photography Social history

The happiest day of their lives?

Weddings are another type of family event and photographs don’t always show that everyone is having a good time. This group look very glum.

I count three smiling women but the rest, including the bride and groom, are not so happy.

A more formal group. Photograph dated 1921 and location Ringley.

“Duncan’s wedding party” is written on the back.

On the back of this photograph we have “Marriage of John Froggatt at Watford and Harriett Abbott (mother Harriett Ann Walker Abbott (widow)) 20th July 1909.”

And these are my parents Charles and June on their wedding day in 1952.

photography Social history Victorian

Maids: real and theatrical

This is probably what most people think of when imagining Victorian maidservants.

“Parlour maids” is written in pencil on the back of this cabinet card but that was probably added recently. I suspect they were a mixture of different types of maid from a household as servants each had different functions – scullery maid, chamber maid etc. The two girls seated at the front look rather young but girls started in service as young as eight.

This is rather more Downton Abbey (not that I’ve ever watched it) and again what you’d expect. Note there’s a dog amongst the maids too.

Being a maid was not a glamorous job. The hours were long, the jobs dirty and demanding and women in service would be miles away from their families and rarely given time off to visit them. Nevertheless some families thought well enough of their maids to have them photographed.

Troupes of “maids” were a popular entertainment in the music halls though they bore little resemblance to real maids.

For some reason there was a mania for dressing as dairymaids.

Maids on stage are popular to this day. Hard to date this one but probably the 1930s or 40s.

And here’s Gladys Cooper attended by her maid in the play Excelsior from 1928. I’ll write about Gladys in a later blog. She was arguably the first woman to exploit her image on postcards and sold hundreds of thousands of them. It was said that nearly every soldier in the first world war trenches had a postcard of her in his tobacco tin.

[There’s a whole subculture of Victorian working women such as pit brow women. There’s also a fascinating book on Victorian Working Women by Michel Hiley which covers pit brow women, women miners, fishergirls, milkwomen, gymnasts etc]

photography Social history spooky Victorian

The Book of the Dead

If something was called The Book of the Dead I’d expect to see something scary like this ventriloquist and his dummy. (If you’ve ever seen the film Dead of Night you’ll know why this scares me!)

What I wouldn’t expect is to see a Victorian photo album like this:

Photo albums, with or without themes, were very popular in Victorian time. This Tennyson themed album has lots of cut outs to contain CDVs and cabinet cards. This one’s rather charming I’d say.

I mention this because some time ago I attended a commercially organised “ghost hunt” which took place overnight. It was at the school I’d attended as a teenager so I was already familiar with the place and had not been aware of anything particularly spooky associated with it. As it turned out the whole event was rather silly with the facilitators trying hard to conjure up supernatural events, cold spots and the like. To put it kindly it was utter nonsense.

At one point in the night I found myself in a small room with several other participants trying to make contact with “spirits”. The organiser of this session gave out roles to each of us. She asked for a volunteer to sit with the “book of the dead.” As everyone else was wary I volunteered only to find that the book was actually a Victorian album full of cabinet cards and CDVs. I was delighted of course and could see nothing negative about sitting with this album. My frustration was that because we were operating in very dim lighting I couldn’t see the contents properly. No spirits were contacted or harmed during the seance.

For the most part I find nothing creepy about my interest in old photographs. I see the process of collecting and preserving these photos as a valuable and worthwhile activity, hopefully ensuring that other people can see and appreciate these wonderful social documents. I am perplexed when my partner or other people think there is something creepy about my hobby and refer to it as collecting photographs of dead people. I think those people should be remembered and celebrated not discarded and forgotten.

On the other hand there are some creepy items in my collection though I suspect what I find creepy is not what everyone finds creepy. The photo at the head of this blog for instance is creepy to me as are all  films and photos of ventriloquists and their dummies.

Dolls are another thing that can be disturbing. I know I share this with many other people from the feedback I get but sometimes I see a photo featuring a girl and a doll and think it’s creepy whereas others find it delightful. The massed dolls with at girl at the centre is a good example. Creepy or endearing? Only you can decide.

This on the other hand is definitely creepy.

Sometimes the subjects of photographs have a rather haunted look about them. This could be caused by the fact that early photographic techniques required the subjects to be still whilst the exposure was taken but sometimes the subjects look haunted anyway. Taken in Malta this military man and his daughter have a decidedly haunted look.

And sometimes there’s just something wrong or odd about a photograph that makes you wonder what was really going on.

Does the man behind the children look menacing to you?Haunted or cute?

Considering most of these photographs come from the early nineteenth century it is almost certain that the subjects are all now dead but I prefer to think of these old photographs not as items in “The Book of the Dead” but as a celebration of people’s lives.

photography Social history

Vintage cats and their servants

It is well known that dogs have owners and cats have staff. This cat has four attendants and a table of cat treats waiting to be eaten.

Here’s a cat already having four young girls training to be its personal staff.

It seems that cats often choose women to work for them though it is not just the preserve of females to undertake the taxing work of cat herding.

You’ll have to look closely at the left photograph to see the cat behind the woman. That cat on the right has made her staff member wear a uniform to better serve it.

I have had the pleasure of being the head butler to many cats and here are some of their kittens. You may object that this is not a vintage photo but it is over 40 years old and possibly considered vintage to some – there’s even some highly collectable vintage hi fi in the background!

[All photos from my personal collection].

photography Social history

Vintage dogs and their owners

People have always liked having their photo taken with their pet dogs. The sun is definitely over the yardarm for this couple and their dog.

Here are some more disreputable types out on the town and taking their dogs with them.

Everyone likes to be seen with their dogs from the country gent to the fashionable lady.

Someone’e really gone to town on this one, dressing the girl as Diana, Goddess of the hunt, with her dog and arrows. The whole thing hand tinted. Probably not her personal pet.

This girl and her dog are much more believable.

More women and their dogs. The couple with their dog come from a series of photos of women on holiday in the 1920s with a distinctly Sapphic vibe. The sole woman and her dog looks very 1960s.

All photos from my personal collection as usual.

photography Social history

Obsessed by Ina

From a collection of over 200 photographs, all of Ina posing for the camera. The photographer is not seen in any of the shots. He is obviously obsessed by Ina and she is more than happy to be photographed. A few shots are dated in the late 1950s but there is little else to identify locations etc. though there a few at popular UK sites and a handful in Germany.

Apart from Ina herself there are just 3 photos with her mother and two with her sister.

Ina is seen in a variety of poses and she seldom looks less than happy.

As I often remark, it always seems sad that collections of photographs that obviously meant a lot to someone and their families just disappear in house clearances and salerooms. At least it’s possible for collectors to preserve some of the social history contained in such photographs.

photography Victorian

Carte de Visite

Or Visiting Cards to you and me. Popular from the 1860s they were mostly replaced by cabinet cards in the 1870s and onwards. CDVs were smaller than the later cabinet cards so could easily be given as visiting cards. They were cheap to produce, hence a person could have a photo taken in a studio and then have multiple reproductions made. There was a mania for collecting CDVs and albums were produced for collections to be stored.

Often the elaborate backs of CDVs can be more interesting than the photographs themselves.

Look past the girl and the dog and you can see that the chair has a jugenstil design and the reverse of the card is clearly influenced by art nouveau.

I’m not sure many of the CDV portraits did justice to their subjects. Many men in particular come out looking stern and rigid. (They had to stay very still for exposures so this goes some way to explaining why they come out the way they do).

CDVs were also used to illustrate national costumes and what were then referred to as “racial types,” a topic perhaps for another discussion. The Dutch lady at the head of this post is a good example of national costume.

[All these CDVs are from my personal collection]


How it all began

It’s going back some years now but finding this photograph got me interested in collecting old photos in the first place. Like many people I had some topographical postcards but this was the first time I started thinking about the social history to be explored in old photographs and real photographic postcards (RPCCs).

I found it in a box of old photos at a table-top sale in the Community Centre, Cromford, Derbyshire. It was with a bunch of other unrelated photos and postcards at a stall selling general bric-a-brac and antiques. There’s nothing to identify who it is or where it comes from and it’s a real photograph, not a postcard. There’s no studio name on it either. So it’s all a mystery still even though other people have tried to find out more about it.

Looking again at the man’s outfit it doesn’t seem very authentic. Her clothes probably place the time as somewhere in the Edwardian era. The backdrop says it’s a studio but why would the man dress up like this? Was it for a play or theatre review or was he with a visiting “Wild West” show though these were more popular in the late Victorian era?

It’s unlikely I’ll ever know the true story but if you have any ideas then do contact me.


My favourite old photograph

Having a favourite photograph, old or new, is as absurd as having a favourite film or book. The item at the top of the list is likely to change from day to day, month to month, year to year. However this photograph has consistently been a favourite of mine.

Why? Because it’s mysterious and spooky and the atmosphere is made partly by the scratches and blemishes. What’s the girl smiling at and what does she have behind her back? It could easily be a still from a David Lynch film (Lynch would also be top of my favourite directors).

The photograph is bound inside a small generic cover with five other photographs, each 8cm by 8cm. On the reverse of the cover it shows “Processed by Rothgeb* Photo Service of Youngstown Ohio” who are apparently a member of the Master Photo Dealers and Finishers Association.

(*Rothgeb sounds like one of the Ancient Ones from an H P Lovecraft story doesn’t it).


Painting with Light

Although I originally called my blog Where the Darkness Begins, to reflect the often dark themes of my writing, this revised blog is mostly about photography, which is nothing more than painting with light. The example above was taken at Portmeirion. On flickr I most often post photographs from my ever-growing collection of old photographs rather than my own work. No wonder then that I prefer to work in black and white rather than colour. (That’s not to say I don’t do colour work too).

For me there’s something much more mysterious and dreamlike about black and white photography than there is with colour photography. The fact that you are painting with light is made all the more obvious in monochrome. I also find that I am more inclined to make actual prints of monochrome photos than I am of colour photos. This is especially true when it comes to A3 prints where a good print will yield far more detail than can be seen in most colour prints and certainly more detail than can be seen on a computer screen.

Portraits always seem to work better in black and white, like this studio photograph of Arabella. Have a look at Best Portrait Photographers for some more examples – there are one or two colour photos but the majority are in black and white. I’d add Robert Mapplethorpe to the list but be careful where you point that browser if you go looking for his work!

Here’s another one of mine, a personal favourite. This is my step-daughter Kate descending the stairs at Caulke Abbey. It’s the contrast between light and dark that make it for me.

Here’s Kate at Caulke Abbey again but this time I’ve accentuated the light. Most of these photos have had some adjustments made using Nik Silver Efex Pro, the software I consider to be the most essential to have for black and white photography. We nearly lost Nik when it was  acquired by Google in 2012 and development ceased.  However Nik Collection was acquired from Google by French software firm DxO in late 2017 and since then it has continued to be developed and improved.

Without darkness there is no light. Without light there is no darkness