Waterline – Cruising Photography

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Waterline – Cruising Photography

Jude Holland reveals some of her favourite images in the Waterline exhibition.

Jude Holland: Hi, I’m Jude Holland, one of the Exhibition curators here at the NMM. I’m here to tell you a bit about our latest temporary exhibition, which we’ve just opened at the Museum.

The exhibition’s called ‘Waterline‘, and is a photographic exhibition, showing what life was like on board cruise ships for the range of passengers and crews who travelled on them from the 1920s to the 1970s. Twenty-six colour and black and white photographs show people at work and play, as well as the destinations both near and far that the ships visited.

First of all I’ll give you a bit of background to the collection. Most of the photographs in the exhibition come from the Museum’s collection of over 16,000 negatives which we acquired from the Marine Photo Service, or MPS for short. This was set up in the 1920s by Gilbert Gordon Morris, a self-employed photographer based in Colchester. Taking advantage of the new boom in cruising, Morris and his employees captured scenes on board cruise ships until the service closed in the 1990s.

In the early days of cruising, when Morris was starting out, few passengers owned their own cameras, so MPS sold holiday snaps to passengers who could buy them on-board ship. The Company’s photographers worked long hours, battling seasickness to develope negatives in makeshift darkrooms on board. The images were also used by cruise companies for publicity purposes.

Now, the earliest photographs in the exhibition show cruise-ship life after cruising grew in popularity after the First World War. In the twenties, more passengers than ever before wanted to travel by sea for pleasure, rather than getting from A to B. Now, by this time, it wasn’t just the rich who travelled on cruise ships, but life on-board was different depending on who you were. Many passengers had fun experiences on board. However, first class passengers and officers did travel in greater style and luxury than third-class passengers and crews. These third class passengers were often migrants, preparing to start a new life abroad, going out to, for example, Australia on cruise ships, while the first class passengers were holiday makers, there for the round trip.

One of my favourite photographs in the exhibition from this earlier period shows some of the crew of the Carinthia, who’ve caught a shark in the Pacific Ocean off Tahiti, and they’re posing with their catch. This image is a world away from the typical associations we might make with what’s called the ‘golden age of cruising’: ball-room dances as the sun sets; cocktails and deck quoits. All the same, the crew in this photograph are happy and proudly show off the catch. Two cooks stand by, maybe poised ready to take off the shark to the kitchen.

Another favourite image from this time shows three Lascars from the ship the Viceroy of India, standing by the wheel on the ship’s launch. Lascars were sailors from South Asia, China, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. They had manned British merchant ships since the 17th century and in the 20th many of them worked on cruise ships. Lascars were paid at lower rates than European crews, and got a tough deal from pension funds. In spite of this, many enjoyed their jobs, and their expert work was greatly admired by passengers and crews alike. The Lascars in this picture give a sense of this pride, and their distinctive embroidered uniforms also stand out. Many of these sailors later settled in London and in South Shields, and are the basis for the middle-eastern and Asian communities in those cities today.

After the Second World War, the 1950s and 1960s brought rising incomes and increased leisure time. These social changes meant that many more people could go on cruises, purely for fun. Liners where there had been several classes of accommodation were converted into one-class ships where there were better facilities for all passengers.

One of the images in the exhibition, taken on-board the Chusan in the 1960s reflects these changes. It shows children taking part in an apple-eating competition, vying against each other to grab apples suspended from a piece of string. Before the 1950s, children weren’t really welcome on-board cruise ships and weren’t allowed into many areas of the ship. After this time, more and more cruise ships started welcoming children, creating colourful playrooms for them and putting on organised activities especially for the kids.

Several of the photographs from this later period reveal many of the pastimes we traditionally associate with cruising. There’s the greasy pole competition, where participants try to push each other into the swimming pool. There’s also the conga line with holidaymakers in garish Hawaiian shirts shimmying through the party room. There’s the moustachioed bar-tender, serving up a luxurious looking cocktail to a woman straight out of Mad Men. Through all of these images, whether they’re candid snaps, and even in the staged publicity shots, a sense of the decadence and fun that post-war cruising brought to many shines through.

In contrast to this, it’s really interesting to look at the shots of the destinations that cruise ships visited, where shipboard life and life in port towns and cities collides. Many of these images, although probably taken for publicity reasons, provide a snapshot into everyday life in these ports. Several even touch on political issues, showing that at the same time as holiday patterns changed in the 50s and 60s, the political climate was also changing. One image shows the main street in Malta, a prime destination for cruise ships. Anti-imperialist banners hang outside the shop called ‘Colonial Library’ which sells postcards to tourists.

Taken together the images of this exhibition reveal the variety of experience life on-board a cruise ship brought. It could be fraught and frenzied, but it could also be highly enjoyable for passengers and crew alike.

The exhibition runs until the end of April 2011, and we look forward to seeing you there.

To coincide with the exhibition, on 21 January we’re also hosting ‘All Aboard’ an evening of surreal cruise films from the Museum’s film archive. Expect to see deck games, discotheques, jet-setting, jazz… and Sid James. For more details, see the museum’s website.

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