Disability and the Victorians

Scouts at the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. © Brave and Poor Ltd

When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.

This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.

If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?

In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:

In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”

The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.

This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.

In practice the situation was a bit more optimistic. The Victorian era was, after all, the birth of the British welfare state:

There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.


Making hay to at the back of the Worcester College for the Blind, courtesy of New College Worcester Archives.

Some societies even turned to their own Victorian propaganda machines:

Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.

Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.

If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has several resources and reviews on the topic.

Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003. © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003. © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).

‘I’m just a guy on the internet’: An Interview with Kevin J. Weir

'Princess Juliana' © Kevin J, Weir
‘Princess Juliana’ © Kevin J. Weir

On this blog I’ve previously written about Travis Louie and Dan Hillier, two fine artists whose work I’ve been researching. I also wrote a post for the Victorianist on Colin Batty, who paints monsters onto old Victorian cabinet cards. A fourth artist whose work I’m writing about is Kevin J. Weir, though he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself under that label.

Weir works full-time in advertising, but is perhaps best known for his Tumblr account The Flux Machine. For this project, which started out as a way to practice his Photoshop skills, he takes images from the Library of Congress’s online archive and turns them into ghoulish gifs.

Despite including very little paratextual material or source information, Weir’s work is still very much story-based, and can be considered as a kind of historical fiction. Though gifs represent a relatively new field in the world of art, in many respects they are essentially short, silent films on a continuous loop. In Weir’s words, they are the ‘shortest of stories’. Weir’s brand of historical fiction is the most ghoulish of the four, and arguably the most affecting, but is also the least transformative. All he does is combine existing images and animate them – and in some cases he simply animates the background of a single image. Nevertheless, early on the animations took around a week to build. Weir would draw 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, ‘cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit’ until the moving image could be compiled.

'Peekskill' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Peekskill’ © Kevin J. Weir

What Weir particularly likes about the format is how ‘it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment’. At first blush the idea of suspense runs counter to the looped nature of the gif, which repeats the same series of images over and over again. By adjusting the length of time at the end of each loop, however, Weir creates a moment of calm in the image, in which everything returns to normal. This pause between loops sometimes extends to eight seconds. These images also gesture towards a sense of historical repetition more generally. Before every loop of the gif exists a moment where the viewer wonders whether things might turn out differently. As interviewer Paula Cocozza notes, however, ‘it is just a moment of illogical hope’. The cycle cannot be changed.

Consider ‘Peekskill’, ‘Doberitz’, or ‘Decoy Howitzer’. These images are already ominous, not only because they are old and uncannily familiar, but because in our minds we presume to know know what comes after the events photographed. Those pictured have died, and in many cases were murdered or killed on the battlefield. They already represent something grim to us. What Weir is actually doing, then, is diffusing the horror of war through popular Gothic, which in part exists to make horror manageable. His animations paradoxically make these images less terrible, by making them horrific. By forcing its viewers to experience past horrors through the lens of popular Gothic, it both re-enacts past horrors and layers on contemporary ones, all without using a single ‘original’ image.

'Decoy Howitzer' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Decoy Howitzer’ © Kevin J. Weir

I’ve been in touch with Kevin Weir about his work, and he was kind enough to give me a brief interview. You can find an edited version below:

Have you ever considered yourself as mashup artist, or as an author of historical fiction?

Both sound pretty apt in describing the flux machine project. On a personal level, I think that I’m just someone who makes a lot of stuff. This is just one project. I have another project where I make GIFs of birds being sassy, using nature documentary footage (sassybirds.tumblr.com) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bird artist.

Have you ever sold prints of your work?

I’ve never sold physical copies of my work, but I have been commissioned to create GIFs for the occasional brand or film. Tumblr has a program called ‘Creatrs’ where they pair up clients with artists on their platform, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a bunch of those opportunities. Other times, people will reach our directly. I’ve also created GIFs for digitally-savvy authors who want to promote their book online.

Some of the monsters and creatures you add to your art don’t look like they come from archive material. Do you draw them in yourself? If not, where do they come from?

Everything is either built from little bits of other things I find or created from scratch. Some pixels from here, other pixels from there, some videos filmed in my apartment, etc. Every GIF is a mishmash of a hundred different bits.

'Doberitz' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Doberitz’ © Kevin J. Weir

Are there specific kinds of monsters and horror that particularly inspire your gifs?

Surrealist humor, fantasy and sci fi books, video games etc. Specific inspirations would be Lovecraft, Tolkien, Terry Gilliam, Cyriak (incredible animator) and Miyazaki.

Would you call your work nostalgic?

I’m not sure. I think that the work I create lives in more of a science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction world. In my mind, these are modern musings on past events. Or reimaginings of old worlds and explorations of alternate histories. The flux machine project (which draws from the library of congress archives) started out as rather playful, but has certainly gotten a little dark as I’ve grown more interested in the actual history of the photos I’m using.

'Krupp Von Bohlen' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Krupp Von Bohlen’ © Kevin J. Weir

You use images in your art that are out of copyright, but that depict real events and people. What would your response be if someone were to ask you about the ethics of using these people’s likenesses in your art?

These photos are very very old, which is part of what draws me to them. They’re representative of a history that feels almost unknowable. So I guess the factor of age and history makes me feel like I don’t have all that much to worry about in terms of likenesses or ethics. I don’t think I’m profaning history. And even if I am, the internet is a culture of remixing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s what you do with what you dig up that matters. If someone were to come to me with a sincere concern about something I made that is a hurtful affront to their family history or something, then I’d probably respect that. Hasn’t happened yet though.

Do you see yourself as a full-time or part-time artist?

I’ve never thought about that. I never really set out, with flux machine, for it to be an art project, or an outlet for me as an artist. I guess, as someone who is always making stuff on the internet, that I am a full-time artist? I don’t know. I always considered my dad, who has an art studio in his backyard and paints with oils, an “artist.” I’m just a guy on the internet. Maybe that means we’re all artists?

The Paper Time Machine

grid-cell-27443-1475225552-7In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Ellis Island immigrant portraiture of Augustus F. Sherman. I wrote:

Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

Recently, Wolfgang Wild, the creator and curator of the Retronaut website, and Jordan Lloyd, the director of the colour reconstruction team at Dynamichrome, have teamed up to create The Paper Time Machine. This book, which they are currently crowdfunding over at Unbound, takes famous black-and-white photographs (including Sherman’s) and renders them in full colour. The project description promises both historical accuracy and a tantalising level of historical engagement:

Each element in the monochrome images has been researched and colour checked for historical authenticity. As the layers of colour build up, the effect is disorientatingly real and the decades and centuries just fall away. It is as though we are standing at the original photographer’s elbow.

You can judge for yourself whether they’ve achieved this goal – both the crowdfunding page and this recent BuzzFeed article let you view a selection of the images side-by side.

In the gallery below, you can also view some of the black-and-white images I displayed in my original post in all their full-colour glory:

The book describes itself as ‘a collection of historical “remixes” that exist alongside the original photographs but draw out qualities, textures and details that have hitherto remained hidden’. Wild and the team at Dynamichrome have also added their own annotations to the photographs, explaining the rationale for selecting these particular images and offering some insights into material features like clothing or architecture. Where the colorisation process brings the images to life for contemporary audiences visually, these descriptions add a sense of touch, as well as the occasional sound or smell.

Check out The Paper Time Machine (and score yourself a crowdfunding copy) over at the project page.

Photographs from Aeroplanes

IMG_3597This week I’m taking a break from research blogging to celebrate an important milestone. It’s been two years since I accepted a PhD bursary at Cardiff University, and also two years that my partner and I have been living apart. Happily, after much job hunting, he also found work in the UK, and we have just recently moved back in together, but the past 24 months have involved a lot of planes, buses, trains, and other forms of travel.

During that time I’ve casually snapped a lot of travel photos, many of them from the windows of airplanes, and flipping back through them now I found the simultaneous difference and sameness strangely calming. Sometimes you can spot the location from the image, but sometimes the new perspective renders things alien and unplaceable. It’s another world up there, and it looks new with every trip.

So without further ado, here’s what two years’ worth of photographs from aeroplane windows looks like:


Meet the Family: Colin Batty’s Victorian Cabinet Cards

'Man with Dummy', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Man with Dummy’, © Colin Batty (2014)

This post originally appeared on the Victorianist, the postgraduate blog of the British Association for Victorian Studies, on 22 April 2016. It is reposted here with the kind permission of the editors.

I have long been a fan of photomanipulation. I like the way it disturbs our preconception of the photograph as a faithful representation of reality. It’s an exciting time to be interested in photography and photographic appropriation more generally, as the work of Richard Prince, Kevin J. Weir, or Whitney Bell can attest. We are entertained and intrigued by appropriations of other people’s images (and historical traces). As they test the limits of copyright and the ethics of appropriation, they rewrite the objects they reference.

'Frankenvintage Seated', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Frankenvintage Seated’, © Colin Batty (2014)

Enter artist Colin Batty, whose most 2014 project ‘Meet the Family’ appropriated over a hundred cabinet cards – postcard-style portraits popular from the late nineteenth century, circa 1870, to the end of the first World War.[1]  Batty hand-painted each cabinet card in his collection to include Gothic monsters, aliens, and various other figures from popular culture. No Photoshop necessary. The physical cabinet cards are currently held by the Peculiarium Gallery in Portland, Oregon (where you can still buy some of them from the gallery’s website). Originally, they were purchased in bulk from a thrift store.[2]

Batty’s art works almost as a kind of historical revision or ventriloquism. In Batty’s own words, the cabinet cards ‘suggest their own stories. Some are just crying out for me to stick something in there’.[3] Behind his art, then, Batty sketches a story of forgotten archive material that has lapsed from memory, and is just waiting to be repurposed, its story retold for our entertainment.

'Blobby McGee', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Blobby McGee’, © Colin Batty (2014)

Batty’s cabinet cards express a desire to expose the strangeness of the past, and he seems mainly interested in doing so by exploiting the uncanny resemblance between the supernatural and the everyday. At the same time, however, they are intended to be patently ridiculous. Consider ‘Blobby McGee’ (left). This image would never be mistaken for a Victorian photograph, although that is indeed what is being represented. Because of the way sections of woman’s body have been painted out, and other sections have been added, in her new form she resembles a human lava lamp – an invention that would not exist for more than a century.

'Brainiac and Son', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Brainiac and Son’, © Colin Batty (2014)

Batty’s other work (mostly sculpture) often involves garishly coloured caricatures of well-known people and characters. His default mode of expression is the surreal, but his cartoonish exaggeration of real people’s existing features are not normalised in a way that situates them firmly in the traditional world of fine art. Some of his previous work has been as a modeller in the special effects and arts departments for various films, including Paul Berry’s short film adaptation The Sandman, and a number of Tim Burton’s projects (specifically Mars Attacks! and The Corpse Bride).[4] This affiliation occasionally shows through in his work on the cabinet cards as well Consider ‘Brainiac and Son’ (Figure 16), which bears a strong resemblance to the aliens from Mars Attacks!. Like the rest of his work, Batty’s cabinet cards ultimately make monstrous caricatures of the people depicted.

In each card, Batty teases out the uncanny aspects of the characters or environments depicted, painting in a seemingly random assembly of monsters, aliens, and ghosts, mostly from popular culture. Some of the images do make a more direct link to a Victorian past, however. Cards like ‘Chimp Siblings’ or ‘Elephant Dude’ (see below), are nods to well-known Victorian freaks like Stephan Bibrowski (a.k.a. ‘Lionel the Lion-faced Boy’), or Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’). Others reference conservative ideas about femininity and domesticity, depicting Victorian women as robots or puppets to convey a lack of mobility, autonomy, or personhood (see ‘Fembot’ and ‘I’m Your Puppet’ below). Still others draw inspiration from Victorian spirit photography or 1950s images of alien sightings (‘Girl and Frank’, ‘Alien in Crowd’, ’Smoking Smiling Demon’, below).

'Chimp Siblings' and 'Elephant Dude', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Chimp Siblings’ and ‘Elephant Dude’, © Colin Batty (2014)
'Fembot' and 'I'm Your Puppet', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Fembot’ and ‘I’m Your Puppet’, © Colin Batty (2014)
'Girl and Frank', 'Smoking Smiling Demon', and 'Alien in Crowd', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Girl and Frank’, ‘Smoking Smiling Demon’, and ‘Alien in Crowd’, © Colin Batty (2014)

At first glance, these images seem to possess the ‘posture of critique, even assault’ that Sanders attributes to appropriative works.[5] It is difficult to find the historical commentary in an image like ‘Miss Chairy’ (below) which, to borrow Jerome de Groot’s comments on ‘histsploitation’ and popular television, seems to be ‘wrong just to be wrong, and to demonstrate that historical fiction does not need to have a point’.[6] The various paratextual presentations of these cards, however, suggest that all of the images – even the overt caricatures – can be read in a less negative light. Though Batty’s caricature is exploitative, it comes from a place of fondness rather than violence, ultimately finding an almost earnest revelation in its historical anachronism.

'Miss Chairy', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Miss Chairy’, © Colin Batty (2014)

Batty’s cabinet cards have a strong family motif. They are a kind of freak show of what, as the 2014 collection of his work claims, are our own kooky aunts, uncles, and ancestors. This is of course an ironic assertion, as the characters in these images are no longer human, but it implies a kind of monstrosity in humanity that feeds back into a very twenty-first-century idea of the monster that is spiritual or social, rather than physical.

The photobook collection of Colin Batty’s cabinet cards, edited by Mike Wellins and Lisa Freeman, contains precious little background on or introduction to the work contained within its pages. It does, however, include a very interesting epigraph and postscript, which help to give the collection some context. The epigraph, attributed to American novelist Mark Twain, reads ‘A man with a hump-backed uncle mustn’t make fun of another’s cross-eyes aunt’.[7] This is part of a longer excerpt from an interview, published in the New York World on 11 May 1879, in which Twain explains why he never wrote a book about England:

I have spent a good deal of time in England […] and I made a world of notes, but it was of no use. […] No, there wasn’t anything to satirize – what I mean is, you couldn’t satirize any given thing in England in any but a half-hearted way, because your conscience told you to look nearer home and you would find that very thing at your own door. A man with a hump-backed uncle mustn’t make fun of another’s cross-eyes aunt.[8]

Though it is possible that this refers to the British origin of the cabinet cards, it seems more likely that it suggests a motivation for Batty’s alienating imagery. Rather than acting from some urge to preserve history or write immigrant identities back into public memory, as Travis Louie does, Batty’s motivations seem more inclined towards problematising the white, Western world’s understanding of its own past.

Take ‘Melissa Muscles’ and ‘Captain Clevage’ (below), in which the subject’s head has been transposed onto the body of an apparently opposite gender. The first bears a similarity to vintage images of circus strongmen, and the second is visually resonant of mid twentieth-century pinups. Not only are these bodies incongruous with the subject’s visibly masculine or feminine facial features, the mild nudity in these images is incongruous with the stereotypical historical prudery imagined by twenty-first-century audiences. (Note: there are some NSFW images at the gallery’s website).

'Melissa Muscles' and 'Captain Clevage', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Melissa Muscles’ and ‘Captain Clevage’, © Colin Batty (2014)

In addition, they indirectly reference humorous twenty-first-century memes and pop culture icons, including ‘overly manly man’ and Marvel’s Hulk. Batty’s titles for the cabinet cards, which often alliterate or rhyme, also contribute to the ridiculous tone his work creates. By constructing these images as ridiculous, Batty both draws attention to the problematic depictions of gender that populate the contemporary media landscape, and indirectly challenges our stereotypes of historical culture as well. Batty’s cabinet cards suggest that we would do better to get comfortable with the uncomfortable elements hidden in our Victorian past, so that we can begin to work through them on a more productive level.

'Half Dowager Half Squid?', © Colin Batty (2014)
‘Half Dowager Half Squid?’, © Colin Batty (2014)

The book’s postscript presents a similar reading of Batty’s images. It states: ‘The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to’,[9] and is attributed to another, British novelist, Dodie Smith. It forms part of a toast in her play Dear Octopus (1938), which depicts the relationships between three generations of a large family. In the context of Batty’s work, this citation seems to suggest that instead of laughing at our strange ancestors, we must recognise our similarity (and attachment) to them. In Wellins and Freeman’s book, then, Batty’s cabinet cards are all about equating the aesthetics of historical family portraiture with the strange and uncomfortable entity that is modernity, and modern historiography.

In addition to questioning the necessity of taking history seriously, Batty’s work also raises questions about the ethics of historical appropriation. Is Batty defacing these photographs? Yes, quite literally, though there is still an amicable side to Batty’s exploitation of these forgotten images. By virtue of the existing historical evidence, which is composed mainly of white, middle class subjects, these characters are already ’neutral’. Despite – or more accurately, because of – their ridiculous monstrosity, we come to recognise these people as ‘family’. The distance between them and us is bridged through laughter. Where these photographs have been universalised and anonymised, Batty makes them familiar again through humour and caricature.

All images were taken from the Peculiaruim gallery website, or from the Guardian’s analysis of Batty’s work. 

[1] Meet the Family: Altered Photographs by Colin Batty, ed. by Mark Wellins and Lisa Freeman (Portland, OR: Freakybuttrue, 2014).

[2] Jim Hardison, ‘Forward’, in Meet the Family: Altered Photographs by Colin Batty, ed. by Mark Wellins and Lisa Freeman (Portland, OR: Freakybuttrue, 2014), pp. 1–2 (p. 1).

[3] Kathryn Bromwich, ‘Colin Batty’s Sci-Fi Portraiture – in Pictures’, The Guardian, 31 January 2015, para. 1 <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/jan/31/colin-battys-sci-fi-portraiture-in-pictures> [accessed 25 February 2016].

[4] Paul Berry, The Sandman (Batty Berry Mackinnon Productions, 1991); Tim Burton, Mars Attacks! (Warner Bros., 1996); Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, Corpse Bride (Warner Bros., 2005).

[5] Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 4.

[6] Jerome de Groot, Remaking History: The Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions (London: Routledge, 2016),
p. 176.

[7] Wellins and Freeman, eds., Meet the Family, epigraph.

[8] Mark Twain, Mark Twain Speaks for Himself, ed. by Paul Fatout (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1997), p. 111.

[9] Wellins and Freeman, eds., Meet the Family, postscript.

Immigrant Portraiture and the Art of the Alien

‘German stowaway’, 1911. ©Augustus Sherman | New York Public Library

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, a new book collecting the work of Augustus F. Sherman was published to much media interest and online fanfare. Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In addition to giving Americans a vivid look at the individuals who helped make up the ‘great melting pot’, Ellis Island station served as a grimly reflective record of shifting national attitutes towards immigarnts, as reflected in The Public Domain Review’s summary of the station’s usage:

1907 was the busiest year for Ellis Island, with an all-time high of 11,747 immigrants arriving in April. Approved immigrants spent between three to five hours on the island where they underwent medical examinations and were asked questions regarding their occupation and the money they owned, it being preferable for them to have a starting sum when they arrived in the country. Two percent of the immigrants were denied admission on the grounds of suffering from contagious diseases or insanity, or alternatively by virtue of having a criminal background. In the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the percentage of immigrants arriving from various countries or ethnic backgrounds, as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were seen as inferior to the earlier immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. The facilities later served as a detention and deportation processing station, and during the Second World War, German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens were detained on the island.

Likewise, the portraiture of thenative’ and the foreign national (or criminal) has a complex and often rocky history.

Fittingly, around the same time that this book of Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits was released, Travis Louie started selling his paintings of neo-historical monsters – portraits in a faux-Victorian photographic style, about which I am currently writing. Nastia Voynovskaya describes Louie’s work as follows over at Hi-Fructose:

Through a unique process of applying thin, translucent layers of monochromatic, acrylic paint to a panel over and over, Travis Louie […] mimics the effect of 19th-century photography. Though filled with fantastical characters, his works have an effect of verisimilitude much like historical documents from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Though Louie’s monster portraiture draws on the North-American nineteenth century rather than the British one, visually his paintings are ambiguous enough to allow for a neo-Victorian reading. A sense of historical time is much easier to pin down in his artwork than a geographical space, partly due to the subject matter of his work. Louie has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It seems quite possible that Louie is referring to Sherman’s photographs when he speaks of a convincing record of the North American immigrant experience. Specifically, Louie’s artwork targets the way these images invite a kind of casual racism, or a generalisation of peoples into stereotypes of national custom and costume. As he explains in an interview with Julie Winters of BienArt Gallery:

I created these characters as a sort of veiled commentary on racism and the immigrant experience. In many of my stories, my characters came to North America like any other immigrants, only I chose otherworldly types of beings to make the stories more universal.

Louie’s artwork frequently draws on a 1950s aesthetic as well as a Victorian one, specifically interested in the future-focused imagery of the Atomic Age. When combined, these two aesthetics work together to create a strange timelessness, and a general air of hopeful nostalgia. In the same interview, Louie writes: ‘I almost get that sense that people were more hopeful about the future in North America than they are now and that played into a sense of wonder that is very important to me’.

Given North America’s current culture of intolerance towards immigrants, it may be a long time before this sense of wonder returns to the American psyche. Until then, however, we have artists like Travis Louie to help keep that spirit alive.


You can find more of Augustus F. Sherman’s photographs via the New York Public Library. A sampling of Travis Louie’s portrait work can be found on his website.


Giving the Past a Photographic Afterlife

I’ve long been a fan of Jo Teeuwisse’s Ghosts of History project, where she overlays present-day locations with old archive photographs. I’m also a big fan of the recent trend where contemporary artists insert monsters and pop culture icons into thrift store paintings. In that same trend, while researching my current chapter, I came across the image series ‘Dancing with Costică’, in which Australian artist Jane Long borrows from the recently-digitised archive of Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte to create her own series of images.


Long colorises and digitally alters Acsinte’s photographs, transforming these already-beautiful portraits into something surreal and often vaguely unsettling:

jane-long-immortalizes-vintage-photos-dancing-with-costica-designboom-05 jane-long-immortalizes-vintage-photos-dancing-with-costica-designboom-18 jane-long-immortalizes-vintage-photos-dancing-with-costica-designboom-06

Some of the revised images also have poignant undertones, and make clear allusion to events that occurred after the original photographs were taken, as in ‘tall poppies’, which depicts a number of soldiers against a backdrop of poppies, a flower used to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. In this way, Long imbues old images with new meaning:


Head on over to Jane Long’s website for more images in the series, and feel free to share your thoughts about these images (and their revision of historical documents) in the comments!

(all images © Jane Long, 2015)