Saturday, 25 April 2009

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours repairing my aunt Madge’s post-war photo albums. There are four covering her time with the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) in Japan between 1948 and 1951. She was a prolific photographer. The early pictures are small format and although all of the photos are black and white there is a marked change over the years as she experimented with new styles of subject matter. She also bought a new camera at some point that was able to take larger format photos.

You can see in the photos below - with their accompanying captions - how meticulous Madge was when it came to chronicling her daily life. Because practically every photo is captioned. I spoke with the Australian War Memorial about them and they want to see the albums because of the quality of the captions.

It seems that few of the people who went to Japan with BCOF were as meticulous with captioning. The War Memorial thinks that Madge’s albums can help to identify people they already know about from others’ photos.

Not only did Madge experiment with different subject matter - the later albums contain many ‘mood’ shots showing boats in canals and on lakes etc - but she also got expert help. An American Army photographer helped Madge with her efforts and in fact may also have been her lover, based on the types of photos she took of him and other evidence. One album starts with a photo - now missing - and the caption: “Tony, to whom I owe these pictures, my camera, and any skill I possess. He came from Michigan, U.S.A. and was an Army photographer.”

The sketch shown with the other photos below is signed “1951 Tokyo” and is inscribed, in pen, “With my highest esteem and fondest affection, for a very wonderful leave. John. XXXXX”

There is another man in several photos named Alan. In one photo, Madge is leaning back in the prow of a boat against his body, smiling at the camera.

Madge is an enigma. It is clear that she liked men and the Japan trip gave her opportunities to explore her feelings in a way that living in Melbourne did not. There is a sense of freedom allied to an inexhaustible assortment of sights that she was always keen to capture on film. From agricultural practices to school sports days, from women’s street wear to gunships, Madge and her camera were always at the ready.

You can see Madge petting a deer in a Nara park or buying a cigarette lighter in a Tokyo street. You see her relaxing with colleagues on a boat wearing a bikini or strolling around Hiroshima taking snaps of the crumbled buildings.

Then suddenly she changes tack and snaps a posse of sailing boats resting by the shore of a lake underneath a mountain.

She also visited Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. While in Hong Kong she convinced someone to drive her north out past the border with mainland China. Here, she caught a group of peasants carrying a trussed pig to market. They are wearing veiled straw hats and did not appreciate this strange foreigner taking their pictures. There are only two of these. A day’s outing for two quick snaps taken out the window of the car!

To repair the albums I use paper corner clips that I bought in a specialty paper shop in Double Bay. This is the only kind of shop, I imagine, that sells these kinds of things.


Anonymous said...

Is your Aunt Madge still alive? My uncle also went to Japan post-war. He went to Hiroshima, and from his photographs it must have been fairly soon after the bomb because there's little rebuilding. He just died recently at about 86, with no apparent radiation after-effects. He didn't caption his photographs with the care that your Aunt did- no wonder the War Memorial is interested. Rather ironic, too, that the real value is in the captions rather than the photographs.

Matt said...

Actually Madge died many years ago. I bought another album on eBay containing images taken in Japan at the same time by a man, and they are not captioned well. I think Madge, who was a school teacher, liked this kind of activity. I have had a bookseller express interest in the albums but I do not want to sell them.