In my last post, I raised the issue of photographing the slums and slum dwellers. Some photographers ventured into the slums with a social purpose – temperance advocates, educationalists, child protectionists, housing reformers -while others saw the street characters as picturesque studies for amateur photographic competitions. Liverpool’s slums were famous, and it is not surprising to see so many images of the ‘other side of life’. The images shown above are particularly interesting, despite the rather crude hand-colouring. They are all from a set of 52 lantern slides titled Slum Life in our Great Cities – although they are all photographed in Liverpool. The slide set was published in 1892 by Riley Brothers of Bradford, one of the largest mass producers of lantern slides.
Before cinema, lantern slide shows were a popular entertainment, and a set of slides showing slum life (however tame) would give the audience the vicarious thrill of looking at the less fortunate in society. The slide notes are fascinating:
The set of lantern slides for which this lecture was written have been photographed direct from life in the slums by means of a special detective or hand camera.
It need scarcely be mentioned that this was a work of no small difficulty and at time danger also, for many of the inhabitants in these districts strongly object to have their portraits taken or to be photographed or noticed in any way. The photographer was several times threatened, and at other times taken for a detective officer (he believes that the reason he was not actually molested is due to the fact of his being a very big man) … the pictures give a true insight to the character and habits of the people who live in these districts, as well as the natural expressions on their faces which can be obtained in no other way.
A later note adds: It is generally admitted that drunkenness is the source of the largest proportion of poverty, of vice, of crime, of poorly-clad and ill-fed children … in city slum life, one is struck, nay appalled by the great body of mere boys and girls who are ragged, careless and apparently uncared for.
But this is merely entertainment disguised as social concern. The audience, in the safety of the church hall would be titillated by the pictures of their underclass and would go home comforted by the fact that they would not be sleeping in sheds or outhouses like some of the unfortunate children. Perhaps not unlike the fly on the ceiling reality television programmes we are regularly fed.
The ‘very big’ photographer mentioned was Thomas Burke – whose album of photographs in the LRO contains 27 black and white photographs which all marry up with those in the slide set. Burke (1865 -1941) was a city councillor for Vauxhall and an amateur photographer. His day job was as a poultry and fish salesman in St John’s Market … and that is where my research has run out.