On November 23, 2011, David Prifti, a brilliant wet-plate photographer living, working and teaching in the Boston area, passed away after an extended battle with cancer. I am deeply saddened that such a bright light and creative force for positivity has gone out. I knew his work from APUG, Large Format Info, and the Collodion Forum, but never had the chance to meet him in person. I have seen his plates live though, hanging on gallery walls, and no web reproduction can do them justice. You can see his work online at the three previously mentioned websites (all linked from here). His work was part of the Masterplaters show that just closed November 22 at the Community College of Baltimore County Catonsville campus. Plans are in the works to bring the exhibit to the Washington DC area in the not-too-distant future – keep an eye on this blog for future information. There will be a memorial service on November 30th 4pm at the First Parish Unitarian Church in Concord, MA.
As I’ve said before, you can’t really call these images that get sold as “Gay Interest” “gay” because the concept as we know it today didn’t exist in the 19th century. Men have always been physically and emotionally intimate with each other but the concept of two men (or women) living together in an emotionally intimate bonded relationship for life (or at least serially to the exclusion of the opposite sex) is very much a late 20th century concept. They are interesting though because they suggest possibilities – the absolute anonymity of the images leaves open the questions and suggestions to the modern imagination of what might have motivated the sitters to pose together, and particularly in the very openly affectionate and intimate way that they did.
These two men are very affectionate with each other. Their very similar appearance suggests they may be brothers, or they could just be very close friends. Quite possibly they were battlefield friends – the one on the right appears to be wearing a Grand Army of the Republic campaign ribbon. This may well have been taken at a unit reunion in the years following the war – note the photo was taken out of doors, on the grass, in front of a painted backdrop. I’m always interested to find images like this because it says so much more about the sitters than does a strictly studio portrait – there was some event occurring at which they wanted to record and remember their presence, and document their relationship. What was this event? Why use the painted backdrop instead of the landscape scene at the location?
This next image is even more ambiguous than the first one. Obviously from the fashions, a later image (end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century).
Again most likely just three friends, but the possibilities and suggestions are more ripe with potential for a late 20th century interpretation. The most interesting bit is the juxtaposition of the very fashionable dandy with the light suit with the staid middle-class burghers to his right and behind. Who was the dapper dandy, and what was his relationship to these gentlemen? Was he a foreign friend, visiting from overseas? Some exotic celebrity they had the good fortune to corral into posing with them, the 19th century equivalent of the cell-phone snap on the red carpet with a movie star? Certainly, the posing would have largely been the result of the photographer’s efforts to fit all three of them in the frame together, but the contrast between the dandy and the seated burgher couldn’t be more striking than if he were naked.
Here’s a little gem I recently uncovered. No date, no attribution, no name of the subject. It’s a little approximately 1/6 plate tintype. Definitely not from a professional studio, as the plate is ragged – the edges appear to have been almost torn from a bigger sheet, and the collodion pour and/or development are uneven. The photo was taken in the field (literally – you can see the grass under the sitter’s chair, and the backdrop looks like it might have been a rug or blanket with some kind of fringe on top, thrown over a hastily erected backdrop stand). Still, the photographer went to the effort to tint the cheeks on the sitter. It brings to mind the civil war soldier portraits with the young men about to march off to war posing with pistols. I wonder, like with those war portraits, if the pistols are indeed property of the subject or if they are merely props he chose to pose with because they looked cool (many of the civil war soldier photos are using prop weapons that belonged to the studios. Many soldiers had not yet been issued firearms when they had their pictures taken, and they often posed with weapons inappropriate to their rank and status – enlisted men with non-government issue pistols, for example). Was he a saloon keeper? A lawman? The guns are kind of dinky, and he’s handling them rather casually. I think it’s the aura of uncertainty that lingers with an image like this that makes it so fascinating.
I’m using the term “Vernacular Photography” to describe this image. A good friend of mine gave me a definition for it (after a rather contentious debate from which I learned some humility): “Vernacular photography is photography by indigenous populations for indigenous consumption”. Meaning photographs that are created with the intent to be consumed by the audience that created them. The photographer does not have to be known or unknown; neither does the sitter. What matters is the intent. So a Mathew Brady portrait of a client off the street, commissioned by that client for their own personal use, even if the client were famous, would be vernacular, but Brady’s civil war documentary, even the camp scenes of soldiers at rest, would not. Diane Arbus’ photos are NOT vernacular, nor are Ansel Adams’. Their work was created for the express purpose of exposing an idea and sharing it with the world at large. Vernacular photography is created for a known, limited audience. Non-vernacular photography (art photography, documentary, etc) is created for an unknown, unlimited audience. The sitter for my tintype here probably had no expectation of the life of his image beyond whoever he gave it to being able to remember a moment in time at some now-unrecorded location. By collecting it, publishing it and categorizing it, though, do I now lift it out of that category of vernacular image by giving it that unknown, infinite audience?
There’s a wonderful book on the American Tintype by Steven Kasher called “America and the Tintype” which catalogs the better part of a century’s worth of mostly anonymous, vernacular photography from the tintype era. If you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend picking up a copy.
For those who haven’t been following this, a few years ago the Liljenquist family (father and three sons) began collecting civil war cased tintypes and ambrotypes. They amassed a collection of over 700 images, of which approximately 10% have been identified. They range in size from 1/9th plate to 1/2 plate, and in subject matter from Union and Confederate soldiers to children, wives, mothers and family members in mourning, officers and enlisted and both slaves and freedmen. The collection is currently on display at the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. Although small, the display encompasses some 300 images: some two hundred and fifty Union soldiers and their families and some fifty Confederates. One of the most striking images in the collection is the former slave and his family, a wife and two daughters, posed with him in Union uniform. It makes an interesting parallel that 150 years ago, this man was fighting for his freedom, and today, a very similar man with a very similar family sits in the White House, President of a nation radically remade by the sacrifices of that African-American soldier. Other highlights include the little girl dressed in mourning attire, holding a photo of her father who quite possibly she never knew, and the picture of the confederate soldier accompanied by a letter back home to his family describing how he died on the field of battle. A mourning necklace is also on display: the pendant is an oval gutta-percha case containing the photograph while the chain supporting it is woven of human hair, most likely from the woman who made it and whose husband is depicted inside the case.
The collection is astonishing in its scope and specificity, as well as for the collecting acumen displayed by the Liljenquist family. The family still collects at a furious pace, and so the Library has asked them to make their donations quarterly, instead of weekly as they had been doing, to give the curators time to catalog and preserve their donations. The collection in its entirety will be available online through the Library of Congress’ website in the near future.
They also have the collection on display on the LoC Flickr feed entitled “Civil War Faces“. They welcome input from the general public as part of the effort to identify the subjects of the photographs.
As I’ve been collecting images, and I do a fair bit of my looking on Ebay, I’ve noticed a couple of interesting albeit off-putting trends. I go back and forth between interest in tintypes, daguerreotypes, and CDVs, with the occasional odd foray into early 20th century images if they include things like cars. In looking for daguerreotype images, I’ve been seeing a lot of what are really very ordinary, common images (no identification of subject or photographer, 1/6 plate to 1/9th plate size, ordinary condition) being listed for astronomical prices ($650 for a 1/6 plate dag? Really?). It’s one of those things that gives you a false impression of the market – seeing all those listings at those stupid prices makes you think that A: your own collection is worth a lot more, and B: if people are listing them for that kind of money, they must be selling for that kind of money. This impression lingers unless you do a search on closed auctions, where you’ll see that most of the successful sales are still in the under $200 range, with the odd exception of some truly rare or exceptional images (1/2 plate, known subject, unusual subject, etc).
Another marketing trend I find a bit odd is the whole “gay interest” tag in the image description. On one level, I get it – the seller is trying to reach out to an under-appreciated market. On the other hand, I question if the people using that tag line understand the “gay interest” thing at all. Two men or two women posing together in the Victorian world did not make them a same-sex couple. They could be siblings, co-workers or just friends. 99% of the time we have zero context to go with any image to make an assessment of the relationships captured in the images. There was no public subculture in the 1850s or even in the 1880s that we would today recognize as analogous to the late 20th/early 21st century gay culture, and as such it would not have been recorded photographically. There is certainly an interest in finding proof of ancestry – “see, we DID exist in the 1850s”. Unfortunately, buying in to the “gay interest” marketing of these images is really just being taken for a ride through ignorance and vulnerability. Don’t get me wrong – it’s certainly fun to speculate what might have been going on behind the scenes of these pictures, and what the relationships of the sitters might be to one another. I have one image in my collection that in the right minds implies no end of off-camera highjinks. But it’s still pure speculation. If you see an image marked “gay interest”, buy it only because you actually like the image, not for any marketing baloney designed to separate more of your hard-earned money from you than is fair.