Showing posts with label photography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label photography. Show all posts

Monday, 31 March 2014

Completing the picture

Last month, John Reid mentioned an online tool named retroReveal in his valuable blog Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections.

I couldn't resist having a go, of course, especially since there are a number of mystery photos in my late father-in-law's keep-sake chest.  I think the tool is meant for revealing underlying details, but it also does a boffo job of enhancing photos, even those I've clarified quite a bit using Photo Project or iPhoto.

I thought I might tackle some long-standing photographic mysteries -- most of them from my late father-in-law's keep box. When he died fifteen years ago, we found a treasure trove of keepsakes, certificates and family photos from his life prior to his marriage to his second wife, my husband's mother. The pictures pertaining to his first marriage were, thank goodness, easy to interpret. His first wife had carefully written names, dates and places on the back. (There should be a special place in heaven for people who write dates and names on the backs of photographs, shouldn't there?) There were many, many photos of my husband's half-sister. Tragically, the little girl died at age eleven, one year after her mother. We learned with a pang just how loved the young daughter from this first marriage had been. The careful documentation, with tender notes on the back of each snap, are a testament to parental devotion.

However, our luck ran out with some of the older photos.

I've often wondered about the identity of this bearded gentleman.  My first guess would be Edward Wolff, my husband's great-grandfather.  Edward was born 1824 in Prussia, probably Berlin -- I found a christening record for a Berlin church for his elder sister Theresa.  Edward came to England some time before 1861 which is when he first shows up in the British Census, living with his sister in Cannon Street near St Paul's Cathedral.  He set up a successful leather bag business in nearby Godliman Street and married Georgiana Elgie in 1872.  He was 48; she was 31.  They settled in West Norwood, Surrey and had four children, three of who made it to adulthood.  Edward died in early 1894 at the age of 69.  He had been suffering from Obstruction of Liver and Jaundice for six months, and finally, his heart gave out.

Could this be him?  I've been using a number of sources on photo-dating (all of them American):  Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor (2005); The Dead Horse Investigation: Forensic Photo Analysis for Everyone by Colleen Fitzpatrick (2008); and, especially their case studies page.

The first thing these sources usually tell you to check is the kind of photo you have.  Now, the man appears to be quite elderly here so if this is Edward Wolff, the photograph would have to be taken after 1880, when he was 56 - the fellow in the photo certainly looks older than that, but I don't know what Edward's health was like in later life.  The usual types of photos from 1880 to 1894 would be cartes de visite (just passing out of fashion) or cabinet cards (just coming into fashion).  My problem:  the photo doesn't fit in with the dimensions or appearance of either. (Well, it's not that far off from the dimensions of later cartes de visite -- it's about three and a half by two and a half inches.)  It appears to have been cut down, probably to fit within a frame or a wallet. The border you see here is provided by the blog format and does not appear on the original.

The finish is very glossy, and it's quite a clear picture, although the depth of field is shallow and there appears to be a slight blur caused by movement.  This suggests that the gentleman had to hold very still for the exposure, indicating an older camera.  The picture seems to have been taken outdoors, although it could have been a natural light studio.  I don't think studios normally had this sort of backdrop though, which does resemble pictures I've seen of the side of Wolff family residence in Norwood.

Many resources give hints regarding historical clothes, although Colleen Fitzpatrick warns against depending on costume to date a photo, pointing out that the subjects of a picture wouldn't necessarily be  dressed fashionably.  Indeed, an older gentleman might be less likely to part with a favourite suit.  This one looks a bit like a "sack suit" which I believe were more popular in the 1860s and 1870s, although there were versions of the sack suit up into the following century.  Younger men in the 1880s would have been wearing tighter fitted jackets with the top button done up.  The lapels seem to be unfashionably broad for the 1880s. His cravat style also seems to belong to the 1870s, but I'm not pretending to be an expert.

My next question: is this gentleman in the bath-chair the same fellow as the man above?
Original is 3x4 inches with a lot more sky.

Again, trying to determine the style of photograph seems to be little help.  This picture has been rather clumsily pasted to a cardboard rectangle.  Once again, I have used iPhoto and retroReveal to enhance the original which is rather faint and, as you can see, inexpertly repaired with tape.

However, there is a woman in the photo, pushing the chair, and while it is difficult to make out the features of her face, or her age (she may be wearing a veil), she is well turned out and her dress seems to fit in with the early 1890s, just before sleeves blossomed out into the enormous mutton sleeves associated with that decade.  I know that Edward Wolff died in January of 1894, sometime before he turned 70, and that he had been seriously ill for at least six months previous.  The gentleman here is well bundled up, suggesting cooler weather, perhaps autumn of 1893 -- or are they warmly dressed because they are by a body of water?  Do the white gloves suggest summertime? Heck, I don't know….

And where are they?  Is or was there a promenade with iron railings by the Thames?  There appear to be buildings on the other bank (if it is a river) or the other shore if it is a lake.  Or are we looking at another side of a bay at the seaside?  Bath chairs were heavily associated with spa destinations (such as Bath itself).  Are they on a health retreat?  Is it possible they are on some sort of ferry? (Surely the woman's hat would be more firmly secured, wouldn't it?) Are they in Europe?

I've searched sites for more information on styles of wheelchairs and bath-chairs, to little avail.

As for the woman, Edward Wolff's wife (my husband's great-grandmother) Georgiana Elgie would have been in her early fifties in the early 1890s, and her two surviving daughters Cecily ("Cissy") and Bettina would have been about 17 and 15 respectively in 1893.

So I'm still pretty much in the dark (room) with both pictures, and it's possible that neither of these men is Edward Wolff at all, although I've eliminated other ancestors such as Georgiana Elgie's father and my father-in-law's maternal grandfather because I already have photographs of them and know what they looked like. I've got a couple more photo-mysteries, so I'll go into those in another post.