Hope your Tuesday is treating you well thus far! I am sleepy, sleepy, sleepy-- I went to bed yesterday listening to Kumail Nanjiani's The X-Files Files podcast and had appropriately weird dreams all night...thinking of Flukeman just before you wander off to the land of Nod can do that to you, I guess. But, sleepiness aside, I woke up this morning and did manage to photograph some photographs for you in order to include the photographs of the photographs in today's blog post! How's that suit you?
Take a look:
I was at the flea market on Saturday with my dad when he was waylaid by the sight of a WWII-era Russian rifle in one of the sheds...as he paused to drink in the details, I wandered on into another stall and came across a table that had a file card index sized box (think about half the length of a card-catalog drawer) completely filled with cabinet cards! Markered on the end of the box was the legend "Old Photographs, $2 each". Does heck go with yes? I've been being good about not buying pictures that aren't those large format, framed portraits I like to scare houseguests with, but this was too good to pass up. I flipped through probably a hundred cards, carefully placing the ones I wanted to take a second look at in a pile to my left, and in the end, chose six cards I had to have. Grouped together on my kitchen table, they look like this:
Not bad, huh? I recently came across a package of black cardstock I'd forgotten I had, and I think I might use that as a background to frame the photos. Don't they look stark and lovely against that color! Historically, cabinet cards dethroned the carte de visite sometime in the mid 1880's as the preferred format in which to preserve one's image for generations to come. While their popularity waned as vernacular and amateur photography began to supplant studio-made portraiture at the turn of the century, cabinet cards remained in use by professional photographers until the 1920's. These photos seem to date from the 1880's to the 1900's. My only question, which I should have daddurn asked the guy in the booth, was where he happened to get so many cards. At most, I've seen maybe twenty or thirty of these cards together with the less sturdy snapshots and prints of a home camera in a box at an estate sale or antique mall-- this guy must have had a hundred, all neatly uniform in time period and format if varying by subject and decorative detail. Maybe he'll be there next month so I can ask him if he raided an out-of-business photography studio in a ghost town or from whence sprang this font of more than a hundred years old pictures.
The ones I chose from the bunch:
Honestly, I mainly choose old photographs by how attractive or interesting the person in the picture is. There are plenty of pictures I've passed up in the past for not being interested in the subject... too banal an expression or too homely of a bachelor even in an old or unique setting isn't gonna cut it. So this gal, with her pinned up, bob-like hair arrangement, carefully hot ironed in waves to one side, and her "I would wear that now" gown was a shoo-in for the "keep" pile. How do you like the ribboned straps and bareshouldered line of the bodice? Those stripes? The milkmaid-esque ruffles? I vote this gal best dressed from the sextet of pictures that came home with me, and that's a competitive category. Look at the decorative black trim of the card and how the oval is way longer than the portrait really demands. It makes me wonder why the photographer didn't capture the rest of the dress instead of the wall two feet above the subject's head! Still, a lovely girl:
This picture I almost put back twice, as I was only going to get five pictures, and finally just caved and bought. Note the tight, mutton sleeves of the jacket, its three pleats to the right and inch wide trim of the ribbon running down the left of the dress. See how the high collar blouse under the dress is embellished with two pins and a little ruffle of lace at the top of the neck? I wonder, fashion-wise, what dictated where you put the brooches on this outfit-- I would have tried to put them, military-style, where a medal would go on the right lapel, but that would have interrupted the pleats. Also notice how child-sized small this obviously grown woman is-- women like her are the ones who could comfortably don those teeny tiny Victorian clothes I'm always chasing after at the flea market. I like the decorative edge of the card, too, and caved when it came time to pay the man.
Here she is even closer, so you can see the pins better:
This card features another woman who, like the first card's subject, would have been better served by a full-portrait...I want to see what the rest of her dress looks like! In the meantime, I can content myself with her interesting hairstyle and what look like scissors in the brooch at her throat. That coupled with the velvet lapels and collar of the dress, and what look like inset velvet stripes down the length of the sleeves, makes me wonder if the sitter wasn't some kind of seamstress.
Isn't she pretty in the closeup? Among other plain Janes of the same time period, this woman stood out particularly.
This next guy is so handsome! Reminds me of Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line-- not the Man in Black himself, but his softer faced movie double. How about that almost-pompadour, those dark eyebrows and eyes, and the sharp cut of his suit? He must have been a popular guy in Corydon, Indiana, if he lived where the photo was taken, a Hoosier state town just over the border from Kentucky, about thirty minutes from Louisville.
In this picture, I was struck by the stiff posture that makes people on Pinterest think everything is a postmortem photograph. While a fair number of people did take ghoulish-to-modern-eyes photos of themselves with their predeceased loved ones (see here if you're feeling brave), lots of times the rigid body language was more the posed subject staying stock still to ensure a good outcome in the easily-botched-by-movement medium of 19th century photography. You know how frustrating it is to try and hold a smile for a minute as someone unfamiliar with your camera or iPhone tries to take a picture? And how, if the person did manage to take the picture after a minute or two of fidgeting with the buttons, the strained smile of the subject is anything but natural looking? Imagine holding a smile for up to five minutes-- you're going to look like Charles Manson by the time the image has been captured on film. As a result, it was accepted practice for people in the earlier days of the medium to assume a stoic expression which was easier to maintain until the picture was made. I still think this guy comes out looking great:
This photograph was interesting for being so artistically composed-- what a dramatic effect the black background makes on the sepia toned subject!
Her expression and hair made this must-have. I wonder, in those pre-hairspray days, if the trick to styling ones hair this high was just a lot of teasing and bolstering with hair rats and other "stuffing"? Or what kinds of products were on the market back then to make sure every hair stayed where it was meant to stay? Whatever sorcery this lady is working over her coiffure, I think it looks wonderful (as you see me come to work tomorrow with a full Gibson girl wave).
Last but not least, this photo was the only non-studio portrait of the entire group-- not just the ones I bought, but the ones in the box, too. I think this is probably a dad (and a dandy of one, too!) posted on the front steps of his clapboard house with his two daughters. How about how tiny, tiny the daughter on the right is (look at that waist!), looking like a shrunk-down version of the healthier appearing daughter on the left. Maybe one was a pre-teen and the other an almost-adult? I can never tell with antique photos whether the subjects, in some cases, are adolescents or adults-- the grown-up clothing can camouflage age like nobody's business!
Look at the details on their dresses...so many ruffles and flounces! And the dad's hat, mustache, suit, and boutonnière seem to reinforce my earlier identification of the gent as a dapper dresser.
There were a few more things I scooped up at the flea, but I'll have to tell you about them another day, I've prattled on long enough as it is! Anyway, I love these, and think they're a great addition to my photo collection, which is becoming more and more pre-1920 by the day!
What do you think? Which of these 19th century photographs is your favorite? Do you have any pictures of similar antiquity in your collection? What kinds of criteria do put vintage photographs through before you buy them? Let's talk!
That's all for today, but I'll catch you back here tomorrow with more vintage tips and quips. Have a great Tuesday! See you then.