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Friday, 16 December 2011


Four cabinet cards that deserve a closer look

“Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.”
Duane Michals

At the beginning of the 20th century Azerbaijan was the world’s largest exporter of oil and Baku was a boom town, thanks in no small part to the Nobel brothers, one, Alfred, being responsible for dynamite and the peace prize. Still part of the Russian Empire, this was both good news for Baku – it became wealthy – and a case of bad timing. The automobile had been invented but it was yet to be mass produced, there were only a handful of aeroplanes airborne and modern plastics were a few years off. The world needed oil but it wasn’t yet dependent on it the way it soon would be. Azerbaijan made money but not nearly so much as Texas would start to in the 1920s.
These men are engineers or chemists in Azerbaijan. At a guess they are either working on the design of a new storage facility or a method for distilling petroleum. The cabinet card comes from the English Studio. Was it a studio run by English people or a studio that used the name because at the time England and the British Empire evoked a sense of power and sophistication? No idea. The British presence in Azerbaijan was apparently strong, helped by the fact that the Tsar was first cousin to the King. The study is posed; the man sitting on the right is not looking at the page he is writing on. Was it used top promote Azeri advances in technology? Possibly.

On the cusp of full independence from the Ottoman Empire, educated and middle class Bulgarians rejected the ties to their Turkish heritage. Because that was so ingrained after 500 years, nationalism meant in part looking westward. Rather than embracing those elements intrinsic to Bulgarian identity, some people adopted French styles and attitudes.  This man is an example. Dressed in the typical outdoor clothing of the Western European rambler he has subtly defined himself as a modern sophisticate. But the most interesting detail is the camera in his hand. It is a folding bellows camera. With a bit more expertise we could probably identify the make and model. Set against a fake outdoor setting, he is also depicting himself as a man of leisure. Whether his favourite subject was flora, fauna or landscapes, he has the time to pursue his hobbies. In other words, compared to a lot of Bulgarians he is free.

At first glance a man who has resolutely clung to his Ottoman heritage, but it is only the fez and the moustache that give that impression. From the neck down he is every bit the European gent. The head and facial wear are signs he was probably a clerk and may well have been Armenian or even Greek, given the fez was part of the standard uniform for civil servants in the late Ottoman era. At the turn of the century Phebus was one of the best known studios in Constantinople, run by Boğos Tarkulyan, an Armenian who had begun his career under the Abdullah Freres. In the 1890s he was one of the photographers commissioned to provide work for the Abdulhamid collection and in the 1920s he was appointed an official photographer to Kemal Ataturk. He is an example of how slippery categories are when analysing photographs from the era. An Armenian who moved from the Sultan’s court to that of the first president of the secular republic would need to be pragmatic in his social and business dealings, aware yet discreet. This portrait captures something of that ambivalence. If the subject is a Turkish Muslim he has already adopted Western modes. If he is an Armenian Christian he is comfortable with Turkish symbols.

Great Falls, on the border of New Hampshire and Maine, was a town built on textile mills so even though that part of the world was famous for its brilliant autumn colours and the forests that ran all the way into Canada, you can bet that at the turn of the last century it was choked with smog and caked with industrial filth.
This man has the fierce glare of the Protestant fanatic in his eyes and there is something God fearing about his beard too. His clothes are well cut. If he was a mill owner or had a managerial position, you assume he knew how to make the workers cower when they came in with their demands. First impressions matter but if you look closer you realize the intensity of his stare may not come entirely from a black heart or belief in damnation. His pupils are tiny and at equal points above them sit two pinpricks of light. This is very likely an early example of photography under electric lamps. Between 1895 and 1905, which is the estimated date range for this image, electric lighting was becoming more common in studios but it was still expensive, first to install and then to use. This might explain the subject’s stiff composure as well. He may be used to being photographed but this process is new to him and he doesn’t quite go for sitting still and staring at a light globe. Who’s to say that when Etters indicated he had finished, our subject didn’t inhale deeply, smile and grant his workers the afternoon off?


1 comment:

  1. Excellent visual analysis of these rare cards. Good work.


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