I think this is one of the most interesting and mysterious photographs I own. It is so full of questions that I never tire of looking at it.
It is a remarkably relaxed studio photograph for the time. The petit young woman is obviously perched on the man’s knee, her hands clasped on her own knee, only a slightly bemused expression on her face – not really looking at the camera. The suavely dressed gentleman looks directly at the photographer with not the faintest concern about striking a pose, a cigarette between his fingers, one foot poking far forward from beneath her skirt. One almost has the feeling that this couple knows the cameraman intimately and that the photo has been taken in the course of a genial visit.
This surmise is further strengthened by the presence of the dog who – far from being posed as a part of the portrait – has his head under the chair, the least interesting half of him exposed. Yet this doesn’t spoil the photo for the couple or the photographer – it has been printed and mounted on a cabinet card nonetheless; perhaps they liked it all the more because of it!
But we can’t let it go at that!
Are they engaged or married, or perhaps nothing of the sort? This is not the kind of photograph you would have taken formally for public consumption; there is something a bit bohemian about it. There is nothing overtly coquettish about her demeanor – except for sitting on his knee, she seems quite proper and sweet, not particularly concerned about how this may look. At the time, in most circles, this would be more than a little scandalous when most photos of couples merely stand or sit next to one another, and occasionally one has a hand sedately, if possessively, on the arm or shoulder of the other.
These two are very nicely but not ostentatiously dressed, she in a stylish heavy wool skirted suit, he in suit and vest – common day wear. They are an extremely handsome pair by any standards. What was their position in the community, assuming they lived in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia where it was shot by Spencer Bros. studio? There is nothing uptight about these two – and you do get a sense that perhaps they enjoyed this photo as much as we do today.
Who preserved this photo for a century? I have a few hundred other questions that it is useless to ask.