CHRIS WROBLEWSKI’s simple book, Smudgers, is a wondrous example of the former – a life enhancing, heartfelt tribute to a dying breed of photographer that one is amazed could even exist after the launch of the Polaroid SX-70. If you have ever noticed the ragtag of individuals, from the Taj Mahal to the Acropolis and countless pop-spots around the world, guarding a monstrous wooden box on a battered tripod and grinning a welcome – then you have encountered a ‘smudger’.
A Smudger is a street photographer. Harking back to the days of the Victorian adventurer at the dawn of the photographic art, it originally referred to the stained and smeared appearance of the primitive images they produced. By the 1870s, the ‘ambulatory photographer’ with his portable backdrop and bucket of water, tripod and a camera based on the Dubroni apparatus(1), was so omnipresent that he constituted a national pest. Nevertheless, he (and it is invariably a male activity) became much loved by the poorer echelons of society, for whom a visit to the photographic salon was way beyond their means.
By the beginning of the 20th century this breed of street photographer was to be found lurking by any famous landmark in the known world. The desire for the souvenir snap was insatiable and it must not be forgotten that, in those far off days, the photographic process still had the elements of magic and incredulity.
So what is that ‘monstrous’ box on three legs and by what process does it offer an instant photograph while-you-wait? By what conjuring does the operator make, first, a negative print appear and then, laboriously, re-shoot it to give a positive result? Inside each of these often homemade boxes is a mini darkroom, with trays of fixing and developing chemicals. The operator, long practised, can invisibly fiddle with the sensitive paper using a cloth light baffle and produce a paper negative image, which he re-photographs using a fixed length extension arm. The final print was washed quickly in the characteristic bucket of cold water by the operator’s feet.
It is unlikely that the many and varied subjects featured, chatted to and befriended by Wroblewski, are still at the pitches they occupy in the book. Often at their place of business for decades, confronting daily the modern tourist armed with movie and digital camera kits - plus the advent of automated photo-booths - these photo-world heroes are living history. This book is not new, the first issue was published in 2003 with the help of Olympus, and it’s likely that many of these lovable, roguish characters are now dead or forgotten. But the fact they survived amidst often hostile street cultures is remarkable enough and their stories, recorded here with affection by Wroblewski – himself a professional photographer – are of resilience, human spirit and, in some arcane way, reflect the very essence of the photographic art. Every busy photographer should have this book on the desk or in their gear bag. And when the tempers flare and stress levels rise, forget the Prozac – a few minutes contemplating the varied lives of Wroblewski’s street Smudgers will bring even the most extreme photo-diva back down to base-line. Most warmly recommended.
116pp, b/w & col illus, 17.5 x 25cm; gatefold covers.
Privately Printed £15
N O T E S
(1) 1865. Dubroni-In-Camera processing was developed where the plates were sensitised, developed, and fixed within the camera inside a glass bottle that was part of the camera body