Tuesday, 5 July 2011

In Death They Were Divided

Diana Burns sent me scans of three photos from her own collection asking if I had an "Oddities and Curiosities" folder containing some further examples of a similar ilk.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

Diana writes: "The mounting is of the type I associate with daguerreotypes but it appears to be a carte de visite cut in two, with the remains of the sitter's female companion's dress still clearly visible. The motive for editing rather than destruction is not clear, although it may have been the cost of photos that caused the sitter to retain his own image."

I note the manner in which the photograph has been cut, leaving all extremities of the bearded man intact, rather than stright down the middle, retaining as much as possible of both people in the two halves. This suggests to me that the purpose was not make two portraits out of one, but to remove the left hand subject - who, judging from the clothing, must be a woman - from the portrait while keeping the right-hand subject whole.

This type of leatherette-covered wooden case, complete with brass "finisher," cover glass and pinchbeck surround, was indeed used for daguerreotype and ambrotype portraits, and often hinged with a velvet lined cover. However, this particular one is probably of a slightly later date - at least the late 1850s or 1860s, but possibly later - and the hanging ring just visible at the top shows that it never had a cover. Travelling photographers often used these cheap cases to house ambrotypes and tintypes, even as late as the 1890s - see this example from the 1890s which has come adrift from its case but still retains the pinchbeck surround. The small size of carte de visite portraits didn't render them ideal for framing, but I have occasionally come across them displayed in that manner. In this case, I believe someone has rather crudely inserted the remains of the cdv into a frame which originally contained some other portrait.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

In the same genre, I have a photo of my husband's aunt, cut off for all eternity from (presumably) her spouse by a series of razor blade strokes (my late father-in-law is the prime suspect).

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

In the third example, which is a contact print made from a glass negative, someone (perhaps a child or an early animal rights activist) has crudely scratched out the face of the fur-loving woman from the negative. Nowadays, photos of detested acquaintances are likely to be simply deleted before ever seeing the light of day, but I was intrigued by the censorship methods employed by earlier generations.

I have seen many such photographs, although not from my own family collection, thank goodness. The more recent ones are often accompanied by interesting oral traditions; sadly the relevance of the excision in the older ones is usually lost.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Nigel Aspdin has an early carte de visite portrait of a large family group (click image for a larger version) by Derby photographer J. Burton & Sons, which has a similar mutilation of the face of a central seated gentleman. Since the group itself is as yet unidentified, the reason for the clearly purposeful excision of said gentleman can only be guessed at.

This particular paper print by a street photographer in Lowestoft appears to have survived unscathed, although it, too, was unwanted. As recounted in a previous Photo-Sleuth post, the former owner devised a different, but equally effective, and possibly more satisfying, innovative solution for getting rid of photographs of detested relatives. He sells them on eBay, creating, I suppose, the potential for a new genre for which someone will eventually - if they haven't already - create a Flickr group: Unadoptable Orphan Photos.

Many thanks to Diana for both the images and the idea for this article.


  1. I'd really love to know the story behind that top photo!

  2. In the case of the Derbyshire pic, what is the furry object lying between the censored man's feet, and was there a practice of top-hat throwing at weddings (judging by the number of them scattered on the lawn)?

  3. I think the furry object may well be a hat as well, obviously thrown in desperation by one of the women in an attempt to keep pace with thr top hatters. I've seen pairs of group photos, one with all the men wearing their hats, the other with them set aside. Not sure why.

  4. What a wonderful post! I recently posted a photo on my blog of a group family photo with two faces scratched out and scribbles over the mouth of another. I am hoping to find a relative with a copy of the same or similar photo so I can fill in the missing faces.


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