Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

What We Did Before Selfies by Robert Hallmann

Celebrities do it. Politicians do it. Tourists, travellers and friends do it. People even do it with sticks at arm’s length in some very dangerous situations.

They take their own photographs - selfies.

What we did not do before the proliferation of image catching devices was to then share our efforts with all the world and her aunt.

We did have self-timers, where the camera was placed on a tripod or somewhere else secure and then after pressing the button we joined the group of friends or family before the delayed moment of exposure. I never owned a self-timer; I never felt that self-important. But I did experiment.

Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic

1) Germany, 1950s:

A small printing company’s party in a private house. I had been asked to bring my camera, which was a simple Agfa box similar to the Kodak Brownie. That camera had been my father’s and while the house burnt down under phosphor grenade attack in 1945 the camera survived the inferno in the cellar, almost intact. It has two levers – exposure and time exposure.

The flash available before flash bulbs was a small sachet of magnesium powder, somewhat resembling a tea bag with a strip of paper attached to it, about a foot long. This could be hung up, well away from flammable material – my favourite support was a broom handle balanced on tall furniture or a door. I had told the company of typesetters, printers, bookbinders and office staff, including the boss’s wife to huddle together as it was difficult to gauge exactly the area that would be included. Of course, to some of my colleagues this was great fun when the light had to go out before I set fire to the hanging strip of paper and opened the shutter before piling onto the heap of celebrants myself (far left).

Most people’s attention is expectantly focused on that burning strip of paper. Somehow my boss managed to avoid the crush, but of course one of our group chanced his luck with the nearest lady in the darkness, a fact he found difficult to live down once the 60 x 90 mm evidence was developed and printed.

Magnesium powder burning in air produces a brilliant-white light, hence its use in photography. The downside is the flammability. I ruined a perfectly good friendship once when I had placed the flash powder sachet too close to the curtains at a girlfriend’s home…

Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic

2) Dublin 1960-61:

Commuting between my lodgings and my place of work in Dublin I passed a very boring end-of-terrace edifice, which I decided needed some artistic embellishment. A double exposure was needed.

My landlady was not best pleased. Well, what self-respecting house-owner would not be surprised to find someone hopping to the bathroom on one leg, the other foot dripping red paint that looked like blood? I’d painted the sole of my foot and pressed my footprint on a large sheet of black card and photographed it. Then, without winding the film on, I went out with my camera and photographed the bland wall in question onto the same peace of film. It’s perhaps not perfectly placed, but of course this was long before Photoshop. But does a foot count as a ‘selfie’?

Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic

3 & 3a) Reflections in Essex, late 1960s:

As a special experimental background I had covered a wall in metallic foil, but of course it will never reflect with the clarity of a mirror. That was the point. Distortions were very acceptable and if Pablo Picasso could do it, one could at least try. Among the experimental results were a self-portrait with an abstract dimension, and even one where I turned myself into a pair of very humdrum trolls with rather odd-shaped cameras. Oh, my beloved Kowa 66.


Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic4) Cumbria shadow, 1970s

Never have I felt so alone and been so far removed from any other human being as on Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, one 1st of November. And I loved it, even while carrying a cumbersome camera case with me. It was time to leave. The sun was sinking, but when I saw this giant shadow bestriding the snow scape beside me, following me about, I had to record it, even gave a wave to another snow-capped top. I trust that’s Great Gable in the background?





Microsoft Word - Londoners - What we did before Selfies post pic5) London reflection, June 1977

Balancing on tiptoe on the kerb of Savile Row, I caught my reflection in a doorway of a gentlemen’s outfitters, while trying out a new 35 mm camera. My London selfie. Did I actually frequent the premises? Not on my income.

London was rich in reflections. Every shop window would reflect something of the street scenes about it. You were never alone. Along the large glass panes your twin would follow you everywhere at a sideways glance. You and the thousands of others. Photographing the window displays, the shops and the shoppers in juxta-position was great fun. I often pretended to photograph something particular while including Londoners, too.

As an antidote to crowds, an escape to quiet places like Scafell Pike out of season offered a kind of balance.

Selfies - 9781445645629

Robert Hallmann's Londoners Street Scenes of the Capital 1960-1989 is available for purchase now.