What's Going On Here?

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.



With Flair

Is this a fashion or a costume? You tell me.

Are those bells or beads on the skirt points?

Well, she wears it with flair and it’s the purpose of the photograph!



Well, Does It?

Is it all right to poke fun at the fashions of the past?

Why not? Every age has its sublimely absurd ideas of what is attractive, and we are no exception – our turn will surely come! My own son snorts and asks what we were thinking when we wore hip hugger pants with wide belts and bell bottom cuffs; “Why, we were cool!” I say, as I remind him of the brightly patterned, impossibly baggy shorts and nylon net string tees of his early teen years.

It is one of the current running jokes that has women of today anxiously asking, “Honey, does this make my butt look big?” If we could pose that decidedly indelicate question to the fashionable women of the 1880s, perhaps a truthful answer would be, “Well, I certainly hope so!”

Or perhaps they didn’t think of it in those terms at all.



We'll Agree To Pretend

The rise of industry and Victorian society set us squarely on the road to making things appear to be what they were not, and nowhere is it more evident than in the photographers’ studios where painted backgrounds and props ranged from the pretentious to the bizarre. The wealthy, and anyone with the price of a portrait at the local fair or tourist spot, could be surrounded by something grand and atypical of the life they led.

At least the 19th century made no effort to do it well; no one was going to believe for an instant that these two couples were in an opulent European garden – even with the addition of ersatz grass and flowers in the foreground!

Striking a pose was more or less expected of the process – and the results are as inscrutable as they are fascinating. The fireman was not on duty but his uniform was a mark of his position in the community; the seated gentleman is very well set up in striped pants, waistcoat, vest and watch chains with fobs. One woman, hand on chin, holds her hat in her lap in a casual manner while the other woman wears her hat and holds an unfolded fan and rests her arm on the fireman’s knee (proof that he is also seated and not standing). We can imagine that this portrait was just what they wanted; how pleased they were with how they looked we’ll never know – but here it is.

Technical note: This is a small tintype, which like most has darkened with age and may have never had much brilliance (some judicial editing has supplied some of what it lacked). A tintype was a “one off”, so if both couples wanted one then more than one photograph would be taken, and, of course, they would not be precisely alike. A camera lens inverts and reverses what the eye sees, so direct images like daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes are “backward” which is not normally evident unless there is print in the photo; this image has been flopped so that the number and insignia on the cap read correctly.



Not Funny, Mom!

“Whatever it is we are doing here, Mom, is it really so all-fired important? And when is it going to stop? I don’t care that “nice old Auntie Hepzibah” did all this pretty embroidery just for me, it makes me look silly, so why can’t she just mind her own business! This is boring.”

But I bet Mom was pleased!