Another plunge into the pool of the unknown. Somehow I acquired an album of photographs from the 1920s and 30s. Photographs of people I don’t know in places I have never been. Photographs that captured an instant in time, which eventually faded into a memory and then was lost forever. Not quite forever: this tiny photograph has been found, restored, re-shared with the world.
The only information I have is that another photograph on the same page in the album was captioned “Sulby Glen”. Sulby Glen is near the village of Lezayre in the Isle of Man. We can assume that this party of walkers were taking a rest and a photo opportunity whilst exploring the glen. Where they came from, I don’t know. Where they went to afterwards is equally unknown. But for a brief instant – as brief as the click of a shutter – we can join them in the glen and share their world.
Some people say that photographs today are as cheap as chips. This is untrue, as anyone who has been to a fish and chip shop recently will know: a bag of chips can set you back the best part of £2. Photographs, captured on smart phones and shared with friends are essentially free goods, and like all free goods, we tend to take them for granted. We can snap a selfie, and if it doesn’t hold up to our glorified self-image, we can dump it quicker than a political adviser.
Go back 150 years, and that was not the case; photographs were a rare thing, something you had to save up for, pose for, and frown for. Nobody was willing to pass up their one chance of immortality in exchange for a cheap grin or a cheeky gesture. If you go back thirty or so years ago, however, back to the late pre-digital age, it was the era of the photo booths. You could put a coin in a machine and produce four portrait poses: one serious one for your passport or driving licence, and three silly ones just for the fun of it.
So how would our perceptions of the Victorians be changed if they had coin-in-the-slot Photo-Me booths? Perhaps we would be left with more than endless portraits of serious and unsmiling faces. Modern technology helps us to test these theories out, so here is our Victorian lady relaxing in front of the Photo-Me camera …. with a little help from Photoshop’s new Neural filters!
This is one of a batch of old photographs which was sent to me through the post. There was no indication as to who sent them, but the envelope also contained the funeral programme of one of my wife’s cousins. I can only assume that the two children featured in this particular photograph are members of that extended family. Written on the back of the photograph is the single word: “unknown”.
I can only express my thanks to whoever sent these photographs: the fact that the subject is unknown is of no consequence. The photograph is superb.
So here we are again: locked down and searching for ways of occupying ourselves between box sets. Next to my desk I have a suitcase full of old orphan photographs. These are photographs of unknown origin, things I have bought by the box full, job lots of memories. Whenever I have nothing better to do – and the whole point of retirement, indeed the whole joy of it, is never having anything better to do – I dip into the suitcase and go prospecting for images. I am not looking for Uncle Jim or Cousin Ada (by definition the subjects of these photographs, most of which are eighty or ninety years old, are nameless), I am looking for pleasing images. Like any kind of prospecting, success is not guaranteed and pictorial nuggets only occasionally come to the surface. That’s half the fun.
It’s just one of those photos; taken in happier days, developed, printed and stuck in an album to fade to a memory. Then the memory is gone and the rememberer is gone and the album page gets lost and torn until someone says, “put it in a job lot of old photos on eBay, there’s a mad chap in Huddersfield who’ll pay good money for it”. And you do, and he does, and he re-awakens the memory, because memories never deserve to die. Especially memories of love amongst the cabbages.
This is quite an unusual shot for a variety of reasons. Let’s forget for a moment who these four people are, and where they were: both are unknown and not massively important in the great scheme of things – especially to the lover of old lost and found photographs. We do have, however, quite a striking image that has been taken through an open window. The four subjects are outside on an open balcony whilst the photographer is inside …. or are they? There is something about the lady in the front and centre of the group that makes me wonder whether she, herself, is the photographer. When you take someone’s photograph – and they are aware of it – there is always an element of the captive visible in the facial expression of the subjects. They have been photographed, a process that has been controlled by someone else. You can see it in three of the faces here, a certain subjugation, a look that quickly reminds you why some people see photography as robbery of the soul. That look is completely absent from the fourth face: she radiates control: if souls are to be collected, then she is doing the collecting. Could the secret of her powers be found in whatever she is holding in her hands? It looks like a piece of optical equipment, could it be some form of remote control device to fire the camera shutter? Perhaps the camera had been set up inside on a tripod, and the group had gone onto the balcony for a photograph taking using a remote shutter release. Get ready, she says, smile, watch the birdie!
The attraction of old photographs of unknown people is the very fact that they are unknown: sepia coloured blank canvases upon which we can paint whatever story we like. This young Edwardian man could be anyone’s Grandfather or Great Uncle ….. or he could be a Great War poet mentally penning his ode to Armageddon. He could be a clerk or a teacher, a grocer or an engineer: that serious look of concentration would be a credit to any trade or profession. By now, he is long gone, but we remember him here. Think of this as the tomb of the unknown civilian.
This is a joyous photo. I have no idea who the people are, but they are striding away from the Marine Bathing Pavilion in Margate. At a guess, we are in the late 1920s, although, again, I can’t be sure about that. What we can be certain about, however, is that they are having a great time.
Three girls on a pebbly beach. Whoever took this photograph captured a classic image without knowing about it.It became a small print, destined to fade into sepia age, pasted in an album, gradually forgotten and then left to make up the numbers in a job lot of old photos.
Probably the 1940s, just possibly the early fifties. Definitely a world still dominated by the war. Clothes that could illustrate a textbook: of fashion or history or both.