November 25, 2003

Who Are You and What Do You Look Like?

Phil Gyford: Writing: Statement of a Photographic Man is a fabulous post in which he digs up this passage from London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 3 by Henry Mayhew. Its the story of an early photographers shop. Tells quite a lot about how our understanding of ourselves has changed...

When we are not busy, we always fill up the time taking specimens for the window. Anybody who’ll sit we take him; or we do one another, and the young woman in the shop who colours [photographs with paint]. Specimens are very useful things to us, for this reason — if anybody comes in a hurry, and won’t give us time to do the picture, then, as we can’t affford to let her go, we sit her and goes through all the business, and I says to Jim, “Get one from the window,” and he takes the first specimen that comes to hand. Then we fold it up in paper, and don’t allow her to see it until she pays for it, and tell her not to expose it to the air for three days, and that if then she doesn’t approve of it and will call again we will take her another. Of course they in general comes back. We have made some queer mistakes doing this. One day a young lady came in, and wouldn’t wait, so Jim takes a specimen from the window, and, as luck would have it, it was the portrait of a widow in her cap. She insisted on opening, and then she said, “This isn’t me; it’s got a widow’s cap, and I was never married in all my life!” Jim answers, “Oh, miss! why it’s a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness” — and so it was, and no lies, but it wasn’t of her — Jim talked to her, and says he, “Why this ain’t a cap, it’s the shadow of the hair” — for she had ringlets — and she positively took it away believing that such was the case; and evern promised to send us customers, which she did.

There was another lady that came in a hurry, and would stop if we were not more than a minute; so Jim ups with a specimen, without looking at it, and it was the picture of a woman and her child. We went through the business of focussing the camera, and then gave her the portrait and took the 6d. When she saw it she cries out, “Bless me! there’s a child: I haven’t ne’er a child!” Jim looked at her, and then at the picture, as if comparing, and says he, “It is certainly a wonderful likeness, miss, and one of the best we ever took. It’s the way you sat; and what has occasioned it was a child passing through the yard.” She said she supposed it must be so, and took the portrait away highly delighted.

Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9d. instead of 6d. The fact is, people don’t know their own faces. Half of ‘em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.

(emphasis added)

[via Test: Image repertoires]

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