My Favourite Old Photograph

highschool

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?

rabbits

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?

derbywoman

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.

Writing in Period: 1959

ruthparis

My forthcoming novel Heretics is set in two different time periods, 1959 and 1859. As the main character finds himself transported from 1959 to 1859 we get to see what is going on in each of the two periods. One of the challenges I faced was to make everything about the two periods as authentic as possible. 1959 is to some extent an alien world to many people alive today and even those of us who were alive then may have imperfect memories of what it was really like. So how did I go about it and what surprising things did I discover along the way?

The first photograph at the top of this post is meant to illustrate women’s fashion of 1959. In fact I believe this photo, from my own collection, is from the early 1960s though it has the look of 50s fashion. (You can find out more about the model Ruth in an album at my Flickr photostream.) It was very tempting to use a more eye-catching photo of a woman in a mini-skirt but that wasn’t around until the mid-60s. A search on the internet yields lots of photos from the 1950s of men’s and women’s fashion but how reliable are they as a guide to what people were really wearing? The second photograph above is from a 1953 fashion shoot though fashions featured in Vogue were unlikely to be what women in a provincial town were wearing.

dad

With men it is perhaps easier as they were more restricted in their choices and their hairstyles. Crew cuts or the ubiquitous short back and sides were everywhere. (There were elaborate pompadours worn by Teddy Boys but that particular sub-culture doesn’t feature in my novels.) The photograph above shows my dad on the left and illustrates the conservative nature of men’s clothing. This actually was taken in the 1950s.

Beyond fashion there were many questions about what the social mores of the time were and how people carried on in public. One of my characters loses his job as a teacher when it is discovered the woman he is living with is not his wife and that she works as a model. It seems impossible that someone could be sacked for living with their partner today but it was entirely possible in the 1950s. There are more female characters than male in Heretics and some their actions are probably unlikely for women of the day when views of what men and women could and should do were different to modern ideas. For instance, the pub was still largely a male preserve and women would be found only in the lounge bar and then most likely with a male companion. Homosexuality was still a crime at this time and attitudes towards it were strongly held. I have a minor character who we would call “gay” today but in the novel he’s referred to as a “poof,” “nancy boy,” or “queer,” all of which were terms used in the 1950s. The word “gay” still meant carefree at that time.

This brings me on to the question of language and it was the thing that took most time and research to come up with a satisfactory approach. There are lots of words and phrases we are used to reading or hearing in current books and films which were either not used or meant something quite different back in the 1950s.  A good example is “cool,” a word which is used so freely today that it has almost lost its meaning. Now I quite frequently hear people use “cool” as a substitute for “yes.” In the 50s “cool” had a much more restricted usage referring to an attitude and a style of dress or type of music. There are many phrases that we hear, particularly in films and TV programmes, that were just not used back then. No one said something was not going to happen “on their watch,” waiters did not serve your dinner whilst saying “there you go” and you didn’t signal that you were responding to someone’s request by saying you were “on it.”

Swearing was different too, though not as much as you might think. There are certain core swearwords that are the same in the 1950s as they are today. Interestingly these core swearwords were also current in the 1850s and earlier. Even “motherfucker,” which I assumed was fairly modern, has been in use since the nineteenth century. Others are of more modern usage. An example is “dickhead” which was first used in the 1960s.

Then there’s the question of what was going on in British culture in general. What music were people listening to, what films were popular, what was the latest trend in cars, how did people act in public? All of this has to be researched and understood to create a believable background. The vast majority of adults in the 1950s were smokers. You could and did smoke in the workplace, on public transport, in cafes and restaurants, in cinemas and pretty much every public space you can think of and therefore you have to factor that into the story. People wore their clothes longer before changing them, deodorants for men were practically unknown, although that was about to change, and together with the ever-present smoking meant that everywhere smelt different to today. If we were to find ourselves back in the 1950s we would probably be surprised at how alien everyday life would be compared to today.

There’s more, much more to know. I find it annoying when I read a period piece or watch a period film to see and hear things which would not have been seen and heard at the time, especially when they have been sanitised. No doubt I have got some details wrong but I do believe it is the writer’s responsibility to put the time and effort into getting period detail, including language patterns, right.

I will discuss the question of how I approached period detail for 1859 in a separate posting.

How my Obsession with Old Photographs Began

native

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

Me

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.”

Betty 1943Betty2

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.

Where the Darkness Begins

ennui

You are looking at a photograph from my collection. I have no way of identifying who this is or when it was taken though I can make a guess based on the furniture and the woman’s clothes. The only clues are printed on the back: “voiglander” i.e. the camera and “Photo-Wolf, Hiddesden.” Was the photograph posed? Is it a candid shot? Is the woman suffering from ennui or is she in fact dead? (Unlikely I know but we have to consider all possibilities).

The photograph is a good representation of the tone that this new blog is going to adopt. It’s mysterious and it can easily be imagined to be a still from a film noir. There are slightly sinister undertones and we might also come to think of the subject as a femme fatale type. There are plenty more where this one came from.

I’ve set up this new blog to cover two different, though related, purposes:

  1. To write about my collection of old photographs and their significance.
  2. To write about writing. More specifically to write about the my previously published work, my soon to be published work and work in progress.

How are these two things linked? If I had to pick one word to describe both the photographs and the writing I’d choose noir.