A Vernacular Tintype

 

There were a few glorious years in the history of photography where all photographs were vernacular.  The first daguerreotypes were not made by professionals for hire.  Spirited amateur scientists who did not aspire to make art created those first images on silver plates developed with mercury.  True vernacular.  Of the people, for the people and by the people.

Later dags were mostly un-vernacular.  There quickly came a time when people learned the photographic processes to make money taking pictures for folks.  Commercial photography.  Not snapshots, not vernacular.  I maintain that for a photograph to be called vernacular it has to have been taken without commercial intent.  That might be too narrow a definition of the multitudes of vernacular that pass before our eyes.  Go ahead and come up with some definitions of your own.

By the time tintypes came along there was a very strongly developed tradition of commercial photography.  Lots of Daguerreotypists paved the way to the field of commercial photography.  The photographers who followed them used whatever medium of photography was best for their time and place.  At one time the tintype was  a great medium of choice.  I can imagine some daguerreotypists moving on to make tintypes and paper prints.  They came to their new mediums with a lot of previous knowledge of photography.  They might have been able to start taking portraits and other scenes relatively quickly in their transitions to newer and newer techniques.

I like to speculate about old photographs like this tintype of a mother and dog and a daughter.  This tintype does not look like it was a commercial venture.  I can not imagine a commercial photographer producing an image so unlike other commercial portraits.  I prefer to imagine that a member of the family decided to try photography.  It might have been a brother, uncle or father.  A man learning a new trade would have to practice his new trade.  How about practicing on the family?  The photographer was so new to his trade and to the photographic medium that he could not control studio lighting. He brought the available family members and the family dog out into the best light available, the middle of a field with a fence in the background.

This speculation about vernacular tintypes began with viewing a contemporary tintype on Facebook that was a portrait of a woman with a dog.  It reminded me of this old tintype that hangs on our living room wall in a gutta-percha frame.  That contemporary tintype was done for art’s sake.  This old tintype was done for an unknown purpose.  I’m pretty sure no money changed hands in the making of the portrait of Mother, Dog and Daughter.

That to me makes it vernacular.

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N is for Nothing

N is for Nothing

That’s not really true.  N is for a lot of things, just nothing in the Verncular Bestiary.  I started writing about the animals in the VB starting with the letter A.  That seemed logical.  I knew there were gaps but I figured that  I might get lucky and fill in any missing animals as I went through the alphabet.  I was wrong.

I may have taken on too big a project. The Vernacular Bestiary is not difficult.  I collect snapshots of animals and put them in top loaders and store them in 3-ring binders.  I’m up to about 6 thick binders so far.

In working my way through the collection in A to Z order I was also attempting to create an what I have been calling an Alphabetary.  I just assumed that a book about any set of objects arranged in alphabetic order would be an alphabetary.  When I Googled it I hit several brick walls.  One online dictionary had this to say, “‘alphabetary’ has been looked up 69 times, and is not a valid Scrabble word.”  There is one children’s book from the slavery days called an alphabetary but nothing tells me why.  Maybe this is a sign.  I still think it is a worthy goal to find 26 snapshots of 26 different animals, one for each letter of the alphabet.  Can I get away with calling that an alphabetary?

I am not going to let the absence of an animal starting with N  stop me from writing about all the rest of the animals in the VB.  I just may have to skip inserting one photo for the time being.  I’ll be going on to O animals soon and eventually coming back to the letter N when and if I find something.  I know you are asking yourself what animals to look for that start with N.  Here’s partial list to guide you.  Think of the honor that would be bestowed upon you if you were the one to find the missing N.

The partial list:  nightingale, narwhal, newt, neon tetra, nautilus, Newfoundland dog, nighthawk, nutria, nematode, nine-banded armadillo, Nubian goat and night crawler.  I predict that if I were to find a snap of a nine-banded armadillo it would be dead on the road somewhere in Texas.

Just when you thought it could not get any more complex dyslexia kicks in.  Trying to type out alphabetary for the Google search led me to type in extra letters.  Out came alphabestiary.  That’s an interesting word I had never heard of before.  That may have been the word I was grasping for when I called my A to Z selection of animals an alphabetary.

From the Simon Fraser University Gallery web site comes this information.  “In 2010 the Winnipeg Art Gallery acquired The Winnipeg Alphabestiary, a set of twenty-six works originally conceived on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Winnipeg-based art publication Border Crossings.”  “The alphabestiary format has both a long history and a close association with children’s books, assisting children with language development, in particular learning the alphabet. This process lends itself to the formation of letter and image associations. One defining characteristic that separates humans from animals is language, and yet it is odd that by using alphabestiaries we have historically involved those very animals to communicate our most basic language components to young people.”

This site and others cheat.  They get to use mythological beasts.  I’m sure one of their artists could even make up a mythical beast that started with a letter they needed to get all 26 letters.

The Vernacular Bestiary has much higher standards.  Will those high standards doom the Vernacular Bestiary to the failure of never being able to complete the entire alphabet?  If N is difficult then what about X?

Only time will tell.  In the meantime I hope you will all continue to support the Vernacular Bestiary.

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M is for Mountain Lion

Image

Now let me tell you about Herman Keene.  He was a lion hunter.  When his son was asked by his 6th grade teacher what his father did for a living he said, “He’s a lion hunter”.  The class laughed.

I got a call from a woman who had old Arizona Highway magazines for sale.  I’ve learned not to turn down an opportunity to enter a home on any pretense.  Arizona Highways are a good portal.  I visited the home on 6th St.  I passed on the Arizona Highways but did express an interest in old photographs.  She had a pile of them that filled the kitchen table.  I purchased them all.

I had obtained an archive of Herman Keene.  During his life he did a lot of things but for a big piece of it he was a bounty hunter.  He ran traps in the Sespe.  Once he caught something, like a mountain lion, he shot it and claimed the bounty.  Sometimes he used a bow and arrow.  Sometimes he posed with a dead stuffed animal with himself acting out the final battle between man and beast.

He had a lot of the animals stuffed.  They ended up all over Santa Paula.  A lot of them hung at the Mill in its hay day.  (Get it?)  I have a real photo postcard of a restaurant with his mounts literally covering the walls above the booths.

This snapshot shows Herman in his car in front of the Glen Tavern in Santa Paula.

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L is for Leopard

L is for Leopard.  Is this leopard making a fashion faux pas?  I was always told not to wear stripes and patterns together.  Here we have striped bars and an animal print worn by an actual animal.  Being in a cage is what is bothering this noble beast, not appearing in public next to bars creating the stripes that clash with a spotted pattern.  Clashing at least to an unadventurous fashionista.  What would Prada do?  Probably ignore the rule and enjoy the visual experience.

I’m amazed by the vibrance of this snapshot.  Spots and bars and shadows and a big oval and triangles at each corner vibrating off the black page against the white border, all in an unintentional balance of exciting shapes and tones.   It would be a rare artist who could balance so many design elements all at once into a very simple but extremely complex composition.

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K is for Kangaroo

You might have noticed that the letter J was skipped in the sequence of this blog.  I am not able to proceed in alphabetical order within the Vernacular Beastiary.  I do have a J animal but has not been scanned.  Since there are several letters of animals missing I won’t be able to go all alphabetical without direct intervention from the gods.  All of them.

That leaves us with the Kangaroo.  My friend Horace Bristol took a photo of the pet kangaroo who lived in their home when he lived in Australia.  One other photo in the VB is of two kangaroos in a zoo.  Why such an interesting looking animal and so few examples of it in photographs?  Is it proximity?  I don’t have access to Australian amateur photographs and the North American amateur photographers don’t have access to kangaroos outside of a zoo.

A great solution to this problem is to used stuffed animals.  Nothing is too rare to be posed with in a snapshot.  Ham it up.  It is to be expected.  Let your inhibitions fall by the way as you flirt with a marsupial.  Who’s to say the gender and sexual orientation of each species represented in this photo?

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I is for Iguana

When it comes to the letter I there was no choice to make for which living thing to include in this blog.  All the beasts in the Vernacular Bestiary are lined up in alphabetical order in the  folders on the computer.  All the physical snapshots are inserted into top loaders with acid-free backing in 3-ring binders on the shelf at the gallery.  When it comes to the letter I there is only an iguana.  It was sent to me by a fellow collector of snapshots.  She didn’t know I needed an I animal.  I think she just sent me what she had and by chance it was a missing animal.

I may be taking on too difficult a project.  I may not be able to find a snapshot of a best that starts with every letter of the alphabet.  What if I work for years and find out that I’m missing one or two letters?  Does that spoil Vernacular Bestiary?  I don’t think so.  If I had called it the Vernacular Alphabetary then maybe so.  I’m only writing short pieces about the VB on this blog to get the images out there.  It seems logical to work in alphabetical order.

I’ll keep going that way.  When I get to a letter that does not have a beast associated with it I’ll skip it and go on.  I can always fill in later.

I can’t let a little thing like compulsive order slow down the Vernacular Bestiary.

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H is for Hampster

Look at the date on the left edge of the photo.  My 10th birthday was in March, 1955.  This kid is in my age frame.  A little older but a contemporary.  He would have lived down the block.

We had a hampster in our house when I was younger than this snapshot.  It escaped its cage and fell down a floor heater. Certain death for a hampster.  My first death experience.  It was not as painful as I expected it to be.

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G is for Groundhog

G is for groundhog.

This groundhog looks like he is going to catch the shuttle down the mountain from the lodge after a full weekend.  The weather has been good.  But the ground hog knew that in advance.

Fancy the thrill of the person who took the snapshot.  Snapped that ground hog right there.

The groundhog is distantly related to the bear.  Bears hibernate.  Groundhogs hibernate.  They go into a cave and a stone is rolled in front of the cave.  The animal inside hibernates.  Later it is reborn.  The stone is rolled away and the animal emerges, be it bear, groundhog or human.

What other animal do you know of that hibernates?

Jesus sort of hibernated.  After his death there was  sort of a short hibernation.  After a groundhog’s hibernation he is sort of reborn.  After Jesus’ hibernation he is sort of reborn.

Way before the time of Jesus in the forests of what is now central Europe was a cult of the Holy Hibernating Bear.  Each year the rebirth of the bear was celebrated with festivals and feasting.  Yeah bear.  Go bear.

Later Christians decided that the bear festival  was a good thing and decided to repurpose it for their times.  Little did they know it would last this long.

I’m for going way back.  I’m for worshiping at the alter of the Cult of the Holy Hibernating Bear and his prophet the Groundhog.

Amen

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F is for Fox

F is for Fox.

The black corners at the three corners of the snapshot were to keep the corners in place on the black page of a photo album.  This snapshot was roughly torn off of the page by someone.  That someone might have thought this particular snapshot of a man in his fox cage feeding a fox of special merit.  The surrounding photographs in the album might have been just as spectacular or so ordinary that this snap jumped out.  The motive for removal could have been pecuniary.

Dealers often buy albums intact.  The total number of snapshots in the entire album might be 100.  If the album were priced at $100 that would make each snapshot cost $1.00.  The entire album might be difficult to sell at $100 so the dealer breaks it up and sells each individual snap for $1, $2, $5 or more.  Money is made.  The album is history.

Dealers and pickers call this kind of item a “Breaker”.  You break it up.  It can apply to albums and also illustrated books.  The contents individually are worth more than the object in its entirety.  This is so common that it is becoming difficult to see snapshots like “F is for Fox” in its original context.  Within that black-paged photo album as it was assembled was once this individual “F is for Fox”.  Once separated from its original context it is viewed differently.  Taking an object out of its original context and changing the context and seeing a new object is an interesting perceptual activity.

With the Vernacular Bestiary I am reconceptualizing and recontextualizing a  group of snapshots selected from the diaspora of the amateur snapshot album.

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E is for Elephant

E is for Elephant

“No wonder they call them elephants.  They’re so big.”  Nice work Gracie.

Why do I love the circus?  I think I recall being taken to one as a kid in the 1950s.  But maybe not.  I could just be remembering a movie I saw.  Or something on TV.  Or an old snapshot.

I’ve recently collected a few circus photos.  They seem to be related to vaudeville which I have a few of also.  What I respond to is the visuals of a 2D photograph of an event.   Not the reality of actually attending an event.  The romance for me is in the acquiring of images of an experience.  Not the experience itself.

This snapshot is a 3-way conversation.  The man is greeting the elephant.  The elephant is making eye contact with the man.  The man is making contact with the person behind the camera.  Behind the camera could have been either a man or a woman. I can’t tell from the man’s smile wether he is making eye contact through the camera lens with another man or a woman.

There is a lot of straw on the ground.  The man must have come to visit the elephant at his home.

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