suckled by a mannequin

suckled by a mannequin

On Monday I saw an image of a young child simulating being breast fed by a shop mannequin. It was tweeted by Acton Ales and retweeted with revulsion by Melissa Cole (the disgust was directed towards the brewery for other reasons beyond the scope of this post. Donald Trump, White Knight – you can look into it). I also discovered that Acton Ales isn’t in west London but Northumberland.

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I’ve not included the picture here. It’s not because it’s controversial it’s just because I don’t know who the boy and his family are and whether or not they want to be spread across the internet. To see the original image, just go into Melissa Cole’s or Acton Ales’ Twitter feed. Instead, I’ve put this charming image of a rose snapped with my phone in the Boot in St Albans.

The brewery originally posted the picture with a reference to knowing your first taste of their beers which is a terrible pitch. If their beer is synonymous with breast milk, then the shot needed to be of a genuine breast otherwise it’s basically saying their ale is a shocking disappointment – a mannequin’s nipple is bloody bakelite! In any case, there are no details with the image and nobody has commented on it.

That should have been it but my thoughts have gone off in all directions at once. The image won’t leave me alone. I actually treasure it. But why?

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here for your enjoyment – a cute little frog from St Albans

Here’s a description: the child looks male and isn’t much older than a toddler. The context is suspect. For a start, the mannequin torso is standing on the floor too low for perusal by shoppers so it seems a bit set up. It’s wearing a summer dress and the straps have been pulled away to expose the bust. The child’s left hand is on the right bosom and he’s sucking the teat of the left bosom (something I learned from a Richard Dawkins book that we always get wrong – it’s the mother that suckles, the infant sucks).

I don’t think a child would intuitively go up to a dummy and do this because it’s a lump of moulded plastic. In the care of sniggering teenage relatives who showed him what to do? Probably. I think I can see a bit of knowing mischief on the boy’s face like he’s in on it and trying to suppress a smile.

Acton Ales and its misguided way of promoting itself aside, I’m not sure if I’m creeped out by the image or amused by it. This got me to thinking about the country we’re viewing it in. We don’t generally like these kind of pictures in Britain. I can’t help imagining a group of Italian or Greek mothers loving an image like through the prism of matriarchy. I went to school in France for three years. What struck me when we first moved there is that frontal nudity is on the shower gel adverts in between ad breaks on children’s television. In fact, nudity was everywhere and this was before the age of the internet.

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The French version of blooper reel shows and Candid Camera often has things very much like this – breasts being exposed by babies. Shows in Italy go even further. They’re a bit like the 1970s “confessions of” films with Robert Asquith to our eyes. Tutti Frutti – a 1980s strip show – was first commissioned by Silvio Berlusconi.

This photo is also a good representation of apps like Untappd – sucking at the nipple in pursuit of the holy grail and finding that nothing lives up to expectation. Aren’t beer tickers just like this young boy desperately seeking the elusive five stars? It’s a testament to negative publicity – disappointment can be more cathartic and occupy a greater number of column inches than approval which lends much less to the creative process. We love whingeing more than we do being satisfied.

20160129_145630Another thing it makes me think of is beer obsession and breast feeding and a possible link between the two. Is the need for beer linked to our most fundamental desire to be wet nursed? Are the genes that drove that hunger still with us decades later? It’s something I’ve often cogitated over – especially when sipping a sweet stout or a mild. They just feel like milky nourishment. For substantial research, I’d have to read up on work by paediatricians, nutritionalists, primatologists and evolutionary biologists.

It also made me look into myself and I’m not proud. It made me realise that if I did find myself the last of mankind after waking up to discover the human race gone, between draining bottles of beer from shop shelves and cleaving open tins of food, I’d definitely be sneaking around the upper floor of Marks and Spencers groping the mannequins too. It’s only the layers of inhibition, self-respect and public disgust that stop me from acting like this toddler in the first place. Obviously it would take time for these safety mechanisms to be eroded – potentially hours. I know. Horrid.

So there you have it. A stream of consciousness from one picture on Twitter. I needed to get these thoughts off my chest (come on – you knew it was coming). I hope the boy’s healthy and happy. I’d recommend following Melissa Cole because she’s a professional beer writer. Have a look at Acton Ales too and make up your own minds.

Capturing the Moment: William Henry Fox Talbot

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In a small dark square on the wall is an image of a little girl. Her hands are neatly placed over the lap of her pale dress. She looks stage right – not engaging with, but keeping still for the portrait-taker. I study it closely to see whether I can discern a father’s dotage for this beautiful little girl or whether it’s merely duty: assisting the patriarch in the furthering of science. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder. Ela was 11 years old when this calotype was taken in 1843. She wouldn’t have known the moment would be captured for strangers to scrutinise 173 years later in a museum, though the woman she became may have realised its significance. She died in 1893.
 
Photography didn’t come about by virgin birth. The Camera Obscura was commonplace amongst  the learned as was the Camera Lucida – a device that projected an image through a lens onto paper whereupon it was traced by hand. It was invented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807 and William Talbot just didn’t have the knack. Sitting beside lake Como in Italy, he tried to render the image being beamed onto the paper but found his efforts woeful. He thought that there had to be a better way. If he’d been adept, things might’ve been different.
 
Talbot officially invented the calotype in 1840. The process enabled multiple images to be made from the original calotype as other papers could be pressed against the material to get the chemicals printed onto them – little different to the potato prints taught in primary schools today.
 
One of the first images by Talbot you will see is of a latticed window from his own Lacock Abbey Estate in Dorset. It’s credited as being his original calotype from 1835 that he took using a modified Camera Obscura. He understood how an image’s capture might be accentuated by combining a small image-sized back frame with large aperture lens at the front. He used a microscope and objective telescope lens (the large outer lens) respectively to burn the silver salts he’d coated the photo plate with. He went on to experiment with silver nitrate which had a stronger and quicker reaction to being struck by light. The latticed window is now a faded violet ghost of simple geometry but a perfect photo of a window nonetheless. Doubtless, the strong contrast between the daylight pouring through the panes in 1835’s blistering summer, and the dark interior of the room refined it. It’s haunting.
 
The 1900s was a time when capturing images without brushes or pastels was not seen as an art but necromancy. It was an age in which scientists, philosophers and scholars were also the landed gentry and members of parliament with multiple-barrel names. Talbot stood as a Liberal MP and devoted his time between philosophy, science, photography (though it wasn’t known as such then) and Whig politics. He would later study archaeology – especially Assyriology.
 
The medium had been explored earlier by people like Thomas Wedgwood. It’s fascinating to see how a personal travail can lead towards genuine science. Though this exhibition is about Talbot, it’s also about such notables as Frederick Herschel, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) had trained as an architect and worked as a stage designer for the Paris Opera. He designed panoramic backdrops & dioramas. His interest in taking photographic images came from his passion for finding better ways of capturing light in paintings as well as making perspective more realistic. He can be credited with the first immortalised images – Daguerrotypes. They were sharper but faded quickly. He was, as we shall see, also open to accusation.
 
The exhibition makes clear that many people were travelling in the same direction and as is the case in science, everything is connected. It was the chemists (more formerly referred to as alchemists – the search for the process of turning base metals to gold) who discovered light-sensitive chemicals. The innovation of the textile loom (Joseph-Marie Jacquard 1801) used punched card that would come to make reproduced postcards possible. Pioneering work on electrical discharge carried out in Germany and Holland would go on to inform flash photography with portable Leiden Jars. The last was demonstrated to the Royal Society by Talbot too. I’m aware that the camera in my smart phone uses none of the technology pioneered during this period but the microcomputers within required the work of another Royal Society contemporary – Charles Babbage – grandfather of computers to put us on this road. The images inside my phone have no physical mass yet still exist. I don’t fully understand it myself. 
 
Some of the wondrous items on display include Camera Obscuras, a Camera Lucida and a Solar Microscope – this last was used to project things like fleas onto a large screen and was used as a carnival attraction. People would queue up for this in droves. Science was a freak show!
 
There are tangents in this offering that go off in amusing or interesting directions: Hippolyte Bayard was a French scientist who possibly pioneered permanent images before Daguerre. Daguerre allegedly advised Bayard to delay announcing his discovery to the French Academy of Sciences just so he could beat him to it. Bayard resorted to using the process by taking a self portrait of himself as a bare chested drowned man and accused Daguerre of being responsible for his decay with an accompanying “j’accuse” dirge (Bayard actually lived for a further 47 years). John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882) made nature photographs with stuffed animals. To anyone with copies of Audubon prints or some of the first bird field guides, renderings of stuffed wildlife with legs akimbo, hair erect and bulging glass eye deathstares will be familiar with what he started. There’s also a photo of the construction of Nelson’s column from 1844 on display and Reverend George Wilson Bridges’ pictures of the Great Sphinx of Giza in 1851 when its mane was like a bob – the tumbling sideburns were added later.
 
The majority of the subjects Talbot took however, remind me of our own modern efforts insofar as they’re mundane and one-dimensional like the straight study of Balliol College in Oxford. Apart from road resurfacing and the odd burglar alarm, Balliol looks exactly the same now. Its only interest is the age. Our modern snaps can be just as unimaginative. Photography as a creative art would come later. At the same time, it makes me feel closer to him as my own efforts are often underwhelming.
 
What would become an amateur pastime for millions in the ensuing decades and centuries, this exhibition puts the discipline of photography where it actually started: gentleman’s scientific endeavour (I’m afraid women were overlooked). The art as we recognise it now, whether it be the close humane renderings of Steve McCurry, capturing character like Annie Leibovitz, grasping the drama of situations like Don McCullin or even the atmospheric magic of landscape caught by Michael Kenna, has a much humbler origin – a great grandparent. Here, it’s unearthed in Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the London Science Museum.
 
This exhibition currently makes an apology for the thumping and drilling coming from the floor above. It isn’t Crossrail gone off on a catastrophic detour but the Mathematics Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid in construction so we can easily forgive for what we will soon receive.
 

 

With a gift aid donation, it’s just £8 for adults – fantastic value for four rooms of groundbreaking images and an understanding of the origins of an art available to everyone but easily taken for granted. Oh, and of course – photography’s not allowed!