(An illustrated paper presented at Exchanging Photographs, Making Knowledge 1890-1970 Conference, atthe Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University, Leicester, 20-21 June 2014)
Abstract: The research upon which this illustrated paper is based seeks to provide insights into a somewhat overlooked form of demotic photography: the seaside ‘walkie’ or commercial seaside photograph. The research specifically examines the Sunbeam Photographic Company located in Margate, UK until the mid-1970s and whose vast collection of glass and celluloid negatives is currently being digitised at the South East Archive of Seaside (SEAS) Photography. The Sunbeam collection is providing a revealing and rich seam of imagery and offers new perspectives on commercial seaside photographic practice and technique.
This illustrated paper examines the Company’s commercial photographic practice from 1920-1970, offering an exposition of the British seaside photographer as s/he evolves from the itinerant individual to resident employee within an organised structure. The role of seaside photographer had often been couched in derogatory terms such as ‘Smudger’ or ’Bungler’ and generally regarded as an inept and relentless seaside pest. Yet Sunbeam provides an example of a commercial photographic company located at the coast, which strategically countered the negative connotations orbiting the seaside photographer. Sunbeam sought to revise public perception through a variety of methods including the employment of articulate, well-groomed and proficient photographers – both men and women – projecting an overt professionalism cloaked in informality. A system was devised by Sunbeam that was calculated to standardise customer experience and where differentiation of that experience occurred it would be safely located at the margins. For example, through the benign use of elaborate props such as stuffed lions, bears and tigers; large Disney figures; or farcical ersatz elephants, donkeys and dogs. The consequences of this standardisation are arguably images, which facilitate an increased informality by the sitter(s) and whereby the prosaic pictures produced resonate still with the contemporary viewer- signifying the very potency of photography, in making the past present again.