Watching the World Go By

Commuting days until retirement: 381

Not another description of me, looking out of the window of my commuter train, but a few thoughts prompted by looking at some early film footage. A recent programme on Channel 4 looked at the rise of Hitler, using contemporary film from the 1920s and 1930s, which had been digitally enhanced and colourised to a startling level of realism. The thoughts I wanted to share concern not the subject of the films, but the medium itself.

Edweard Muybridge

Edweard Muybridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Most people have some awareness of the early history of moving pictures, the notion having been conceived almost as early as photography itself. Probably the first pioneer of the medium was the somewhat eccentric, but evidently brilliant, Edweard Muybridge. (He had changed his name – as he did several times – from the original Edward Muggeridge). Born in England, he lived for most of his life in the USA, where on his first visit he suffered a near-fatal blow on the head in a stagecoach accident. He recovered, but perhaps this accounted for some of the eccentricity. Some years later, in 1875, on he was tried, again in America, for murder, having shot dead his young wife’s lover. The defence entered a plea of insanity, but he rather gave the lie to that with a speech on his own behalf which was both cogent and impassioned enough to sway the jury to acquit him with a verdict of ‘justified homicide’.

Muybridge's horse

Muybridge’s horse (Wikimedia Commons)

Having started his career as a bookseller he later became a professional photographer, and in 1872 he was commissioned to settle a debate over whether all four hooves of a cantering or galloping horse were ever out of contact with the ground simultaneously. Having established by means of still photographs that they indeed were, he developed a fascination with the possibilities of capturing human and animal movement photographically. His earliest efforts, in the late 1870s, involved placing a number of cameras along the side of a track, and and using various mechanical methods to trigger them sequentially as a moving horse passed by them. Showing the result involved laboriously copying the photos as silhouettes on to a disc, from which they were projected using a device which Muybridge invented and called a Zoopraxiscope.  The animation above shows a modern rendering of his original images.

By the turn of the century integrated, hand-cranked film cameras had been developed, and so, like insects from their pupae, we see the people of over a hundred years ago emerge from their frozen monochrome images into a jerky, half-real life. And in retrospect it seems as if the lack of realism was accentuated as the medium began to be put to use for entertainment. There was already the Victorian tradition of high melodrama, and on top of this actors had to find ways of expressing themselves which did not use sound. The results now appear to us impossibly stilted and artificial.

Alongside this, however, entrepreneurs of the time had, luckily for us, spotted another opportunity to exploit the new medium. They realised that if they were to film ordinary people going about their business, those people may well pay a good price to be able to see themselves in an entirely novel way. And indeed they did. So we have a wonderful resource of animated scenes from streets and other public places of the era. Until recently these early examples of ciné verité haven’t been seen very often, and I’m guessing that the most important reason for this is that other limitation on realism – the speed of the original cameras. They were hand-cranked to the highest rate that the early mechanisms would allow, but this couldn’t match the frame rate of later twentieth century equipment. The choice has been either to slow it down and put up with jarringly jerky motion; or the easier way, of simply showing it at the conventional frame rate so that motion appeared much faster.  The latter option has been resorted to so often that it has given rise to a trope: accelerated motion equals the past. Even more contemporary footage showing mocked up scenes of an earlier era has sometimes been artificially speeded up, in order to borrow a little authenticity.

But with today’s digital techniques that is now changing. Not only can individual frames be cleaned up and clarified, but new frames can be interpolated into the instants between the original ones, slowing bodily movements and restoring a natural appearance. This new realism was what struck me about the scenes I saw of 1920s Germany – but we now have an increasing number of such enhanced early films, going back to around 1900, thanks to those original entrepreneurs. There are a number of examples on YouTube, so I have chosen one to insert here. It shows a selection of scenes in England around 1900. I like to pull the image up to full screen and immerse myself in it, imagining that I am walking the streets of late Victorian or early Edwardian England, and I try unsuccessfully to think the thoughts I might have been thinking if I had really been present then. Although these are humans like us, how do they differ?

Well, most obviously in their dress. What always takes my attention is the ubiquity of hats. I searched through this clip for anyone without one. There us one smartly dressed man standing at the back of a very well-heeled looking family group, who has perhaps just stepped out of the door behind him. Otherwise all I could find was one small child (who had probably lost his) and the rowers on the river and (who are stripped down to their sporting gear, with their hats probably safely awaiting them on pegs in the changing room). Evidently if I’d been alive then I would have considered it almost unthinkable to have left the house on even the shortest journey without something on my head – whether I was rich or poor. And even the rowers are followed by another group of men out for an afternoon boat trip, and they are fully hatted and suited as they brandish the oars. I was also taken by the man who appears about 40 seconds into the sequence, approaching the camera while, in an apparently habitual gesture, he strokes back each side of his carefully manicured handlebar moustache. His bearing suggests that he considers himself the epitome of 1900 cool. He unceremoniously sweeps two children out of his way before moving off to the left. That action in itself suggests that a rather less indulgent attitude to children was commonplace then.

But looking at urban streets at that time, and allowing for all the obvious differences, there still seems something unfamiliar about the movement of the crowd. I realised what it was when watching the 1920s German footage. At that time, in the inflation-hit Weimar Republic, the streets were full of half-starved unemployed, with little to do but – yes – watch the world go by. The film clip above shows people in a more prosperous time and place, but in most of the street shots you can nevertheless see a number who are just passively standing. Some of course are staring at the novelty of the film camera, but you can see plenty of others just watching in general.

Consider what entertainment was available: if you were to stay at home, and were not a reader (many of course never got the chance to be) you either had to make your own entertainment, or go out and find it. And so the street provided the most immediate – and cheapest – way to occupy the mind. In a typical street scene today, virtually everyone would be rushing somewhere unless forced into stasis by a wait for a bus, or by a queue of some sort. And even then they will often be busily talking on the phone or texting. While most of our 1900 public are also on the move, they have to make their way around that now-vanished residue of watchers who are happy to stand and stare at the rest of the world getting to where it wants to get to. And a visual medium in its very earliest form has given us a sense of what life was like without the visual media we are now so used to.


Commuting days until retirement: 432


Wikimedia Commons / Patrick J. Lynch. Adapted

A break from philosophy, now, while we explore another discipline, one which I had not heard of before today – not under that name, anyway. I had the BBC’s Today programme on the car radio this morning, and there was an item about what it was like to live in an airport, with reference to the fugitive American whistleblower/spy, Edward Snowden. One of the participants in the piece was the writer Will Self, described as being a lecturer in psychogeography at Brunel University. This did get me listening more intently – I was intrigued as to what exactly he was teaching. It sounded like geography as taught by some of the teachers I remember from school. (To be fair, it was probably my lack of aptitude as a pupil that helped drive them to the brink of insanity.)

So the presenter started by asking, quite reasonably, “What is psychogeography?” Self’s reply was couched in such mind-numbing sociobabble that I was none the wiser. Instead I had to go to the BBC website later and find the recording, so that I could have another try. Here’s what he said:

Psychogeography is essentially the idea of purposeless transits across the urban context in order to deconstruct the commercial and political imperatives of contemporary space… [presenter: “Perfect”] …Well, yes, that’s it in a nutshell.

A rather hard nutshell to crack. Here’s my attempt at a translation:  A psychogeographer wanders about towns and cities, ignoring all the upfront messages and propaganda that the establishment would have you accept, and looks instead at what is really happening, in human terms. Maybe it’s rather like psychoanalysis: instead of accepting what the city tells you at face value, you delve into its messy, scatalogical subconscious. The difference, perhaps, between visiting an expensive restaurant and rummaging through its dustbins – you’d certainly learn a lot more of interest from the latter.

Here’s an alternative (in both senses of the word) definition, from Time Out magazines’s Bluffer’s Guide to Psychogeography.

A mélange of history, geography, pretension and psychology invented by ’50s Gallic eggheads, who described it thus: ‘The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Basically, it means making stuff up about London.

I suppose you can forgive Time Out for being a bit London-centric, even if the subject was invented by Frenchmen. The ever-helpful, ever-earnest Wikipedia fills this in a bit, tracing its roots in Dadaism and surrealism, and identifying a central figure in its development in the fifties as one Guy Debord. The article allows itself to quote his biographer thus:

This apparently serious term ‘psychogeography’ comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.

I begin to warm to the subject. And it does indeed seem from the Wikipedia article that much of the present day psychogeographical activity is centred on London: there are all the writings of Peter Ackroyd, and also a mention of Iain Sinclair makes me realise I have read him. His book London Orbital derives from a walk around the route of the M25, London’s orbital motorway, in which he explores life close to the ground, as it were, beneath the headline developments.

There are so many books in our house, so badly organised, that some of them disappear into the mélee and aren’t easily found again, and unfortunately that has happened to Sinclair. The same goes for what I remember as a very charming book in a similar vein, Christopher Ross’s Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher. The “Underground” is literal here – he took a job for a year and a half as a station assistant on the London Underground, where he studied, and entertainingly reported on, the oddities of human life in that environment.

However I have managed to unearth Leadville by Edward Platt, which does what Sinclair did for the M25 on the main road which leads westward out of London. And on my to-be-read pile is Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley: two poets explore (in prose) those areas, largely created by commercial activity which are not quite urban, and not quite rural. A selection of chapter headings gives you the idea: Paths, Containers, Landfill, Sewage, Canals, Ruins, Mines, Airports, Piers. It strikes me that I have even dabbled in the area a little in this blog: see Memento Mori.

And perhaps psychogeography’s credentials as an academic subject are underscored by the sniping between its practitioners. I dipped into the Amazon preview of Self’s book, derived from a newspaper columns and simply entitled Psychogeography, but much of the contents didn’t seem terribly urban. And sure enough, in a Guardian Interview, Sinclair says:

For me, it’s a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which I happen to live. I’m just exploiting it because I think it’s a canny way to write about London. Now it’s become the name of a column by Will Self, in which he seems to walk the South Downs with a pipe, which has got absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography. There’s this awful sense that you’ve created a monster.

But you don’t have to be a writer to be a psychogeographer. It so happens that last night we watched a TV programme about the French/American photographer Vivian Maier. Again new to me – in fact she was obscure and unknown throughout her life, which ended a few years ago. Working as a children’s nanny in New York and Chicago, she spent all the time she could wandering the streets with a camera, and amassed countless thousands of marvellous photographs, many of which remained undeveloped at her death. She was secretive and solitary, and although something of a hoarder, she never owned her own place of dwelling, and had nowhere to keep her archive. Instead she paid to keep it in storage throughout her life, and soon before her death it was sold off when the fees got into arrears. This was when it was discovered, and has since been split between various owners and become immensely valuable.

There’s no question that her pictures got under the skin of the urban landscape: favourite subjects include down-and-outs, or any faces whose mood and character come right out of the picture, including many children. Although a recluse with little social contact, she seemed to have the knack of getting close to her subjects, both physically and psychologically, despite her cumbersome Rolleiflex camera. Other subjects include landscapes, found abstract patterns or any objects or scenes which appealed to her eye. There is a whole series of self-portraits, always with a portentous, even disturbing feel to them.

The website for her work is here: And the TV programme is on BBC iPlayer until early August.