The Best Of
(Forgotten gems of vintage photography)
(Volume 4)

Free Chapters

Paperback: 136 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
1 edition: May 16, 2018)
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.3 x 8.5 inches




In this book, The Best Of, we present the 74 most interesting so-called vintage photographs from the period from about 1845 to 1930.  Some of the photographs and descriptions are selected from previous books by this author, and some will also be included in upcoming books, but this can be expected from The Best of book.

I have to note that not only famous photographs often represented in various photographic publications are shown in the book The Best of.  These are already familiar to a wider circle of readers due to their artistic value.  In this book, however, I have also added some quite unknown photographs that have been largely overlooked by the authors of the various photographic encyclopedias released some 50 or 100 years ago.  This is understandable, as the ability to observe images changes over time.  Thus, we may feel almost nothing when observing some of the best photographs of the earlier periods, but on the other hand, today we can admire photographs that are much closer to the thinking of a modern, “conceptualist-oriented” person.  This does not mean that these newly discovered photographs are of inferior quality; on the contrary, many of these photographs are even more artistic than photographs from older compilations.

And what will a modern observer get from the selected photographs? Mostly, we will discover that they are somewhat humorous;  today, they would be called conceptually interesting, and most often will surprise us by the unusual nature of their story, the absurdity that stems from the contrast between the primary purpose of the photographed scene and its true meaning. 

For example, the photograph Excised Knee Joint. A Round Musket Ball and the Inner Condyle of the Right Femur (page 17) is more suitable for exhibition today in a modern art gallery than for displaying wounds in a medical student’s  textbook. Also, today, with great enthusiasm, we observe the photograph of a plow placed in the photographic studio (page 15), or admire the unusual artistic presentation of simple everyday scenes, such as the ordinary roofs in Amsterdam, with nothing special (page 41), where art criticism of earlier periods would most likely be scary. But today, we find that an absurd author’s view of the world is rather contemporarily artistic, or even more realistic than so-called documentary photographs. These include an absurd installation of a standing horse (page 18), portraits of pairs of poor workers on so-called tintype photographs (page 64), stereotyped photographs by Giorgio Sommer, which we view today from the post-modernist point of view as evidence of the primitive needs of former tourists.  And we could still enumerate.

But a lot of photographs in this book are also classic, evergreen photographs, aesthetically and artistically perfect, and probably will never lose their magic. Perhaps the reason for their beauty is in their extremely pure aesthetic presentation, or the mastery of making the photograph that today may no longer have much significance, or because of realistic and aesthetic displays of important historical moments.

In the book, I present many photographs by well-known authors which we rarely meet in classical books on photography. For example, we rarely see Beato’s Samurai (page 59) in historical books;  Eugen’s Fritzi von Derra (page 71) is the most beautiful example of a photographic secession, but is totally absent elsewhere;  and John Thomson’s photographs of life in China (page 95) are artfully remarkable, and even better than over-crafted photographs The Crawlers, London, which tells about the lives of the poor in London. In addition, Hill & Adamson’s photographs of urban landscapes (page 103) are almost unknown, although they are fairly good, and Bayard’s portraits (page 113), in addition to the oft-shown self-portrait Self portrait as a drowned man, are unique.  And there are many more.

In short, this book is intended for all lovers of photography, not just of vintage works but also of all photographs in general, for everyone who has the time to sit comfortably and in peace, for hours and hours, admiring page after page, and sighing while watching the wonderful creative photographic approach of photographers of the past.  This time, however, they see slightly different choices.

Portrait of a Seated Girl 

One of the most beautiful portraits I have ever seen is of a seated girl who was photographed by an unknown author using the daguerreotype process at the very beginning of the discovery of photography. Since the photographic exposure time at that period was quite long, the portrayed person had to remain still for about 15 seconds on a bright, sunny day; the facial expressions were, therefore, quite rigid due to this long pose time, as the position of the body was supported by various devices.

But the seemingly fragile girl in the portrait, lighted with a full, diffused light that sits in front of the background with a gentle transition, knows exactly what she wants. This is witnessed by her gaze, which looks firmly into the camera and almost pierces the observer. Her rigid body, with pointed hands on which an engagement ring is glowing, gives rise to many questions. It is shear genius.

Surrealist Portrait of a patient

This portrait of a patient from the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum is a completely different type of image. Hugh Welch Diamond (1809 – 1886) photographed the patient with the intention of scientifically proving a connection between, or associating, the patient’s physiogonomy or facial features with her mental state. How much he has succeeded in this I do not know, but the portraits he has made are so direct that they still strike our imagination today (see also page 61).

In the portrait of an unknown patient, we are first surprised by her expression, a mimic and an empty look that gazes past the observer and beyond reality. But the reality that the patient does not notice is rather shocking and in contrast to her indifference. She holds a dead bird in her lap. But what makes this photo unique is the possibility of so many different interpretations of its content. Why is the woman covered with a woolen blanket? Why does she hide her right hand? Why did Dr. Diamond allow her to pose with a bird?

Pictorialism before pictorialism

In 1855, photographers still had did not discovered pictorialism, a painting approach to photography based on the imitation of academic paintings. At that time, André Giroux (1801-1879), a French photographer and painter, made a photograph that cannot be shamed by later advocates of pictorialism.

This magnificent landscape is, for today and the present time, a wonderful example of the ability of photography to walk alongside painting art. This is achievd by its lonely willow, the main hero of this image, which awakens into life and cuts the verticals of the marshy puddles, and by the three landscape plans and the sky filled with clouds.

Academic group portrait

Like Roger Fenton (see page 22), Felice Beato (1832 – 1909), an Italian-British photographer, was one of the first-known war or photographic reporters who documented various wars that were raging around the world at that time. In his opus, we find photographs from the Crimean War, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Second Opium War in China, and others.

His photograph entitled Hodson’s Horse was printed by French photographer Henry Hering (1814 – 1893) and shows British and Sikh officers of the 4th Horse (Hodson’s Horse) cavalry regiment of the Indian Army, which had been set up for the purpose of suppressing the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Like Fenton’s photograph of cooks during the Crimean War (see page 111), these photographs are also quite artistic, as they attempt to mimic the academic group portraits of earlier times. Soldiers are placed in a typical painting composition, with bodies and views directed towards a center in which, most likely, the commanding British and Sikh officers are standing. Beato is incredibly knowledgeable about the use of photographic depth of field, which also creates a non-documentary impression in photography, producing an effective third-dimension feel that we can hardly notice at that period of photographic development.

Rabbit in modernland

This photograph, which we already presented in the book Still Life, is a masterpiece of unprecedented quality.

The more photography was liberated from painting norms, the more it became part of a popular culture, and the more the tastes of humankind began to change. The handful of masters and academics who sometimes dictated the rule of what is beautiful and useful is now replaced by a new aesthetic class with new blasphemic tastes, which began to deny almost all of the previous rules of the ancient artists. The first avant-garde movements thus emerged; the first still life images were printed on the postcards which could be displayed without shame in the best galleries of today.

A postcard showing a rabbit is a typical product of these new mass aesthetics, which ignore all old artistic norms. The rabbit is real, an object tied up and attached to the ceiling of the photographic studio by a string between the rabbit’s legs. The amateur-made painting background creates wonderful contrast in conjunction with real rabbits, and this makes us start asking questions about the meaning of this photograph.

But today there is no more significance, it’s just amazement, and there is just one and only one stupid question that forces us to observe the picture of still life until exhaustion.

Artistic document

John Thomson (1837 – 1921) was a Scottish geographer, photographer, and traveler, who is known mainly for his photograph The Crawlers, London, from 1876-1877, which critics often speak of as an “over-romantic look at street life in London.” 

John Thomson is much more known in photographic circles for his exceptional photographs inspired by paintings than for his beautiful photographs from trips to the Far East.

In the next photograph, we see an image from China or, better yet, a photographic document with a presentation of a Chinese bride. The incredibly beautifully decorated bridesmaid dress, the fabulous headgear, the extraordinary earrings: this all forms a strong contrast to the dark, monochrome background. This is not just a presentation of the former habits of people from distant places but a real masterpiece of photographic portraiture.

This time we can not talk about an overly aesthetic presentation of the poor, which could be shown in the living room, rather we can only praise him for the extraordinary aesthetic presentation of a beautiful girl.

Surrealism before surrealism

Onésipe-Gonsalve Aguado de Las Marismas (1830 – 1893) was a Franco-Spanish photographer, a younger brother of the slightly more-respected photographer Olympe-Clemente-Alexandre-Auguste Aguado de las Marismas, and is known as one of the first photographers to begin to make photographic enlargements.

The two brothers were known for photographing playful and humorous so-called tableaux-vivants: set, carefully played, near-theatrical scenes in which actors, friends, and other random models were often posed.

The reason why Onesipe has taken a portrait of a woman from the back is unknown. Only for fun? To take a snapshot of the hairstyle? Who knows? The strangeness of this portrait takes on the style of famous portraits taken from the back that were made by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte over several decades. It places this portrait in a collection of photographs that every photographer must know, with its carefully completed lighting, a unique depth of field, and the beautiful tonal values of the photograph.

Copyright Peter Mrhar © All rights reserved.