This Baltimore Collection photograph of an unidentified woman standing on a residential street presents many challenges to the researcher. Badly faded, the details are almost imperceptible. We can see the contours of a woman in the foreground, wearing a long, light-colored dress that stands out against the dark pavement. Her face is inscrutable, as are the details of her costume and her surroundings. Behind her, we see a residential street stretch into the distance. This street is made up of iconic Baltimore rowhouses, distinguishable particularly by their three-story construction and gleaming white steps.
Ultimately, what details we can see are not a lot to go on: at the turn of the century as now, Baltimore was covered in near-identical rowhouses. Though not a formal portrait, this woman had her photograph made by a professional photographer. Does she stand outside her own home, or does her home appear in the background? Perhaps she stands outside the photographer’s studio, posing in the natural light of day. From the label on the back, we know the photographer’s name—Lewis Gwynn—but even that clue feels like a dead end. There are several Lewis Gwynns who turn up in the Baltimore census in the first decades of the twentieth century, but none of them are (or appear to be) photographers. Gwynn’s studio at 1531 Jefferson St. has long since been destroyed and is now a part of the sprawling Johns Hopkins Hospital campus. It is doubtful we will ever know the identity of the woman in the photograph, or even where in the city she stood when it was taken.
And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to this incredibly frustrating image. The gleaming whiteness of the rowhouse steps is a visual convention in images of Baltimore, buttressed by the long tradition of pride in the white marble that adorned the stoops of the city. For decades, residents scrubbed their steps weekly or even daily. I believe the steps in the background of the Baltimore Collection photograph are made of wood instead of marble: looking closely at the steps, they appear to have a hollow appearance impossible with heavy marble. Regardless of their material, though, Baltimoreans took pride in their steps.
Whoever the woman in our photograph is, she existed within a network of early twentieth century Baltimore life that stretched from the care with which residents scrubbed their wood or marble steps to the care with which the woman composed herself before the camera. This photograph is a faded but still vivid reminder that the images of the Baltimore Collection have a distinct relationship not just to each other and to their sitters, but to the cities from which they came. Our empathy for these photographs should extend beyond what we can find out of the sitters themselves, to how the sitters interact with or imply the presence of people beyond the boundaries of the frame: we should consider not just the woman in the photograph, but also the people who scrubbed the steps.
“From the Vault: Scrubbing Baltimore’s White Steps.” The Darkroom: Exploring visual journalism from the Baltimore Sun. Accessed December 9, 2017. http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2016/08/scrubbing-baltimores-white-steps/.