The way we were

‘…wherever he has gone he has made a record, so that the wraith of a dying custom may find a suitable haunting-place, and after it has finally departed gathered unto itself a kind of immortality.’

 Photographers I Have Met, Amateur Photographer, May 1911

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, antiquarians like Stone expressed concerns about the threat posed by the forces of modernisation to their continued existence and preservationist groups such as the Folk Lore Society (founded in 1878) were set up to record and study them.

Sir Benjamin Stone is said to have been ‘interested in customs and festivals all his life’ and was ‘instrumental in reviving the ancient custom of the May-pole dance’ in Sutton Coldfield in 1887 during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. His interest in these ancient rites lay in their symbolic importance as historic expressions of national values and identity. Stone therefore set out to ‘portray for the benefit of future generations the manners, customs, the festivals and pageants’ of the era with a view to stimulating ‘local patriotism’, to draw out ‘links with the past’ and to ‘add to everybody’s knowledge of the country we love.’

In an interview published in 1905 Stone described his method for undertaking this work. He would ‘photograph successively, so as to show detail and changes’ and if necessary ‘take a dozen pictures of a ceremony or a custom, recording the whole thing from beginning to end with a clearness that leaves little or nothing for the imagination to supply.’ But to modern eyes familiar with moving images, Stone’s sequential photographs seem to be self-conscious static re-enactments, rather than the fluid and all-embracing record that he intended.

Stone’s photographs of customs and festivals were widely exhibited at home and abroad - one of the largest displays consisting of over a hundred photographs was staged at the St Louis Exposition in America in 1904. Two years later in 1906, Cassell & Co published a similar number of these ‘records of national life and history’ with descriptive notes by Michael MacDonagh.

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