Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles: Pioneer Sports Photographer

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Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles (1871-1956) was one of that lost British type, the cheery, never-take-no-for-an-answer, not-quite-eccentric-thankyou pioneer. Photographs of him show an open, confident man, whose face says “buy me a beer,” or would do had he not been a pioneer of health farms as well as photo-journalism. The raging beauty in the front row, second left, is his wife. Around her are German women in one of the very first German female hockey teams. They look like decent people. All long dead, and their descendants probably have tattoos.

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PK and wife brought golf to Germany too: this page is taken from Sport Im Bild, the magazine he founded, and it makes you appreciate Stefan Zweig’s contempt for the fashion in female wear before the 1914 war. Garden golf is about all you’ll manage when you’re dressed like a steam pudding.

Pitcairn-Knowles’ pictures are in an exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood until January, which isn’t much use to me as I’m in Edinburgh. But if you are similarly stranded in the sticks, there’s this excellent book from which this selection of his work is taken.

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Sports photography as we would recognise it had to wait for the late Victorian acceleration in shutter speeds, but when that acceleration came, it wasn’t sport that first showed its face, but humour: this is by PK but might as well be Lartigue’s.

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PK’s heyday was the Edwardian era, and by then football had taken its long-term form as a working class ghetto cult. But other sports were still finding their shape: this couple appear to be winning some sort of drink-driving competition. The grand prix circuit that led to F1 was already in existence, but the way forward was far from clear.

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It was one of the lost beauties of amateurism: sports could evolve freely and without hindrance. Experimentation was possible. New things could be tried that weren’t drugs or Prozone.

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A lot of early sports journalism is mocking: the British wanted diversion from their games, and not all sporting experiments were serious. Laughter and absurdity were major themes. Your reaction to adversity was an uncomplaining one, which produced a culture capable of liking itself, enjoying itself, able to present an unburdened face to the world. Bertie Wooster called it “wearing the mask” and it’s why there wasn’t an Edwardian Pink Floyd.

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What about Hardy and Houseman, I hear you say, and in the case of the latter, who was a near-neighbour of John Cameron’s in Tottenham at this time, you have a point. But both of them had a tendency to place their troubles in the past: the furrowed brow would be Roman or, at the very least, pre-industrial. PK caught the last of the pre-industrial sports before they disappeared. Imagine all those lost country jobs and pointlessly slaughtered chickens when cockfighting was banned. Die-hards carried on for a while, substituting pound sacks of aniseed for their erstwhile Rhode Island Reds.

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Some readers will remember the old half-time snacks. When we had faces, too. The Amazonian tribes who fear that a photograph will steal their soul have some kind of a point, although, as Martin Amis says, these days one shot alone won’t do it. Repeated exposures are required… PK’s Edwardian emulsion was tricky to employ but had that Mephistophelean power. Daguerrotypes were a devil’s Victorian weapon of choice, but by nineteen-seven a lighter, if less immediately effective tool came into favour.

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Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved is my advice, and here is a Low Countries gentleman who has listened. Haven’t skates changed? Did they ever really need that long medieval toe? Was it something to do with weight distribution on uncertain ice?

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Don’t believe it when people tell you that Edwardians didn’t smile in photographs. And don’t believe them when they say that when Edwardians weren’t smiling in photographs, it was because they had bad teeth. I don’t smile in photographs because I have bad teeth. But when faster shutter speeds came in, out went the absolute need to pose pictures. Daguerrotype victims had to sit still for hours while their souls were yanked from their bodies. But this PK shot here is spiritually Polaroid.

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Youth gazes off into the future. But these are Edwardian days: you don’t want to do that.. and by the time of the Great War, PK was choosing better horizons: he returned to England from Germany and opened a health farm. His grandson keeps the family way alive. I’m having this for lunch.

(If you can make it to the exhibition in London, do: there are a lot more where these came from, and they’re all good. Failing that, do buy the book and justify my using the images here: it’s a treasure (pick up the Taschen complete Camera Work while you’re at it and get the best of the more felt and sombre side of Edwardian photography.)

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5 responses to “Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles: Pioneer Sports Photographer

  1. Great stuff.

    That last picture appears to be of Macaulay Culkin, which is a little unnerving.

  2. Have you got any photos of the sacks of aniseed fighting unto death?

  3. Marvellous pictures. Interesting about not smiling because of bad teeth. Me too – post-war communist-era teeth. But why do we worry about this? It is a serious question. What kind of magic do photographs of ourselves carry with that we should fear making a bad impression on posterity? Whose posterity? Why does it matter? And why do people sometimes destroy unflattering photographs of themselves?

    Deep and curious. I am as guilty as anyone else of wanting to be remembered as a handsome rogue, in so far as such a thing is possible. (It isn’t.)

    Who are we sucking up to?

  4. The exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood is 15 framed ink jet prints of photographs taken by Andrew P-K between 1900-1908 in Ostend, Belgium. They cover outdoor games from diabolo on the beach to sand yachts to rabbit racing.

    If you think there’s a venue in Edinburgh that would be interested in showing them after the show closes here in January, then do let me know.

    Best wishes,
    Robert Moye
    V&A Museum of Childhood

  5. Thanks for your interest in Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles’ work and life. Yes, its a very nice little exhibition at the Museum of Childhood and could be popular in Scotland with APK’s roots in Fife and Aberdeen. If you would like to hear/see a slide lecture on APK let me know – I will be coming to Edinburgh in July 2009 for the “Homecoming” and could easily bring my slides with me! Photographic Clubs and Historical Societies apparently find it interesting, so they tell me. So if you know of a venue please put me in touch – thanks – Richard Pitcairn-Knowles