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George Bernard Shaw, photographer

27 May, 2010

I am in London today, mainly for meetings with colleagues and to attend events surrounding Tate Modern’s exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism Surveillance and the Camera which opened May 27th. But I carved out a few hours to visit the Library of the London School of Economics and view the George Bernard Shaw photography collection.

Shaw of course is the Nobel Prize winning novelist, playwright, art critic and political agitator best known for writing Pygamalion. But he was an avid amateur photographer who bought his first camera in 1898 and photographed for fifty years. Most of these photographs ended up at the LSE, as did the papers of the Fabian Society, the socialist club he supported. There are a few photographs at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin too, and Shaw’s diaries went to the British Library. But the LSE collection numbers around 7,000 pictures.

Not all of those are Shaw pictures; also included in the collection are pictures by many other photographers, and authorship is not always clear. There are portraits of Shaw by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Madame Yevonde, Yousuf Karsh, and Frederick Evans, along with lesser lights. Shaw was not shy about being photographed and the archive even includes a dozen or so pictures of Shaw sunbathing nude. They are a refreshing change from the trademark tweed jacket and short pants he habitually wore. He was rarely seen in anything else.

Some of the Shaw photographs have been exhibited in the past but this was the first time I had seen the whole unedited collection. There are lots of pictures of his travels in Algeria, South Africa, England, Ireland, and the United States, most featuring family and friends. It’s truly a collection of amateur photographs. Most are not too sharp, some badly discolored, the compositions not always very well thought out, and most are not enlarged. Still there is something magical about them. A series of cloud studies, or a group of pictures of the backs of his hands show him experimenting with the camera and learning to see photographically – there is a sense of discovery about them. They’re the kind of photographs any enthusiast could have made once photography opened up to ordinary people in the 1890s, after the invention of the Kodak camera. There are even Kodak film sleeves and a Zeiss light filter guide in the collection. But how many of his amateur brothers and sisters had access to such an extraordinary group of friends, and how many were able to travel to the four corners of the globe?

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