things (2)

Work in the one-woman factory of seasonal gifts continues apace. I can now see an end to the process and am having to resist the urge to keep several items for myself. These are both good signs. I shall post about the things I’ve made soon. Meanwhile, from the clutter of objects on my desk, I present thing 2.


I received this thing about ten years ago. Its source was a friend who had a part-time job in an antiques shop. I think he pilfered it. Because the shop was in Sussex, and because of the shingly nature of the beach the women are photographed against, I think they are enjoying a day out in Brighton. It is an ambrotype: an early photograph produced by capturing a positive image with wet collodion on a small glass plate. You see it here larger than its real size — around 3 by 3 1/2 inches. It would originally have been protected in a presentation case. This had disappeared long before it found its way to me, and you can see where the black collodion varnish has flaked off in several places. I have protected the fragile back of the image with a piece of black card, so the clear glass no longer peeks through the gaps in the women’s dark clothes. There were, apparently, several ambrotype photographers in Brighton in the late 1850s and early 1860s. By the mid 1860s more portable and less fragile photographic processes had become popular — so the media in which the women are captured dates this moment on the beach to the turn of the 1860s.


I do not have any photographs of friends or family on or near my desk and these two women are completely unknown to me. They look like friends rather than sisters and seem completely at their ease. With their good boots and capable hands they mean business. There is a quizical look in the eyes of the woman on the right — perhaps she is intrigued by the process of being photographed, reproduced. The woman on the left is more enigmatic and harder to read — but there is a certain confidence in her attitude and gaze. They are respectably but not (for the 1860s) particularly fashionably dressed. The cuffs and bodice worn by the woman on the left are worked in a textured embroidered pattern which is elaborate without being showy.

Beyond these basics — moment in time, location of photograph, good-quality respectable clothing — I have no story to tell about these women and I like it like that. I have not read their letters. I have no sense of their characters, their politics, their desires, their social positions or affiliations. They are not part of a collection of similar objects or images. I am not related to them. There is no fantasy of familial or personal connection. They do not belong to me. In fact, I like them because I am unable to appropriate them — because they are a possession that (to an extent at least) defies possession. I can imagine what I like about the 1860s, about British seaside towns, the history of photographic processes and nineteenth-century women’s social roles. I can tell myself (as I did above) that the women are ‘confident’, ‘capable’ or whatever. But beyond any story I may choose to spin around them, the two women on the beach keep their own quiet counsel.

The image certainly carries commemorative associations insofar as it is a record of a friendship (mine, and the women’s too). But beyond this I am unwilling to invest the ambrotype with any sort of sentimental significance. As a thing among the other things on my desk it has a strange independence. The women are relating to each other and to their moment on the beach more than to me and my clutter. And in its independence — the way that it tells me very little — I find this object both evocative and discomfiting. It says keep your distance, have respect for what does not belong to you. This is sometimes a useful thing to have in mind.