400 Vintage Dancing Girls and counting

The collection of “vintage dancing girls” that I began as a flickr album in 2012 has now passed 400 entries. I’ve no doubt the album title will be considered non-PC these days though, as I have previously written, the term “girl” has been applied very widely and has included men who cross dress. (I haven’t included Vesta Tilley, a very famous male impersonator. Would she be classified as a dancing girl anyway? There are many postcards of her to be found on the internet and a biography by Sara Maitland if you are interested).

As you can see here’s an example of men cross dressing though why and where I do not know. Possibly from an ENSA or other wartime show.

The number of studio posed girls in dance dress is almost impossible to guess but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ran into the hundreds of thousands. This is a good example of the genre.

Another source of material comes from dancing schools. This for instance comes from an album of photographs and articles about amateur productions put on by Raybury Dance school sometime in the 1930s and later.

There have been many dance troupes that performed in variety and where this is clearly the case I have also included them in an album featuring variety, music hall and theatre performers. Again the numbers of these troupes is staggering and it’s very difficult to track down information on them to identify when and where they performed.

This last photograph comes from the famous Windmill Theatre. There are many collectors of material from the Windmill and some of the performers are still alive. This particular photograph lists the performers on the reverse and I was amazed to be contacted by another flickr user who told me one of them was his mum!

Minimalism in Photography

This photograph which I pretentiously named Middleton Chiaroscuro is one of my attempts at minimalism. It’s a zoomed in shot of Middleton seen from the front of my house. It has not been photoshopped except to convert to black and white and remove some condensation that was on the camera lens.

Minimalism in photography (or any art form) is difficult to pin down. Admins of minimalist groups on flickr can be ferociously judgemental on the subject and often remove entries that in their judgement do not meet the required standards. Yet it can be extremely difficult to judge whether something is minimalist or not. It’s all very well to say that a minimalist photograph should have only a small object of focus against a plain background or that it emphasises geometric forms but then you have to ask how small, how plain, how many geometric lines?

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I’m happy to say that this is a minimalist shot. It’s water flowing across a metal sculpture at Yorkshire Sculpture Park….

…. but is this minimalist or not? Also from an exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Part. I’ve distorted the displayed items and to be honest I can’t remember how I did it. (Probably using Filter Forge software.)

And is this minimalist or is it a landscape (or both)?

There are lots of places on the internet where you can find more formal definitions of minimalist photography and examples such as this article from contrastly and this from photo argus.

Finally if you are curious as to what value can be put on minimalist photography then this famous photograph by Andreas Gursky and called Rhein II was sold at auction for over $4.3 million. The original had dog walkers and a factory that he photoshopped out. Make of that what you will.

The Road to Hell….

… is paved with good intentions, so someone said. (Actually first reported in Henry G Bohn’s A Hand-book of Proverbs in 1855 according to Wikipedia). And something went wrong somewhere along the line with this blog as well as with my writing. Well not with my writing per se but with how I deal with it. I recently published my latest novel Dressing the Dead after sitting on it for the best part of a year. The editing process is too difficult, I told myself. The requirements of Amazon to wrangle it into a shape acceptable to their software is a nightmare, I told myself. Besides very few people are ever going to read it so why am I bothering?

As it happens the Amazon specifications are very fiddly but nothing that can’t be overcome with a few hours work. It is true that very few people will ever read the book but that’s not why I wrote it. Yes, it would be nice to have the rights optioned for a film starring Tom Cruise or whoever is the current favoured action hero but I don’t lose sleep thinking about such things. So what is that caused such prevarication on my part and why did it go on for so long?

The answer is that I don’t really know. Nor can I tell you whether this blog will pick up where it left off. All I can say is what is likely to happen with Loake and Patel and what’s in store for Alchemists of Time.

Dressing the Dead finishes on a cliff hanger and you’ll have to read it if you want to know what that is. However, I can tell you that book three in the series will reveal more of Jenny Patel’s back story and that the main theme of the book will be agricultural crime. I bet that’s got your pulse racing hasn’t it? I also don’t think we’ve heard the last of Constance Brown, Melissa Anderson or the Antiphony Group (again read the book damn you!)

Part of the reason that it did take me so long to complete the publication of Dressing the Dead was the fact that I’ve been working on the sequel to Alchemists of Time and every day spent fiddling with fonts and gutters on Dead was time not spent with the Victorians. This time Alex is still stuck in the past with Benjamin Strutt and Daisy whilst Maxine is living a life in an alternative 1960s timeline. The story advances to 1869 and 1969. Writing has been going at a furious pace and the novel has passed the 100K words mark and looks like it’s heading for 150K. For anyone still reading this I’ve set my goal to complete and publish by the end of 2020. If I fail, well then you can come back and talk to me about the road to hell.

The Book of the Dead

 

Some time ago I attended a commercially organised “ghost hunt” which took place overnight. It was at the Grammar 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.

A delightful Victorian album became “The Book of the Dead.”

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 every one 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. I’m not sure if this is due to seeing the film Dead of Night when I was young or if it is something inherent in me. (I dislike all kinds of puppets and dummies).

Is this creepy or rather cute?

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 is creepy whereas others find it delightful. The massed dolls with the girl at the centre is a good example. Creepy or endearing? Only you can decide.

 

This one’s 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?

And what about these two girls? 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 “The Book of the Dead” but as a celebration of people’s lives.

Who’s Got the Biggest?

Googling* yourself or comparing yourself to others is the way to madness. However, I was overcome with the desire today to see what my top performing photographs were on flickr. To my surprise it was the photo featured above with 14,384 views and 12 favourites. Interestingly it was this photo, bought at a table top sale, which really kicked off my interest in old photographs and I still know nothing of its origin or whether this is a real native American or someone dressing up for a studio shot.

Next most popular is one of the early additions to my “vintage dancing girls” collection with 10740 views and 13 favourites. It’s probably 1920s in origin and from a studio in Philadelphia.

Third is also from “vintage dancing girls” with 10225 views and 12 favourites. The tall “girl” is a man. What on earth were they thinking when they posed for this?

Fourth is six parlour maids with 9522 views and 15 favourites. Again nice to see a personal favourite doing well especially given the link to Alchemists of Time. I wrote at the time “I suspect they were a mixture of different types of maid from a household as they 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.”

Overall the old photos I scan and put on flickr do much better that my own stuff and personally I use flickr for seeking out old and odd photographs. (It’s also why I bought Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children when it came out and I still think the photos in it are great but the writing is pedestrian).

As you might guess my next most popular postings, after the old photos, is photos of cats. Bel, for instance, scores 1132 views and 11 favourites.

*Actually I don’t recommend googling yourself. If you must do it then DuckDuckGo yourself.

Where the Light Begins

Although I have called my blog Where the Darkness Begins, to reflect the often dark themes of my writing, the blog is also about photography which is nothing more than painting with light. On flickr I most often post photographs from my ever-growing collection of old photographs rather than my own work. There’s a link as I prefer to work in black and white rather than colour. (That’s not to say I don’t do colour work too). All the photographs in this post are by me, Sam Salt,  and are “all rights reserved.”

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. Have a look at Best Portrait Photographers for instance – 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 makes 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. Unfortunately Nik was acquired by Google in 2012 and development ceased. However whilst writing this post I was excited to see that the Nik Collection was acquired from Google by French software firm DxO in late 2017 and there are plans to continue development.

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

Marjorie Sear, Ballet Dancer 1939

Miss Marjorie Sear in a beautiful hand-coloured photograph. This is the only colour photograph of her from a recently acquired and comprehensive set of Marjorie and her friends all in dance poses. Many of the photographs are dated around 1939 and this is likely to be from the same period.

 

I first came across Miss Sear when I bought a set of 22 sepia photographs of her. When I acquired this set the only identification was the envelope in which they came addressed to “Miss Sear.” They came in an envelope from Jerome Ltd of Kings Cross Road London. They were all date stamped 31 March 1939. It wasn’t until I was later able to acquire two more sets of photographs from the same source that I was able to identify her as Marjorie Sear. Lots the photographs feature groups of dancers. I’m not sure whether she appears in all the group photos but she’s certainly in most of them.

On the reverse of this shot her age is given as 15 and it’s the only photo that mentions her age. I would think the sepia shots are her slightly older and there are clearly some of her younger than 15.

About half of the 60+ photos feature Marjorie with her friends in various dance costumes both on stage and outside. Whatever happened in their later lives they were clearly all enthusiastic dancers and liked to dress up.

As ever I am amazed how family treasures such as this set of photographs can disappear into salerooms and ebay having been lost or discarded. I know that these photos came from a house clearance and so I assume Marjorie Sear is dead and there are no relatives who survive her and want to keep her memory alive. How many more marvellous documents of social and personal history have been lost for all time?

You can see the full set of photographs of Marjorie and her friends in this flickr album.

Paradoxes of Time Travel

So two people who have read Alchemists of Time have approached me and asked me a question along the lines of “Character X died in one chapter but in a later chapter Character X is alive. How can this be? Did you make a mistake when you wrote the book?”

I admit I was somewhat taken aback by the questions as I thought everyone was aware of time paradoxes and the possible outcomes. It’s not my place to explain these here, nor do I have the space, but if anyone wants a good summary of the possibilities then take a look at 5 Bizarre Paradoxes of Time Travel for instance. The granddaddy of all time travel paradox stories is A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury which explains how making a small change in the past can radically alter the future. In his story a visitor to the past steps off the special platform he is supposed to stay on and when he comes back to his present everything is different. Only then does he discover the butterfly he squashed under his boot. This is often referred to as The Butterfly Effect and is different to the scientific version of the Butterfly Effect proposed by Edward Lorenz. However, both the literary and scientific versions of the Butterfly Effect share the idea that a very small change in one environment can lead to a massive change elsewhere in the system in the longer term.

As I discussed in the previous post I changed the title of my new novel to Alchemists of Time after I had written it. Time travel features in the book as does alchemy so it made sense and was more descriptive than my working title Heretics. Alchemy can be understood on many different levels. A popular description of alchemy is that it is a quest to turn base metal into gold. At a higher level though, and I’m simplifying,  alchemy is also seeking a way to change a person’s spiritual path from one of debasement to one of enlightenment. My protagonists are left with no choice but to meddle with time but they do everything they can to minimise the damage they might cause by creating unintentional paradoxes. They practice real alchemy but also their approach to dealing with time paradoxes are alchemical in nature – they want to achieve the best possible outcomes whilst causing the least possible harm to the fabric of time. Hence they are Alchemists of Time.

So yes, the fact that Character X is dead in one chapter and alive in another is intentional and comes about as a result of a time paradox. And that’s before we’ve even begun to discuss theories of possible worlds…..

“Heretics” is now “Alchemists of Time”

Throughout its development my latest novel has been called Heretics. I had the title before I started writing because one of the central ideas was that the Victorian characters were all heretics in one way or another, non-believers in a Christian God in a supposedly pious time. Equally the characters in 1959 were all unconventional, thinking and acting differently to the rest of their contemporaries. In my own mind the book is still called Heretics but when it came to publishing I had to ask if it was a meaningful title. It sounded too much like a historical non-fiction and gave no flavour of genre or content.

After much discussion with my wife we eventually settled on Alchemists of Time, a title which had the virtue of including two major themes of the book – alchemy and time travel. It was my idea to have a strapline “A novel of the occult.” This strapline together with the title covered a lot of the bases and I think will appeal to the audience I am trying to attract. After all it’s difficult when your novel is a historical time-travel fantasy occult social history novel spanning a hundred years. It’s hard to classify and to market with all these aspects but Alchemists of Time and A novel of the Occult are the nearest I can get.

It’s worth saying something about the cover design for which I am also responsible. I wanted it to be eye-catching and give a flavour of the story. The final design is made up of three images licensed from Getty Images and one image from my personal collection of old photographs. I blended the woman’s face on the front of the book with a backdrop of clouds. In the original photo the woman has blue eyes but I changed them to black using Photoshop. On the back cover I blended more clouds with  a drawing of esoteric circles and overlaid a photograph of four Victorian people who bear a similarity to some of the characters in the book. In fact their clothing isn’t quite right for the time period but it does the job.

So, Heretics is now Alchemists of Time, a novel of the occult which should not be read late at night or when you are alone!

When is a Post Mortem Photograph Really a Post Mortem Photograph?

Although many people now find post mortem photographs rather uncomfortable viewing there was a distinct period in Victorian times when they were not unusual. Whatever our view of them today it is perhaps understandable that in an era when families were large and child mortality common there was a desire to have a photographic memorial of a lost child or other relative.

There is a distinct interest amongst some collectors of cabinet cards and old photographs in general in this genre, so much so that a photograph claiming to be taken post mortem will usually sell for a high price, often well in excess of £100. Given the perceived values of these items it seems reasonable to expect to have a high level of confidence in their authenticity yet this is very hard to achieve. If you see a PM photo of Jessie James you can be pretty sure it’s real and it’s easy to find copies on the internet together with details of how and why it was taken. Similarly if a body is photographed in a coffin then it’s likely to be real.

More difficult are examples were a child (and it is normally a child) has been posed in a manner that imitates life. So they may be posed alongside living relatives in their everyday clothes. These photographs may be altered to paint in open eyes and make them look more lifelike. It is even claimed that bodies were propped up on stands to make them appear to be upright although such stands were commonly used for living subjects due to the long exposure times used in early photography. The internet is, of course, awash with articles on this subject and many of them are exaggerated or wrong. So viralnova.com has several examples of PM photographs, some probably real, some doubtful and some wrongly classified. A good counter to viralnova’s page is the essay to be found at incredulous on “Myths of Victorian Post-Mortem Photography.”

If you want to collect PM photographs you will often come across examples on ebay and elsewhere advertised as PM photographs or often as “probably post mortem” or “possibly post mortem.” A clear case of caveat emptor. The photograph at the head of this article is one that I bought (relatively cheaply) that was advertised as “possibly post mortem.” So how likely is really that this is a PM photograph?

There are several elements that might suggest a PM photograph, the most obvious being her eyes which appear to be painted on to the photograph. She’s posed in an everyday dress and clutching her doll so it fits the practice of posing a dead person this way. Her left hand looks very limp and her right hand supports her head in an awkward manner. You can easily see how her body could be propped up in this way (whether alive or dead).

On the other hand a closer inspection shows that this is a real photographic postcard and there are elements on both sides of the card which help us narrow down the time it was published and whether it fits the profile of a PM photograph. Kodak introduced photographic post cards, i.e. blank postcards onto which a personal photograph could be printed, in 1903. Divided backs to postcards, with one side for the address and the other for comments didn’t appear until 1907 and using a white border around the main subject to save on printing costs first began to be used in 1915. We can see that the stamp box tells us that the cost for inland postage is one halfpenny and the Great Britain Philatelic Society shows that the cost of sending a postcard was increased to one penny in 1918. These clues allow us to date the card with a fair degree of accuracy to being produced between 1915 and 1918. Most PM photographs were produced in the late nineteenth century so the time period makes it unlikely that this is a PM photograph.

There is certainly something odd about this photograph but I doubt that it is a genuine PM photograph. It’s much more likely that the photographic studio decided to paint the girl’s eyes this way to make it look better or possibly her eyes really did look like that!