Sunday, November 21, 2010


Here are a dozen more images in poor condition that made it into my collection — some of them precisely because they were damaged.  These show additional types of damage, several of which were inflicted by well-meaning people who believed they were enhancing the photographs.

13.  Here’s a sweet real-photo postcard (RPPC) of a young couple. Someone, probably the young woman in the photograph, has cut slits around the oval image and woven a pink silk ribbon through the slits, finishing with a bow.  A charming touch, but many serious collectors of photographs would dismiss this one.

14.  Once people were able to take their own snapshots, many amateurs gave hand-tinting a try.  Here’s an example from the 1930s of amateur colorizing gone wild.  The artist was quite careful about it — note the turkey’s head meticulously separated into two red blobs by the small tree on the left. But the vivid red he or she chose makes those turkey heads glow like neon. I love the effect.

15.  Here we have a cabinet card of  “Mr. Walter L. Martin at the age of 10.” This is a drastic retouch job done with an opaque paint, possibly gouache, and ink. His eyes, nostrils, and upper lip have been inked in (see detail), and someone (the photographer or an artist in his employ?) decided the portrait would look better with extreme shading of the background: darker on the light side of the head, lighter on the dark side. They were right, but they should have thought of that before making the exposure, and a steady hand with the paintbrush would have helped.

16.  When you collect ephemeral items like antique and vintage photographs, you often have to rummage through bins or boxes of unsleeved images.  Of course, these photos suffer additional damage every time someone looks through them.  Other images, like this one, perhaps spent fifty years or so in this shop’s junk drawer, accumulating scratches and scuffs every time somebody looked for a screwdriver.  If perfect, this RPPC would go for a couple of hundred dollars. It’s so worn that it’s limp, but it’s still a fabulous interior shop image.
17.  Decisions, decisions. My imagined narrative here is that this guy’s wife left him for another man. Then this guy angrily thought about throwing away this RPPC portrait, but wait, he really liked how he looked in this portrait of himself, so he cut his wife out of the image.  He wanted his entire body in the part he kept, which meant he had to keep his wife’s hand on his shoulder, and had to keep enough of the writing on the back to still say “Mr. and Mrs.”
18.  Severe fading in a photo often makes it lose its power, but in this 1893 cabinet photo of Ava and her dog, it adds a dissolving, ethereal quality.  I like Ada’s focus on the dog and the dog’s focus on the ball.  Life is transient; let’s play.
19.  Many an old silver print has been “ruined” by silvering, but sometimes the effect is quite beautiful. Here’s a young cowboy and his dog. There’s lots of silvering, which shows up blue in a scan. The image is underexposed: possibly in a studio, but I like to imagine that they’re sitting by a campfire. The sidelighting is evocative.

20.  Insect damage can take several forms.  Here’s an example of an RPPC damaged by flyspecks. I often see this kind of damage on images of African Americans.  I hope these two well-dressed, self-possessed boys did well in life despite thousands of small slurs and setbacks.  

21.  Here’s another RPPC with insect damage. Not only have insects nibbled off much of the surface of the photograph, leaving a lacy effect, but they’ve tunneled right through the card (and possibly through other photographs in a stack). I gave this one a red backing so you could see the insect holes. Often insect holes are perfectly round (see hole at bottom), as if made by a tiny hole-punch.  

22.  Trimming counts as damage, but I love this RPPC image and I also love that someone else appreciated it enough to trim it to fit in a frame. 

23.  This RPPC  has an undivided back, so it’s from before 1907 when, by law, only the address could be written on the other side. This meant that the message, if any, had to go on the picture side. Sometimes people came up with creative designs for their message, so as not to obscure the photograph. This arrangement of writing gives an almost woven effect.
24.  This RPPC was torn right in half when I bought it. I love the little tableau it shows. The donkey is glaring at the photographer; the boy is pleased as punch; the mother is proudly looking on from the doorway; and inside the shop window, behind a row of sample cabinet photographs, two women are watching the entire proceedings.

So: What condition is your condition in?  Writing these posts has made me examine my collection in a new way.  Don’t  waffle about buying a great photograph just because it has damage. And keep your eyes open for images with condition issues that actually enhance them.

For more information on Pat Street, click here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


 When my parents and I were in St. Petersburg in the spring of 2001, my dad suggested that we try to find William Carrick’s studio at 19 Malaya Morskaya (Petite Morskoi). The street is still there, of course, in the very center of the city near St. Isaac’s Cathedral.  We found the probable building and snapped a few photos out front and in the much older looking courtyard. I’d known about Carrick for quite a while and was working on my senior thesis on Russian photography and empire. Thanks to Carrick’s work, I could picture the late imperial population that used to stream by his door.  Carrick would pick his subjects out of the crowd, enticing them with a free photo and probably a cup of tea. His photos show all classes of Petersburg - the droshki driver, the babushka selling apples, the fighting street urchins, the young nun, the Sultan (what I call him), and the Imperial Guard. Contemporary reviews heralded Carrick’s photographs as capturing the true Russian, as an educational tool and as artistic gems.

Years before our visit I had bought my first Carrick photos at Brimfield (with my dad’s help) in the form of a little souvenir book of 18 hand tinted cartes de visite picturing various of his Russian types.  Before that long-ago Brimfield, friend had sent me an article about Carrick soon after I started studying Russian. His note said something like, “You should collect these. No one else does.”  Of course, with Russians now avidly collecting their heritage, that’s no longer true.  I’d like to give a brief Carrick introduction here, along with examples of his work drawn from my collection.

William Carrick was born in Edinburgh in 1827.  Soon after he was born, his parents moved to St. Petersburg.  His father and grandfather were timber merchants and Carrick lived nearly all of his life in Russia.  Eschewing the family business, Carrick decided to be an artist and studied architecture at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.  In 1853, he went to Rome to build a portfolio.  Soon after returning to Russia, he escorted his younger siblings to Edinburgh, where he met his future photography partner, John MacGregor.  In 1859, they opened a studio in St. Petersburg.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, Carrick only made paper photographs, although he could have experimented with other mediums and most definitely met photographers in his time in Europe.  

In 1859, St. Petersburg was the seat of the monarchy and the social center of the Empire. Tsar Alexander II’s reign brought the Great Reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. In 1859, Scotland’s Astronomer Royal visited Russia and noted, “there is scarcely a more frequent sign to be met with along the principal streets, than PHOTOGRAPHER; and all the specimens...were among the finest things we have ever seen in that line.”[1] Carrick hoped to be a portrait photographer, but met with much competition in this regard and his mother wrote letters attesting to his struggles.  Carrick turned to copy work and began to photograph the myriad of people that appeared outside his door, the Russian types for which he is now best known.  Carrick wrote that some of his subjects “were so unaccustomed to scientific manipulation that they expressed great alarm at the operation...fearing the camera would explode.”[2]  Carrick’s photographic types were soon receiving praise from the royal family and, as their presence in European and American albums attests, from tourists and members of the upper classes. 

Carrick and MacGregor did not only stay in the studio. In their cabinet cards and CDVs, there is a sampling of outdoor work throughout the city.  In the 1870s, the pair traveled around European Russia photographing people and places. Today, these images are often mounted into albums or found as loose albumen photographs.  While many of Carrick’s images have been published thanks to the diligent work of his great-grand niece Felicity Ashbee (daughter of artists CR and Janet Ashbee), it is sometimes difficult to attribute his work due to many imitators.  His negative numbers in the types are often a start at attribution as are his studio sets, various props and the style and artistry that runs through his work.  

I’ve always thought that Carrick’s work has a directness other typographic photographs lack.  He seems to have made true connections to his subjects and did sympathize with the plight of the lower classes in Russia, even to the point of being more progressive than the norm.  In 1868, he married a member of St. Petersburg’s radical intelligentsia, Alexandrina Markelova, and only told his family several years later. He maintained ties with the Academy of Arts and his work aligns with that of the realist artists in Russia, like Ilya Repin and Ivan Kramskoi.  Carrick’s subjects pose but they also fool around, they laugh, they smile and all look alive

1.  Probable self portrait as Orthodox Priest. This is one of those difficult to prove photos, but the        resemblance is uncanny. Loose, about 5 x 7.
2.  Detail from a travel album page, CDV size photos.
3.  Village street scene. Cabinet card.
4.  Boys selling tools, CDV.
5.  Imperial Guard, CDV from Types Russes album.
6.  The Sultan (probably from the Caucuses), CDV from Types Russes album.
7.  Portrait of a girl with sample album, CDV.
8.  Babushka selling apples to a child, unmounted CDV.
9. Religious peasant, unmounted CDV.
10.  Houseboat ?, Cabinet card.

1.  Julie Lawson, "William Carrick: His Photography," in Felicity Ashbee and Julie Lawson, William Carrick 1827-1878 (Trustees of the National Gallery of Scotland, 1987), p. 11. 
2.  Felicity Ashbee, "William Carrick: A Scots Photographer in St. Petersburg (1827-1878)," History of Photography, July 1978, p. 211.
You can see some of Erin's photos for sale here, and on eBay as Fotographiya.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


To some collectors, the three most important words guiding the value of vintage and antique photographs are “condition, condition, condition.”  For me, though, poor condition is often irrelevant -- and in some cases, even desirable.

Condition issues can take many forms.  Writing/labeling on the image; dirt and fingerprints; tears, folds, and creases; foxing; silvering; insect damage; trimming; staining; scuffs, scratches, and other wear; tack holes; deliberate defacement; fading.

Sometimes poor condition matters little, as when the content of the photograph is so wonderful that I would buy it no matter how damaged it were.  But here are a few examples of images that I think are enhanced and/or made more evocative by their poor condition. These were very inexpensive and are among my favorites.

1.  How much was this dog loved?  Judging by the condition of this CDV, he was very precious to someone.  Solo CDVs of pets are hard to find and are usually in pretty good condition, having been kept in a family album for many years.  You can tell by the grime and wear on this one, and by the five (!) tack holes at the top, that it was handled a great deal and also displayed on the wall, indeed several different walls, over time.

2.  Covered now with lines and creases – this real-photo postcard (RPPC) is more than a hundred years old, and it shows its age. Damaged, it’s far more poignant to me than if it were in mint condition.  I wonder which child’s family handed the postcard down -- and why the last relative to own it let it go.

3.  Without the inscription, this tiny snapshot would still be a desirable image of a crudely constructed cabin, with many interesting details – the slanted board leading up to the porch, the rain barrel, the ladder, the fenced area, the roof vent, and the pensive woman. I would have bought it anyway – I think it cost a dime.  But it’s the writing on it that makes it heartbreaking.

4.  Here’s a real-photo postcard with writing on it.  Without the numbering, it would be a typical school class photo, neither well composed nor expertly exposed. But with the numbering, to someone it was clearly not a class, it was 25 individuals, each with a name, a story, and a personality.  The names are not provided on the back, so at one time there must have been a separate key.

5.  I like the composition of this little snapshot and the impressionistic images of the children on the beach. But what makes it extra special is the four little digits floating up in the margin.  Again, there is no identifying key, but to someone, these four kids are important and the other people in the image are not.

6.  Here’s one I would have bought without the inscription (love her laughing face!), but it’s so much more evocative when we know a little bit about the woman.

7.  Look at the big greasy fingerprints on this one.   Some working man, or maybe a soldier, must have loved one of these women (or the little girl) very much.  The image is also oddly trimmed, perhaps to fit in a frame.

8.  These rustic guys with heavy coats and a gun were already scary, and then someone had an accident with red ink and enhanced the threatening effect.  Blue ink wouldn’t have been nearly as lurid.

9.  These are members of my family at the beach in 1937.  Someone with a ballpoint pen must have been very, very mad at LuLu.  I had always heard that her strictness was infuriating; enlightening to see it was really true.

10.  This is a “badly” foxed cabinet photograph. I’ve never seen damage form such a beautiful pattern.  It  looks like an intricate motif for cloth or wallpaper, and in this image, it decorates the wall, the girl, her clothing, the chair, and the floor.  Have any of you seen such a thing before?

11.  I wouldn’t have given this image a second look if not for the wonderfully crude paste-up job.  Someone who had apparently run out of glue used Dennison labels to affix it to an album page. A newspaper article was stuck to the back of it.  It all makes a great composition.

12.  Here’s another detail from an album page. This one was created by a child who decorated with a border of crayoned kisses only certain photographs of people she loved.  These dog twins were thus honored.

Coming soon:  Condition Schmondition, Part II

Friday, October 15, 2010


In a shameless piece of self promotion, I share the 2011 House of Mirth Calendar and companion note cards, now available for sale on my website  This is the 6th year in a row that I've printed the calendar, and the first that I've printed note cards.  Bring on the holidays!

Thursday, September 16, 2010


John Foster aka Accidental Mysteries, makes all of us snapshot buffs proud


I have a spare room where I keep my photos that are for sale, and it was a bit of an unorganized mess.   My friend Robert E. Jackson volunteered his services to come organize my room, and below you will find before and after photos and an after video.  It's been about a month now, and it is still organized. 



Tuesday, August 10, 2010


When Stacy asked me to contribute an entry for her blog, I knew I wanted to write something about my collection of vernacular photos of men - in particular, images that American Studies professor John Ibson has categorized as "pageants of masculinity," in his ground-breaking book, Photographing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday Photography (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).
The "pageant" phenomena had its heyday during the 1890s through the early 1900s.  This type of image usually features two or more American men posing together in deliberate displays that either emphasize traditional "masculine" behavior, or playfully defy it (such as, posing in drag).  Masculine-oriented subjects include men drinking, smoking, and gambling (sometimes all three together).  Posing with firearms and pretending to fight or box were also common themes, as was dressing-up in cowboy or Indian attire.

There are probably any number of reasons why photos like this were so popular at the time. Camaraderie and a sense of shared fun are often obviously evident, as is an emphasis on shared masculine pursuits, that were distinct from the sphere of women. Dressing up as the romanticized figure of the cowboy might have signified a subconscious wish to escape the confines of modern life, while dressing as a woman may have been a way of, if only humorously in a photo, to briefly escape the confines of gender conformity.
The “pageant” examples I’ve provided for this entry are all real photo postcards from my collection, and date from the first and second decades of the 20th Century. While “pageant” photos are found in other formats, most notably cabinet cards, I am a huge fan of the real photo postcard, and my men photos collection is primarily made up of this type of image.


What I love about these photos, is that the men pictured, are putting on a type of visual performance that continues to resonate and communicate something to us about the men and era in which they were taken.