Sunday, December 20, 2009

American photos

Judging by the hairstyle and clothes, my guess is the date is around 1880. This woman is young -- she may even be a girl of perhaps sixteen or seventeen. The crucifix at her throat stands out, but what is that other dark necklace? It looks almost like an actual chain. And what are the symmetrical smudges on her dress? A flaw in the photograph, or real colors in the fabric?

Imagine her in a sweatshirt and jeans, and you might see her pushing her cart in any modern day grocery store. But she probably would not appear quite so self possessed, regal even. When ordinary people circa 1880 wanted to shine for the camera, they had no helps to present to the world -- the future -- except clothes, hair, and their own, inexpensive jewels. No makeup, at least not any that wasn't on the toxic side; likely no fine, healthy teeth; no way to reproduce color. And yet they often carried themselves quite well. Perhaps, conversely, that explains something of why we moderns, in our photos, with all our aids to good health and beauty, still tend to resemble smiling, uncomfortable, underdressed shlubs.

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