27 October 2015

Looking Through Windows #1: Greenery in the 'Slums'


During the late 1800s there was a push to clear working people's housing, like the back-to-back's and other closely packed houses, named by the decision makers as 'Slum Housing'. Birmingham Town Council (as it was called then) commissioned photographers to enter the 'slums' and take photographs, which would be used as evidence for the need of mass clearance schemes. This was a new use for photography, the camera could be used to gather information about people and the way they lived, but in this instance, to provide evidence for the demolition of unpleasant buildings. What wasn't discussed was that a photographer can frame the subject to make it 'say' whatever they wish it to say. The photographers walking round Victorian Birmingham found the slums and photographed them in exactly the way they were told; to frame that these houses needed to be demolished (see below). They missed an incredible opportunity though, of recording the fascinating social histories happening in the streets and courts around these houses, and even behind the doors.

Original full photograph of 'slum housing',
back of 52 & 54 Midland Street, late 1800s.
You can see that there is no attention to detail.
Roland Barthes calls what is captured outside of the photographers intention the 'punctum': the punctum pierces the photograph revealing the life within and outside it. I have always had a fascination with the things Victorian photographers captured accidently, and in the many hundreds of photographs of 'Slum Housing' deposited in Birmingham Archives, there are lots of accidental captures. When looking through them, I noticed all the things which show that these weren't 'slums', they were people's homes, and they lived in them; decorated and cared for them. I found myself peering like a voyeur through people's windows, making out the pattern on their net curtains, the ornaments on their window-ledge and flowers they had potted up. There is a lot of focus on the interior fashions of the upper and middle classes, but much less on the interiors of working people's homes (probably because the evidence is more sparse), but these images offer a little insight into the domestic lives of Birmingham's working people.

The following images are close-ups of the Birmingham 'Slum Housing' photographs; I have zoomed, often deeply, into the original photographs to peek through people's windows. This series shows the plants and flowers that people surrounded themselves with, in places often shaded from light.

Click on the images for extra peek-power!





















IMPORTANT: These images are snippets taken from Victorian photographs, and are the artwork of Jenni Dixon. Although the original images are in Birmingham Archive, the concept of zooming into the images in order to peek through windows was contrived by the artist. If you wish to share these images, credit to the artist should be given. 

5 comments:

  1. What a wonderful thought! Your photos prove that no matter what 'level' of life we lead we always want to 'better' ourselves. Thank you for sharing.
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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you like the idea- it was fascinating getting a sense of people's lives.

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  2. What a wonderful thought! Your photos prove that no matter what 'level' of life we lead we always want to 'better' ourselves. Thank you for sharing.
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  3. I love this occasional series. It's such a pity that Birmingham is and always has been a palimpsest, and one where every new layer pretty well obliterates those beneath. Digbeth will be the next one to pass into history, the little factories and the few bits of domesticity where the Italian immigrants lived. Well done Jenni for this well presented blog.

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    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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