I was working on the description of the photograph illustrated above, for my March auction, and it struck a chord that inspired me to share it with you. I had discarded this from a group of images, but when I looked at it more closely I decided to include it.

The photograph appears to be from 1930 – 1940. There is no indication of photographer, publisher or subject. At first I couldn’t make out much. It wasn’t clear that the whitish area at the right wasn’t a defect in the negative, until I realized it was the shoulder or body of someone who was “blocking the view.” And it took me a while to see bullets in the belt at the left, and then the bit of uniform, that indicated that policemen were twisting the arms of the young black man whose upper body was bare. As our view is very restricted, I couldn’t tell the position of the youth in relation to the space that was hardly indicated. His face points into a triangular wedge in the light area at the right. There is a small white dot near the apex of the triangle. Is that light reflecting off his eye?

From looking at so many daguerreotypes of two people, I have become accustomed to paying a lot of attention to the subjects’ hands. The position of the arms and hands are often very revealing of the relationship between the subjects. Here the hands are particularly interesting, as the policemen’s hands hold the prisoner’s hands in a curious manner, gentle as well as containing.


The light area at the right has some light gray blotches that indicate it is something right in front of the camera lens. This lightness is almost the same color as the margins. In this case the image is printed smaller than the photographic paper on which it is printed, so the bottom margin is much wider than the other margins. This wide bottom margin almost merges with the white area, so the image of the caught man floats within a light border with light strips of various thickness at the left, top and bottom, and a curved irregular wider shape at the right.

The question arises: what is the actual “picture?”

This has two dimensions. One is to determine the “content” of the picture from so little supporting information. The other is what, on the object in front of us, is the “picture.”

The second question can have several solutions. One can think of the picture as everything inside the margins, even the invisible margin at the right, but not the margins themselves.

Here is how that looks:


The picture can be cropped by a mat so the wider white area at the bottom is cropped out, and we see only the dark picture area and the white area at the right, but without the strip of the supposed right margin.

Here is how that looks:


Or we can think of the photograph as everything on the full sheet of photograph paper, and that will include all the margins. That is the image presented earlier.

In matting and framing, decisions are made that define what the photograph is, often interpreting the photograph in ways that alter it. The photographer’s intent might not be known or even be relevant. A matted, framed photograph is an interpretation of the photograph. The photograph “itself” might be more ambiguous, not only subject to various “meanings” but also various understandings of what is and is not part of the image.

When I look at this photograph as it is now, in a sleeve but not matted or framed, other things come to mind. The white margins constitute some kind of border that separates the photograph from the world outside. But in a photographic print of this kind, I see the outside world encroaching into the photograph. Each photographic print is a physical object. It is not only an interpretation of the negative, but as a print it has a life and history of its own.

As is so often the case with this type of print, the corners are wounded from previous mounting corners. [Why are these still being used so frequently?] There are some folds and cuts that are coming into the edges of the photograph.

I very often see mats used to hide these invasions. They hope to restore the image to its “original” virgin state, though by cropping out some borders and edges they change it from the original. If a mat is chosen to cover some damage, this surely changes the picture. Many photographs offered for sale have been carelessly matted so that some of the image is unnecessarily covered, often with the person who did the matting not even caring. In this case, the photographer made an immediate decision to make the tight framing a major element in the picture. So we must respect this as well as we can.

It seems much better to “float” the entire print, so the entire image can be seen, including its edges. If there is damage that appears as a blemish, there are conservation techniques that can minimize the effect. These techniques are expensive, if they are done properly. It is only the low value still placed on many photographs that makes this cost out of proportion to the “value” of the photograph.

I don’t at all mean to minimize the issue of condition, but rather to take the issues of condition in a wider perspective.

In the case of the photograph we are discussing, the invasion of outside forces somewhat parallels the picture itself, and seems an appropriate part of its character. The feeling of the paper, the character of the print, the indications of previous handling, tremendously enhance its character. They are part of what I love about it. The people in the image who are caught in this tightly framed space have a kind of vulnerability. That their photographic depiction is also vulnerable to outside invasion is somehow appropriate.

This is a great authentic vintage photograph. The chances are you will never encounter another example of it. What is it? What is its value?

It’s been a long time since I was struck by something that compelled me to write. Now I have lots of things that continue the thoughts started in this Newsletter so I hope to continue this.

This photograph is available for purchase. Click here for more information.


4 Responses

  1. be-hold June 18, 2013 / 4:15 PM

    Here are some of the many responses I received after I sent this Newsletter. As these were sent to me and not for publication I’m not indicating the names of the writers, but from now on readers can post comments directly on the site. Comments by each sender are separated by dotted line.


    (1) The young man is naked except for his BVD’s. He has probably been rousted out of his home in the middle of the night, or more likely caught in the street trying to escape after he heard the policemen at his door.

    (2) He’s sweating heavily, so likely he was caught after a chase. There’s some mud on his right shoulder and some dry dirt or powder on his right collarbone and possibly on the back of his head. He might have been tackled or held down in supine position.

    (3) He’s wearing Jockey-style Y-front briefs, so far as I can tell, which were introduced in 1934, according to this site . I would place the photo as late 30’s to late 60’s.

    (4) The skin of the policemen to the right seems darker than that of the other policeman, but that might be the lighting. If the policeman on the right were black, the dating would be toward the end of that period. The gentle handling of the suspect doesn’t necessarily mean a later date.

    (5) Through the prisoner’s arms, you can seen the equipment on the belt of the righthand policeman. You can also see part of a whitewall tire between the left of the lefthand policeman and the prisoner’s underwear.

    (6) The light near the prisoner’s eye is, I think, a reflection from the bulbous part of the side of his nose, caused by the camera flash and similar to the stripe of light near his neck and the diffuse blobs on his right shoulder and hip.

    (7) I don’t know my armaments, but the bullets look like .38s or .45s.


    The white dot is not his eye (too low) but the sweat of his
    skin as it reflects off the photographer’s flash of his
    right nostril. He is having handcuffs put on him, is this
    photo represent the beginning of a lynching? Poor young man,
    maybe 20 or so, scars are big on his right thigh.


    The photo reminds me more of the 60’s, Civil Rights Protest era. The ammo and pouches on the belt of the white person on the left(as the photo is viewed) suggests law enforcement. Both are wearing what I would judge to be tan shirts with dark pants, the typical law enforcement uniform of that era. I would suspect one person dressed the same way as the two detaining the black person is trying to block the photographer. The position of the hands suggest to me the handcuffs are about to come out and the subdued person is about to be taken into custody.

    My ideas on the poor black youth is that he was troubled, maybe abused, and out of control. The police were empathetic to his plight, but had to control him really from harm to himself or others. Though we have blatant examples of racism and cruelty from the past, there were good people in law enforcement and elsewhere, hence the gentle handling of this youth.


    First, did you noticed the car behind the cops?
    Assuming it’s a cop car, you can see the late 40s or very early 50s white wall tire, CPD shirt.
    I can see the CPD on the shirt (uniform) Cincinnati Police Department
    More on the other guys sleeve.
    The belt, bullets, pounch typical of CPD uniform as with the stripe on the pants, buttons on the shirt.
    You can actually see this shirt in the link here (also look close you will see CPD on it)
    Need to scroll down to George Plum 1937-42 image.

    My thoughts on the image,, large white area on the right is actually another cop standing here, you can see the collar, pocket.
    The photographer had to reach up and over this guy to get his shot of a black man likely from the riot days, hiding under a house or hole with all this dirt on him.

    AND LARRY believe it or not this image may have been taken with the famous Cincinnati pocket version. (see link here, you will know what I mean, time period is close)

    More to this image than we know but iconic of America in Cincinnati..


    I’m convinced it is a riot photo often taken given the opportunity but rarely published.
    Also believe you could easily determine the Police City name by getting a good high res photo of his shirt pocket and sleeve of the other one.
    My pet peave is figuring out photos, I search for additional photos of the uniform shirt and not many out there, but the one I found surely looks like Cinn. CPD on it like on shirt in you photo.

    And Larry you’re really going to think I’m nuts when my gut said it was a Fairlane Ford Police car behind them. (left rear 2 door)
    So I went and looked and sure enough only the 1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner had this white wall tire (2 years 58-59), no others (original stock Fairlane) had the white wall thin stripe. To prove this is the car, you can see the GAS CAP DOOR between the cop’s (on left) his belly and arm, door clearly when you lighten the photo. Just the cars shadow shape made my gut think of this (plus I owned one), Only the 2 door 1958 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner had the gas cap door where 4 door would have been. (see photo attached)

    Did you notice the handcuffs on the guy? Under neg you can see the handcuffs, officer on left is actually gently holding the cuffs with his left hand, thumb, forefinger and the other officer holding the guy by the backside of upper arm of the captive.

    Think letters on the sleeve, shirt pocket, and stripe pants. (style of Cinn shirt pocket Cat Eye flap) typical of the era,
    At first I thought this was Chicago, but really think it is Cinn. The gun belt and lettering on the shirt pocket will tell the story for sure..

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