transport as studio props
“The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete.”
Self respecting books on the history of photography ignore or avoid but in any case stay right away from examining the long tradition of studio photographs using imitation transport as props. It’s frustrating because there is plenty of room for speculation but a few hard facts wouldn’t go astray. It would be useful to know something about the photographers. Most of the photographs here look like they come from fairground midways but were the photographers typical carnies who based the value of their work on the dollars they counted at the end of each day? Was this a viable environment for a beginner to cut his or her teeth on or was it more likely dismissed as assembly line work? If the answer to that is the second, then how did such a system produce some of the most unconventionally compelling images in vernacular photography? People who collect snapshots and postcards will tell you they keep an eye out for them, also that they have seen a lot in poor condition but they’ve never seen a bad image. There are people who find them intensely irritating, but that’s their problem.
There is a genteel history to these photographs. It begins with the invention of collodion plates, the carte de visite and the cabinet card in the late 1850s, when photographers began treating the studio as an element in the photograph rather than just the space the image was recorded in. The first photographers used stage boats and the idea was to make the scene as naturalistic as possible, so even though the viewers knew it was artificial they were supposed to appreciate the photographer’s dexterity (you can see some examples here). By the late 1880s the trick had lost its magic, so to speak, and no one needed to maintain a pretence. It didn’t matter that the background was so obviously painted since the photo was now a joke that everyone could be in on. In the same way that studios used composite printing to place the sitter in Egypt or against Niagara Falls, it wasn’t a case of ‘special’ so much as ‘novelty’ effects. The best place to find studios that carried out this work was at seaside resorts or carnivals.
From the first decade of the 20th century photographers also had trains, planes and cars to play around with, and quick-to-produce postcards. It’s tempting to see the arrival of these new modes of transport on the photographic stage as a response to modernity but if that’s the case we have to ask why so many of the cars are clapped out jalopies and why, even into the 1920s, the most common type of aircraft was still a pre-Wright brothers flying machine. Well, obviously, that was supposed to be funnier, and maybe we don’t need to read anything more into it. If it really were a comment on the marvels of modern technology then we would have to assume that everyone, photographer, subjects and audience, was conscious of the statement being made. Appearances suggest otherwise.
And speaking of appearances, there is some mystery as to why, if being photographed in a studio car was supposed to be fun, people seldom look amused. In Folk Photography, Luc Sante says that “enjoyment was conceived of primarily as an activity and only secondarily an emotion (so) it was not necessary to show yourself laughing”. I’m sceptical and can think of a couple of other more convincing explanations. One is suggested by the man on the right in the photo above. He holds a bottle of cheap looking liquor in his hand. It’s my guess a fair few of the men in these photos were either drunk or most of the way there when they climbed into the props. This was at a fairground after all, and what was that but a place to wander through looking for desultory fun. That doesn’t account for all the families wearing the same stunned mullet expressions.
My suspicion is what looked like a good idea was actually intimidating once you started. The photographer was shouting at you to keep still while glancing over a shoulder at the queue outside and trying hurry it along. He or she had already done the technical work of framing the scene, setting the focus and rigging the lights hours earlier. The only people who were going to mess the shot up were the sitters and they weren’t given the luxury of a second try.
Not quite a mode of transport, unless you were planning to go over Niagara Falls, the barrel was almost as popular a studio prop as the car and the boat. The oddest thing about this sub-genre is not what point anybody would see in pretending to be in a barrel - that was their choice - but that so many feature the snarling little bulldog chained to it. Most that you see will have it. The dog bears a passing resemblance to Spike the bulldog in Tom and Jerry but that doesn’t mean much. It could be some forgotten piece of folklore but there is also the possibility that one company was producing a lot of the props and this was by way of a signature. The props in the photo of the two men in the speedboat – one with his tie askew and looking like he has already taken a few slugs from the hip flask – look almost identical to others I’ve seen, the big difference being the name of the state on the banner. That also supports the notion one company was producing a lot of the scenery. If that was the case, their place in American folk art is sadly unrecognized
The last in this series is a photo that doesn’t come from a fair and doesn’t use a prop but is actually a piece of artful photomontage. It is postmarked 1906, just three years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and three before Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel. Powered dirigibles were still more popular than aeroplanes for getting about in the skies and for some people remained the most feasible form of powered flight. Only ten years earlier persons still unknown had flown across parts of the southern and mid-western United States in a powered dirigible and been witnessed by thousands. Even in 1906 a dirigible in the sky was likely to draw crowds. This French postcard is obviously intended as a cutely romantic gesture but at the time it would also have been a very contemporary image.
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