Friday, 15 April 2011

Instant relatives

Last year I came across a fantastic book on the medical photographer Dr. Hugh W. Diamond and psychiatric photography (the book from 1977 is called The Face of Madness, and it is edited by Sander L. Gilman). In the 1850s and from then on, portrait photography was used to help diagnose mental illness. Countless "insane" were photographed and their facial expressions and body language recorded and analyzed in great detail to reveal the physical characteristics of madness. The book got me hooked on portrait photography in general. There is something special about the time in the past when it actually took a lot of effort to take one single photograph.



Ever since, I have been collecting old portrait photographs. I have bought them for a couple of cents a piece in antique stores. Because a lot of people are after old photo albums, antique dealers go through the albums they encounter in estate sales, strip them off their content, and sell the albums. If I am lucky, they will not throw the photos away and sell them to me instead. In antique-dealer-speech, these loose photos of unknowns are called instant relatives.


I choose the photos I buy on the basis of instinct. I buy women, men (old and young), children, and families. Usually there is something about the person that just draws me in. It could be the clothes or the facial expression. Sometimes the text on the photo frame (usually, the name of the studio) reveals an odd location. There might be writing on the back that even gives the name of the person. There have been times when I have found the same person in a pile of a hundred photographs in different stages of his or her life.

I try not to think too much about how sad it is that these people's real relatives no longer connect with their ancestors. I might be the only person who knows them without knowing them at all. This girl below was Margaret Bolfe, and her photograph was taken in Lewisburg, PA at the J.W. Cornelius studio.



These guys are the Campbells. The two names I can make out are John and Ida.



There are times when I get overwhelmed at how small human life really is. All it takes is time, and we turn to dust, and we no longer live in anyone's memories. And yet every once in a while I come across an old photo where life is so palpable, so current. A laugh, a shared moment, friendship, love.



These people live alongside my life now, as vagabonds and adopted friends. When I am gone, perhaps someone else will take them on.


9 comments:

Teeny said...

I'm with you here, a photo can show how much a moment affected someone, be it a smile or sadness...and then once the photo has been taken...the moment has gone...but frozen in time, and will live on to surpass the life of the photos subject. We are but a speck.

Shey said...

I've seen a couple of pictures at the flea market, althugh I've never bought any I do like looking at them and wondering what those people were like. =)

Terri said...

What an interesting hobby. Have you ever seen the book the Wisconsin Death Trap? I think you might like it if you can track down a copy.

Milla said...

Oh! I do this too. I even mixed some up with pictures of my real relatives on the walls. What a beautiful post, it made me mist up. Looking at them sometimes, you can't help but wonder, who's gonna look at your photos some day...

Madeline Quaint said...

Old photographs seem to carry such a different air - maybe because the people on them respected the medium and the occassion.
I'm a very frequent second hand bookshopper, and buy pictures too, when I see one that captures me. I mostly have pictures of girls though, so beautiful.

On the psychiatric topic - have you seen the film Opium? Very difficult to watch, but a good and powerful film, about an asylum at the turn of the century Hungary.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0803052/

M said...

I have a box of finnish ones somewhere.... I collected them a few years ago :) Let's take a look at them when you come <3

metscan said...

Your Thursday´s post was really great1
Hmm.. old pictures ( which actually look photoshopped ), for some reason, don´t raise my feelings. There is something so terribly sad about them. I wish families would save the best of the old pictures for the following generations. Somehow, if they end up in junk stores or likes, well, I feel that they might as well be thrown away.

Meg said...

This is a beautful post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and photos with us.

Anonymous said...

Great post hon!!! I was gonna write more, but I have no time!! :) oxoxoxox, CR