Living in a world of ubiquitous lens-based images, one might easily forget there was a time when photographs served very particular purposes.
The real subject of most photographs ever made is relationships: between friends, between family, between colonizers and colonized, between one’s image and one’s self, etc. The difficulty of such photographs is that those relationships are not patent in the photograph. A selfie may well describe a certain projected, filtered image of a person, but it can never contain the person’s own self-analysis that prompts and is prompted by a picture. On a simpler level, a photograph may show five people, with three of them holding hands while the other two look on, but there is, within the photograph itself, no way to know what the lived relationship of those five people is.
Instead people resort to words for explanation, either text or speech, to tell people not privy to the information in the photographer’s head what those relationships are.
But for those who will never meet the photographer or hear or read the photographer’s words, the relationships within a photograph remain a cipher.
Since this version is on a flat digital screen, it’s difficult to see that this is actually printed on heavy paper. It’s actually printed to be a mailing postcard.
The print is a monochromatic cyan. No blacks. No whites. No gray. Only cyan. Only values and tones. The tonal range is automatically compressed, compared to a pure black ink monochrome.
The composition is
essentially two white triangles and an inverted black triangle on the
right side of the frame, balanced on an oblique line by a dark
irregular, truncated triangle (the plant arbor). All the horizontal
lines are oblique, with only a handful of verticals in the frame
stabilizing the picture. The far left 1/5th of the picture is
essentially dead weight.
The focus falls away rather quickly from its main subject: the three people on the porch. It appears to be a vignetting effect. The leaves behind the main subject are sharply focused within one of the circles of confusion. If they were all sharp, they would likely distract from the portrait effect, so I suspect the photographer may have added the vignette, possibly by fogging the lens selectively or some such. Or the photographer had a really rubbish lens that was useful here.
As a photograph it’s quite typical, with all the trappings of an experienced photographer’s work save for the sloppiness at the left side of the frame. It’s a photograph made to note a particular location, time, and subject, namely the three humans in the picture. The text on the verso emphasizes this.
“Dear friend, we had a few of the pictures taken, it is a friend that was visiting us and a part of our house. Love to all, Mrs B.”
I really like cyanotypes. As the publisher of The Seattle Star, I made a point of offering the grandmother of all photo books, Anna Atkins’ lovely Photographs of British Algae. Atkins’ cyanotypes are essentially photograms, so their contrast range is much greater than pictures like this, but there is a distinct beauty to the blue ferroprussiate tones. Establishment critics, of course, hated them then ignored them. P.H. Emerson’s comment that “only a vandal would print a landscape in red or in cyanotype” was typical, and remained the dogma for the better part of a century. Consequently one would be hard-pressed to find cyanotypes in any museum’s collection, even those specializing in photography. They aren’t exactly “rare” but they are uncommon.
Furthermore this is a postcard. That makes it distinctly more rare. One of the books on my shelf states that most cyanotype photographs fall generally between 1885 and 1905. The date of the postmark here confirms that this is a bit later than the peak period, but it’s close enough.
Americans rarely think about it any more, especially in a visual environment that consists primarily of noise and irrelevance, but personal postcards like this were a rarity before they were a fad. The rise of actual photographic postcards, “real photo postcards” as some collectors call them, starts in the 1890s but truly peaks after the release of the Brownie camera in 1900. Once photography became affordable but not yet ubiquitous, sending friends and family real photo postcards of Jimmy in his first baseball outfit, or a Sunday at the beach with the fraternity, became a novel thing to do. And where novelty goes, glut follows.
This cyanotype real photo postcard is also special because it has writing on it. That may sound banal, as today one expects writing on postcards. But in terms of this photo postcard, this was a comparatively recent phenomenon. It was only in mid-1907 that the federal government began to allow any text on the verso of postcards other than the address. This card is from within a year of that announcement, suggesting that the photographer here was more in the know than most.
Beyond these curiosities, however, there are the usual mysteries that accompany such a photograph. Given the writing on the card, one might assume this is a portrait of a married couple with a friend of the wife — or is it a friend of the husband? Or is it a friend of the husband behind the camera with his wife part of the picture? Or is it the husband behind the camera with his wife and her friend in the picture? Or are the two ladies the actual couple, and the male friend their visitor? The photograph is silent on the matter.
It must have been a fairly momentous occasion because the house was on Grosse Ile, which at the time would have had only a railway bridge to connect it to mainland Michigan. And it was worth writing about. The date suggests this photograph was taken on Labor Day weekend that year, Labor Day being the 7th of September that year. That would explain the bright white dresses. But again, the picture is silent on any explanation.
Instead all the viewer really has is a pretty postcard of three people who seem comfortable with each other that was sent to another friend — why? Mrs. B and Mrs. Court had, apparently, been talking about having pictures taken before this, so the photograph is proof that pictures were taken. Thus it passes on gossip-y, news-y facts to Mrs. Court, undoubtedly for further discussion. Does Mrs. Court then send a photo postcard of her house and family in return?
We’ll never know. And thus is the fate of so-called evidence: to become either the basis for fiction, or to become a Ding an sich that cannot and will not inform a viewer anything that is not evident within the frame.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net