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A British Adventure in Photo History

June 15th to 23rd, 2018

· Photohistory,United Kingdom,Conference,Mizunotype,Yokohama Shashin

The Thames River on our final approach to Heathrow.

A little over a month ago I embarked on a very special trip to the United Kingdom. For one, I had never been there before, but more importantly, the whole country is just a center of gravity for the photo historian. I arranged to split the trip into 5 separate legs over 7 days, managing to squeeze in as much as I could see of the cities I’d be visiting and the country in between them.

Paddington Station, no bear.

I would get to spend 2 days in London visiting museums and exploring the city, 2 days in Leicester at the conference, two days in Dorset studying J. M’s collection of gold on lacquer photographs, then split one day, half in St Andrews and the other half in Edinburgh; visiting a renown photo historian and exploring the capital of Scotland afterwards. I feel guilty that I wasn’t able to pack a few more things to see and do. Next time, I promise.

I used to think reverse-cardinal orientation was a Japanese thing. Nope, it’s a UK thing too! This map is oriented with South at the top.

London looks good from the air, and on the ground too. I found a cheap hostel in the city, just north of Hyde Park. Turns out its a pretty fancy part of town, Royals, high end street shops, and some pretty important museums are all around there. As I arrived pretty early in the morning, I walked through Hyde Park on my way to The Victoria and Albert Museum. It was a great walk, lots of people walking their dogs. No one ridings bikes, you're not allowed to there. After that, I walked back up but this time around the west side of the park, passing Kensington Palace. This Kensington is very different from the one in Toronto.

London’s Kensington is a bit different from Toronto’s Kensington, but its still nice.

On Sunday I wanted to see a couple touristy things and a couple of museums. I saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and later that afternoon I hit Piccadilly Circus. I headed out to see the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. Both are immense institutions, and I got to see some very cool things there. However, unlike the V&A, the displays at these two museums are much more somber and conventional. The V&A is all about art though, and the way they display their collections is much more artistic than most other museums.

I was NOT gonna miss this baby for the world!

In the evening I caught a coach to Leicester. London suburb homes look a lot like Toronto homes. Lots of semi-detached houses. The ride to Leicester was smooth and I enjoyed looking out the window at all the green on either side of the road. I couldn’t get the wifi to work tho, so I had to bite Koodo’s international fee bullet. After nearly 3 hours we arrived, and from there it was a short cab ride to my guest house. By the way, British cabs are HUGE. They look like a car form the outside, but hold more people than a yellow school bus.

Gotta love the medieval/modern mix of Leicester.

The first thing after checking in was the owner walking me up to my room and giving me an old-fashioned glass bottle of milk. “Here’s your milk dear, let me know if you need anything else then”. I was like, Is she gonna tuck me in and read me a story too? I don’t remember the last time anyone gave me milk before bedtime in my entire post 3rd grade life. I was puzzled, but I drank the milk. Set the empty bottle down on the tea service tray. Hadn’t seen milk in a glass bottle since the 3rd grade either. Strange...hey, wait a minute...

I met amazing people here, and learnt quite a lot. Even got an autograph!

I arrived early at De Montfort University on foot, checked out a bit of the campus, snapped a few shots and then went in to sign in. The first person I spoke to was Dr. Kelly Wilder, hard at work with the other organizers setting up. Slowly more delegates began to turn up and gradually the crescendo of intellectual conversations rose to an excited pitch just before the conference was due to start. A lot of the delegates appeared to know each other. I said hello to a few I knew only through twitter, and they were cool in real life.

This paper was one of my favourites.

It was two days of unbridled photo history papers dealing with the physicality of photographs and photo collections. From East German secret police archives to cyclo-photography to some new names in the earliest history of photography, this conference was a true pleasure to attend. Lunch on the first day was great, dinner was the best curry I’ve had in a while and on the second day we had drinks at a local pub after the conference was over. I got to meet Dr. Elizabeth Edwards, founder of the Photographic History Research Centre; had a great conversation with Dr. Gil Pasternak and chatted with really brilliant minds from around the world. Oh, and by the way, got to find TWO more mizunotypes...but more on that later (in a follow up article, stay tuned!).

Waterloo Station. There were some very well dressed women with tiny hats perched precariously to the side of their heads. Maybe they were going to the horses or something.

Wednesday morning very early on, I made my way to the coach station on foot. I had a noon train departing from London for Axminster, near the border of Dorset and Devon in the south of England. I was going to visit none other than J. M., author, editor, engineer, historian, photographer, researcher, scientist and collector of gold on lacquer photographs I keep referring to as Mizunotypes.

Axmninster is a small town about an hour past Salisbury ( with the famous cathedral).

J. met me on the train platform and drove me to his place near Lyme Regis, where I met his wife and afterwards went for a walk to the town itself. The Ms' are some of THE Finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. On our return we had a great conversation late into the night filled with laughter.

Those are some fine mizunotypes right there!

The next morning we got to work after breakfast, examining each of his 23 mizunotypes up close and personal. I had planned to take as much time as possible with each piece, but this was quickly proven impossible. Also, they are in his collection room, which is filled with TLRs and subminiature cameras, many of them Japanese.

A Swiss 1937 LeCoutre Compass camera...One day I will own one like it!

I felt vindicated as I saw fine examples of some cameras in my own collection here. Whenever you are in someone’s collection room, you need to take some time to take in all the wonderful things they have gathered over many years of painstaking collecting. I was NOT disappointed one bit! So, we went over each mizunotype, looked at the front and back of each and identified interesting features to be examined under the microscope. J. has his lab outfitted with the right tools. I must say that working with him on this felt so natural, as though we’d been doing this together for years. What a wonderful experience.

200x magnification of a surface feature. Still figuring out how these gold nuclei circular voids form.

We took a lot of photographs to look at surface features and deterioration damage. I got to learn a very great deal as to the gamut of factors that can affect a mizunotype’s condition. We also made an important discovery about glass mizunotypes: They were produced many years after initial evidence had suggested. We were both elated at this discovery, but more of that in another article ;)

Not my train, but mine looked just like it ;)

The Ms' drove me to Axminster station to catch my train back to London. Have I said how wonderful this couple is? They walked me all the way to the platform and waited for the train with me. I really do wish to visit them again as soon as possible, and bring my wife and kids with me next time.

Overlooking the English Channel.

Let me mention this here, Lyme Regis is the fossil capital of the UK! Fossils along the beach everywhere! My wife loves fossils, she’ll love Lyme Regis.

The picture is crooked. I was exhausted by the time I got there. I wont fix it. Feel my pain.

I arrived at Heathrow Airport about midnight. I had to backtrack a bit from Waterloo Station. Have I mentioned how easily you can get lost in London? Straight roads are rather scarce, and grid planning is virtually a work of fiction in this ancient city. I “slept” at the airport as my next flight was at sunrise. I was bound for Edinburgh, Scotland.

Somewhere between London and Edinburgh.

Did I also mention that the weather was nothing short of FANTASTIC? Everyone had a little spring in their step. Even at Waterloo station earlier that week, the fancy ladies with the tiny hats clipped to the sides of their heads were smiling.

Nothing makes you feel like a 1960s Jet Setter quite like this.

The flight was just about one hour, and even though most of my view was the left wing, I could see so much of the main island. It’s very green. We landed at Edinburgh, and as usual, I like to be one of the last to disembark when I seat towards the end of the plane. To my surprise that’s where we were let out! I had never done that in a rich country before. It was cool.

Love me them Edinburgh Trams!

I then took the Edinburgh Tram to the train station for my rail connection to St Andrews. I had pre-purchased all my rail tickets in Toronto before leaving, and got to pick them up at the machines at the various stations. That was convenient. When it comes to rail transport and infrastructure, The UK and Japan can be quite similar. Even though it was my first time in the UK, traveling by train was quite comforting. I felt right at home again.

Scotland is beautiful.

The train for St Andrews hugs the east coast of Scotland. You first cross over the Firth of Fourth, a place I had seen on the map before and whose name I could not make any sense of. I still cant, but it is a GORGEOUS place on the route. Unlike all the Highlander propaganda, Scotland is quite green.

Gaelic...I want to learn more!

There are tons of picturesque towns and hamlets along the route, and stations have their names in English and Gaelic. I got to learn words from a new language in the few hours I was there. How awesome is that? Also, Scotland looks a lot like Canada, or perhaps the other way around?

I repeat, Scotland is beautiful.

At Loucars station I was met by none other than Dr. L. G., who very kindly drove me to the University of St Andrews. His schedule had cleared up and we could meet before our lunchtime appointment. We walked through the centre of the town, which is dotted with medieval ruins, and many ancient buildings.

The University of St Andrews Quad...built some 5 centuries ago.

University faculties are spread out over the core. It is a very interesting place, right on the ocean as well. The night before I had been looking out towards France over the English Channel, and now I was looking out over the North Sea, in the same direction the Vikings came to Scotland centuries earlier.

You can literally feel your IQ rising as you walk through campus!

Dr. G has written quite a bit about the history of Japanese photography, and so meeting him was a most pleasurable experience. We got to spend a few hours talking about Meiji Period Yokohama and many of the figures that shaped its early photography scene. Just like with J. a couple days earlier, we were speaking the same language. I could visualize all the people and places he was telling me about.

Super rare book #1

Then we went to his office, where he showed me his book collection...WOW...books I’d only ever heard about because they’ve been out of print for decades. Seminal works on Japanese photo history and many other topics.

Super rare book #2. There were many more, but I’m not divulging.

The best part was geeking out over the photographs, listening to his very interesting adventures and experiences pursuing his research. He inspired me to continue down this crazy path. As it always happens when you’re having a great time, before I knew it, it was time to head back to Edinburgh and check into my guest house. It was already 5pm. Where had all those hours gone? Oh yeah, into the best freaking time ever!

On me way to me gist huus.

Dr. G was quite generous and kind with me. He dropped me off at the train station, and I was a bit sad that I had to be back in Edinburgh by 7pm. Once I arrived in the city, I got a message from my old friend Dom, from the old Nova MM Centre in Osaka days. “You’re in my town?” “I’ll pick you up at 8, I’m driving a red Mini Cooper”.

This guy right here!!!

Now, how awesome is that? A great old friend giving you a personalized tour of an incredible city in a Mini Cooper?!?!?! Awesome barely covers it.

So, that’s a dead volcano in the middle of Edinburgh...oh yea, its one of THREE.

We went to the observatory, got to see the dead volcanoes in Edinburgh, then hit some pins and had a pint at The Sheep’s Heid (open since the late 1300s) and got to see much of the city. We finally had dinner downtown...no, not haggis nor deep fried pizza...we had vegan Spanish Tapas which in fact were pretty freaking tasty.

If its good enough for her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who am I to turn my nose up at it?

Again, early the next morning I was at the airport again, fighting through Murphy’s Law to get on my flight back to Toronto. The systems were down and a lot of people were not happy. In the end, I got on the plane and made it back to YYZ without much trouble.

Me, happy as a pig in mud.

It was an incredible trip, and I’m glad I went on it.

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