Because I've always felt a wonder at old photographs not easy to explain. Maybe I don't need to explain; maybe you'll recognize what I mean. I mean the sense of wonder, staring at the strange clothes and vanished backgrounds, at knowing that what you're seeing was once real. That light really did reflect into a lens from these lost faces and objects. That these people were really there once, smiling into a camera. You could have walked into the scene then, touched those people, and spoken to them. You could actually have gone into that strange outmoded old building and seen what now you never can - what was just inside the door.

The wonder is even stronger with old stereoscopic views - the almost, but not quite, identical pair of photographs mounted side by side on stiff cardboard, that, looked at through the viewer, give a miraculous effect of depth. It's never been a mystery to me why the whole country was once crazy about them. Because the good ones, the really clear sharp photographs, are so real: Insert a view, slide it into focus, and the old scene leaps out at you, astonishingly three-dimensional. And then, for me, the awe becomes intense. Because now you really see the arrested moment, so actual it seems that if you watch intently, the life caught here must continue. That the raised horse's hoof so startlingly distinct in the foreground must move down to the solidness of pavement below it again; those carriage wheels revolve, the girl walk closer, the man move on out of the scene. The feeling that the tantalizing reality of the vanished moment might somehow be seized - that if you watch long enough you might detect that first nearly imperceptible movement - is the answer to the question Kate has asked me more than once: "How can you sit there so long--you hardly move! - staring endlessly at the very same picture?"

09 February, 2011

Young actors in 1877

I'm turning the dial of my time machine back to May 13th, 1877, 134 years ago in Brighton on the Sussex coast. Here (linked to Google street view) at 108 King's Road, were the studios of Hennah & Kent, artist photographers, miniature and portrait painters. They were located right on the seafront next to the famous Brighton Metropole hotel, and across the road from the West Pier which opened 11 years earlier in 1866.

Click image for larger version.

This unusual cabinet photograph shows two young actors, according to the note written on the back, by the name of D. Beresford and L. Close "in the Acting".

Thomas Henry Hennah and William Henry Kent were at the same address for 30 years, from 1854 until 1884. More information here.


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