Jimmy Hare, thief

Mediated and Stolen Imagery

Across the nineteenth century, it was deemed important to mediate imagery. Part of this structure is purely an outgrowth of the way that images were reproduced. An artist or a photographer provided an “original” which had to be engraved either on copper or steel-plate, or more frequently, on wood as a woodcut. In the later part of the nineteenth century, attribution of the mediators was fairly rare. However, particularly in the case of illustrated newspapers, attribution was used to establish the veracity of the image.

This tradition seems to have emerged from aesthetic roots. In nineteenth century France at the time of the invention of photography, there was a thriving collector market for prints. Nicephore Niepce initial experiments in photography in the 1820s were actually targeted at reproducing drawings as engravings. The tradition of captioning engravings with both the artist and the engraver was well established. The usage of explanatory legends was also in place. However, the attribution of engravers across the nineteenth century, particularly in America, was spotty at best. The invention of the halftone in 1880 seemed to permanently relegate the mechanical producer of an image to obscurity. However, in aesthetic circles, the attribution of the engraver as artist remained.

Print collecting was also a big draw in America in the mid-nineteenth century. Inexpensive chromolithographs by Doré and others were given away as premiums, each clearly identified by their craftsman or artist usually in the traditional fashion. But in the popular press, adherence to such artistic standards was not entirely commonplace. Artists contrived new means of maintaining their stature as creators and interpreters of scenes, often making themselves a part of the very scene they drew.

Image making became a self-reflective, recursive process. Rather than objective witnesses, they became heroic participants. The construction of the documentary artist as the hero of questionable ethics is radically apparent in the career of the early photojournalist Jimmy Hare.

In his 1940 biography, Hare carefully assists his biographer Cecil Carnes in constructing a vision of himself as a brave hunter:

He began making pictures himself, and found the hobby not only fascinating but profitable. He sold his wares readily to the illustrated London journals—snaps of public gatherings, balloon ascensions, horse races and other sporting events. The word “snaps” is used advisedly; quite by accident, he had discovered the gentle art of snapshooting which was to introduce the hand camera and largely do away with the cumbersome tripod.

The illuminating experience, one never to be forgotten by Jimmy if he lives another eighty-four years, occurred at London on the occasion of the celebration of the centenary of free ballooning.

With all the feverish enthusiasm of the amateur camera fiend, Jimmy was determined not to miss a spectacle so made for picturing. He collected his apparatus and went to the field where the exercises were to be held. This included a number of ascensions.

A big crowd had turned out for the show, and the field was pretty well packed by the time Jimmy got there. Nevertheless, he set up his tripod at a spot where an official told him that a balloon was to take off, and settled patiently waiting for something to happen.

The huge bag was duly inflated, but the moment it left the ground Jimmy’s troubles began. With its first sensation of buoyancy, the balloon began to lurch hither and yon with the stability of a drunken man on stilts. As he tried vainly to keep it in focus long enough to make the exposure, Jimmy’s camera spun on its tripod weirdly as the gas bag itself, and whenever he thought he had it quiet for a second, the excited spectators in front would get their silly fat heads bobbing up and down before the lens.

Nobody, much less a rising balloon and its occupants, was going to stand still for him and his camera. As the signal to free the bag was given, Jimmy snatched up the camera and its tripod and held them, in sheer desperation, over the heads of the crowd, pointed in the general direction of the soaring monster. Hastily, he snapped the shutter.

It was what anybody might do these days, but everything was quite different then. What Jimmy had done was in flagrant violation of both the ethics and the science of photography. He knew it, too, and felt guilty as he packed his paraphernalia and left the scene of the crime inconspicuously. Punctilious amateurs would have said coldly that sort of thing wasn’t done; photographic experts would have said it couldn’t be.

. . .

Impossible to say with certainty that was the first snapshot in the history of photography, but considering the date, and the fact that the feat was so generally regarded as impossible that nobody dreamed of trying it, it must have been remarkably close to the first. Anyhow, Jimmy had learned two important things from his trip to the balloon celebration: he knew how to make a snapshot, now, and he knew the rules of photography were made to be broken.

Jimmy Hare, News Photographer: Half a Century with a Camera 8-9

London Centennial, 1884

This laudatory bit seems to ride on the trail of the documentarians of the 1930s, celebrating the news photographer as the artist who lived outside the rules, an image which still hangs with us today with all the renegade baggage of modernism. The idea of the artist as hunter and thief is etched firmly in the captioning of another early Hare photograph from the same biography.