‘Woman’s face’ (circa 1915).
A clairvoyant once told me I’d soon be working on a very big book. Her words sounded good. I considered their promise. I was a would-be middleweight tyro hoping to type out my magnum opus by twenty-one. A month or two later, there I was, just as she had said, working on a very big book in a university library but not the one I had imagined. This was a big book of last wills and testaments. My job was to work through this massive tome, transcribing the details by hand and then typing them up into a computer file.
The work was repetitive, dull, and mind-numbingly boring. The only respite was smoking weed with a workmate every lunchtime to loosen up the old synapses into some creative daydreams. There weren’t even the luxury of pictures to make the work just a wee bit more interesting. I’d spend the afternoons imagining faces of the people named in the book. Names like:
Ada Derwent, spinster, 79, born 1798, died intestate July 18th, 1876.
Robert MacFarlane, lamplighter, 46, born 1823, died intestate August 1st, 1869.
Who were these people? What did they look like? Where did they live? What were their lives like? That kinda thing. Nothing too original, or too taxing—just giving long-forgotten names substance. Up popped Cruickshank illustrations, scratchy-nibbed sketches that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Dickens’ novel or b&w photographs of grimy-faced Victorian laborers.
I worked my way through two or three of these thousand page books before quitting. I was none the wiser to what all these people looked like or discovering more about the lives they lived other than the written facts of birth, death and what they left behind.
If there had been pictures, my understanding may have been better. By which meander, I come to these beautiful color Autochromes of women from over a hundred years ago. We can see their faces, their clothes, their surroundings, and glean a sense of their lifestyle. Photographic portraits can tell us more about the subject than a listing of the facts as we tend to look at pictures in a far more positive way than we do at words. We look for connections that tell us about who we are, what we feel, and what we think.
‘Dancer wearing Egyptian-look costume with wings reaching to the floor’ (ca. 1915).
‘Woman posed as sphinx’ (ca. 1910).
More century-old color Autochromes, after the jump…