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 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.

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.

“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.