Portrait of a girl


 Stewart & Co, portrait, late 19th century

This quaint cabinet portrait is by the studio of Stewart & Co, probably dating from the 1880s. It is a sentimental portrayal of Victorian femininity, the sweetness enhanced by the purplish tinge from the albumen emulsion. It is fine portrait of an unmarried young woman and would have meant a lot to her loved ones at the time. Who was she and what purpose did the photograph serve? Who knows? It has no identifying name on it and I bought in a secondhand store for $6. We are all destined for such anonymity and oblivion!

Cabinet portraits were a commercial format that followed on from the immensely popular but smaller Carte-de-Visite of the 1860s. Made of a silver-albumen contact print glued onto an elaborately engraved card, they were 41/2 x 61/2 inches, so-named, according to Wikipedia, because they were large enough to be displayed in a cabinet.

Robert Stewart was a commercial photographer with studios in Sydney and Melbourne at various locations from 1867 on. Stewart and Co. occupied studios in Bourke Street Melbourne where this portrait was made.


Google Street View of 284 Bourke St.

The present building of 1902 (which Darrods department store occupied) replaced the earlier building at this address which Stewart’s business must have occupied.


Portrait of a street


Postcard of Rue Jules-Guesde, Coudekerque-Branche

This prosaic postcard records a street in Northern France but it’s difficult to see what purpose it served. I bought it because of the intriguing shadow of the photographer in the foreground, but the image is unexciting and a strange choice for a postcard. Here is an investigation, without a conclusion.

The postcard is printed photographically rather than through offset or lithography. In other words it’s a silver gelatin print with printed text on the back, and being a darkroom print it would have been made in a short run. It’s easy to see that an ordinary view of a street would not require a large print run.

The street is unexceptional, small homes with a few businesses. You can see the sign for a newsagent to the right: Librairie, Papeterie. The town of Coudekerque-Branche is part of Dunkirk, on the English Channel. The name is partly Flemish meaning bend-church-branch, perhaps once a church where a river bends and branches?  Dunkirk (Flemish for dune-church) is a port in northern France and a landing place for UK ferries. It was the site of the disastrous retreat by British soldiers at the start of World War II. Could there some connection with this postcard?

The photograph is much older than 1940 when that retreat took place. The absence of cars, advertising, lamp posts or other signs of modern life, plus the size and shape of the camera, suggests the period of 1890-1920. There are images of Atget standing alongside his similar-shaped camera during that period.

The street is named after Jules Guesde, a socialist politician and later government minister during during World War I. Apparently, Marx did not approve of Guesde or his colleagues, famously stating “if they are Marxists, then I myself am not a Marxist”. It seems unlikely, but perhaps Guesde is the reason for the photograph and for it appearing on a postcard – streets throughout the town are named after famous people, Edison, Pasteur etc. so maybe there was a series of such cards on sale?

So back to the photograph itself. A wide-angle view from the middle of the street showing ordinary buildings, a child in the middle distance and two figures further back. The child is in the middle of the street approaching the camera, perhaps out of curiosity. The photographer has made the child a punctuation for the image, but the subject is the street itself. The absence of cars makes the street appealing, safe enough for a child.


The sun is very low casting the long shadow of the photographer. Since in reality the street runs East-West and the view is towards the East, the sun behind the photographer is the setting sun. According to SunCalc, the time is about 4pm probably around early March, ie late winter/early spring which would explain the heavy overcoat on the photographer.

That’s about all we have. The street is almost unchanged today; the Google Street View camera has driven along a hundred or so years later and photographed it from much the same place as our photographer. Was it only the second time that anyone bothered to shoot this ordinary street?

You can see how the earlier view distorts the breadth of the street, and how cars now ruin what charm the street might have.


Rue Jules Guesde, Google Street View cropped to resemble the earlier photograph

Here is the Google Street View photo altered to look like the original image. It is hard to determine why the old version feels so much nicer than the new. Is it nostalgia for a lost time we wish for? Do the cars bring us abruptly back to present day reality? Photography is a time machine but I still don’t understand how it works on us.


Rue Jules Guesde made to resemble vintage postcard


Dear Mr. Kenadjian


This lovely postcard is postmarked Montevideo 19 June 1904, with stamps of the República Oriental del Uruguay (Eastern Republic of Uruguay).

The handwriting over the photograph makes a poetic combination, a curtain of words that echoes the shape of the woman’s curls. The text, however, is not poetic although it does link two people in two distant cities.

Mr Aram H. Kenadjian c/o Harotune Kenadjian Fils Constantinople

Dear Mr. Kenadjian:- Many thanks for your P.C.s (postcards) they are very pretty and also many thanks for your covering address. My sister will exchange with her – I send it on this one & it represents our “Liberty Girl” dressed in her costume – I hope you will like it Kind regards Yours truly Lucy A. Cowell.

Please let me know if you would like some addresses in France as I have some.

It’s sweet to think of a (probably American) woman in Montevideo writing to a Turkish man in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. But my question is – how did the postcard come to be in a secondhand bookshop in Melbourne, 109 years later?


Ebay camera 10


This specially adapted Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic Pacemaker just sold on ebay for $1824, a huge price for a Graflex. Why?

The Speed Graphic was popular with press photographers for many years until the 1960s. I have one myself which came with a standard issue 135mm f4.7 lens, ie its maximum aperture is f4.7 – see this post on it.


My Speed Graphic with its f4.7 lens

But the Ebay camera is different, it has been modified with an unusual lens, one that makes it weigh almost double mine, 11 pounds or about 5 kilograms. That is not something you would want to raise to your eye as a press photographer. The reason is the huge f0.95 lens, a massive piece of light-collecting glass with a diameter of about 140mm. It’s 4.5 stops better than my lens, a huge advantage in low-light situations. This lens is so strange it doesn’t even have an internal aperture diaphragm, a series of circular aperture plates are attached to the front element.

The question is, why? What was this expensive lens used for? Night photography, surveillance, astronomy? The seller is in Serbia, part of communist Yugoslavia when this camera was manufactured. So my mind turned to surveillance, espionage, Cold War derring-do. But no, the explanation is innocent, it’s an aerial camera, used for photographing the ground from an aeroplane.


Tall Poppies at Edmund Pearce


Amy Stein & Stacy Arezou Merfahr, Schoolchildren, New South Wales, 2010

US photographer Amy Stein says that when she first heard about Australia’s Tall Poppy Syndrome she just had to come here and see for herself. She did. With Stacy Arezou Merfahr she travelled around New South Wales photographing ordinary places and ordinary folk – the sort of folk who don’t fall under the title of “tall poppies”.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome cuts everyone down to the same height, preferably short. Anyone who visibly succeeds in money, achievement or fame is regarded as getting above themselves and needing to be brought down to the common level. It’s a cultural quirk unique to Australians and alien to Americans who “are taught to strive for success and celebrate those who distinguish themselves from the crowd.”

The Edmund Pearce exhibition makes it clear that this wry enterprise needs to be savoured in large prints on a wall. The smaller images on the web and in the nice accompanying book don’t convey the subtle humour, the deadpan comedy, the utter strangeness of this cross-cultural encounter. Click on the image above and you might see what I mean. The pictures of rural New South Wales are funny, very true, and they tell you something about yourself, if you’re an Australian. It’s not all good news.


Freeman, Gries and Lambert


Kyle Lambert, portrait of Morgan Freeman

Here’s one of those cases which challenge definitions. Is it painting, is it illustration, is it digital media or is it photography?

An artist has created a portrait of actor Morgan Freeman – an extremely lifelike and detailed portrait – using his fingers. Kyle Lambert is a UK illustrator who makes realistic art on an iPad using one of those finger-painting apps; this app cost him all of $6. The image is both a technical marvel and an endurance feat: 200 hours of work and 285,000 finger moves.

Obviously Morgan Freeman did not sit for the artist (although it would be interesting to speculate on what an A-list Hollywood actor would charge for 200 hours of sitting!) No, Lambert copied a photograph by Scott Gries, a US commercial photographer who photographs celebrities. I don’t know what Gries thinks about this, is he insulted? Does it break copyright law? But maybe he should be flattered that someone would spend 200 hours looking at one his photos. I once timed visitors looking at an exhibition of Magnum photographs and the average per photo was four seconds!


Scott Gries, portrait of Morgan Freeman

So, if a finger-painting is an exact replica of a photograph, is it in fact a photograph? Where do definitions begin and end?

You can click here to see the stages in constructing the illustration/painting/photograph/media art/copy. Then decide for yourself.


Tom Butler’s faces


Tom Butler, Talbot, 2010

As a collector of Victorian-era studio portraits, Cartes-de-Visites, Cabinet prints and the like, the work of English artist Tom Butler has an interest for me. He takes these relics of early photography, well-crafted but fairly generic portraits of now anonymous folk. They come from the 1860s on when the visiting card photograph (Cartes-de-Visite) became a phenomenon, making the photographic likeness cheap enough for the masses.

I certainly couldn’t do what Butler does – alter or disfigure a 19th century photograph, but I’m glad he has done what he has. There are plenty of such photographs around and they don’t have much monetary value. His little intercessions are surreal, humorous, occasionally twee but mostly interesting.

For the last four years I have been appropriating anonymous photographs … with incorporated personal symbols such as hair, hoods and masks painted on the surface with gouache. In the process I attempt to reveal aspects of imagined inner personalities of the sitter while entirely in the knowledge that I am cloaking them with parts of myself.