Photographs as material culture
“Touch has a memory.”
Photographs as material objects, as stuff, where the visual qualities of the image are secondary to the tactile. The idea scarcely exists today but at the turn of last century and the introduction of the postcard all things seemed possible. Around that time the Japanese Novelty Company in Rhode Island applied for a patent for postcards on balsa. The usual cursory search shows the company had bases across the U.S, from Rhode Island to Iowa and Texas, sending teams of salesmen out to lure customers in with cheap amusements, including balsa postcards that people could insert their own photos in. They are rare these days, not because so few were produced but because the wood was fragile. Also, it has to be said, if the card above is any guide, the company wasn’t at the high end of the art market. It probably gave most of its products a year’s life span at best, but that was ok. If it had loyal customers they’d be back for more. A lobster was slang at the time for a shiftless and unreliable type.
We know more about Isaiah Taber, a photographer who began in the era of the daguerreotype, made a name for himself in San Francisco during the gold rush and went on to open studios in London and England. The 1906 earthquake destroyed his studio and much of his work and he died six years later. Today his name means something to photo-historians of the American west but few others, which is too bad because he was not only prolific, he had one of the sharpest minds when it came to business.
There is some confusion about the Taber bas-relief process. It is on record that Isaiah’s brother Freeman applied for the patent for the process but being the photographer, Isaiah took a lot of the images that would be turned into bas-reliefs, inevitably leading some to assume he was involved in coming up with the idea. It isn’t just historians. Advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald during 1899 credit Isaiah with the process. According to one ad from June 5 that year, “the result has been pronounced by judges and connoisseurs of the art to be the perfection of photography … and it is morally certain that this new style … will win the custom of every person of artistic tastes”. Further on, the suppliers (Eden Photo Studio) threaten legal action against several companies infringing on their copyright. This is a version of the line, ‘beware of imitations’, suggesting theirs was the only company in town capable of producing proper results.
So what was all the fuss about? As the name suggests, bas-reliefs had a tactile, three dimensional quality produced by placing the image over a stamped impression. It is more difficult than it sounds. The image was being stretched over the impression, and as these examples indicate, each portrait had to be embossed individually. It was one more attempt to enhance the already lifelike qualities of photographs. Though actresses and royalty were popular subjects, ultimately the process would quietly disappear. Like the balsa wood postcard it turned out to be a novelty with brief appeal.
The last set of postcards were produced during the dying days of the Art Nouveau movement, when that had ceased to be an exclusive mark of wealth and elegance and filtered down to the hoi polloi. Alongside cheap, mass-produced Charles Rennie MacKintosh look-alike lamps and kitchenware, the middle classes could buy postcards that distinguished them as lovers of beauty without the financial commitment that usually involved.
The cards were mostly published in Germany and France. Producing them would not have been difficult as appearances might suggest. Once the card stock was selected and cut to size, the design was stamped in and coloured then the portrait cut out and pasted in. The most difficult part would have been the colouring of the embossed surface.
Though the photographers aren’t identified, the portraits are vaguely familiar. They are of theatre and opera stars and if not from the Reutlinger or Walery studios, from one of their rivals. Ordinarily however studios of their reputation would have put their signatures on the front. That they didn’t suggests that other companies had some arrangement to use them or else, in an age when copyright was still nebulous, simply cut out the parts from photographs that they needed and added them in.
The woman in this card is the same as in the card above, taken at the same photo shoot. This one however was posted in Chile. Presumably the originals were distributed from Paris or Berlin to points around the globe at which point local companies could add whatever details they wanted. Incidentally, the back of this postcard bears a stamp and postmark and a woman’s name (Alicia) but no address for her. Was the image too upfront for the Chilean post office? Or was it customary to have the postcard stamped then placed in an envelope to protect privacy?
One thing about Art Nouveau that is easy to overlook these days: at the time it was modern – by definition - but it was also essentially nostalgic. Everything about it evoked an earlier age, often as not one lost in the mist of ancient history. Coming of age at the dawn of the automobile, the telephone and powered flight, the art nouveauists had to embrace technology even though it was in conflict with their aesthetic sense of unhurried elegance. The ideal woman wrote long letters, she didn’t sit on the phone, and she preferred the hot air balloon to the aeroplane. A plane after all was good for flying from point A to point B – which at that time wasn’t very far – but a balloon ascended to the heavens.
If the definition of a photograph is anything that includes one, then that is what these postcards are, but they exist at the fringes, owing more to jewellery, graphic design and even architecture than they do photography. Even if some of these have a sophistication and imagination that makes them almost beautiful, it is more their curiousness that is eye-catching. The idea wasn’t exactly original; Victorian photo-collages used a similar idea of mixing photographs with drawings and some tintypes came in elaborate sleeves that were meant to be part of the whole image, but whoever first came up with this idea didn’t have to see any precedents. The notion of combining portraits of noted Parisian beauties with the iconography of what was still considered beautiful design was as inevitable as it was logical, as was its essential failure.