Friday, February 12, 2010

My Funny Valentine & “Playing with Pictures—The Art of Photo Collage”

When I go into my favorite store—Target-- I always look at what’s in the $1.00 section. Recently it was all about Valentine’s Day and I gravitated straight to these ugly velvet roses that cost a dollar each. “These are so bad they’re good!” I said, snagging three of them. Daughter Eleni feared I would put them in her (unoccupied) room but I promised I wouldn’t. Now they’re in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

I do like things that are whimsical—And today, as I drove into Manhattan on my way to tomorrow’s flight to Mexico, I made a bee-line to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Playing with Pictures—The Art of Victorian Photocollage.”

Since I am an avid collector of antique photos and I love anything whimsical, I knew this show was for me for many reasons.

The exhibit, which I highly recommend,(Google it!) focuses on albums made by aristocratic English women back in the 1860’s and 1870’s by cutting out photographs of people they knew (often titled and royal) and gluing them into fantasy scenes which the women painted or drew. It’s a trip. Check out 2 examples above.

The exhibit was charming and highlighted something that I have noticed for many years—women in Victorian times poured their creativity into creating friendship books, scrap albums , folk paintings and things like these exquisite and humorous album pages—just to amuse themselves and their friends. I bought the catalogue and may write about it in future. You could see in the photo collages the fantasy influence of books like Louis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

But since I’m off to Mexico in the morning and will be participating in all sorts of crazy Carnival activities in Oaxaca (which I will report, including a crazy faux wedding ceremony and lots of devils and transvestites) I will only say a few things about Victorians and photographs.

In 1839, when the first photographic process was announced by Louis Daguerre, having your portrait taken “by the sun” was a serious business. For twenty years, through the daguerreotypes and the ambrotypes that followed, you had to go to a photographer’s studio—usually lighted by a skylight (because sunlight was required) and you had to sit very still—possibly with a head brace. Children were strapped into chairs to keep them still. Sometimes moms were seated in the chair, covered with a sheet and then they clutched the toddler to keep him still long enough for the photo. If someone died, the photographer would come to the house to make the only photograph his loved ones would have to remember him or her.

Many people gazed at the camera in total terror—having no idea if the photographic process would hurt or not. (And many daguerreotypyists became ill from the chemicals needed to develop the polished metal plates into photographs.)

But in the 1850’s and 1860’s—in time for the American Civil War—they invented metal tintypes, which a solider could carry in his pocket or send home in an envelope, and cardboard cartes de visite, --the size of a calling card--which could be made in multiples for a very low price.

This created a mania for collecting photographs of freaks and famous people, and putting them into albums, and exchanging photos among friends. And many women —especially the aristocratic English women who were encouraged to develop talents like painting, decorating china and playing the piano, as well as croquet and fox hunting—turned their creative drive into making albums of amusing and fantastic pages on to which they glued cut-out images of their titled friends.

The exhibit at the Met makes a big point about how this was done by aristocratic English women, but I know from collecting Victorian photo albums that ordinary women and men in the U. S. as well, turned their photographic experiences into humorous portraits. Before the carte de visite and the tintype, it was an extremely serious business sitting for the photographer. But many funny Victorian photos exist as tintypes or cartes de visite, such as cross-dressing ones like the gentleman above wearing a woman’s hat. Cross dressing and funny poses are frequently found in tintypes and cartes de visite (and if you want to sell me any, let me know.)

I have collected Victorian scrapbooks, photo albums, friendship books and tintypes which display lots of humor and creativity. I want to write more about them later, as I think they are an art form that has been ignored up till now but deserves to be recognized. But for now I’ll just show you the tintype above of a man in a woman’s hat and also the collage a young woman made of her own portrait surrounded by cigar labels. It is a kind of collage that lines a bowl and that sells for big bucks today.

More later. Now I’m off to Oaxaca, Mexico and some crazy happenings to mark carnival!

1 comment:

Tabitha said...

Ooh, I can't wait to hear about Oaxaca! I'm going there in March -- any tips or recommendations of things to do, places to eat, etc. would be wonderful!