How does one begin to research the personal photographs of someone unknown and from an era that is long past? Vintage portraits of unidentified sitters by unknown photographers present particular research concerns such as the possibility of not knowing the context for their creation or who the sitter is. They also offer personal intimacies. As a member of the collective that researched “The Baltimore Collection,” one particular image I have called [Portrait of Eddy May] will be the focus of this blog post.
Making a quick assessment of the photograph, my sitter is a young woman; her gaze is direct. In the above image, the darker blue mount is a folder that would have enclosed the portrait in the white, and there is an inscription on the back of the mount that reads “Lovingly Eddy May to Miss Frances.” The portrait of Eddy May is decoratively framed by a lined border image of the young woman, with the year “1931” breaking up the border. The portrait sits behind the white frame that is stylistically similar to a die-cut and then attached to a dark blue, thick mount. The cursive inscription appears on the back of the dark blue mount. Using my intuition about photography and relationships, I am assuming that my sitter is indeed Eddy May based on the inscription.
Perhaps Eddy May is a neighbor to Miss Frances. Thus the intended audience of this portrait photograph–lovingly given–is in fact for an intimate relation. Such a private photo was perhaps never intended for the kind of public viewing a curated, digital collection can provide. Seen here and in the context of the online presentation of “The Baltimore Collection,” its digital surrogate is admittedly divorced from its original contexts. At the same time for me, there is a new meaning. For researchers and general viewers, it provides insights into friendships and networks, almost akin to friendship albums of the 19th century. Friendship albums were leather bound books which women could write personal notes to their friends after their time in female academies. http://lcpalbumproject.org/
This preserved portrait allows for more conversations about Black peoples in the past communicated with one another. Digital projects such as the online presentation of “The Baltimore Collection” allow us to go back and think deeply about the multiple meanings the sitters are trying to convey. The photograph projects the significance/meaning of sharing one’s portrait with others – a gift of self-possession. Room for another context is placed on the portrait. I image the sitter may have recently passed away based on the date of the portrait and the age of which Eddy May appears.
Upon viewing this portrait, I thought back to two particular types of photography I was familiar with, studio Glamor Shots of the 1990s and school photography. Although I was too young to enjoy the Glamor Shots studio in my local mall, I recall my sister coming home with her group shots of her and her friends. The images printed on a sheet, and you could purchase a sheet of portraits of various sizes. My sister always opted for the photo sheet to cut wallet size photos. She would then write a heartfelt message on the back for each person in the group photo and give it to them. I think of the portrait of Eddy May in this way.
However, how Eddy May’s portrait came to have since come to be part of a group of other portraits photographs donated to the University of Delaware Museums. Once separated from Miss Frances, its intimacy has changed. I think of how collectors come to be collectors, often with interest in assigning a monetary value to history’s material culture. In this process, they are not only decontextualized but if sold from one of the few remaining contexts. Thus, entering a realm of questions such as “why should we save this?”, “what value does it hold?” , instead of “who are you?” and other personal questions.
To read about the conservation of this photograph and others in the Baltimore Collection, click here.