33. TWO-HEADED CALF

351-0The essential promise of the daguerreotype was truthfulness, the “mirror with a memory.”  As I have immersed myself in the world of cabinet cards for the last few months, in connection with the current Be-hold auction, I often found myself in a world of contested truthfulness, a world where there was a porous border between truth and illusion. This was a concern of the age—the latter part of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. Developments in photographic practice catered to that concern.

This was a world that PT. Barnum fostered and exploited already in the era of daguerreotypes and  CDV’s, that fully blossomed in the cabinet card era. Crowds flocked to see in “real life” numerous types of living persons and creatures that were out of the ordinary. These included people who were shorter or taller than “normal,” thinner or fatter, with longer hair on their head or face. It especially included those who by birth or disease more seriously departed from what was usual. They were presented as real living people, but often surrounded by fictitious tales about their birth and history. Photographs often show them accompanied by “normal” family members or managers, making the photographs a mixture of verisimilitude and exaggeration or falsehood.

At the same time photographic manipulation blossomed in this period.  Techniques that developed already in daguerreotypes could be achieved more easily and experimentally once printing became a separate activity from making the negative. The cabinet cards exhibit numerous examples of this.

Is this two-headed calf a freak of nature or the result of playful printing?

There are many examples of photographs using superimposition and collage. While examples of many “trick” processes can already be found in daguerreotypes, they were unique objects. So were tintypes, that often explored the same processes as cabinet cards. But the cabinet cards were made in multiple examples, from just a relatively small number by small town studios to the huge outputs of the major big city studios.

Issues of illusion were not only explored in printing, they were often part of the studio production. Studio backdrops and furniture were part of the trappings of photographs from the beginning. But even though the backdrops might show scenes, they were still part of the studio setting, and rarely was there an attempt in daguerreotypes to pretend that the studio location was somewhere else.

There are many cabinet cards in this collection where the studio is acknowledged but some kind of illusion is still established. An example is the photograph of Charles Dickens at his desk. This might seem to be in his own study, but there are indications the desk or a similar one was brought into the studio. There are many examples of occupational images where objects and trappings of the profession are set up in the studio. These don’t differ from the similar practice in daguerreotypes and CDV’s. But there are other examples where the studio is made to give the illusion of a “real” space.

An example is a cabinet card of an ice skater where the backdrop represents a somewhat realistic scene, and the floor is made up to represent ice, with even the pattern made by the blades appearing in the ice. (One wonders how the skater was able to hold his pose, or, in another subject, how bicycles were able to stand upright without any visible support.) Another photograph shows a woman and girl resting from haying. The studio is so made up with real hay that there is no clue that this wasn’t taken out in the field.

228-0447-0Photographs of theatrical performers represent the largest body of photographs in the collection, and are among the most numerous photographs made in this era, next to individual and family portraits. The theater itself as it developed in the West after the era of Shakespeare was a site of both reality and illusion. Like the “freaks” discussed above, the performers were real persons, but in a space of illusion. This is part of the lure of the theater. The real actors represent individuals who are not themselves in spaces that are made to seem other than the real stage. The complex fantasy involved in collecting cabinet cards of theater performers would soon be overtaken by publicity photographs of movie stars, where the “original” was not a real person but a celluloid illusion.

 

127-0There was often a blurred line between the studio backdrop and the theater backdrop. In this masterful superimposed photograph of the actor as both Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, it isn’t clear whether this is the backdrop of the theater where the play was performed, or the backdrop of the studio.

In just a few cases as represented in this collection, the outside world is presented “as it really is.” But as this example shows, the world can be used as a setting just as the studio setting can be made to represent a real outside scene. Here presumably real people, not actors, are elaborately arranged in an urban scene that has many implications. It stands between the formally arranged studio scene and the moment captured by a hand-held camera in the modern era.

………………….
These illustrations are from our October 29th auction. See www.be-hold.com

I hope this will help make it interesting to look through the material.

 


This is the 32nd one of my occasional Newsletters on issues about photography.
It and most of the previous ones can be found by clicking on the tab at the top our home page. You are welcome to comment on this and, in the appropriate place, on many  of the previous Newsletters that can be found there. Your comments on this Newsletter can also include any issues related to Cabinet Cards and their presentation in the auction.

— Larry Gottheim

32. SCAN, PHOTO, IKON, AVATAR

Images on computer screens are now the major way we see photographs. I put a lot of effort into representing our offerings as accurately as possible, often with high-resolution scans. A European client berated us as well as any other dealer who uses images made by a scanner. He wanted images made with a camera, even a cell phone camera, rather than a scanner. He thought those who offered images made by a scanner were misrepresenting the photograph, and buyers who judged by an image made by a scanner rather than by a camera were fools.

Leaving aside the question of what could be revealed by a camera that would be obscured by a scanner, this generated some thoughts.

A photograph itself is partly a representation, but also an object. Even daguerreotypes that have from the start been likened to mirrors have a different object nature and function than images in mirrors. Photographs are judged and valued for their object nature as much or more than for what they represent.

Usually when we look at a mirror, we are entirely absorbed by what is reflected, rather than by the object that contains the reflection. Whether we are using the mirror in a car’s visor, or one above the sink, or one in a clothing store, we pay attention to certain details in what is being reflected. The mirror itself is functional.

When we see a representation of a photograph it is also functional. It can both give us a sense of what is represented in the photograph, and also tell us something about its object nature. We don’t confuse the physical nature of the computer screen with the physical nature of the photograph. We look “behind” the screen to learn something about the photograph. The screen is an avatar or ikon of what it represents.

The same photograph can be found with many different titles or descriptions, and the image on the screen can tell us which one it is. The screen image can help identify the subject, or place, or the date or approximate date when it was made. It is a source of information. We can sometimes recognize the maker of an image that is unknown to the person who made the scan. Even a poor or low-resolution image on the screen can provide enough information for many purposes.

But when a photograph is offered for sale, another function of the screen image is to tell us something of the character of the photograph and its condition. By itself it can only hint at what the actual photograph will be like when looked at directly. But some information needs to be stated in other ways. The size is usually stated, because it can’t be determined by the screen image alone. The actual “presence” of the photograph can not be felt. It is extremely frustrating to make a scan of a photograph that somehow fails to capture the feeling of the original.

One supplements the scan with a description. “Slightly light,” or “minor signs of handling” can make the photograph seem less or more attractive that it would be if seen directly. I mistrust most peoples “otherwise” as in “slight signs of handling and some soil but otherwise an excellent print.”

It takes a degree of connoisseurship to appreciate the subtle qualities that would make a certain print attractive to a discerning collector. The attractiveness is also subject to the needs of the collection. A photograph that offers unique content to a collection interested in that contact can be highly desired even if there are some condition problems, while a vintage work of photographic art that exists in various states will be most desirable in rich near perfect condition.

The collector must supplement the image on the screen and any verbal information supplied with a connoisseur’s memory of other similar photographs in the same process, from the same period. The image and other information will stand as an ikon or avatar, bringing to mind what the actual photograph will probably be like, but only to someone who has seen many other examples of similar photographs.

I am an audiophile and listen to vinyl. The experience of listening to records at home is never the same as being in a concert hall or club, but because I have a memory of what the “live” experience is like I can let the record create the illusion of that reality. This can even be the case when an old mono record of not great fidelity can simulate the experience of hearing it live. I can experience the nature of the music itself and its performance.

The best situation is when a relationship has been established between the person providing the scan and the person receiving it with the accompanied information, In some cases that will be enough for a decision to be made.

In other cases (and this is rare) there can be a discussion in which both parties share some sense of the qualities that are important, and they can find a language to talk about them, while both are looking at the screen image.

I very much value looking at photographs with clients in a way that sometimes (though rarely) is possible at shows. Hopefully our new quarters will better allow for this if people visit. We can get past the superficial points that are usually all that are raised, as clients rush from table to table at shows, or scroll through internet presentations. These shared viewings set the stage for subsequent conversations by phone or email that can supplement the internet presentation of future offerings.

The presentation of a screen image, whether from a scanner or a camera, can be just an intermediary stage in a complex process that takes place in the mind of the client and the dialog with the dealer. This can sometimes lead to the client taking possession of the photograph itself.