‘Shopping with Stewart Bale’ was a show of about 30 photographs, a tiny percentage of the 200,000 or so large format black and white negatives taken by the Liverpool based company Stewart Bale Limited – specialists in architectural, commercial and shipping photography – between 1911 and 1981. The collection was acquired by the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside in 1986. Photographers were uncredited by the firm, so as well as being an important archive of industrial archaeology and social history, the anonymity of the photographers – who toiled with large format cameras and huge, heavy glass plates well after everyone else had ceased using them – confers an epic poignancy to the collection.
Situated in the industrial north-west, the firm served the world’s great shipping companies (images of which comprise the bulk of the collection), as well as a roll call of national industry and trade. Firms such as Cunard, Cammell Laird Shipbuilding, Littlewoods, Woolworth’s, Marks and Spencer, and Meccano are all represented. Most of the photographs were not intended for public viewing, but to document commercial activities. For example, an interior shot of an ocean liner’s conspicuously grand dining room turns out to have been commissioned by Dunlop, who provided the carpeting for the floor.
‘Shopping with Stewart Bale’ was a selection of photographs taken from the small percentage of the collection designated as representing social history; in this instance retail consumerism. One of the most interesting aspects of the archive is its lack of ‘artistic interpretation’ – these are depersonalised, impartial photographs which document the rituals of past consumerism. The large exhibition prints are of achingly high quality, their scientific precision and descriptive titles in enjoyable contrast to (the often ludicrous) shop windows and other subjects depicted. These include National Corset Week – Blacklers Stores Ltd, Grt. Charlotte St. Window Display – Corset Week (1954), as well as a macabre display of pork products which seem to honour a displayed pig cadaver; a grim 1930s Woolworth’s ‘Milk Cocktail Counter’ and a Barker and Dobson display of glittering chocolate boxes which might have embarrassed Liberace. Some photographs are monumentally beautiful (which is incredible, considering their subject). A good example is Marks & Spencer, Church St, Window Display – Knitwear 6th October (1959), a study of a window display of a veritable architecture of prosaic men’s sweaters which were suspended, shaped and obsessively tweaked into an abstracted perfection of woolly form. Marks & Spencer, Church St, Exterior of the Store at Night, 24th June 1954 (1954) shares a similar formal beauty and obsessive, dislocated mood.
Many of the photographs are disconcerting, beyond being simply historically important or amusing: prompts to reflect on aspects of death and loss, past vanities and other disturbances to the usually reassuring certainties of consumerism. Also, the extreme technical ability of the photographers contradicts the logic of mass reproduction. The photographs restore a demanding primacy to the original works which were never intended to be shown as anything but high quality prints, and which therefore lose important details of relative scale in reproduction. Less obviously, the unselfconsciousness and relative impartiality of the work is disturbing – although they were created out of commercial necessity, their function is not so much to seek to be persuasive, but rather more evidentially forensic. Unlike signature documentary photography, much art photography, or photography which challenges consumerism, these photographs resist being either novel or confrontational. The viewer is unexpectedly directionless before these images, left to find their own way in the space created by the absent photographers.