A cousin recently turned up a family carte-de-visite album among her mother's things. I knew about the little photographic calling cards that people used to collect and exchange. They were invented—and patented—by a Paris photographer, Andre Adolphe Eugene Disdéri, and I had looked at individual examples of famous people when I was researching Where the Light Falls. What I didn't know was that soon after Disdéri's invention, someone invented albums with framed pockets into which you could slip your collection and keep adding. Old albums with annotations, like those in the Sturgis-Codman album, would be a wonderful resource for seeing the relations among friends and family or the interests of a collector. Historical fiction writers and family historians, happy hunting!
Picturing a World
Having finished a rough draft of my time-travel story, I've decided to press on with another idea in a genre new to me, set in a dystopian near future. At this stage, while I'm trying to bring my main characters into focus. Suddenly, in a blog post on a Gold necklace found in Roman baths in Bulgaria, up comes this face, a Faiyum portrait in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland.
In my work-in-slow-progress, "Anonymity," I have given my main character, Mattie, an apartment near 110th Street in New York and sent her walking through Morningside and Central Parks. In order to do so, I've looked at lots of historic photographs of the area, which was being built up in the first decades of the 20th C. It looked raw. By contrast, this postcard by Rachael Robinson Elmer makes it look lush and glamorous in a very urban way.
Near the beginning of Kindred, Rebecca Wray Sykes quotes such a good passage from Claire Cameron's novel, The Last Neanderthal, that it was the next book I took up—and then read in three gulps. It's one of those two-stranded novels in which a present-day scholar investigates a topic, while historical fiction dramatizes what the scholar will (or won't) fully uncover by the end. In this case, in one story line, an archeologist makes an intriguing discovery. In the other, we live and breathe with Girl, a Neanderthal. It's a very good novel, one that I would recommend to anyone who liked The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish or A. S. Byatt's Possession.
Blog post alert: My interest in gardening history keeps me on the lookout for humble gardens, flower boxes, and pots grown in windows. In this image, other writers might take note of the laundry, the broken window panes, the proximity of the ramshackle building to the wall. And this is just a detail! For the full image and many more, see John Thomas Smith's Antient Topography at the ever rich Spitalfields Life.
This drawing of a priest looking at an album of pictures appears in Framing the drawing. an article about Renaissance artists who drew frames around drawings they collected. I found the whole thing interesting—more ways to frame! —but what electrified me was this particular image. It's so suggestive for a character in a story. Look at the man's concentration, the delicate tension in his extended finger. Connoisseur, scholar, merchant, alchemist? He seems to be pointing to something on the upper edge of the page. Why? Pick up clues where you find them, I say, and let your imagination run.
My bedtime reading this week is Peter Dickinson's lively YA historical novel, The Dancing Bear. I first read it as a library book and then was lucky enough to come across a secondhand copy with its dust jacket by David Smee intact. I read it every few years, and this time around it seems as good as ever.
For the first time, though, I got to wondering about David Smee. I can't find much about him on the internet, although a Summary Bibliography of his works has images of many dust jackets and interior illustrations, including the jackets he created for Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. I can see how those covers would seem definitive to the readers who were introduced to Earthsea by them.
I admit I don't understand all the technicalities explained in this YouTube, but whoa! is Time-Travel Rephotography ever fascinating (and more than a little scary). If it does nothing else for historical fiction writers, it should educate us in the ways older cameras distort people's faces so that, given an old photograph, we can try to imagine people from the past more sensitively. But like all doctored photograph, it is also a reminder of the ways we can be manipulated by computer programmers—although for speculative fiction writers, just think of the doors it opens!
Via Gurney Journey's Bringing Old Photos to Life, which discusses it and another app. from a color-specialist and animator's point of view.