Feb 222013

I find explorations in social history one of the most interesting activities of dealing in antiques. So often the objects we collect, the treasures that take pride of place in our homes, were once personal, everyday possessions.

Of course, photography is an obvious example. In an age where we effortlessly take hundreds—is not thousands—of photos a year, it’s astonishing to think that there was once a time not so long ago when a soul might pose for a photograph just once in their entire lifetimes. The result was an object to be venerated, to carry close to your heart, and to cherish forever. That’s why I think there’s something so melancholic, sad even, about photographs that have lost their loved ones; hidden away in a box in the attic or abandoned in a careless thrift-shop…

When I come across these old photographs, I always relish looking at them, savoring each and every detail: the faces, their expressions, their clothes… And sometimes I’m moved to take them home, to adopt them, to make them part of my family-tree. When I first saw this young lady, she immediately caught my eye; such poise and beauty I could never resist!

This image is an ambrotype, a glass plate coated with a photographic emulsion; a fairly primitive process that was only used between 1855 and 1865. Based on the fashion of her clothes and hair, as well as the material and composition of the ‘union case’ itself, I have been able to date this portrait to 1858. She’s starting to buckle a bit at the edges, but she still looks gorgeous considering her age—now more than 150 years old!

An old-fashioned, true and timeless beauty . . .

(Coda: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what story does this one tell? In my quest to discover more clues about the sitter, I delicately dismantled the union case to discover another figure hidden under the brass matting: a young, ghost-like child gazing directly at the camera. How wonderful and strangely compelling…!)


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