Cambridge Darkroom – Planning and Photography

What’s the connection between town planning and photography?  Not a lot you might think, but in one case of a relationship has emerged, albeit a secondary one.

St Matthews Street Party, Brian Human, c. 1979

I recently had a Zoom meeting with two researchers, Alina Khakoo and Lucy Howie, who are looking at the origins and significance of the Cambridge Darkroom and its relationship with the local community. In wide-ranging discussion we looked at the roots of the Darkroom in the St Matthew’s Photo Workshop and I suggested that this could be linked to the St Matthew’s District Plan adopted by Cambridge City Council in 1977.

St Matthews is an area of mainly terraced housing dating from the latter part of the 19th Century.  By the 1950s and 60s it had come to be regarded as one of the most deprived parts of the City, fit only for clearance and redevelopment.  Attitudes changed in the 1970s and the area was seen as suitable for regeneration and renewal of the existing housing stock.  Work on the District Plan started in 1975.  The Plan included a package of proposals designed to ensure the future of the area, including: declaration of a General Improvement Area (which released house and environmental improvement grants); cutting out through traffic; relocating non-conforming commercial businesses; and protecting local services and amenities.  The result was investment in the area, a new sense of ownership and optimism and the influx of a younger population as houses came onto the market.

Enter the St Matthews Photo Workshop.  I can do no better than quote from Roy Hammans’ Golden Fleece web site (

In October 1978 six people with a passion for photography met in the Dewdrop Inn Public House, Gwydir Street, Cambridge to form the St Matthews Photo Workshop. The Workshop group published four aims:

  • to make a photographic record of the people and buildings of the St Matthews area [an undeveloped Victorian inner-city part of Cambridge, UK]
  • to explore the particular social and environmental qualities of the area through photography
  • to make people in Cambridge more aware of the qualities of the area through photography; and
  • to find and record old photographs of the area.
Howard Mallett Boxing Club, Brian Human, 1976

The Workshop members proposed to exhibit their photographs and hoped ‘to extend activities to include the teaching of young people about photography.’
The group grew to around twenty members and many were active in a range of local community activities.

The Golden Fleece site goes on to describe the transition to the Cambridge Darkroom.

So, in this case, if no other, I can see a line drawn between photography and town planning.

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Mining the Diaries: 1 Spain 1968

Tossa de Mar, 27th July 1968

We decided to move to Tossa after several days in Calella.  The road weaved its way up the mountainous coast, one minute overlooking the sea from cliffs hundreds of feet high the next descending to beautiful bays.  Proud, sweet smelling, pines and gnarled, half naked, cork oaks vibrated with the call of cicadas.  But Eden was compromised by development – hamlets and villages, once home to a few families, ccommunities, were transformed into tourist playgrounds.

Apartment building, Tossa de Mar, 1968

After failing to find rooms we could afford, we resorted to the Tossa tourist office, staffed by an English woman.  Tired and hungry, we almost hugged and kissed her when she found us a room at 240 pesetas a night (including breakfast) with Senora Engratia.  The house was on the edge of the town by the football pitch and reached by a rough track.  It looked unprepossessing.  We entered through a door from the courtyard into a cool blue tiled hall.  A coffee table and chairs were lit by sunlight filtering through the shutters on a spacious landing.  After three weeks in an increasingly grubby tent everything looked so bright and fresh.

Our airy, white walled room had two single beds with crisp sheets, and simple rustic furniture in natural wood – lace curtains waved gently at the window.  And the ultimate luxury, a clean sparkling shower.  Senora Engratia gave us the key and left.  We flung ourselves on the beds laughing.

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Shutter Hub – Everyday Delight

Shutter Hub as sent out a call for submissions on the theme of Everyday Delight.

‘Everyday Delight is something we think of often, and we’ve always planned to do more around the theme because it meant so much to everyone before (and probably means more now).’

‘At the end of 2019 we curated … exhibition[s] all about looking for the joy in the small things, finding the magic in what might at first appear mundane and discovering the beauty in the everyday. …  And now in 2022 we’re bringing the theme … back, this time in book form as a beautiful Shutter Hub Editions publication.’

Southwold, July 2022

‘There is beauty in the everyday, it’s there, but you might not always be able to see it.  Everyday delight might be something to be enjoyed between the rise and set of the sun, it’s a prompt to look for joy, to appreciate the little things – flowers growing through cracked pavements, cake crumbs on a plate, rippled shadows, low sun through high trees, accidental colour schemes in the street, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens… hang on!’

‘In a world where we seem to have more to worry about every day it’s not always easy to find the positive view. Everyday Delight and the collation of 100 images will offer viewers something to think about and to focus on temporarily, and perhaps to come away seeing things differently.’

Possible scope for submitting something from my embryo Only in Colour project.

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Fen Landscape – Cottenham

Great North Fen, Cottenham, August 2022

Saturday 6th August – sundown on the stillest of evenings, swallows twittering in migration restlessness, the harvest done.

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Postcard from Holt

Holt, Norfolk, July 2022
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Beads, Clematis, Trellis

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Magdalene College, Cambridge, August 2022
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Fen Landscape – Rampton

Walk along Cow Lane, Rampton, 23rd July 2022

Belsar’s Field 2, Rampton, July 2022

Belsar’s Field 1, Rampton, July 2022
Belsar’s Field 3, Rampton, July 2022
Great North Fen, Rampton, July 2022
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Dying Plane

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, July 2022
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Status Seat

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, July 2022
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Recycled Staff

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, July 2022
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Mining the Diaries

Continuing with the trawl through my diaries (see post 9th May 2022), they are a continual reminder of how much one forgets.  Sometimes they jog a memory and a elicit a recollection that adds to the written words; and then on the next page there may be an incident of which I have no recall and nothing can be brought to mind, as if it’s a record of something happening to someone else.  That’s just what’s in the diary, how much more is the buried in inaccessible mental recesses?

Avignon, France, 2011

These lacunae apply to my records of travels as much as everyday events.  What strikes me also about the entries for times spent travelling is how long and detailed they are, obsessive even.  Why did I write so much?  I think it was largely to try to capture the experience, to prevent it from slipping away, knowing how fallible my memory can be.  There was also in my mind that I might use the notes as the basis for some considered travel writing.  That worked just occasionally, but all too rarely.  Reading the descriptions of places and experiences now poses the question: What to do with them?  It’s unlikely that anyone else will ever read them and they will only outlive me if someone else wants to clutter up space with a pile of dusty notebooks.  If that’s pessimistic, it’s also realistic.  In the meantime, I’m going to mine the resources (diaries and photo files) and for each trip and put something on this blog.

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Fen Landscape – Cottenham

Cottenham Lode and Fen, July 2022

Cottenham Lode and Great North Fen, 15th July 2022, in a prolonged dry period.

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Silver steps

I’ve walked past this pole in Broad Lane, Cottenham, many times, but never before noticed the silver stairway to heaven. Are the steps new, or is this just a happy accident of timing as the sun began to set in the early evening?

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Photography in Fiction – Never Anyone But You

Never Anyone But You is the fictionalised story of the lives of Claud Cahun and Marcel Moore by Rupert Thomson (Corsair 2019).

Cahun was born in 1894 into a provincial, but prominent, intellectual Jewish family; her birth name was Lucy Schwab. When Lucy was four years old, her mother began suffering from mental illness, which ultimately led to her permanent internment at a psychiatric home.  Educated privately school in England, after experiencing antisemitism at high school in Nantes, she studied at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She began making photographic self-portraits as early as 1912 and continued taking images of herself throughout the 1930s.  Around 1914, she changed her name to Claude Cahun. During the early 1920s, she settled in Paris with lifelong partner Marcel Moore.  Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe in 1892) was a French illustrator, designer, and photographer.

The two became step-siblings in 1917 after Cahun’s divorced father and Moore’s widowed mother married. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Moore collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages. Cahun appears in a multitude of self-portraits in various guises such as aviator, dandy, doll, body builder, vamp and vampire, angel, and Japanese puppet.

In 1937 Cahun and Moore settled in Jersey. Following the fall of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as resistance workers and propagandists. In 1944, they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out.  Cahun died in 1954, Moore in 1972.

Claude Cahun 1927

Never Anyone But You brings out the span of their creative life togethers: the articles and novels, the design work, and their friendships with Henri Michaux, Robert Desnos, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Andre Breton, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.  Moore narrates the story.  It explores Cahun’s desire not to be reduced to her gender, rather to embrace a life of gender fluidity. Cahun has come to be regarded as central figure in photographic modernism since her work was rediscovered in the 1980s.

This is not a novel about photography and says relatively little about its practicalities, yet the medium is pervasive with around forty reference spread through the book. Some of these are evidential and relate to the wider context of their lives, some treat photography as a source of abstract or metaphorical ideas, others refer in passing to pictures of Cahun.

What we do get in an insight into their broad photographic practice – I use the word ‘their’ to reflect the way in which the novel portrays them working together.  In Jersey, Moore narrates:

At Claude’s insistence, I took roll after roll of film – Claude striking poses on the wall outside the hotel, Claude reclining in the shallows at low tide, Claude pressed against a lightening-blasted tree.  She claimed the photographs helped her to think about herself, the many possibilities that lay before her.  Who she could be. (p. 72)

When Moore collects several rolls of processed film she expresses dissatisfaction with one of her pictures of Cahun because of her own shadow in the background.  Cahun thinks it’s a success, it’s a reflection of their relationship; Moore is unconvinced.

I took out Claude’s camera and turned it in my hands.  A Kodak Type 3 Folding Pocket model with red bellows and a spirit level, it had belonged to her father, though he never used it with any great enthusiasm.  There were very few pictures of Claude as a child. ‘You don’t think it’s time we invested in a new model?’

‘What’s wrong with that one?’ Claude asked.

‘It’s twenty years old – at least.’

She gave me swift, sly look.  ‘You’re not blaming the camera, are you?’ (p. 90)

Later, Moore reflects on their earlier time in Paris. ‘We took many photographs that year – Claude in a black swimsuit, Claude dressed as a sailor, Claude with an elongated head, like a reflection in a fairground mirror – some of them acquitted a fleeting notoriety…’ (p.108). In Jersey Moore photographs Calude dressed as Hitler.

Towards the end, after Cahun’s death, Moore recalls how they worked together: ‘…when I was photographing her.  There was no communication – or rather the communication was unspoken, based on familiarity and intuition.  She knew I would know what to do.’ (p.301)

Thomson repeatedly uses phrases that point to collaboration: ‘We would live quietly, take photographs.’; ‘There were our photographs…’; and ‘We took dozens of intimate photographs…’ (my emphasis).  This is somewhat at odds with the way Cahun is treated as a photographer in most photo histories, with Moore receiving only brief mentions.  However, Claude’s Wikipedia entry gives a more balanced picture.

Cahun’s work was often a collaboration with Marcel Moore. Cahun and Moore collaborated frequently, though this often goes unrecognized. It is believed that Moore was often the person standing behind the camera during Cahun’s portrait shoots and was an equal partner in Cahun’s collages. With the majority of the photographs attributed to Cahun coming from a personal collection, not one meant for public display, it has been proposed that these personal photographs allowed for Cahun to experiment with gender presentation and the role of the viewer to a greater degree.

Moore’s own Wikipedia entry paints a similar picture.

Marcel Moore

Marcel Moore is best known as Claude Cahun’s collaborator. … However, recent scholarship suggests that Moore was not only a muse but also had an active hand in the creation of some of Cahun’s best-known works. In an essay for the 2005–2006 exhibition Acting Out: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, curator Tirza True Latimer argues that Claude Cahun’s own photographs are not so much ‘self-portraits’ as collaborations with Marcel Moore. At times, they photographed each other posing alternately in the same tableau. Moore’s shadow is visible in some photographs of Cahun, making visible her own role behind the camera.

The way Thomson portrays Cahun as the thinker and writer and Moore as the visual artist is consistent with these perspectives. And he makes Cahun the dominant one in the relationship, which reflects her subsequent profile compared with Moore.

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