Here is the skylight of Mathew Brady’s Washington studio. Today the space is occupied by the National Council of Negro Women. The studio itself today is nought but a storage room full of filing cabinets. But still being able to see the skylight Brady used to illuminate his subjects helps one imagine Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant sitting in that loft for the portraits we know them best by.
Here is a circa 1920 image, entitled “A Tewa Bowman” by W. Allen Cushman, a noted photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In keeping with the Edward Curtis tradition of tarting up his models with inauthentic costume bits to make a “better” photograph, Mr. Cushman put a plains Indian headdress on a southwest tribe member. And while the Tewas may have run around in loincloths on occasion (ceremonies or religious rituals), like their neighbors the Navajo and Hopi, they tended to wear shirts and leggings – the sun can be brutal when it’s out, and the cold can be equally so in wintertime – New Mexico is at similar altitude to parts of Colorado, so they get snow at higher elevations.
The image serves as a historic landmark in understanding the evolution of white man’s attitude toward native Americans. For the first several centuries of contact, the primary attitude ranged from indifference to hostility to downright genocide. By the beginnings of the 20th century, a new romanticized view of the ‘noble savage’ was taking hold, along with the growing realization that native peoples were truly dying out and vanishing altogether. In addition to the general romanticization, there is an obvious homoerotic undertone to the image. Note the smooth skin and the taut physique of the model. It’s a form of sublty emasculating the subject, making him at a time both sexually charged and non-threatening. All you’d have to do to turn this into an F. Holland Day photo would be to swap the feather headdress for a turban, and substitute an African model, and bingo.
I bought this image because it has so much interesting history to it. Not only is the sitter known, but so is the date of the card, and the photographer, and the recipient of the card. Señor Maunoury was a franchisee of Nadar’s studio in Paris, operating in Lima, Peru. The handwritten note says “To my distinguished friend Juan Antonio Pacheco as a token of friendship, Miguel Criado”. So here we have a photograph that has traveled halfway around the world, just a few years shy of its 150th birthday, created by a French-trained photographer, collected by an American. What a fascinating nexus of connections. I wonder what the provenance of the image was before I bought it. I think it’s very important especially in the globalized world of today to contemplate these peregrinations through space and time that allow items like this to come into our hands, much like my Black Star, Osage Brave image that began life in Fort Smith, Arkansas, was collected in New York State, then went to Paris before arriving in my collection, or the Paris Opera image that spent time in Bulgaria before being auctioned off on Ebay by another French dealer, and now resides in Washington DC. In some ways, this is really the purpose of photography – to connect people across space and time, allowing someone dead and gone more than a century past to live on in the minds of people in a place they never would have been to.
The fresh noodles and Peking duck house on 6th Street, NW. I think someone needs to teach them about Windex, as the “OPEN” sign is fuzzy not from being out of focus in my composition but from the splattered duck fat on the window. And no, I’ve never eaten there to know if the food is any good or not. But if you’re lucky when you wander by you can watch them making traditional Chinese noodles in the window, stretching and re-folding the dough over and over and over again, then cutting the ends and BOOM! you’ve got all these separate strands of pasta.
I liked the juxtaposition of the empty sidewalk out front, the lone Prius in the parking lot next door, and the intimate diners in the window.
This one gets a cutesy title because there’s just something so post- and meta- and ironic and all that kind of stuff about having a sushi joint on the ground floor of Mary Surratt’s boarding house, where the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln was hatched. Don’t believe me? Read the plaque on the wall of the house, like the two time-blurred figures in the photo are doing. It’s a very odd vestige of what downtown Washington looked like in 1865, and despite what Robert Redford would have had you believe in “The Conspirator” (by filming in an albeit lesser mansion in Savannah, Georgia), evidence of the utterly middle-class lifestyle of Mary Surratt.
All the above images were shot with my Canham woodfield 5×7, using my Kodak 12″ Commercial Ektar, using Kodak Portra 160nc film.
Here is a previously undocumented photograph of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. The second-most infamous prisoner-of-war camp in the Confederacy (after Andersonville), it housed Union officers and had an appallingly high mortality rate. For more information on the prison and its history, check: Libby Prison.
This view is most probably post-war, as most of the photos of the building even in 1865 show the whitewash on the lower levels as intact, and the Libby Prison sign in place hanging over the downhill sidewalk from the upper street facade.
After the fall of Richmond to Union forces, the prison was used to house Confederate officer prisoners of war, this time with greatly improved physical conditions to include windows with panes in them. Later, it became a museum, and was even dismantled and re-assembled in Chicago, but when it failed as a tourist attraction, the materials of the building were sold off as souvenirs.
As you can see the image was exposed to fire at some point, with scorching around the edges. I’m guessing the age to be between 1870-1880.
Here is a photo from the National Archives that shows the prison in 1865.
Here is an oddity – a cased albumen print of the Paris Opera house, taken shortly after it opened. The Opera was commissioned in 1861, and completed in 1875. The image could be as early as 1867, when the facade of the not-yet-completed opera house was bared of its scaffolding for the first time. This was taken with a wet-plate camera – notice the foggy foreground? That was pedestrian traffic blurring in the long exposure required by the collodion emulsion.
The oddity is that someone would have put this in a brass mat and case (the case is now missing), and not presented this as a cabinet card or some other mounted paper format.
This image provides a cautionary tale for collectors – nothing went terribly wrong, and I don’t think I grossly over-paid for it, but when it was listed, it was described as a salt print from a calotype negative. I assumed from the brass mat that this description was accurate. Upon receiving the item, it became obvious that it was NOT a salt print (one easy way to tell is the gloss of the paper surface) and that it was NOT from a calotype (calotypes are paper negatives and are generally softer and more lacking in detail than an image from a glass or film negative).
The image was purchased from a dealer in France, who acquired the image from someone in Romania, as evidenced by the inner envelope the image arrived in. The outer envelope was marked with my proper address here in the United States, but the inner envelope had stamps and a return address from Romania. Pretty cool, eh? Kinda like that photo I have of an Osage brave from the Arkansas territory – it started life in Arkansas, was collected in New York, then ended up in Paris, and I bought it and brought it back to the US. It just shows that like houses and cars, photographs have a life of their own and we are mere custodians for the next generation.
Here’s a charming little anonymous CDV of Rugerson & Hodges’ General Store and Post Office. No location given – maybe Pennsylvania or somewhere in New England? If anyone out there in internet land has any idea of the location, feedback would be much appreciated.