I’ve been having the hardest time figuring out what these two gentlemen’s occupation is. They are wielding a trowel and a tin bucket, and staring into the bucket with a great degree of fascination. But they look too clean and too well-dressed for most manual labor occupations that would use a trowel and bucket – bakers, painters, plasterers, gardeners… when showing their profession, they’re usually a little less polished than these two. I’m going with plasterers as that’s a relatively high-earning trade, so maybe they could afford to get cleaned up before going in for their portraits.
I scanned this out of its octagonal Union case to make it easier to see the details. The case is in remarkably fine original condition, with no major cracks or chips.
The two men together could certainly in some people’s minds qualify this as a “gay interest” image, but I’m going to definitely disqualify this as it’s very obviously first and foremost a professional association. The dressing alike is a very 19th century thing within a trade, whereas dressing alike to show one’s sexual relationship to another is very much a late 20th early 21st century thing.
I was showing my latest daguerreotype to a friend the other day and she asked me how many do I have. I hadn’t really thought about it, so I sat down today and did an inventory. I came up with
for a grand total of 50 cased images.
I’ll recap as many of them as I have good scans for here. One of these days I’ll get around to re-scanning/photographing the others, which I originally posted to Facebook but not at a consistent file size.
I thought it would be fun to review my loose tintypes. These are only the ones I’ve previously posted to the blog, not the entire collection. They run the range from tiny gemtype size (the one of Mr. Phillips in the top hat) to quarter-plate size (almost 5×7). They span a time period from the 1860s to the 1920s. Assembled they present a fascinating if incomplete snapshot of daily life in Victorian America. Showing everything from affectionate friends to unconventional family groups to people on vacation to working people with the tools of their trades, they portray a slice of life otherwise undocumented in literature or historical narrative. This is one of the great joys of collecting images like this – not just the traditional studio portraits, but the images that express meaning and personality beyond a marker that someone existed.
A tintype of two men boxing, for your consideration.
I’m attracted to this image by virtue of the slight motion blur captured in their pose – their hands and faces are a little soft from the 1+ second exposure. I suppose this could theoretically be an occupational tintype in that they may be boxers, although they’re rather formally dressed for athletes. I suspect this is just another case of two friends having a lark in the photographers’ studio. There’s probably a lost backstory to the picture – perhaps an inside joke about friends or siblings who were always fighting? Or perhaps it was a photographers’ study.
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.
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.
I got these two tintypes on an online auction (NOT ebay). They finally arrived today, but I had bought them so long ago I almost forgot I bought them. They still need a bit of cleaning up. From the clothes and what looks to be a car in the background of the one photo, they’re from the first decade of the 20th century, or maybe into the early part of the 1910s. The subject looks like he might be African-American. What’s interesting about these is they seem to be amateur snapshots, but they came matted, and at this point in time, amateur tintypes would have been relatively rare, because rollfilm already existed and cameras like the Kodak Brownie (as well as far more sophisticated roll-film cameras, not to mention dry plate cameras) were widespread. They came to me from Portland, Oregon, but who knows where they were taken. I’m planning on doing a bit of cleaning to remove the tape residue and dust, and I’ll re-scan and post them when they’re tidied up a bit.
I got into collecting photography a few years ago, specifically vintage cased images. Really good cased images have started appreciating in value and are no longer the bargains that they used to be, but you can still pick up nice anonymous Daguerreotypes and tintypes for not too much money. An important thing to know is how to tell the difference – many people don’t know and will confuse the two, and try to sell (and price) the less valuable tintype as a Daguerreotype. The easiest way to tell the difference is in the appearance. A Daguerreotype will have a mirror finish and be hard to view directly without a black or other non-reflective color surface in front of it. Tintypes will weigh less and be clearly viewable from any angle. There are lots of other tips that can clue you in if you’re not sure, but that’s the obvious, easy distinction.