Friday, 16 September 2016

Photographic Evidence: Dating Historical Photographs

What happens when you think you’ve found that key piece of information that proves your theory, and it turns out to be not what you had first expected? Often times, dress historians are asked to date photographs. The person doing the asking often has a preconceived idea of who is in the photo, and also often what year it was taken based on family ‘history’. Often times, those preconceived notions are misguided, and we have to tell them that they are wrong about the photo.

Case study: “Skutching Flax, Pictou County 1847”
Pictou Historical Society

As you can see, at some point in the photograph’s life, someone added the date and label to the photograph. When catalogued, the registrar added this date and description to the catalogue file for the photo. Straight forward, yes? Well, no, not really. What first stood out to me was the appearance of the photo.  It may be a digital image of the original photo, but there are tell-tale signs to question the original dating. Photographic imaging in 1847 was carried out through the daguerreotype process.  This produced an image on a glass negative and is printed on metal, which, even when digitally copied, still resembles a glass photo printed on metal.  The photo above did not resemble this process, rather it resembled a photograph printed on paper. I then looked more closely at the image itself.

In Gilliam Rose’s article, she quotes Joan Schwartz arguing that “photographs are complicit with particular ‘visual agendas’ that they should be seen as ‘social constructs capable of performing ideological work” (cited in Rose 2000, 555). There were things that seemed ‘wrong’ to my eye if the photo had indeed been taken in 1847. Take for instance, the clothes on the woman in the front.  Her skirt and blouse were a dead giveaway that the photo was more likely from 1887 instead of 1847.  First of all, she was wearing what we now call ‘separates’ instead of a ‘dress’, as would more likely have been worn in the 1840s. Her skirt is cut in an A line shape instead of a full, gathered rectangle shape. Her shoulder line is square, with the sleeve cap gathered into a little puff at the top to accentuate that square line.  Women of the 1840s preferred a rounded shoulder line, and the armscye of the sleeve was worn down on the arm, not up on the shoulder point, to accentuate that rounded shoulder.  The neckline is also more in keeping with the 1880s, being high and tight to the neck instead of cut lower on the bosom and in a more rounded shape.  This woman exhibits all the fashionable ‘tailored’ garments of the 1880s, not the more ‘feminine’ styles of the 1840s.

As Rose mentions, she wants “to insist that photographs cannot be used as neutral evidence of the way things looked” (Rose 2000, 556). This very quickly discussed photograph could be case in point.  The researcher was hopeful that it proved that linen production occurred in Nova Scotia in the 1840s.  It was heartbreaking to inform them that I believed what we were looking at was more of an early ‘re-enactment’ of historical practice for the purpose of the photograph.  As a living historian, I have often wondered how the reproductions we use in our programing will be seen by researchers in the future.  With this photo, I am now wondering how the photographs of our programming will be viewed by those very same researchers. And in viewing this particular photo, I was also struck by how little importance was given to getting the elements of clothing correct, especially in a period where the wearing of ‘old clothes’ was an important social function through masquerades.  The correct clothing could have been obtained and worn by the participants in the photo, and that alone may have fooled more of us here in the ‘future’.

Rose, Gillian. 2000. "Practising photography: an archive, a study, some photographs and a researcher." Journal of Historical Geography 555-571.

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