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.

29. The Early Bird

Some collectors go to great lengths to acquire very early material in their field.  They seek out early or earliest versions of important material. There is the pleasure of the hunt. But there are reasons that have to do with the subject area of the collection itself. Early editions illuminate the history or even pre-history of the subject being collected.

Think for example of postal history, or first editions of books. You can think of many more. But this is about photography.

I’ll devote a future Newsletter to issues related to the different published versions of small format photographs on mounts, such as CDV’s, stereo views and Cabinet Cards, where virtually the same or very similar prints will appear on different mounts. Many collectors will prize the earliest edition of such a photograph, even if it is only indicated by the mount and not the photograph itself. Here I want to make some comments on the larger photographic print.

For most film-based photography, the earliest  “version” is the negative. Oddly, there is relatively little collecting interest in negatives in general. In just a few cases the negative has an independent status as an art object. This is particularly the case of paper and waxed paper negatives of calotypes, but not yet of glass or film negatives.

Some negatives have importance in revealing the evolution of the photograph from the instant the camera shutter is opened to the final print. There is recent welcome interest in the contact sheet, that reveals the “behind the scenes” context of a particular image.  Sarah Greenough’s work with Robert Frank’s contact sheets and the organization of the pictures in “The Americans” is a great recent example.

Film-based photography followed changes in cameras, enlargers, negative material, processes and printing paper. Of particular interest in the case of paper prints are the changes in paper and printing processes, as these, along with the skill and vision of the printer, determine the sensuous character of the final print.

“Vintage” is a loosely used term.  An experienced collector will often be able to tell, even at a distance, if a certain gelatin silver print looks like it might be from the 1920’s, ‘30’, 40’s, or 50’s. Many “printed later” prints will just look wrong to one accustomed to seeing earlier prints.

Starting with the 1970’s, it will be much more difficult to tell on superficial examination whether a print is from the ‘70’s or the ‘80’s. One has become accustomed to black lighting certain prints to get a clue if a print might have been made before, say, 1945, or definitely later.

At the great 2010 exhibition at MOMA of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, I was awed by the beauty of the early prints— their tones, the way they lay on the paper. Once I got into the later prints I found a similarity to most of them. They were matted so one could not see the margins nor was there any information about what was on the verso. This presentation was in accordance with C-B’s own aesthetic that placed the greatest importance on the picture as a record of an instant in time, and not so much on the character of the print.

In the last Be-hold auction, a print was offered of Cartier-Bresson’s popular image “Bords de la Marne” [“On the Banks of the Marne”] I noted (and included a scan of) the stamps and notations on the verso. This was a later print of the 1930’s picture. I described the heavy Agfa paper and its “pearl” surface that reminded me of the true vintage prints. There were some slight bends from handling but no damage to the surface. [This type of condition is easily dealt with by standard conservation.]  It had a starting bid [reserve] of  $2000, but didn’t get any bids.

In the great Sotheby’s sale of 11 December 2014, “175 Masterworks To Celebrate 175 Years Of Photography,” there was a print of the same picture from the 1950’s. That had important provenance, and was enhanced by being part of this historic auction. It sold for $53,125. Neither print was signed.

I am still puzzled by the huge disparity between the fate of the two Cartier-Bresson prints auctioned within a month of each other

The Sotheby’s result, however, was partly significant in that it showed that the character of the print (along with the provenance) could generate far more collecting excitement than just a signature. Indeed looking up the auction records for this picture, one finds numerous later prints, signed, and with various stamps and notations, some in the range of $10,000 to almost $15000. Many of these “printed later” prints had the generic “modern” gelatin silver look.

A signed photograph by itself denotes a “lifetime” print, distinct from later prints made from a negative or copy negative after the death of the photographer. However there are some prints made by some photographers that are “early” or even “vintage” that are not signed, that have the special character of a vintage print that should be appreciated and valued.

Many photographers will sign wholesale a great number of prints that were in fact printed by someone else. This could be a very skilled printer who was entrusted by the photographer to make the print. When the photographer is honest, and indicates who actually made the print, those prints are valued less. In some cases it was only early in the photographer’s career that the photographer himself or herself would give great personal care to making the print.

In the last few years I have paid a lot of attention to the printing history of press prints. In the last auction I had a beautiful print of the Rosenthal photograph of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that seemed to have been printed from the negative or a close copy negative with interesting tones and texture. I much prefer that print to later signed large exhibition prints of the same picture. I have also presented very early prints of other iconic press photographs, for example Robert Capa’s D-Day landing images. It seems that some collectors and institutions are recognizing the importance of these very first prints of iconic images.

Many photographers originally made or had made press prints of their work. They are often credited, but the prints are rarely signed.  These early press prints often don’t have the character of beautiful exhibition prints on quality paper. Some are even wire photos. They are usually glossy—“ferrotyped” to make better copies– with signs of wear from use, and with interesting stamps on the back. Early ones are toned, and have a special beauty that one can come to appreciate along with the wealth of information on the verso.

It seems these prints are coming to be appreciated for the historical importance as objects. Even though they might have been originally printed in relatively large numbers, the very early editions, even wire photographs that might have been the very first, are now scarce and provide an exciting area to collect. The early works of many of the major photographers were often press prints.

Vintage “Classic” 19th and 20th century photographs by significant photographers are becoming ever more scarce. True vintage signed prints with good provenance are so expensive they are out of reach of most collectors, even those with the means to collect at high but not the highest level. Signed “printed later” prints have become mainstays of auctions. Examples of some appear in almost every general auction. I don’t mean to underestimate their appeal to collectors.

But for those who can develop the sensitivity to the character of the print, unsigned early prints that are clearly the work of the photographer, often with the photographer’s credit stamp, represent in my view an exciting collecting area.