Friday, 12 April 2013

Sepia Saturday 172: Sunny Snaps walking pictures


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

Between the two World Wars photographers took to the streets in search of customers and produced a genre now commonly referred to as walkies (short for walking pictures) or street/pavement photography. I have displayed examples of these in two previous Photo-Sleuth articles, Spotlight Photos Ltd. of Derby and in Bournemouth and Great Yarmouth.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified family (Minns Collection)
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), Bognor Regis, 1934
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This week I feature several postcard-format walking pictures from the firm Sunny Snaps, which operated for just over a decade between 1927 and 1940 in London and on the coast of Sussex. A single view has been found ostensibly taken in Hunstanton, on the Norfolk coast.

Although sunny snaps was sometimes used in a more general - and perhaps generic - sense to refer to walking pictures, and there were other firms incorporating the word snaps, postcards produced by this particular firm are immediately recognisable by their distinctive format. The cards are usually, but not always, produced in portrait orientation and have a panel at the base of the card. This panel is embellished with a pen-and-ink drawing - usually a scene or image representative of the location, but sometimes a royal or patriotic picture/logo - the name of the firm, the year and usually the location. There is almost always a negative number as well.

Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon
Unidentified woman pushing a pram
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), London, 1934
Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon and Flickr

Walking pictures differ from other portraits taken by itinerant or street photographers because they are taken "on spec." The photographer takes snapshots of a succession of passers-by while they are walking towards the camera, irrespective of whether or not the subjects have requested one, and presumably without their permission. The subject is handed a numbered ticket (corresponding to the negative number) and informed where he or she may collect and pay for a postcard print in due course. Simon Robinson has determined from his research into this firm, including an analysis of atreet scenes, that they usually made arrangements with a handy shop premises nearby, and erected a temporary advertising banner to assist in directing customers.

As a result, the subjects are often captured regarding the camera with a vague degree of suspicion - as in the first snapshot from Bognor Regis - or are oblivious to the photographer's presence, as the woman with a pram (above) appears to be, more interested in the contents of a London shop window display.

Image © and courtesy of trevira
Unidentified women out shopping
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), Worthing, 1934
Image © and courtesy of lisabee73 and Flickr

As a result they often have a candid feel to them mostly absent from more formal photographs from the era. This characteristic is generally missing from vernacular snapshots where the subjects are often conscious that their images are being captured, and may even ham it up for the camera. The fact that Sunny Snaps portraits are usually of a very good technical standard means that there are fewer of the distractions normally present in walking pictures, giving us a unusual glimpse into the subjects' everyday lives and personalities.

Image © and courtesy of lisabee73
Unidentified schoolboys, August 1935, unknown location
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), Silver Jubilee, 1935
Image © and courtesy of trevira and Flickr

These schoolboys, possibly caught on film on their way home from school, are enjoying their freedom and have a casual look about them (at least the two on the left do). Had their parents been present their faces would most likely have been far more guarded. I wonder which one of the three spent a good portion of his weekly pocket money on the postcard.

The trick, if the photographer could manage it, was to single out his subject and take his "candid" portrait in such a manner that he or she stood out from both the surroundings and the other pedestrians, and of course in a favourable light, rather than being caught with a scowl or merely being lost in the crowd. They were not always entirely successful - in this example the subjects almost disppear into the background. Many of the people on the streets of these coastal towns would be holidaymakers, and therefore far more likely to part with a few coins for a souvenir of their visit, but it was still necessary to entice them with a good quality product.

Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon
Unidentified family on the beach, Littlehampton
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), G VI R, 1937
Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon and Flickr

In this slightly more unusual posed Sunny Snap, a family is posed relaxing in canvas folding chairs in front of wooden changing sheds on the Littlehampton beach in 1937. A similar shot with a beach setting from a decade earlier shows a family in the midst of constructing a sandcastle, so it appears that when trade was not particularly brisk on the street, the photographer would venture onto the sands in search of customers. However, there were others specialising in scouring the beaches, and a seaside photographer guarded his turf aggressively. Unauthorised interlopers were referred to as Spivs or Smudge Grafters.

Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon
Unidentified man strolling with newspaper, Hunstanton
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), 1938
Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon and Flickr

This neatly dressed and combed young man appears deep in thought while he strolls down the quay, a newspaper folded and firmly tucked under his arm, and presumably shortly before being accosted by a man waving a ticket under his nose, and badgering him to return and buy a print later that day. Judging by the survival of this postcard it seems that he did so.

Although it is tempting to assume that a large proportion of the photographs printed in this speculative trade ended up being discarded, judging from contemporary reports perhaps we would be underestimating the marketing skills of the teams who worked the pavements and beachfronts. Alan Purvis was employed by Walkie Snaps at Blackpool's Central Pier in 1958, and describes these skills in some detail:

The best time for taking pictures was on a Sunday morning as the new set of holidaymakers, who had arrived on the previous day, were in a good mood and still had money to spend. Friday afternoon was the worst as they were going home the next day and were stoney broke! Some people would refuse a ticket, others would say that they had been snapped the day before and regular walkers might raise a hand to indicate that they weren’t interested in having their picture taken. Occasionally clients actually requested one snap or more to include all the family.
The photographer had to make a quick decision as to the composition of the picture. Snaps of a single person were less likely to be bought than those of a couple; pictures of three or more people could easily include total strangers; even in 1958 a couple may not have wanted to be seen together!
Terence Baggett worked as a beach photographer in Weymouth in the 1960s and reports:

Volume, then and later, was important. My best score was 1,200 in one day with a Leica. Sales was more important as pay was calculated on 3d/sale and less than 60% sales won a threat of sacking.
Searching through your own family photo collections will almost certainly bring one or two walking pictures to light. You may even find a couple among the other Sepia Saturday contributions this week.

References

Sunny Snaps and Littlehampton Sunny Snap, by Simon Robinson on Go Home on a Postcard.

Walking Pictures by Simon Robinson, with a comment by Alan Purvis (9 Sep 2011).

A Seaside Photographer, George Raymond Meadows (1914-2000), by Paul and Gail Godfrey.

Walking Pictures by Paul Godfrey on Our Great Yarmouth

List of Seaside Photographers in the United Kingdom by Paul Godfrey

Seaside Photographers by Paul Godfrey on British Photographic History, with comments by Terrence Baggett and others, May-July 2012.

38 comments:

  1. Those are really interesting and I like the different panels at the bottom. I would buy one if someone snapped a photo postcard of me!

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    1. If they were in that style I think I might too, although I must confess that I did not purchase any walkies taken of us exiting/entering the cable car at Rotorua a few years ago - the way they are presented these days is just so tacky it turns me right off.

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  2. We've certainly got examples going back to the 1930s. This would merit a Sepia Saturday theme of its own.

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    1. Go for it Marilyn - I'm sure I can dig up a few more.

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  3. What lovely "walkies"! I hadn't seen any from this studio before.

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    1. Only one of them is from my own collection, but I managed to scrounge up quite a few from around the net. I agree - they are rather special.

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  4. Replies
    1. No doubt you will have a few walkies up your sleeve for the future, and I look forward to seeing some of them in due course.

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  5. Interesting. I have several photos, captured of people walking in the street. I wonder if "walkies" were also done in Australia?

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    1. Oh yes, Sharon, I think they were popular from the 1920s through to the 1950s in many parts of the world, even the Antipodes.

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  6. One of my favourite family photos is of me& My Mum on the Prom in Joppa, Edinburgh in 1959.It is a shame it no longer happens in these days of mobile phones etc.

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    1. Evene though the quality of mobile phone cameras gets better by the day, almost, they don't capture quite the same feel as walkies, do they.

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  7. Love these! Wow - I had no ideas this little(?) industry existed! These days when photos are so ubiquitous, ironically few people would be very interested in having theirs taken i this way - often the photographer would be lucky to escape with camera and nose intact!

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    1. I think you're probably right. It would be an interesting experiment to try out, though you'd have to offer some kind of instant gratification a la Polaroid, and that just seems creepy.

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  8. Learned something old again today! I had never heard of "walkies". Reminds me of the pictures taken at Disneyworld when you get off a roller coaster and are offered a picture of your family on the way down.

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    1. Yes, we have those too, and I always tell them not to bother (see comment above), because they are often presented in the poorest possible taste, kitschy usually.

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  9. In the 1960s my dad was a machinery salesman who called on the big sugar plantations in Hawaii. One trip, he took my mother as a little second honeymoon and while there they had a walkie made. As a kid the photo fascinated me because they looked so young and happy - my older sister wasn't yet 1 year old - and by the time I was looking at the photo ten years had passed. I still love the photo but now I've lost track of where it might be.

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    1. That's a shame - I hope you find it again, because those types of images are so important in family collections, I think.

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  10. Thanks Brett.
    And you're right. My post this week has some 'walkies' in it:)

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    1. I'm late reading everybody's posts this week because of work pressure, but I look forard to yours.

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  11. A fascinating presentation, Brett. The roving street photographer's trade may be gone now, but it is replaced with blurred pedestrians in Google Street View; jerky figures from security camera videos; and frightening collisions from Russian dashboard cams. Part of the attraction for Sunny Snaps was the mystery. What did the camera capture? Won't know unless you buy one.

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    1. Very clever - I hadn't thought of Google Streetview and security camera images being substitutes for walkies. I wonder how many people actually find themselves in those images.

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  12. Wonderful collection of walkies (I never heard them called that before)

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    1. Walkies was short for 'walking pictures,' I believe.

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  13. Thanks for sharing this great collection of an industry which I also had never heard of...but it supports my theory that candid pictures are so much better, and certainly more natural, than "posed" ones. Now if I can only convince my grandchildren of that.

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    1. Haha, good luck with that - everyone loves to pose.

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  14. Great post!!
    I would suspect that, trying this nowadays,
    could lead to judicial problems as some might claim an invasion of their privacy, or an attack on their image.
    :D~
    HUGZ

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    1. Yes, things have certainly changed.

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    2. Bruno - There's an interesting article entitled Protecting Privacy, Limiting Street Photography on the NY Times blog by Olivier Laurent, editor of the British Journal of Photography.

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    3. Thanks, interesting article!!
      Only reinforcing my interest in architecture instead of people. Couldn't stand the aggravation!! But I was bothered by a security guard recently because I was standing in the parking lot of a public building, photographing the old building next door... He finally went away. But I was ready to argue that a public building, paid with public taxes, would have no claim to privacy... MY photographs are not taken with any malicious intent, and i often only focus on details which I further alter, (poetic license here...), to feature my hometown, my way... If someone has any objection, I am willing to discuss this in front of a judge.
      :)~
      HUGZ

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    4. Well, to be honest, I think the behaviour of the security guard was a little over the top, but who knows what the instructions from his superiors were. One can never be sure whether those in such positions are acting according to official policy, or just exercising their authority for the sake of showing who's in charge.

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    5. That's why I stayed where I was, didn't pick up an argument with him but made it clear I was aiming at that other building. Construction workers from another adjacent building who saw the whole scene laughed at his attitude. But yeah, I expect the directive came from "upstairs"...

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  15. The photos are wonderful. I think the photographers went for the beautiful people! I guess who would like to buy an ugly picture. A splendid idea to go out and snap the people, when not many owned a camera.The snaps of the moment are always the best.

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    1. By the 1930s, thanks to Kodak, I believe a large proportion of the population owned cameras. Somehow I think the attraction of walkies was quite different, but perhaps it was merely that the photographers were so skilled at marketing their wares. I would now happily pay for one of these, I think.

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  16. I've never seen these before. The drawings at the bottom are a nice addition. Because they are not posed they provide a charming glance of everyday life decades ago!

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    1. Yes I agree, and I think the Sunny Snaps photographer (or perhaps there were more than one) was especially good at his job.

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  17. Great article Brett, very interesting and thank you for including my 'Sunny Snaps', I think I only have that one. It's interesting to know where the different companies worked and the marketing strategies. I like the panel on the Sunny Snaps, it definitely adds something and was obviously a bonus in later years reminding you where and when.

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  18. Thank you Lisa, for the opportunity to use your delightful image.

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