Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Brave Faces in Old Photos

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Susan reporting:

I love painted portraits, and seeing how a skilled artist can reveal the most subtle nuances of character and experience with only a brush and paint.

But a photographic portrait can be equally fascinating, and equally revealing, too, in a far different way. The old saying claims that a camera never lies (at least it didn't before Photoshop), and the earlier the camera, the more truth there is in the image. The harsh bright lights and unwavering poses required by 19th c. technology forced sitters to confront the camera with a frank immediacy that leaps over the decades.

I have no idea of the identity of the intense young gentleman, left. I scanned him from my great-great grandmother's album, where none of the pictures are identified. She knew who everyone was, and a good thing, too. As a very young woman before the Civil War, she left her family's farm back east and traveled across the plains and mountains to teach school in Marin County, CA. She would never return, nor had she expected to. Her album would have her last connection with old friends and family, and I've always wondered what this sharp-eyed gentleman meant to her. From his vertical hair (all the rage mid-century) and the stylishly loose fit of his coat, I'm guessing his picture dates from the 1850s, with his birthdate twenty-five years before that. But what's 180 years with a gaze like that?

The picture of the gentleman, right, is even older. In fact it's one of the earliest surviving American daguerreotypes, dating from 1839. Philadelphia chemist and silversmith Robert Cornelius (1809-1893) was fooling around with the new process, and took this picture of himself outside his shop. His hair is tousled, his pose hastily informal, and he's squinting both at the camera and the sun: but how amazing to be able to look into the eyes of someone born more than two hundred years ago!

I'm not the only one fascinated by old images like these. Recently several other blogs have featured evocative early photographs. Versailles & More has a remarkable video drawn from photographs of the veterans of Napoleon's armies. The Sartorialist invited readers to contribute vintage family shots, with amazing results from around the world.

Most heart-breaking of all, however, are the images of adolescent girls to be found at It's About Time. These girls were inmates in the Welsh prison of Newport Usk Gaol in the 1870s, and the pictures were taken of them upon their release. Their crimes were petty, mostly theft. Their sentences all included hard labor. The oldest girl is sixteen; the youngest eleven. At left is Selina Jenkins, age twelve, who served fourteen days hard labor for stealing a cloth jacket. Hanging around her neck is a tag with her prison number, and her expression seems exhausted and wary, yet resigned as well. Could there be a more achingly truthful portrait?


Isabelle said...

Wonderful pictures and stories.

Rowenna said...

I love old photos--even if I don't know the people. We have an old album from my father's family--1880s--but unfortunately, when we asked my 99 year old great-uncle if he could identify anyone in the photos, he said anyone who would know has passed on...too bad no one wrote anything down!

The prison photos are fascinating!

Miss Kirsten said...

I love old pix! My family doesn't have any nearly this old, but I've bought some at flea markets that probably are, ladies in beautiful old hoop-skirts and serious gentleman in long coats. My favorite is of a baby whose blurry because he couldn't hold still. It doesn't bother me that I don't know who they are because I can "invent" my own stories to go with them.

Holly said...

I have a copy of the Cornelius daguerreotype. I've always liked it b/c his expression and pose look very modern.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

I agree that the faces in old daguerretypes are mysterious and romantic. Those two gentlemen are like handsome ghosts from the past. But those poor young girls! It's terrible to think what the rest of their lives must have been.

Jolene said...

The first image is indeed haunting, so much so that you can almost fall in love with him.

I confess to having been so enraptured with the huge portrait of Prince Rupert that hangs in the Nat'l Portrait Gallery, that I developed a bit of a crush on that bon vivant-turned-explorer. I even have a small copy framed in my office. . . such is the power of the paintbrush, or the camera lens to span the centuries.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Glad everyone likes these antique photos as much as I do! I agree that sometimes NOT knowing who the subject is does make it more fun to imagine their "story" - esp. in the case of the fellow from my family album. Much more entertaining to think of him as a romantic beau rather than just another uncle. *g*

Jolene, you are quite right about Prince Rupert! Now there is a biography that needs no embellishment. His life really was an endless, romantic adventure. So which portrait hangs in your office for, uh, inspiration -- is it the splendid van Honthorst with the red cloak over the armor?

Jolene said...

Hi Susan,
Yes indeed, that's the image I have, though the miniature doesn't include his sexy thigh boots! Prince Rupert's tale is on my personal "hope to do someday" list, unless a certain Restoration author gets to it first...in which case, can I sign up for my advance copy? [grins]

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Jolene, would you believe I HAVE tried to pitch Rupert's story for a book and gotten nowhere??? And I thought he'd make such a great book. Sometimes publishing really does work in mysterious (ie, nonsensical) ways. :)

Catherine Delors said...

Thanks for the link, Susan! Yes, all those photographs are haunting, aren't they?

MrsT said...

I have a few photos of my grnadmother's family c. 1900 that are not identified. On the back of one the inscription reads "White house in background." The photo is sepia so colors aren't readable, but there really wasn't a house light enough to be white. I was confused for a while until I turned over the other photos that looked similar. On the back of one of a young man and woman was the inscription " ___ and ___ White" The 'white house' referred to the people who lived there, not the color! If I hadn't had the second photo I never would have figured it out! Grandma's long gone, but her family lives on in the photos!

Unknown said...

If anyone is interested in Faces from the Past, in both the form of OLD photographs (1830-1930) and painted portraits from life,(done from 1600s-1900s) you would love a website I've discovered.

It has over 3,000 Images (of Old documents, news clippings, graveyard headstones, Military images, & family Bible page images, too) but MAINLY OLD PHOTOS (IDENTIFIED!!!). I was OVERJOYED to find pix of my OWN Ancestors!! So wanted to pass this info on- the site is GUMSHOE GENEALOGY...and its URL, is:


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