Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lipstick Traces

Earlier this month I received an email from cultural geographer Hayden Lorimer tipping me off to a Radio 4 programme he had written called 'The Perfumed Mountaineer': "Listeners are promised a potent brew: photography and perfumery, lipstick and landscape.  All of it beribboned in the story of one man's life-world."  This turned out to be an exploration of the 'double life' of Walter Poucher (1891-1988), a pioneer mountain photographer who also worked for perfumers Yardley, where he invented the Bond Street fragrance.  Producer Tim Dee describes his experience making the programme on the Radio 4 blog: 'Hayden does know his hills, he runs up and down Scottish ones for pleasure, he has also always seemed properly fragrant, so, I was very pleased to set off with him into the English Peaks and Scottish Highlands but also down Jermyn Street in central London to the back rooms of a perfumery in pursuit of people who either knew the man himself or knew about the life and works of Walter Poucher.'  The programme is no longer available to listen to but Hayden has sent me the script from which I quote below.

'The print titles of Walter Poucher’s photographic books run down their spines, and they’re just irresistible, toying with the topographical imagination: A Camera in The Cairngorms, The Backbone of England, Peak Panorama, The Surrey Hills, Highland Holiday, Lakeland Through the Lens. At the height of his photographic career, Walter Poucher functioned as the Great British viewfinder. Prolific and bestselling, across 50 books, most appearing in the 1940s and 50s, he compiled a picturesque geography of mountains, high hills and summit panoramas. If he had the magic eye, success didn’t tempt him to widen his range. "I was never interested in taking pictures of nudes, towns or churches because many people do it. I’ve never wanted to photograph anything but mountains"' Poucher used that iconic twentieth century camera, the Leica, but he was as precise at noting down and recommending viewpoints as an eighteenth century follower of the Rev. William Gilpin. 'At the back of each book appear technical notes and photographic data: what month of the year, what time of day, lens, exposure, aperture, filter. Even exactly where to stand: Click. Click. Click.'

So, Walter Poucher has a significant place in the history of British landscape photography, and his work for Yardley produced the three volume Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps (1923), now in its 10th edition. But what intrigues Hayden is the way Poucher didn't separate the two halves of his life: as he hiked over the uplands of Britain he would wear the make-up he had worked on - 'an extreme form of field-testing, and out of pure enthusiasm for Yardley’s products.'  The programme highlighted the funny side of this and re-told the story of Poucher's encounter with Liz Taylor, who 'wished more men took as much trouble with their appearance.'  But it also hinted at interesting questions around our assumptions concerning appropriate or expected behaviour out in the landscape.  In his academic work Hayden has been a key figure in cultural geography's 'performative turn', a shift from the study of representations (the kind of analysis that would highlight the absence of people in Poucher's wilderness vistas) towards an investigation of experiences and ways of being in the landscape.  He sees Poucher as 'someone who made the staging of self into his life’s work; even when it was mountain scenery that was his subject.'  And this is the context for Poucher's appearance in one of the most frequently repeated clips in British television history.  When Grace Jones attacks the chat show host Russell Harty it is for paying too much attention to his other guest: an elderly mountain photographer, seemingly from a different era, until you notice that he is wearing golden gloves and sky-blue eyeliner. 


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