittome Archive Created, edited and self-published by Pamela Jane Wheeler www.pamelajane.co.uk May 2013 Photographic imagery and written content ÂŠ Pamela Jane Wheeler Original photographic and document content ÂŠ The Sutton Archives Local Studies and Archive Centre - Central Library St Nicholas Way, Sutton, Surrey SM1 1EA Material in this work that is the copyright of the London Borough of Sutton Local Studies & Archives Service is published with their permission. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be stored, reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright holder, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. With special thanks to Kath and Sue from Sutton Archives.
Housed in the London Borough of Sutton Archives are thousands of photographic glass plates c.1907-1917, by one David Knights-Whittome. 'Anim...
Published on May 14, 2013
Housed in the London Borough of Sutton Archives are thousands of photographic glass plates c.1907-1917, by one David Knights-Whittome. 'Anim...