American Gems

In America, where tintype photography first took off in the 1860s, tintypes represent an important national record and cultural bond. Their rise in popularity coincided with the desire for durable keepsakes prompted by the upheavals of the Civil War, which began in 1861. The hold they have on the American imagination is evidenced by the fact that more than 10 craft tintype portrait studios have opened up across the country since 2010; in 2019, the director Greta Gerwig had the entire cast of her film Little Women photographed in tintype. Yet in the UK, this form of photography has been almost entirely forgotten.

American Scott Archer announced his wet-collodion positive technique in 1852. By 1856, the first US patent had been granted and, by the end of the following year, ferrotype plates – the technical name for tintypes – were being commercially manufactured. The tintype trade in America was pursued with great vigour and acumen, but in Britain, to begin with, the attitude towards it was wary. The most influential British Victorian photographers at the time regarded themselves on a noble quest for the advancement of the arts and the sciences, and therefore felt that any commercialisation in their field diminished not only their profession but also their social standing. As a result, the tintype trade in the UK did not get going until the 1870s, and even then, this was only as a result of American agents travelling across the Atlantic to set up shop in Regent Street, London.

Although the trade survived for 100 years, and fine examples still exist, tintypes were always regarded in the UK as the cheapest and lowest form of photography. The photographers themselves were seen as no more than hucksters and drunken ne’er-do-wells peddling cheap tat to undiscerning punters; like silhouette cutters before them, they thought nothing of setting up shop alongside a pub. Tintypes could be produced ‘while-u-wait’, with the rapidity of a Polaroid, which was all part and parcel of the quick thrills tintype experience available at fairgrounds, wakes, village fetes and bustling beauty spots. While it is true to say that many tintypes are low fidelity, they can nonetheless hold interest and great charm.

Tintypes typically ranged in size from full plates measuring 6½in by 8½in, descending down in fractions to the smallest size available, the ‘American Gem’. American Gem plates measured 1in by ¾in. As their name suggests, this was a style of tintype imported from the US. Their diminutive size and lower fidelity seems to have been compensated for by the sheer variety and attractiveness of their decorative mounts. At 36 for 2s 6d – less than a ‘penny a pop’ – they represented the cheapest portraiture on the high street.

Nigel Shephard

Long Shadows

Pasted on the last page of this album is a map. A thick red line runs across the map from west to east, beginning at Istanbul on the Black Sea, travelling across the Middle East and ending at the Taj Mahal in Delhi. During the 1960s and 70s, this alternative, down-to-earth tourist trek was known as the ‘Hippie Trail’. The word ‘hippie’ is derived from the 1950s word ‘hipster’, an epithet that still signifies a fashionable coterie of hirsute handicrafters.

The first edition of Lonely Planet, a series of budget travel guides with a current annual turnover of $85 million, was written about the Hippie Trail. ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’ was published in 1973, written by Tony Wheeler. He had made the trip with his wife, Maureen, in 1972. The first edition was a zine stapled together at their kitchen table. It provides many valuable insights, but the most entertaining aspect of the book is its attitude toward smoking dope. In a chapter dedicated to this, the sole advice is to stay stoned and out of prison (a ‘short-haired wig’ is recommended at one point for crossing borders) for the entire 2,826 miles journey, or more. The photos I have picked out here are the best in the album; most of the others are of distant, blurry, ancient ruins, and the odd snake charmer.

For the photographer, the guide had this advice:

 “If you are a camera fan, take plenty of films. It is incredible how much film you will get through on a trip like this and between South East Asia and Europe film is chronically expensive. If you are travelling up from Australia the best idea is to take enough to get to Singapore or Penang then stock up on the duty free stuff. We used 5 reels of 36 exposures film and if we had had more we would have used it too. Don’t worry if you do run out of film as you can get major brands easily throughout Asia and the Middle East, but once again, it costs. Be cool in who you point your camera at, if they seem disturbed by it, don’t. Especially be careful about photographing women in the strongly Moslem countries, cameras can be a major cause of hassles. In general you will find that people are quite happy to be photographed. I took a photograph of one of the fascinating little open air bakeries in Afghanistan and the whole staff were up and posing. You are probably best advised to take your exposed film with you and get it developed in Europe, except in Singapore where the local developing is fast and good. If you decide to mail film ahead to be developed, or back home, take care. Little packages, especially from places like Afghanistan, are treated with suspicion by customs – x-raying a film to see what is inside doesn’t do the pictures any good.”

Under the heading ‘VISAS’, there is a note on photographs:

“Raid the piggy bank, rush round to your favourite photo booth and get dozens. Three dozen might not be too many, every visa seems to require two or three plus you’ll want others for I.D. papers, passport, driving licence and student cards. Asians are very big on photos and you may feel obliged to present a photo of your own sweet face to someone who has been particularly nice. So take photos, they’re cheaper now than later.”

Experts did not write this book; it is an example of peer-to-peer learning, something that is common now on the Internet. The demise of the Hippie Trail was also prescient. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, an event that steers geopolitics today, was to end it.  

Nigel Shephard

War Babies

The cover of this album is bright red. When open, it measures 2½ft x 18in. It weighs about 2kg and is packed with photos. On the inside cover, is a blown-up newspaper photograph of the Kray twins with their mother, Violet, beaming with pride in her boys. Throughout the entire album, there is no indication of any personal connection with the Kray family, or that world. It must simply be there for reason of their celebrity, or maybe the owner of the album just liked Vi’s smile.

This is essentially a courtship album. The woman is Spanish, the man English. The album is decorated throughout with Spanish and English stamps, all of which have been franked, which means they must have been steamed off posted letters. The earliest frank mark is dated 1952, the latest 1966, the year of their marriage. Perhaps they came from the letters they sent back and forth during their courtship. The album proper begins, as you would expect, when the couple meet, then continues through their courtship, wedding and honeymoon. But on the first five pages, they have combined their childhood photos, which show them growing up in the 1940s. Perhaps some of these photographs were also exchanged in those letters.

As the 1960s get going, photos in colour and larger formats start to appear. This chapter of the album mainly shows their days out together. There is one shot of the woman with a huge parrot perched on her arm, and her fiancé with his camera dangling at his side. Later, the woman is again photographed cradling a parrot like an infant, with a white dove perched on the top of her head this time. Professional souvenir photographers who operated at popular tourist spots would at times have exotic animals to lure the punters in.

Their wedding photos are snapshots taken by a friend of the couple, not the official wedding photographer – a gesture in keeping with the 1960s youth rebellion, which eschewed traditional practices, the staidness of which had been accentuated by 1950s austerity and their war-weary parents desire for a quiet life. The war babies favoured a fresher, more ‘happening’, more ‘with it’ vibe – the future was theirs to inherit.

Nigel Shephard

Gevacolour

This collection comes in three volumes, each with a heady smell of damp. The earliest album starts in the 1930s, but most of the photographs date from the 1950s. There are more than 40 colour photos, which, for albums of this period, is an extraordinary amount. Occasionally, some 1950s albums could, perhaps, contain three or four colour photos, if you’re lucky. Judging by the quality of the black and white photos, and the albums dedicated arrangement, it comes as no surprise that this photographer was an early adopter of colour.

Practical colour photography appeared in the UK in 1907, with the introduction of Autochrome Lumière plates. Twenty million were produced and lovely examples still exist – the photographer Etheldreda Laing was an English exponent – but their use seems to have faded out by the early 1930s. From the mid-1960s, colour photos were commonly found alongside black and white images, and by the mid-1970s they are the norm. Yet the colour photos in these albums represent the true birth of colour for the amateur. They were processed by the Belgium company Gavaert, founded in 1894. Gevacolour colour film was produced from 1947 and available in the UK from 1953. The Gevaert colour service operated in the same way as Kodak’s; the exposed film was sent of to the Gevaert Company, which would return prints to the customer some time later. There were several formats sizes available: the smallest measuring just 2¼ inches square; the largest 6 x 4 inches.

The Riviera shots, taken on board a yacht, show the merriment of a harpoon-fishing trip. One man can be seen ironically brandishing the fearsome weapon in one hand, with a minnow in the other. The lithe youth over his right shoulder has an expression that seems to announce a wisdom beyond his age. People from the 1950s in swimming costumes always look under nourished; the lack of gym bodies is striking. The photos of the little girl and young woman, both in their blue dresses with the stylish cars in the background, wouldn’t look out of place in Paris Match. One well-turned-out lady, with a little girl at her side, looks dressed for a wedding but steeled for a funeral.

There is something that distinguishes these early 1950s photos from those taken less than a decade later. By the late 1950s, rock and roll culture had made its mark, and street fashion began to have an influence. But these photos come from a time of sartorial elegance and old-school cool, when you dressed for every occasion.

Nigel Shephard

A Long Way from Home

Job Lot of Found Photographs, Jenskittens, Ebay seller

When someone dies and professional house clearers empty a property, they sell off all the larger, more expensive items for which they know they have a market at auction, while the smaller, cheaper items – ornaments, books, cheap trinkets, etc – are collected together in to ‘lot boxes’. These lot boxes are also sold at auction, split up by buyers in to what they can and cannot sell; any remaining items are then collected together in further lot boxes and sold again at auction. And so on. This is how albums normally arrive at The Family Museum, with almost every trace of provenance obliterated. Once parted from the hands of their original owners, these images rapidly disperse across the country, across the globe and across the Internet.

One link in this chain is E-Bay seller Jenskittens, who has been selling found photographs online for 18 years – a business she took over from her father. When I spoke to her she was a new mother, so making money from home in this way suited her situation. The albums come to her, more or less, as I have described above. She takes the photographs out the albums and collects them together in to groups of 100, or sometimes smaller numbers. If there is any notation underneath a photo, written on the album page, she will jot it down on the back of the photo. Although this is a business venture, she still feels a sense of custodianship. On Ebay, these job lots are arranged so that each image among the 100 photographs can be seen. One can spend time scanning over her arrangements. They present the viewer with puzzles to ponder, trying to make connections of resemblances, reasons and meaning. In just one job lot, the photos can date from the 1890s to the 1970s, presenting a potted history of formats in the genre of photography, and changing styles and values.

As an example of just how far these photos get disseminated, Jenskittens, who is based in Halifax in the UK, currently has around 1,000 Japanese family photos for sale.

Nigel Shephard

Mirror, Mirror

It is assumed that in our pre-history, man’s first means of observing a reflection was provided by small areas of naturally occurring still water, or perhaps water collected in crude, dark vessels. One can imagine the frustration when now and again early man tried to scoop the image from the pool.

A reflection, like the psyche, is fleeting, enigmatic and ephemeral, so it is unsurprising that people would infer these echoes of light might harbour the soul, and that their medium, the mirror, facilitated magic. Alice went through it; Dracula could not be seen in one; the Lady of Shalott could only witness the events of Camelot when looking in to one, before she looked out of the window.

The earliest manufactured mirrors were made of highly polished obsidian stone and volcanic glass, and were found in the Anatolia region of Turkey dating back to 6000 BC. Mirrors in myriad forms have been with us ever since. The modern mirror of glass backed by a thin layer of metallic silver was invented in 1835 by German chemist Justus von Liebig.

The first patented invention of photography would not have been possible without a mirror. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre patented the daguerreotype process in 1839. To make an image, Daguerre would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, which would then be sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine or halogen fumes. When posing in front of the Daguerre’s camera, although the sitter could perhaps not observe it, they were in fact looking directly into a mirror – ‘the mirror with the memory’. It struck me that a daguerreotype was exactly what the Wicked Queen in Snow White, written in 1812, was looking for – a mirror that was loyal to her youthful beauty. In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890, perhaps the magic mirror, in which the eponymous Dorian never grows old, was inspired by a daguerreotype.

A few years ago, I was travelling on a bus through the centre of London. There was a young woman sitting in the opposite row, about two seats down from me, putting on the finishing touches to her make-up. She was doing so by training the front facing lens of her smart phone on her face, and looking at her self ‘live’ on the screen. Her image was not being reflected but electronically re-rendered. The mirror, it seems, has crack’d.  

Nigel Shephard

Coin-op Diary

This set of photos comes from a collection that has been split up and sold as separate lots on Ebay. On the occasions I see this happening, I try to buy all the lots to keep the collection together. Sadly, this time it would have proved too expensive, but this small selection captures the atmosphere of the album well.

This is a peer-group album compiled by someone who was very enthusiastic about keeping photographic records. The woman who appears in all these images compiled the collection. She may have been a fashion designer, as there are a good many shots of women in newly tailored clothes, posing outside seaside boarding houses and the like. If she was not from Blackpool, it seems to have been her second home.

If one compares these 1960s photo-booth shots with those taken by their data-hungry 21st-century counterparts, these earlier images cast a flattering light on the scene and bring a little glamour to a weekend’s entertainment – the drapes hanging in the background invite comparisons with the stage. Judging by the differing tonality and light, these photos may have been taken in several different locations.

The eyeline and gaze in photo-booth group shots can be interesting. There is a higher degree of absorption when contemplating one’s reflection; on several occasions one companion can be seen looking at the other mirrored in the glass. The short three- or four-second gap between each shot can chivvy spontaneity out of the sitter, and catch them absent, off-guard or clowning about for the camera.

The vast majority of photo-booth shots are simply portraits of solitary, expressionless people taken for the prosaic purpose of identification. But shots like these are proofs of bonding – love of the gang and youthful romance inform much more our sentimental characterisation of the photo-booth adventure.

Such a shared memory is this – perhaps it’s a rite of passage.

Nigel Shephard

Over by Christmas…

This captivating album begins on the cusp of WWI and carries on through to its immediate aftermath. The first few pages show a wealthy family who seem to live in a carefree idyll of larks, picnics, sack races, apple ducking and go-carting. The photos of the family relaxing in the woods have the louche atmosphere of a French Impressionist painting. A consciously comic tableau shows two men holding two halves of a bicycle that has been sawn in half. There are three portraits – two of men in uniform, and the third, an interior shot of a middle-aged woman who looks dressed and steeled for a funeral. Unidentified bombed-out ruins, and the footprint of rebuilding, are also shown. In the wedding photographs, several of the women can be seen sporting bandeaux, increasingly part of the flapper uniform.

There are more than a dozen shots of the Peace Day Parade in London, held on 19 July 1919, the very first Remembrance Day. The temporary cenotaph made of plaster and wood, which was later replaced by a redesigned permanent structure in 1920, has been recorded. At the top of the photograph, the word ‘CENOTAPH’ is printed upside down. There are shots of military tanks, a bi-plane fly-by over Whitehall and a costumed women’s procession, all part of the pageantry of the day. Throngs of excited onlookers wave their fresh white pressed hankies at the motorcades, mounted cavalry, Allied troops and dignitaries parading past. On the same day, Luton town hall was burned down by rioters, many of them disgruntled ex-servicemen.

There is a photograph of four boys, dressed respectively in the military uniforms of Britain, France, Germany and America. Emerging from woods and thicket, they look like boy-soldiers who hadn’t been told the war was over.

Nigel Shephard

A British Family on the Rhine, Bunde 1964–1966 (part 2)

This second album starts again with confusing inscriptions. The first four photos are inscribed ‘Tidworth – March 1964’. All the images feature a multi-generational family gathering with a Christmas tree and decorations in the background. Tidworth is a garrison town on the eastern edge of Salisbury Plain.

By April, 1964, the family were back in Germany, now living in Bunde. On 13 May, 1965, their third daughter, Alison Teresa, was born. It struck me that Alison would now be 59 years old, younger than many of my friends and relatives. Why doesn’t she have these albums? Susan and Nicola are shown starting school at Tildonk, Ursuline Convent, on 1 September, 1965, spending half-term back at Tidworth.

With a growing family, the freedom and practicality of a touring caravan dragged along by a huge Volvo Wagon now suited the family’s needs. There are two pages of tourist postcards – a dozen or so photographs of picturesque German towns.

There are also 10 photos taken at an army training camp in Denmark, some showing soldiers peeling potatoes, a trope signifying punishment duty used in B-movie war films. There is one image featuring ‘”Baker” “The Accident Man”‘. A ceremony celebrating the Royal Army Service Corp becoming the Royal Corp of Transport is also shown. The album ends with the family taking a Christmas Day walk in the woodlands of Rhinedahlen in 1966.

Urgency, spontaneity and a spirit of adventure characterise the first album; there is a sense of security in this second one.

Nigel Shephard

A British Family on the Rhine, Sennelager 1952–1959 (part 1)

This album opens with a photo taken on Saturday, 24 October, 1953. It shows Susan Rebecca lying in her cot, four hours old. On the same page, her mother, Dorothy, is photographed briefly before and briefly after the birth. Some of the early images in this album were taken at such intimate moments I troubled over whether to publish them. I am still not sure if I have made the right decision.

This is an album belonging to a young military couple stationed in Sennenlager – BAOR (British Army on the Rhine) in the 1950s. Its name literarily means ‘camp on the Senne’, an area in military use since the 19th century. It is hard to know who inscribed the album, as the wife is varyingly described as ‘Dorothy, ‘Mummy’ and ‘My, and her husband only as ‘Daddy’, all in the same handwriting. Notes on the back of some of the photos point to someone trying to archive them; perhaps Susan Rebecca.

Susan is photographed first weekly, then monthly. At 10 months old, she is photographed in ‘Walton-on-Thames’; at 11 months, ‘In the park at Hackney’ and feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. As the album goes on it gets even more confusing. There is a photo of Susan under which is written ‘End of my first year’. The family had returned to Sennelager by 1955. Within a year or so, Dorothy had given birth to another daughter, Nicola.

Towards the end of the album, the photo format changes to a square with pretty crimped edges. The images depict our nuclear family’s trip to Africa. There is a photo taken in a marketplace where Dorothy and Susan are the only foreigners to be seen. The most striking image is of three-year-old Susan sitting in a classroom, her luminous little white face and golden hair bobbing in a sea of sun-burnished blackness. One wonders now whether its impact is aesthetic or political…

Nigel Shephard