A World Beyond the Picture

This is an album from the early days of amateur photography, compiled in the 1890s. At first, I thought it was Edwardian, but the women sporting ‘lamb chop’ sleeves date it earlier. With this knowledge, other signs fell into place. Women’s fashion in a picture is often the best gateway to dating old photos.

The album has space for 200 photos measuring 4.5cm x 6.0cm. This is such a rare format size for the time that there is only one camera that could have produced these pictures — the Photo-Jumelle made by French camera-maker Jules Carpentier for the London Stereoscopic Co., 106-108 Regent Street, London. Introduced in 1892, this very popular camera looked like a pair of binoculars, the first camera of this design. One lens was the viewfinder/focus and the other was for taking the exposures. From 1895, it offered pneumatically-operated variable shutter speeds. Unlike the Kodak box cameras of the time, the Jumelle operated at eye level.

The first 10 pages of the album full. If you turn it over and upside down, it starts again from the back for another 10 pages. There are 112 photos in all. The photographs show a well-to-do family, with access to foreign travel, new culture and the arts. In later decades, the amateur camera, for many, evolved into a communal object that could be picked up by anyone in the family – a household appliance almost. This happened much less in the early days. One person has taken all the photographs here — this is a sole-user album. It is not just a collection of mementos; it is a means of self-expression.

Like in many albums of the period, there are a number of ‘pictorial’ photos of mountain canyons, waterfalls and winding country roads, likely a result of the many manuals available at the time on the right subjects for photography. There are also many shots taken on board a yacht. In albums like this, horses often appear, as status symbols — as property. In this one, they also appear in action, wild and riderless – as nature. My guess is that a woman, perhaps around 20 years old, collated this album.

Although it was compiled at the end of the 19th century, the album takes us much further back, through the photograph of the high-Victorian grand old man, with his magnificent grey whiskers. He may have been born as far back as the 1810s, certainly before the birth of photography. In the same picture, possibly due to some trick of chemistry, a disembodied hand, palm facing out, emanates from the wall in the background. A charismatic woman, with unusually uncovered hair for the time, appears in two group shots taken only moments apart. Playing up for the camera, in the first she is Thalia, in the second Melpomene. The children playing in the distance put one in mind the Cottingley Fairies.

A group shot shows a young man and two women in a steam-powered, switchback gondola, a recent innovation and ‘a highpoint of early fairground art and aesthetics’. It is transporting to think that, while to us, this scene looks quaint, floral and Victorian, the people in these photographs were revelling in the up to date.

With thanks to Jos Erdkamp in the Netherlands for his expertise on early cameras. Visit Jos’s excellent website here: Kodaksefke.

Nigel Shephard

Published by The Family Museum

We are an archival project about amateur family photography, based in London and set up by filmmaker Nigel Shephard and editor Rachael Moloney.

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