Monday, September 2, 2013

A Tale of Two Photographs ~ True Narratives or Not

Seeing a photograph is a form of literacy.  To look at a photograph is to read it.  One may glance at an image as a note or a headline, scan it as a poem, or ponder it as a profound essay.  There are many points of view, from technical to esthetic.  The greater one’s experience, the more one is able to read in a photograph.  The more too, one will question it.
~ William C. Darrah, Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography (1981), p. 1

Photographs are awash in data about the persons, places, things depicted, as well as about the photographic technology and process employed.  But, as much as we might scrutinize a photograph, looking for clues about the stories of its subjects, there are times when we do not, perhaps cannot, know the narrative surrounding the image captured there.  That may be particularly true of the “orphaned” photographs, those with limited or no context such as many of those that have come down to us from the early decades of photography.  Yet, with research and a touch of luck, there are those moments when we fashion a true narrative or, at least, parts of one.

This post is about two photographs from the 19th century.  The first, from the 1840s, depicts a geologic formation with two people standing before it; their backs are to us.  Though we apparently know little about the two people, certainly not their identities, there is recent speculation that the woman in the photograph may be Mary Anning, the renowned amateur paleontologist whose skill at finding fossils in the cliffs in the Lyme Regis area of England was unparalleled.  Of this photograph, I fear, we seem to be creating a narrative, almost out of whole cloth.

The second photograph, probably from the very early 1870s, is of a seated young man and, as far as I know, he and his narrative have nothing to do with natural history.  There is, indeed, a true and moving, albeit very incomplete, storyline emerging from it, though not from the image itself but from the inscription on the back.

As luck would have it, I’d been working for several weeks on the photograph I own, that of the young man, when I read of the speculation that Mary Anning might possibly be shown in the other.  My experience in trying to piece together a narrative for the subject of my photograph colors my evaluation of the work being done on the “Anning” photograph.

Where’s Mary?

On August 21, 2013, in a science blog, The H Word, on The Guardian newspaper website, Suzanne Pilaar Birch, a postdoc in archaeology at Brown University, discussed this photograph titled The Geologists which was made circa 1843 by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the true pioneers of photography.  (Birch, Does this Photograph Show Mary Anning?)

This is a salt print, so-called because the paper used was sensitized with different salts, principally salts of silver.  Its full title is The Geologists, Chudleigh, Devon.  The image I have included here was downloaded from the Science Museum Group with a credit line to The National Media Museum, Bradford.

[Later edit:  In the original post, I mistakenly gave the title as The Geologists, Chudleigh, Dorset.  Locating the photograph in Dorset, not Devon, is an error that Birch also made in her article.  See the initial comment below.]

Birch asks of this photograph, “Could it show Anning?”

For those studying the role of women in science, it’s no wonder that Mary Anning has a particularly strong attraction.  She was responsible for amazing fossil finds; many of the leading scientists reached out to her, if only to secure specimens; she built an expertise through experience, reading, communication, and determination; and she aspired to enter the male dominated science community but gender and social status worked effectively against her.

Birch asserts that she has assembled bits of what she calls “tantalizing evidence” that raise the possibility that the woman in this picture might be Anning.

The location, Chudleigh, Devon, is relatively close to Anning's territory.  Then there’s the woman’s clothing which Birch asserts “looks strikingly similar to that in Anning’s portrait.”  The blog post links to a Wikipedia site showing a painting by an unknown artist of Anning and her dog Tray.

(This image was obtained from Wikipedia which asserts that it is in the public domain.  The portrait is in the Natural History Museum, London.)

Further, Birch finds it telling that the photograph is dated at about 1843, because in that year the photographer William Henry Fox Talbot received correspondence from geologist Henry de la Beche, president of the British Geological Survey, who wanted to use Talbot's techniques to photograph geological subjects.  That de la Beche was an Anning intimate (probably not in that way) prompts Birch to wonder, “Could the woman be Anning and the man de la Beche?”

I am struck by Birch’s general eagerness to speculate about this photograph with evidence that is slim indeed.  The location isn’t Lyme Regis or, if I can go by the full title, not even in the immediate area – if it were identified as being taken in Lyme Regis, the case, such as it is, might have some life.

The clothing as some kind of possible proof can be discounted given that Mary Anning was certainly not the only woman in all of Britain at the time who dressed in that fashion.  Further, the painting shows Anning’s dog Tray, lying at her feet.  This suggests the portrait may have been painted before 1833, the year in which Tray was killed in a landslip at Lyme Regis.  That a decade or more may separate the portrait from the photograph would also seem to undercut the relevance of what Birch calls the striking similarity in what the woman in both pictures is shown to be wearing.

The correspondence between Talbot and de la Beche doesn’t fare much better.  I have not read letters between the two of them; it is interesting that there aren’t any such missives in the online collection of The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot hosted by De Montfort University, Leicester.  Nevertheless, I have read two letters on the site written by physician William Snow Harris to Talbot in which Harris acted as a go-between, trying to gain Talbot’s approval for use of his photographic techniques by de la Beche’s Geological Survey.  In one letter, dated February 24, 1843, Harris noted that de la Beche “wishes for permission to use it [Talbot’s photographic process] for the purpose of taking pictures of Organic remains procured in the Ordnance Geological Survey of Gt Britain to be engraved in the best style for a national work on British Organic remains . . . .”  Though “organic remains” certainly included fossils, it’s not clear what de la Beche really had in mind.  Even if, as Birch recounts, Talbot and de la Beche became friends, I am puzzled why she doesn’t offer any evidence that Talbot actually agreed to the proposal.  If he did, what did he agree to do?  Would that have necessarily entailed making photographs like the one in question?  I don’t know and, presumably, neither does Birch.

Finally, the title given the photograph (by Talbot?) may be carrying inordinate weight in the conjecturing over this image.  The title, The Geologists, qua title, seems to be taken by some as proof that the two people shown were indeed serious geologists.  But I’m not so certain that has to be the case.  For instance, I recently came across a reproduction of a daguerreotype stereoview (a card with two images set side by side that, when placed in a viewer, produces a three dimensional image), dated circa 1850 and titled The Painter.  It depicts a woman seated at a table; she is holding brushes and paints, and a painting in progress is propped up on the table before her.  (Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, 1982, p. 271.)  Should I assume, based on the title, that she is a serious painter, someone I should know?  Or did the title simply describe the role she is playing, that is, what she is doing (or pretending to do) and what she might aspire to be?  So, too, with The Geologists – important geologists or just a representation of geologists?

So, why are we having this conversation about this photograph?  The draw of Mary Anning may explain a great deal.  Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the woman in the photograph is Mary Anning strikes me as less than underwhelming, but, because we may be unlikely to ever disprove it, it seems to have life.  Perhaps this is one of those hypotheses that is “not even wrong,” to quote physicist Wolfgang Pauli.  (For some background on this comment of Pauli's, see Oliver Burkeman's wonderful piece Not Even Wrong, The Guardian, September 18, 2005.)

Narrative Told By A Carte de Visite

And then there is the photograph, a carte de visite, I was working on when the Anning discussion surfaced.  My effort to build a narrative around its subject has had only limited success, but the experience offers a telling counterpoint to the guesswork now surrounding the “Anning” photograph.

The carte de visite (CDV), as a photographic format and technique, came into being in 1854 when Frenchman André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri created and named it.  In relatively short order, these small photographs, printed on albumen-treated paper and mounted on 2 ½ x 4 inch cards, became wildly popular.  Even though photography was just in its infancy, CDVs were produced and purchased on an extraordinary scale.  According to William Darrah, 300 to 400 million CDVs were sold annually in England during the first half of the 1860s.  In this same period in the U.S., during the Civil War, soldiers and their families turned in great numbers to the CDV in order to record, keep, and share images of their loved ones.  By the early 1880s, the CDV’s popularity had faded, but many of these photographs, today verging on a century and a half old, have not.

This summer, among an antique dealer’s photographic wares, I found this CDV.

The young man is a presence to be sure, intense and brooding.  Yes, I have to admit that stern expressions mark most CDVs (I suspect past experience with long exposure times and the need to stay still is partly responsible for such expressions, even if CDVs, under some circumstances, might need only a few seconds of exposure).  Despite that, there is something about his resolute look.  I am taken by the lock of hair that been deliberately flared out, and how he’s trying to fill that outsized coat.  I suppose based on just what’s shown in the photograph, I could guess about this young man and his story, offer up a hypothesis or two.

But I don’t need to do that.  Here is the back of the CDV:

And here’s my transcription of this note:

Miss Sarah Arthion
A Keepsake
                                                       From her Brother
                                                                            Winfield Arthion
                                                       Before his Death

                                                       < ? > Died On the Second of October –
                                                           At the age of 18 years and 6 Months

A tragically early death.  Did Sarah write this note?  Yes, I think so.  That makes most sense to me.  Since this specific CDV is the keepsake, who else would write on it?

How close to Winfield’s death was the photo taken?  Very close, I believe, since he looks to be in his late teens in the CDV.

I have learned that Winfield's story is part of the larger narrative that is the movement west during the 19th century in this country.  It includes pioneer families, as well as single young men, moving west in pursuit of work and land; among its participants are teenage brides and mothers, and, yes, early death in childhood.

From what is readily available on the web (an uncommon last name certainly helps), a few elements of the narrative that embraces this photograph can be moved into place, though, sadly, I still really have little to work with.  I have a modicum of confidence that Winfield and Sarah were among the children of Bradley Carter Arthion and Martha Ann Harvey.  Winfield came to the Washington Territory with his father and the rest of the family, presumably from Iowa, where Sarah had been born.  Winfield died on October 2, 1871 and is buried in the Stubblefield Cemetery in Walla Walla County, Washington.  (I have relied on the description of the Stubblefield Cemetery posted on for the date of his death.)  If the inscription on the CDV is correct (and it does match the life span engraved on his headstone), then he was born about March, 1853.  That’s unfortunately what little I know specifically of Winfield.

What about Sarah Arthion?  Ah, that part of this story has some additional chapters to it.  She was born on April 26, 1857, in Iowa.  As already noted, by not later than 1871, her father and the rest of the family had migrated further west to the Washington Territory.  On April 7, 1873, when she was just shy of 16 years of age, Sarah married 36 year old farmer Peter J. Strahm, who had come west as a single man around 1870 from Winesburg, Ohio.  Strahm had claimed 160 acres of land which he was farming just outside of Dixie, Washington.  Sarah and Peter had eight children.  As far as I can tell, they lived on, and worked, the farm until Peter passed away on February 28, 1922 at age 85; Sarah died shortly thereafter, on June 25, at age 65.  ( provides a listing of individuals buried in the Dixie Cemetery in Walla Walla County, Washington, which includes Peter and Sarah, though her first name is listed as “Arah”.)

Of Peter Strahm and farming, W.D. Lyman, in his An Illustrated History of Walla Walla County, State of Washington (1901), observed, “Prosperity attended his efforts from the very beginning:  he soon became a leader among the agriculaturists of his section, and he has continued to occupy a position of prominence among them ever since.” (p. 395)  Sarah Arthion, Lyman noted, came from “an old and respected pioneer family.”

There’s a bit more.  In 1989, the Strahm/Mason farm was recognized as one of the Washington State’s centennial farms, farms that had remained in the same families for 100 years or more, that is, since Washington had entered the United States as a state.  In 1889, the farm raised wheat, barley, corn, hay; its livestock included horses and cows. (Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington’s Centennial Farms:  Yesterday and Today, October 1989, p. 97.  A link to the publication is provided at the bottom of this page on the State Department of Agriculture's website.)

This is certainly an incomplete narrative, built upon the inscription on the back of the CDV.  Yet, it has the virtue of being true, grounded in fact.  I am trying not to claim more than there is to be claimed.


  1. Another spanner in the works of Birch's speculation would seem to be some geographical confusion. There is no "Chudleigh, Dorset". Chudleigh is in Devon, quite some distance west of Dorset, and it's an inland town, to boot. (Perhaps the photo was taken in a quarry?). Birch's article states that the photo was taken in "Dorset", but the Science Museum Group page hosting the photo, says--in three places--"Chudleigh, Devon". Solving a mystery depends a lot on starting with correct information!


  2. Howard:
    Thank you, once again, for your wonderful attention to important detail. I was dismayed that I, for some reason, followed Birch in misidentifying the location as in Dorset, when, as you note, the title of the photograph provided by Science Museum Group gives the location as in Devon. I've changed the relevant references in this post.


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