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 <> [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.

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