Whilst writing on old photographs, I came across several pictures of Oxford, taken for the most part just after the turn of the twentieth century. One of them, a view of Cornmarket in 1907 is reproduced below.
This photograph is interesting for a number of reasons (you can read more on this and other photographs here), the clothes – particularly those worn by the women – and the rather rudimentary means of transport, all point to a time long since gone. But what really took my interest, over and above everything else, was the rocking horse in the window on the right hand side of the image (see detail below).
The following is taken from my my writing on old photographs of Oxford:
“…rather sentimentally perhaps, I was drawn to the rocking horse in the window. One can’t help but wonder what happened to this somewhat peripheral object (peripheral in terms of the overall photograph). I can well imagine it languishing in some dusty attic, forgotten, broken… although, of course it might be in very rude health, respected as an old family heirloom. And herein lies it’s point of interest. Whatever its current state – if indeed it still exists – here, in the picture, it’s yet to occupy the mind of the person to whom it belonged. It’s yet to form the memories which that person would carry with them throughout their life, memories which they might have passed down and which might, to this day be talked about. Perhaps this rocking horse no longer exists as a physical object, but maybe somewhere, it continues to move in words, written or spoken.”
I knew the window in which the rocking horse stood 100 years ago still existed, although now, sitting behind the glass, in place of the horse, were people drinking coffee in one one the city’s Starbucks.
Comparing the image above taken in 2007 with that taken in 1907, it’s clear that in the intervening 100 years there have been – obviously – many changes – not least the fact that everyone in the 1907 photograph is dead (Barthes’ ‘Catastrophe’). Also, there have been many changes regarding the street’s physical appearance – several of the buildings have been demolished and replaced, in many cases, not for the better (the concrete block on the corner of Market Street).
Looking beyond the photographs, at the wider world, I looked up a list of inventions and discoveries of the 20th century, to get more of an idea as to what else has changed. Most of course were obvious, but the list ran roughly as follows:
the crossword puzzle
the pop-up toaster
the aerosol spray
the ballpoint pen
the microwave oven
the non-stick pan
McDonalds (which stands today in this very street – in fact, I took the photograph just outside)
the Barbie Doll
the post-it note
the ink-jet printer
It’s the small things in this list (e.g. the pop-up toaster and post-it notes) as well as the large (jet-engines, the internet) which particulary interest me; small things, but things which have nevertheless helped shape our world today; the way we think and the way we live our lives. It’s hard to imagine a world without the pop-up toaster, ball-point pens and frozen food, but there it is in the photograph.
I first became interested in the importance of small objects on a residency at OVADA, making a series of walks around the city, on which I would note down anything that took my interest, no matter how small and seemingly irrelevant. Below is an extract from a talk I gave as part of the residency.
“The chances of any of us being who we are is practically nil. In order for me to be born, I had to be conceived at the exact time I was conceived, any difference in time – even a split second – and I wouldn’t be me. Also, everything leading up to that moment had to be exactly as it was; anything done differently by my parents, no matter how small, how seemingly irrelevant, any deviation from the path and I would not be me.”
Any of these smaller objects have the power to alter the path of our lives and as such the future. In 1907, the rocking horse in the window might have caught the attention of a passer-by, enough at least to alter his or her life’s path just for a second, and subsequently, in some small or signficant way, the future. I wonder – if I was walking around the city of 1907, listing things as I did on the residency, whether I would have written down, ‘Rocking Horse in a window’.
This future world has seen enormous changes. The world in 1907, of which that street was a part, is in many respects a completely different place to the world of 2007 (not least because of two world wars, the Holocaust, and countless other wars and atrocities). Yet, the two photographs, or at least the first photograph and my contemporary knowledge of the street, share similarities – they are recognisable as being one of the same thing. In both photographs, the tower of St. Michael at the Northgate can be seen in the distance, standing where it has stood since c.1050.
In fact, despite the wholsesale change in the population and the changes to a number of the street’s buildings, the most striking difference for me, is the absence of the rocking horse. So much about the turn of the twentieth century seems to be expressed by it standing in the window, and so much about the years in between, articulated by its disappearance.