Encounters with Anonymous: Playing to the Gallery

Photo by Gavin Allanwood via Unsplash. CC0/Public domain.

Most “anonymous photographs” are quite small. Paper prints more recent than the 1980s are often 4″ x 6″ but earlier roll film prints are rarely that size. Old medium format photos are often 3″ x 3″ with Kodak Brownie prints at 2.25″ x 3.25″ and contact prints from 1930-1958ish sometimes no more than 1.25″ x 2.25″.

It’s quite rare for me to come across vernacular photos that are larger than 8″ by 10″, the default “prestige” size for enlargements common in press photos and professionally photographed events.

So when I see something like this, I definitely take interest.

The print I have is 14″ x 14″. This is quite large, even by contemporary standards. The largest square enlargement at my local Costco is 12″ x 12″. It’s printed in color, though it is effectively monochrome. Though it’s difficult to notice online, the paper is quite thick, glossy rather than matte, and bears no manufacturer stamps on the verso. It may well have been enlarged by the anonymous photographer in their own lab.

There are no real vertical lines in the photograph. Most of the frame breaks into fragmented oblique lines, with a number of gentle curves at the bottom of the frame where the highest points of contrast lie in the snow covered bushes. The composition plays these natural fractal shapes against the highly geometric shapes of the object in the background, which, though obviously man-made, is in slightly soft focus, undoubtedly aided by the snow. The focus allows it to draw attention but still blend with the natural setting, so that its horizontal lines, triangular and rectangular shapes do not overwhelm the composition. A single smooth curved line at the lower left of the frame is the only non-natural shape in the bottom of the picture. This connects it to the obviously non-natural shapes of the background. Fittingly, it seems to be a road.

Most of the picture is bright white, as one would expect in a snow scene. Natural shapes are dark black: the bushes, the branches, the rocks. The very not-nature-made shape in the background is the only thing in the three-quarter tone gray range.

That shape is Himeji Castle in Japan. With this picture in front of me, I have an advantage. I know this building because I’ve been there. If I had not, and had never seen it before, I’d have to do some detective work on the architecture, noting the number of keeps, the curved gables, number of floors, alternating shapes, etc.

My knowledge of the castle also gives me the only clue I have to the date of the picture. The castle was built in 1333 but has been demolished and reconstructed twice. The last expansion was complete in 1618. So the picture cannot be earlier than that. Since this is well before the invention of photography that is probably obvious. The castle walls here offer another clue.

Many people nickname the castle 白鷺城 — “White Egret Castle.” Even in this snow, however, I can tell the roof of the main keep is not that white. This means the castle hasn’t been truly restored, so it’s certainly earlier than the 2010 restoration (completed in 2015) and after the 1964 restoration. However, the walls themselves have been restored, at least slightly. That puts the date after 1970.

From this picture alone that is about as closely as I can date it for certain, 1970-2010. I have two other photos, both 14″ x 14″, that I picked up from the same shop on the same day, featuring the same castle. One of them holds other clues, such as the presence of an Isuzu Gemini and a Hino Rainbow Bus that suggest the picture is around 1974-76 but not enough information to be sure. Likewise the color processing and paper are unhelpful because there’s simply not enough color.

Assuming this is from the early 1970s, this is likely to be a tourist’s picture. It’s not sharp enough or trite enough to be a postcard or stock photography shot. This is also at a time when Japanese cameras are beginning to dominate the market. Having a medium format camera at that time would have been expensive, as the only ones being made were German or Japanese. Casual photographers, especially in the USA, would have been using a 35mm or even the brand new 110 Instamatic which debuted in 1972. I suspect that the maker of this photograph was either wealthy or serious or both as a photographer.

Clearly, though, this photograph and the other two in my collection were extremely important to the photographer. Blowing up a print to such an enormous size was rare even for professionals. Only something of extreme value would have received this treatment. What that value is, I have no idea. Interestingly, the paper on which the photo is printed has quite a curl at two ends, but not in the middle at all, and only slight dog-ear folds at the corners. I do not think it was rolled up; rather, I think it was stored flat for a long time, perhaps even in a frame.

That would explain the unusual size of the picture. If this were in a frame for a gallery or one’s own home, it could be an impressive sight. I’ve seen far worse pictures than this in galleries. And the “framing device” of using the tree branches to frame the castle itself is certainly a visual trope of the 1970s that would have appealed to many cameragentsia.

Myself, I keep it flat in an archival box. I return to it every so often as a puzzle. It still holds many secrets that I will never know, as indeed do all vernacular photographs, even those by my own hand.

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