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…….
Find out more at: www.samsalt.com and darknessbegins.com
- It’s different to previous versions.
- It has the key points I want to promote but distorts the storyline somewhat.
- The photograph is designed to be eye-catching rather than accurate. The clothes the woman is wearing are more likely to be around 1900 than 1859.
- At the Wirksworth book fair the flyer with this photograph and this blurb attracted far more attention than the book I was actually selling.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Groups seem to fall into different types. Some are obviously tap dancing groups whilst others clearly favour more impressionistic styles!
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! ”
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.
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.
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. ]
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.
(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.
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.
More about CDVs and Cabinet Cards in later posts.
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.
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.