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!

Ballet in Weymouth UK – the 1950s and 1960s

 

My most recent acquisition is an album of ballet and ballet-related photographs together with a handful of loose photographs and clippings, also ballet-related. Most of the photographs are from Weymouth, or at least the photographers were from Weymouth. The album containing the photographs is from a stationer in Weymouth too. There are two frustrating things about this collection; firstly there is nothing to indicate who owned this collection in the first place; secondly, although there seems to be a plethora of dance schools operating in Weymouth today, none of them have been established more than ten or twenty years so I can’t identify the school where most of the photos were taken.

I would say that the productions featured indicate that this was a group of amateurs but with serious ambitions. See for instance the shots from the production of Giselle helpfully dated 1961. A feature of the productions is that, as far as I can tell from the photographs, all the parts were danced by females. I haven’t found a photograph with a male dancer.

Other photographs indicate that this school, and it isn’t certain all the shots came from a single place, also ran dance classes covering all ages. There are shots of classes full of young girls and others full of mature females.

Two males who do feature in the album are Cyril Beaumont, dance historian and president of the Cecchetti Society (of which more in a moment) and Anton Dolin, a principal dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1920s and Vic-Welles ballet in the 1930s. As Dolin appears in the photograph with several ballerinas taken by Harry Taylor of Bournemouth I assume he at least paid a visit to the school.

There is a series of group photographs noted to be summer schools from 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1965, and 1969. There was a word I couldn’t read on the back of some of these shots but I eventually deciphered it as Cecchetti. This is apparently a method of teaching classical ballet dancing devised by Enrico Cecchetti and now promoted by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. I’m the first to admit that I know almost nothing about ballet – I’ve been to the ballet maybe half a dozen times in my life but doing this research is teaching me a lot.

As I mentioned, the photographers responsible for these shots are varied although one name appears quite often – that of Harry Taylor of Bournemouth. Taylor, now deceased, was known as “Flash Harry,” presumably after the character in the early St Trinian’s films. His moment of fame seems to have been photographing the Beatles who played several times in Bournemouth, a nearby town to Weymouth. His ballet photographs were mostly framed in a distinctive white border (not always reproduced here). Some of his work, if indeed it was him personally, is very distinctive such as the shot of Anton Dolin signing autographs. Sad to say other examples of his work from this collection, whilst looking well-framed and posed, are often poor quality and out of focus on a close examination.

There are several shots of solo ballerinas, some moody and evocative. I particularly like this shot above.

Elsewhere there are some great group shots, mostly posed but a couple of well-caught action photographs.

This signed photograph of Alicia Markova is dedicated to Lilian someone but I can’t make out the second name. Could this Lilian be the owner of the album? I’ve made the remark before but it always strikes me as sad when a collection like this has become disconnected from the family of the original owner. It looks as though this set of photographs and clippings almost certainly belonged to a young girl who maintained her interest in ballet as she grew up – the photos with dates range from 1953 to 1969. Sixteen years of ballet history that must have been of passionate interest to the collector but ended up for sale on ebay by someone who probably bought it at auction or in a house clearance. It’s a privilege to be able to rescue and preserve collections like this.

Finally, if anyone does know more about ballet in Weymouth during the 1950s and 60s I’d love to know. More photos from this collection can be seen in my flickr album of Vintage Dancing Girls.

Cats and Dogs

Pets have always been a favourite subject for amateur photographers and there are many interesting example to be found in old collections and albums. Often the proud owners are seen with their pets as the first photograph shows.

Women and their pet cats are frequently found. In fact I don’t recall any of men or boys with pet cats in my collection. The same goes for dogs – from my entirely unrepresentative collection I have far more women with dogs than men with dogs.

There are also many photographs of the pets by themselves as this set shows. It is particularly difficult for an amateur photographer to get a good shot of their pets. Even with modern cameras and a lot of patience it is a challenge to get a good likeness.

There is the usual problem with these photographs of knowing who we are looking at and when the photograph was taken. This group of three all have information written on the reverse. Top left is “Annie and Brownie, St Louis Ms Aug 1945.” Top right is Daisy, Teeny and Pedro Oct 21 1925.” You might have to look closely to see Teeny. Notes on the bottom picture read “Beaty, Teddy and his cat, see all the garden we have” but no date is given.

There are of course pet photographs to be found on Cabinet Cards and CDVs though these tend to be highly collectable and more expensive than the average. The CDV above is one of my favourites not only because it is a pet photograph but also because of its excellent condition and the fact that the dog is seated on a rare Art Nouveau chair (I suspect it’s Jugendstil but I can’t be certain). I paid £20 for this card and considered it to be a bargain.

If you want to know more about animals in vintage photography then I can recommend Beauty and the Beast by Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan. The book sticks to RPPCs as illustrations and ranges far and wide over the subject of our relationship with animals.

A fetishistic obsession?

Often photographs and real photographic post cards have little or no information to identify the time, person and place. In the case of this photograph the notes on the reverse tell us everything about the location and describe in obsessive detail everything “Ruthie” is wearing even down to the charms on her charm bracelet.

The photograph is numbered (766) and dated at both top and bottom on the reverse which suggests it was filed in a manner to make it easy to locate. You have to ask if this is number 766 then how much more information was attached to the rest of the collection and how big was it?

Now that’s what I call obsessive.

Not at all obsessed but ….

In the beginning I had my small collection of vintage photographs neatly stored in albums or boxes but as time went on little piles of unsorted photographs began to pile up all over the tardis-like room I use as my study. Although I broadly knew what was in each pile (or thought I did) the chaos was not helped by my cats who often decided to mountaineer onto the highest and remotest shelves and knock said piles onto the floor.

Yesterday I decided to get the whole collection out on the large dining room table and sort them into more coherent categories. I was somewhat surprised by the number of items to say the least but I persevered with the task.

The older and most valuable of the collection, including all the CDVs, Cabinet Cards and Real Photographic Post Cards are now housed in the old card index cabinet shown here. Needless to say the drawers are mostly full and I’ll be in the market for another cabinet. (Incidentally have you noticed how crazy the prices of these card index cabinets has become recently?) I’ve housed the photographs (as opposed to CDVs, Cabinet Cards and RPPCs) in a series of IKEA boxes and the oversize photographs in larger boxes.

Now all I have to do is make sure any further acquisitions are properly sorted. Of course there is the question of how to further sub-divide subjects within the collection and I can feel a database coming on any day now. Not that I’m obsessed with collecting old photographs you understand.