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Wednesday, 27 March 2013


10 portraits by H. P Poisson

“Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” 
Virginia Woolf

 I feel we have a mystery on our hands. Searching through a stack of some 500 postcards at the Montreal flea market I found 10 portraits by H. P. Poisson of Biddeford, Maine. All are of women in their early twenties, some of the same women and several with the unusual element of a tilted chair. Who was Mr Poisson? And did he specialize in photographing young women to the exclusion of everyone else? Clearly, questions needed answers. 

In case you haven’t discovered this already, if you want to see other examples of an obscure photographer’s work the best place to begin is Ebay. Sure enough, H. P Poisson popped up. There were several of couples and children and a post-mortem and one seller had offered a dozen postcard portraits by Poisson, all similar to these, of young women and some with the tilted chair. Etsy turned up three as well, again young women, though no chairs. The discovery dashed theories he was something more than a regular portrait photographer, but as many detectives have discovered, removing someone from the list of suspects doesn’t make them less intriguing. 

Maybe you had to be there but there was something distinctive about the Poisson postcards that made them stand out from the rest. Searching through the stack, it soon became unnecessary to look for his stamp on the back. Partly it was the distinctive poses and partly because all the women were strikingly beautiful and glamorous but also, among hundreds of other portraits, Poisson’s had a professional quality that set them apart. The women had a presence that a good studio photographer would know how to bring out. Postcard portraits from the 1910s are probably the most ubiquitous encountered in flea markets and junk shops but when you’ve looked at several thousand you realize you have developed an eye for some intangible qualities. Commercial studio portraiture could be as far removed from high art as paint-by-numbers but that didn’t mean people couldn’t be very good at it.    

Obviously, the place to start investigating H. P was Biddeford; too big to be small-town America but not large enough to be a city, a location Disney might have chosen to film Pollyanna in or one Norman Rockwell might have settled on as the ideal site for his saccharine depictions of American life. It was founded early – in 1616, which was before the Mayflower landed. In 1653 the first mill was built and from thereon it became known as a mill town, which is to say there was always work even if there weren’t great boom times. It was close enough to Quebec, only 330 miles from Montreal, that there would be a strong association, not always positive, but by the late 19th century a sizeable percentage of its population of 15 000 were French-Canadian. 

Which brings us back to Mr Fish. Poisson sounds like the surname of a Tintin character but it makes sense when you know it is medieval Norman in origin, from a time when just about everyone in Normandy worked on or around the sea. It seems it was not uncommon in Biddeford in the late 19th century; census records throw up a dozen or so individuals. The best known was Eugene Poisson (1863 – 1908). He moved from Quebec some time around the 1890s and opened the Elite Photographic Studio. We’re still guessing but it would be likely he was a close relative of H. P - his father or even his brother. Of H. P we know little at the moment. According to accessible Biddeford records, a Horace P Poisson was living in nearby York in the 1920s but there is also a Hormidas to deal with. He married Elizabeth Paradis in 1925, which does seem a bit late for our purposes. The studio incidentally was located at 137 Main St. There’s a vegetarian restaurant and a martial arts school there now. One of them occupies the former studio.

All of this is useful; it would be good to know exactly who H. P was and have some firm dates, but short of travelling to Biddeford - which is very proud to be one of the oldest towns in the USA and boasts of its fine archive – we won’t find out in a hurry. In any case, the search for vital statistics can distract us from the real issues. There are more important clues buried in the photos.

Here’s one. Three of the women in these photos are reading a magazine. In this one we can see it the clearest. Studio Light was the Kodak magazine for professionals (Kodakery was for amateurs). Published from C1880 to at least the late 1980s, it offered advice on various technical and business issues and reviews of Kodak products. Even in the 1910s, when it was a little lighter on the technical details, it wasn’t the type of magazine a young lady would flick through unless she cared about the effect of Elon developer on Artura paper. Clearly it was a magazine H. P had lying around. What’s interesting is that only a few years earlier a thick and dusty book would have been the usual prop. Thanks to half-tone and other processes that make reproduction of photos possible in the press, by 1910 the magazine, in particular the women’s magazine, is taking off. Presumably H. P doesn’t have any on hand but to give her a magazine rather than a book is to send out the suggestion she is glamorous, up to date with fashion and relaxes browsing over the latest fashions from Paris. 

Which brings us to this portrait. Note the pattern on her blouse. It is the fleur-de-lys, the symbol of French Quebec. Her blouse is the only hard clue but something about their dress and deportment makes me think all these women are French Canadians. They don’t look American, whatever that means. With much the same obscure sense that it is possible to recognize Poisson’s portraits among a stack of postcards there is a feeling about these women that their identity leans towards Europe rather than America.

Here we may be getting close to understanding the mystery. There were three or four identified photographic studios in Biddeford around 1910. If these women were French-Canadian, it makes sense that they would go to Poisson, particularly if he spoke French and the others didn’t. He could also be promoting himself as having the European touch, which he might have had though if he were genuine about that he’d spend 10 cents on a woman’s magazine instead of putting Studio Light in their hands. Then again, Frenchness might not have so much to do with things. They went to Poisson because he was the best in town. Still stuck in their 19th century ways, the other studios made their subjects look as stiff as desiccated corpses. Only Poisson could breathe life into his portraits. 

All these women look about the same age, somewhere around the lower twenties. Even though back then everyone dressed to the nines for the photographer, their clothes and hairstyles suggest they are not the daughters of mill workers. I feel M. Poisson is trying to tell us something, but he’s holding a bit back at the same time. 


Friday, 15 March 2013


Some postcard portraits

“We are all potentially characters in a novel--with the difference that characters in a novel really get to live their lives to the full.” 
Georges Simenon

 All of these photos could have come from the same novel; something by Simenon perhaps, where sailors, chorus girls and boxers resided on the top floor of a seedy doss house. Or one by a more obscure Hungarian author; a study of the characters in a struggling nightclub during the months before the outbreak of World War 2. The blurb on the back would describe it as a dark comedy though three quarters through you’d still be waiting for just a glint of humour. It could be American, but at a pinch. The country was still too optimistic in the 1930s to match the British when it came to urban despair. Nathanael West, maybe – these two look could have minor roles in The Day of the Locust - but most of the others still thought America was almost great and an angry writer could iron out the flaws. The English on the other hand had given up hope, as if unrelieved bitterness was the only thing getting them out of bed every day. This comes from the International Settlement, San Francisco’s innocuous name for its red light district in the 1940s. Post-war America had a handle on sleaze by then. 

A Parisian prostitute, C1910. How many featured in French novels of the era? Or to put it another way; if your novel didn’t have a prostitute, presumably you were writing for very young children. 19th century French novelists did something for prostitutes last seen in the New Testament; they wrote openly about them and while this sounds far more preferable to the British way, which was to hint that a woman had a sullied occupation, they also romanticised them to a wearisome degree (Most of France’s literary talent of the era died from the pox before hitting middle age). Postcards like this one were readily available, advertised in the classified ads of magazines, but if a novelist couldn’t afford the francs, they were pasted to boards outside brothels in the Pigalle. This meant that C1910, a budding Flaubert no longer needed actual experience to emulate the great man. He could skulk around the doorways of brothels pretending to be a prospective customer then hurry back to the garret to write about Lou Lou with her coarse laugh and gentle hands.  

The French might have been writing about her earlier but no one captured the shabby little chorine so well as Patrick Hamilton. The Midnight Bell, the first novel in his 1930s London trilogy 20 000 Streets Under the Sky, sees Bob fall for Jenny and sacrifice everything for her even though we the reader can see that he’s not going to get a skerrick for his efforts. Quite obviously, she’s a tough piece of work. Not nasty, mind you, for if Bob manned up she was willing to give. At first we see a decent but pathetic man make some human mistakes for the sake of a smart, cheap girl who clearly has her own interests at heart. By the end we’re shaking our heads the way we would if we watched a drunk try and cross a busy highway. I look at this photo and I see Jenny. Whatever loyalty she has goes to the girls she works with, and she would care about their happiness, though not for long.

The moment you see the lines; “She was sitting at a table, talking to a sailor” or, “The bar was empty save a couple of sailors down the far end” you know the action is about to pick up. Sailors are the wood lice of 20th century fiction. Any book that shines a light into the darkness sees them scuttling away. A sailor is never far away from a seedy bar, tacky bordello or a motel room where something indescribably sordid is going down. Read enough true crime accounts and you begin to wonder why the chief suspect in every boarding house murder appears to have worked in the merchant navy at some point. There’s no information on this postcard that gives a precise date but it’s an uncommonly good example of hand-colouring and an excellent portrait of a sailor with a smile that suggests he knows places where you won’t be bothered by normal society.

At first glance I thought she was indulging in a bit of cross-dressing, in which case she is a shoo-in for any German novel written between 1929 and ten years later, but especially one about a pallid young man with philosophical leanings and nothing remotely like a sympathetic character. However, the lettering on her cap reads “Marynarka Wojenna” or Polish Navy and I’m inclined to think that’s her job. What makes it ambiguous is the backdrop. What makes it special is the casual way the backdrop hangs over the floorboards. She could be the girlfriend who goes off to the navy but, frankly, she looks too self-possessed to bother with a pallid philosophical type.  

There are two types of boxers in European novels. One is the thug who works for the local gangster. He usually has a minor role, glowers from a car, cracks his knuckles as his boss explains the situation, that sort of thing. The other is the decent but simple man who pays the price for protecting the woman. He has what you might call a speaking part and is invariably tough and dependable but naïve. It’s a common flaw among novelists to confuse slow wittedness and naïveté. I think they like to imagine they can’t ‘do’ stupid. Our fighter might not be the quickest off the mark but for authenticity’s sake he’s probably seen more than most people in the room. This man definitely belongs to that second category. I’m actually not sure if he is a boxer. He has the physique but this looks as if it could also be a portrait from a medical examination. It’s by P. Kodatschenko of Riga, but it could easily be by A. Sander of Cologne. 

In fiction, sailors, prostitutes and circus performers inhabit the same world. They are marginal, transient and tend to emerge around twilight. In Simenon’s novels they are involved in the crime but rarely central to it. In Hamilton’s, the sailor and the acrobat might be the only two men the prostitute calls friends. Even then it isn’t certain that she actually likes them. In German novels, when the circus arrives in town it’s a sign that moral decay has set in. The residents rush off to the fairground heedless of the dark clouds gathering above. When the circus exits stage left, we know the Nazis are about to arrive stage right. This circus performer is actually from Quebec but he could be from anywhere and he has the small wiry frame of someone who could climb into difficult places, steal things or spy on people.