Random photo find has links to my own history

Sometimes I buy single photographs of particular interest to me but I often buy them in lots. I never know exactly what I’ll find in the lots or what studios in what part of the country (or abroad) will be represented. It’s often only when the photos are scanned and enlarged that I can make out the names of studios or photographers. When I saw that this photograph was by JR Giles of Northampton it sounded familiar.

Then I remembered. I’ve been married twice and the photographs at my first wedding were taken by JR Giles and son of Northampton in 1974. Pretty obviously this was the son of the original JR Giles.

A search on the internet turned up a web page showing that JR Giles, the son, had retired in 2013 and handily the page showed the firm had started life in 1908.

It’s always great to know something about the history of studios and photographers and to be able to link this firm to my own life is very satisfying.

Gertie Grace and Elsie – Before and After

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Often Cabinet Cards and other old photographs are not in great condition when I acquire them. The question is then what to do with them. As far as the originals are concerned it’s just a matter of storing them in a suitable dry place out of direct sunlight but when it comes to displaying them digitally then I usually make some alterations to the scans. Most frequently I use Photoshop’s autotone feature as it usually brings out more detail and enhances the blacks in particular.

In the case of Gerty Grace and Elsie, a cabbinet card dated on the reverse as December 7th 1905, I went a little further. After autotoning the scan I opened it up in Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 and did some further tweaking. In this case I brightened a rough circle in the centre of the photograph over the girls’ dresses as there was some fading in this area on the original photograph.

Ideally I would like scans to be as near to the original as possible and that would include the sepia toning but, on the other hand, greater detail is revealed when the black and white conversion is viewed. I still have the card so nothing has been done to destroy the original.

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For this cabinet card of a girl with a fan I have carried out more restoration on the scanned image. Often photographs of this age suffer from foxing – the appearance of brown patches as seen above left. I removed the foxing using the healing brush tool again though I could have spent more time on this to get even better results as a little of the detail on the dress has been lost during the process. I applied a high structure filter in Silver Efex to arrive at the finished image. You can see how much more detail this has revealed, especially in the background objects and furnishings. You could argue that this version has taken it too far but the beauty of doing this is that I can always go back to the original scan and produce a different version.

You don’t even have to be a girl to be a Vintage Dancing Girl

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At some point most collectors of old photographs develop one or more specialist interests. In my case one of my specialist interests is “vintage dancing girls.” This came about because whenever I sorted through lots of photographs I began to notice that there was nearly always one or two photographs of girls in dance costumes, either solo or in groups. You might expect that these dancers would mostly be small girls appearing in some local production but it turns out that there are also large numbers of older dancers (think professional or semi-professional dancers) and even men in drag as this photograph illustrates!

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The three girls in this photograph are typical of this category of Vintage Dancing Girls and they appear to be performing at some open air event with proud parents looking on in the background.

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Groups seem to fall into different types. Some are obviously tap dancing groups whilst others clearly favour more impressionistic styles!

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Some groups of young dancers were clearly more commercially successful. The Dinky Dots (sometimes spelled Dinkie Dots) were around in the 1930s.  Apparently they were active in Bolton for quite a long time. Reminiscences from another young dancer at the Bolton Revisited site notes that ” The Dinky Dots all wore very frilly knickers under their costumes and I was tempted to join them just because I wanted to wear frilly underwear! ”

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Another class of “dancer” seems likely to be just young women who like to dress in dance costume or pose like a dancer as this photograph shows.

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Here are two more professional or semi-professional groups. The Opal Girls were clearly a successful cabaret act. Their agent was based in Ruislip. The girls in the weird hats were from Egham.

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One thing I’ve noticed is that many dancers and dance troupes came from quite unlikely places like Barrow In Furness, like this group. It is likely that these dancers were based at local dance schools.

You can see my complete collection of Vintage Dancing Girls on Flickr. The photographs have been gradually accumulated over more than five years. Once you start a specialised collection such as this it is remarkable how often you come across other photographs which fit the category. The cost of acquiring these photographs can be as little as a few pence each especially when found in larger collections and seldom cost more than a pound or two. Of course, like any other collecting hobby prices are dictated by how many other collectors there are and the supply of “new” items over time. Fortunately there are so many old photographs that the supply is unlikely to exhausted any time soon.

[It’s worth pointing out that there are other specialist subjects that are very expensive to pursue. For instance if you wanted to collect Victorian post mortem photographs you would be lucky to find a good example for less than £100. ]

Cabinet Cards

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As a collector it’s always nice to have items from local towns and cities as in this cabinet card of a Nottingham man.

Cabinet cards began to take over from CDVs from the late 1860s onwards though they did not sell in such high volumes as the CDV. They often offer better and clearer photographs due to their larger size of 5.5 by 4 inches. As their name suggests these photographs can be easily mounted on a cabinet in your sitting room though they were often mounted in albums too.

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Above is another cabinet card of the rabbit man I featured in an earlier post. Quite what the baby is doing sat on the table and who the other disreputable looking people in the photograph I can’t say.

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This third cabinet card is so formal that there’s something quite sad about it. No idea of the nationality or uniform of the man though I’m guessing Maltese from the extraordinary detail on the reverse of the card.

Cartes-de-Visite

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(The CDV pictured above is of better quality than the average and, because the subject includes a girl with her pet, it is very collectable. For me though the real interest is the chair which is clearly decorated in the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau style. Furniture of this quality is rarely seen in old photographs of any kind.)

The carte-de-visite was the first type of photograph that was affordable to the average person. The idea was advanced by a French photographer, Louis Dodero, in 1851 and by the mid 1850s the process was established of using sliding plate holders that could take several  2.5 x 4 inch carte-size photographs on a single plate.

By the mid-1860s the format had become widely and wildly popular. The cost of a dozen CDVs was around 12s 6d (62.5p). Because they were so mass produced they all tended to look similar though for a little more you could be artfully arranged with antiques and expensive furnishings as backdrops. The more run-of-the-mill studios used painted backdrops.

In 1866 the CDV gradually began to be replaced by the larger Cabinet Card though they were still being produced well into the early twentieth century. Despite their name there is no evidence that CDVs were ever really used as visiting cards.

CDVs can be bought for a few pence still (50p is probably the norm) though prices will rise as they become scarcer. If the CDV quality is above average or if the subject is more famous or falls into a more collectable category such as pets, stage actors etc. then prices will be much higher. As with any antique collectable the very best examples can command hundreds of pounds.

One thing to look out for with CDVs (and Cabinet Cards) is that many have backs decorated with studio details which are often more interesting than the subject on the front of the card.

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Victorian Photo Albums

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Victorian photo albums could be very elaborate and often had a theme – the illustrations in this post all come from “Heroines of Tennyson.”

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Exteriors were often leather and the flyleaves were works of art in themselves.

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Interior pages could take either carte de visite (CDVs – in use from the mid-1850s) or the larger cabinet cards (1870s on). On the right you can see a cabinet card of an “angel” inserted into the page. The mounts are easily damaged and it’s rare to find albums that are undamaged throughout.

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More about CDVs and Cabinet Cards in later posts.

Putting Myself in the Picture

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The Victorians often displayed their photographs in albums with elaborate mounts. The frame above comes from one such album and I couldn’t resist inserting my own photograph into it. It’s easy to produce sepia-style photographs, pinhole photographs (see photo below) and other styles from years gone by with modern software. One of the best is Nik Silver FX, now available for free from Google though sadly it seems Google bought Nik out with no intention of continuing development of the tools. ON1 Photo also has a good selection of old photo effects though it’s relatively expensive to buy.

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My Favourite Old Photograph

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As soon as I wrote the title I realised the impossibility of the task. In the end I’ve cheated and chosen three favourite photographs.

The photo above has always been a favourite since I acquired it and I’m not quite sure why. It’s scratched, there’s a shadow in one corner and the composition breaks most of the rules. But there’s something both attractive and sinister about the shot as if it were an outtake from a David Lynch film. The girl looks enigmatic and attractive one moment but slightly scary at the next. And what’s she hiding behind her back?

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Rabbit man is a delightful cabinet card. It must have been quite an achievement to line up the rabbits for the shot and why have they been arranged on a fancy tablecloth? And, sorry, but I’ve got to ask – are they pets are or they for eating or training dogs?

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Finally, this cabinet card shows that not all Victorian portraiture features unsmiling men and women and that the photographers and the people who posed for them had a sense of humour.

I’m sure I’ll be posting more old favourites in the future.

How my Obsession with Old Photographs Began

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For years I sporadically collected topographical postcards of the area I live in, like many people do. Then I found this photograph at a table-top sale in Cromford, where I live, and bought it for 50p. It was the beginning of my obsession for collecting real old photographs and it grabbed my attention because it was so intriguing.

What’s going on here? When was it taken? Does it have any real meaning? The man looks like he’s a Native American although it could just be someone dressing up for a tourist photograph. Maybe he appears in hundreds of photos with many different people shaking his hand. Was it taken somewhere in the USA or in a studio in Basingstoke? When I acquired it there was no way of telling. As time went by and I learnt more about old photos and real photographic postcards, the mystery only deepened.

Photographic postcards were produced by the million and they weren’t all of famous landscapes or people. Anyone could go to a studio, have pictures taken and then have them printed on postcards to send to their friends. However, this isn’t a photo postcard. A postcard has specific dimensions, markings on the back such as a divider and a stamp box and almost always the name and address of a photographer and/or the studio he or she worked for. This photograph is bigger than a postcard, has nothing on the back and is clearly a real photograph (as opposed to a real photographic postcard). Even if the man was hired out to appear with anyone who would like to be seen with him there would likely be, at the very least, a studio stamp on the reverse. There isn’t.

It’s probable that I’ll never know who these people were or the circumstances that led up to the photograph being taken but that’s what makes it so intriguing. It would be great to one day know the full story but it’s also fun to speculate what’s going on and keep searching for an answer. The only trouble now is that I have hundreds of photographs, every one of them with a mystery to solve.

And that’s how my obsession with collecting old photographs began.

The “X” Files

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I recently acquired a set of photographs which all seem to be of a Leeds based family. Many of them note the identity of the subjects on the reverse of the photograph. The person who owned the photographs and made the notes was a woman. We never see her own name but let’s call her Dana. On some of the photographs featuring groups of people she has marked the identity of certain group members with an “X.” It seems an odd thing to do because it spoils the photographs but it makes it easier to at least identify the relationships in this family.

Me Mam Dad Aunties Uncles

In the photograph above she uses Xs to identify a woman with a child on her knee and the man standing behind her. It’s difficult to see the “Xs” at this resolution but there are bigger versions in the Flickr album I’ve created of the whole collection. This couple must be the Dana’s parents as she tells us on the reverse “My mam with me on her knee Dad on the back row.”

Grandma X

Here’s another example of how Dana tells us that this is “My grandma with X on her chest.”

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Betty appears three times, once with Marjorie at Batley. Betty’s surname is given as “Raynor” on one of the photos. Is she Dana’s sister?

Young MarjorieMarjorie at staff danceMarjorie and Betty at Batley

Marjorie appears three times, once with Betty. Note there’s an “X” again to identify Marjorie in the group photo.

Blackie Binty and Dinkie

The family dogs are not forgotten – here we see Dinkie, Rinty and Blackie.

My cousin DorothyMy Auntie Florence

Here are Cousin Dorothy and Auntie Florence.

50 years with the same firm

I was hoping one of these gentlemen would turn out to be Dana’s father but she’s written on the back “John’s Father with his workmates from Yorkshire Copper Works.” There’s no clue as to who John is so it doesn’t help. Nevertheless the newspaper clipping provides fascinating detail.

Overall the collection illustrates some of the frustrations of collecting old photographs. Clearly there are intriguing stories behind them but nothing to definitively identify the subjects. From the notes and photography studio stamps we can place them in and around Leeds. Otherwise we can only be grateful for Dana’s “X”s to at least show some of the relationships.