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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. 


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