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.
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.
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.”
Here’s another example of how Dana tells us that this is “My grandma with X on her chest.”
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?
Marjorie appears three times, once with Betty. Note there’s an “X” again to identify Marjorie in the group photo.
The family dogs are not forgotten – here we see Dinkie, Rinty and Blackie.
Here are Cousin Dorothy and Auntie Florence.
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.
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:
- To write about my collection of old photographs and their significance.
- 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.