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.
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).
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.
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.
And sometimes there’s just something wrong or odd about a photograph that makes you wonder what was really going on.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s my latest thinking on how to describe Heretics:
A novel of the occult set in 1959 and 1859
You know how the Victorians were very upright, very religious and so prudish that they even covered their table legs? Well it might have been true of a few upper middle class families but for most people the reality was different. Costume dramas perpetuate the idea of the proper Victorian but forget to mention the appalling social conditions, the high infant mortality rate, the prostitution, the violence, the squalor, the baby farms.
The Victorian characters in Heretics are different. They pretend to have the virtues expected of their class but they consider themselves to be heretics for a reason. For a start they practice the occult but they still go to church. They conjure demons but cover their tracks by doing good works. And they are involved in a very dangerous game which could have consequences for the fabric of time itself.
And all of this before Alexander Harrison finds a way to travel back in time from 1959 and join their ranks. Now the race is truly on to stop their common enemy, Bella Nightingale, before it’s too late and she destroys all of their lives…….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Victorian photo albums could be very elaborate and often had a theme – the illustrations in this post all come from “Heroines of Tennyson.”
Exteriors were often leather and the flyleaves were works of art in themselves.
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.
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?
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?
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.