And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 12 October 2010


19th Century Folk Costumes

 “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken.”
Oscar Wilde

The fishing village of Filey on North Yorkshire’s coast was hardly considered exotic in the 1860s. Herring, the staple of the British gentleman’s breakfast table, had provided its basic reason for existence since the middle ages though its beach was beginning to attract visitors from the smog bound industrial cities. Caught up in the excitement of the modern world with its steam trains and factories, a fair few of them probably thought the sight of fisherwomen carrying on their traditional occupation with wicker baskets on their heads were a quaint sight. The photographer Kendall guessed so when he photographed a bait catcher, or rather, when he brought a woman, possibly a bait catcher, and possibly from Filey, into his studio and posed her against a painted backdrop. 

In the 1860s hundreds of photographers were setting out for Egypt, India and other foreign lands in search of the local colour but more stayed at home and looked for it among the workers in their neighbourhood. A photograph of someone in folkloric dress was good for the tourist trade, at a time when tourism really meant catching a train into another county to see what was going on. Portraits of regional types were just as lucrative as those of foreigners. 

Photographs of European national types for the tourist market follow the same format as more typical ethnographic portraits with one difference. A portrait of an Egyptian, Native American or Asian generally featured an actual representative. With the homegrown variety it wasn’t necessary to find authenticity, merely dress someone up.

In the 1860s French photographer Adolph Braun was making his name photographing sculptures and flowers and buildings useful to artists as studies. (He is still considered an art photographer today because his architectural studies are exceptional.) Working in Switzerland, he extended his range into national costumes and photographed examples from every canton, probably the most extensive work of this nature by a single European. ‘Costume’ is the important word. Like Kendall and everyone else who photographed folkloric subjects, he was only really interested in the artifacts; in this case the clothes and was probably the first to discover the intersection between portrait and fashion photography that marked work in the 20th century. 

Mimicry or imitation is the element that also distinguishes these photographs from standard and more widespread occupational portraits. At a time when particular trades and occupations were still regional, folkloric images commonly referred to work but authentic occupational photographs were usually at the instigation of the sitter, the employer or the studio photographer documenting types. The differences are obvious and easy to spot. 

For all this talk about authenticity a curious thing has happened. As we inevitably move further away from the moment Kendall photographed the woman in her bait catching outfit, or when Braun photographed the models in their Swiss costumes, these photographs have become the closest we have to authentic records of how certain people dressed. Age strangely makes them more real.



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