The Painted Backdrop By Jim Linderman
Have you ever thought about the painted backgrounds in antique and vintage photographs?
Well, you aren’t alone.
Until I read The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography, by Jim Linderman (with an essay by Kate Bloomquist), I hadn’t either.
In fact, the story of and between 19th century painters and American photography really has never been told — or, I should say, “hasn’t been explored” until Linderman came along and looked into it via his collection of antique tintype photographs.
Considering virtually every one of the millions upon millions of tintype photographs taken indoors from 1850 to 1920, (and a good number of the few taken outside) had a painted backdrop, it is remarkable no one has ever written a book about them. This is even more remarkable given the importance of the background in motion pictures today. As entire films are produced by computer, the role of the actor has been reduced to standing before an empty screen mouthing words only later to be placed in a digital backdrop which never existed and never will. In a way, the early painted drops used by primitive tintype photographers of the late 19th century an unreal environment in a prescient manner; the thread connecting them to big-screen computer generated hyper-worlds is real but seldom considered.
He even dares to ask the question, “Could this be because photographers, even then, were so determined to prove THEY were doing the art and not the painter they relegated to the background?”
Antique Tintype Backdrop Being Painted
The author / collector states: “This is an art book about painting and photography (or vice-versa) and how they met in a certain time and place.” Ever since the camera arrived, the debate about the merits of photography as an art form has raged (admittedly Ansel Adams helped sway a lot of people that it is), and this book and its 75 antique tintype images certainly is part of that debate. It also raises the question about whether or not the painted backdrops used behind the people in the photographs are art, folk art, or ephemera from the photographic industry. But it’s that last part, “how they met in a certain time and place,” which really gets to the core of things, the thrilling things, for me. That’s where we get to the historical cultural contexts.
The book gives a brief historical overview of photography set in the context of culture, art and commerce. There’s a near ode to daguerreotypes and a rather sneering look at ambrotypes before we settle in to accept the (lowly fragile) tintypes as having won the hearts of the masses. While tintypes lack the gleam of their forerunners, the thin tintype’s popularity mirrors how the West was won: Easy, inexpensive, mobility. The ease of mailing tintypes not only aligns with the power of rail road transportation, but in fact, photo studios sprung up near or at nearly every train station.
Two Antique Tintypes With Same Painted Backdrops
However, Linderman doesn’t end his considerations of the development of photography there; his (rather opinionated) narrative briefly covers paper prints, the Polaroid, and digital photos too. If you find the author judgmental, he is. But his thoughts are historically and culturally sane; and when it comes to art, we all have our preferences — or at least we ought to.
In many ways, Linderman’s brief text is more glorious than the many antique images he shares. For, agree or disagree with the author’s thoughts and opinions, you are rather forced to form your own thoughts and opinions. But none of us are really left with conclusions — at least those we haven’t, in part, jumped to. As Linderman states, there’s just too little documentation, research and investigation, into what happened to painters when the camera came along — into the subject of photographic backdrops themselves — to reach any real conclusions.
The book raises more questions, really, than it answers. At least for me. But in that most excellent of ways which rather than being too light of a snack, leaving me unsatisfied, this book whets my appetite, makes me want more, leaves me with something to chew on… Technology, commerce, art, and culture collide at a crossroads, supposed “forward progress” exposing values, leaving the role of art and artists themselves as question marks… Not at all unlike the digital situation of today.
Tintype Of Painter Working On Photographic Backdrop
The very fact that we haven’t really put any effort into exploring “what happened” is a testament to how little we value photography, art, and artists, I suppose. Yet art, and more than a few artists, have managed to survive.
Collections and books like this preserve what was — not just for us all to see and enjoy, but to force us to look at what happened and to examine for ourselves just what is all involved in such technological advances and shifts in “style.”
Annette Kellerman, The Australian Mermaid, "the Diving Venus"
A few months ago I was contacted by Nick Bannikoff, a graphic designer in Sydney, Australia, who had recently worked on the refurbished Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre in Marrickville. The centre is now finished, and Bannikoff was assisting with the creation of a graphic interpreting / explaining Annette Kellerman’s life to be installed at the pool. Because I’m rather well connected to Kellerman on the Internet, Bannikoff was hoping I’d be able to assist him finding decent quality images to include in the graphic; which I did, by connecting him to silent film collector Mary Ann Cade. Because I’m rather
nosy fascinated with Kellerman, film and art — and unable to get to Australia myself — I asked Bannikoff to tell me more about the project.
The redevelopment of the pool was undertaken by Marrickville council a while ago. The existing pool was only 33mm and a bit dilapidated. There’s plenty of information on the project here.
Annette was born in the council area and the centre (AKAC) was renamed after her in ‘94 (I don’t have any information on that process).
As part of the project a separate graphic design firm was engaged to design the logo for the AKAC (along with several other facilities), and we were engaged as specialists to design the signage and environmental graphics. For a better idea of what we specialise in, you can visit Society for Environmental Graphic Design.
We wanted to create an inviting entrance to the change rooms, and decided that the best way to do this was to create life-sized graphics of people standing at the entrances. In effect inviting people in (it also has the advantage of very clearly differentiating the male and female entrances). Annette was obviously a natural choice for the Female change room, but being such an extraordinary character it was difficult to select a male counterpart. In the end we settled on Cecil, a contemporary of Annette’s (this was important to us) who was sadly killed at the Somme in 1918. Had we not been constricted in our selection to an Australian, we would have recommended Jonny Weismuller, whose career so closely mimicked Annette’s.
Knowing what we wanted to do we were inspired by two sources. A photo of a confident young woman in a bathing costume with a very contemporary lighting scheme, and the work of mosaic artist Brett Campbell.
We particularly liked the confident pose and dynamic lighting for the young woman. We felt if we could present Annette in the same way it would convey more of her life and story (than any photo) and make her more relevant to a contemporary audience. We engaged the services of a talented illustrator, Justine Missen, who over 2-3 weeks developed sketches of Annette and Cecil with the stances, shading and attitude we wanted. I’ve attached a couple of images from the process. As we always knew we wanted to create the final work in mosaic, Justine sketched to that end, mapping out the broad areas of colour that we knew could only accommodate a limited amount of detail.
As I mentioned, we had decided early on that if we could execute the graphic as a mosaic we would. The material would fit beautifully within a swimming pool environment, and given Annette’s life was a perfect medium with which to portray her. Brett Campbell, being part of the inspiration, was then engaged to create the final pieces. Brett helped out a great deal with the selection of the tiles. There is actually a very limited range of colours out there, and we wanted a nice glossy finish and a ceramic tile which we felt matched our aims (there is a much greater colour selection available in glass tiles). Due to the fact the entrances were a little dark and out of the way, we also wanted nice bright colours which made the selection even more difficult. He worked in his studio in Queensland (about 1000km away) and would send photos of the progress on a weekly basis, which we would then discuss and occasionally make adjustments or suggestions. This part of the project took about 2 months.
Finally, Brett visited site in late November last year and installed the mosiacs over 3 days, along with another mosaic that formed the background for the main identification sign for the AKAC.
Other things you may be interested in:
As part of the project the council also commissioned artwork for a couple of locations. One of the artists, Mark Wotherspoon, took his inspiration from the life of Annette.
The piece is entitled “Silver Screen Mermaid” and a plaque will be installed soon that reads: Inspired by the collective consciousness of Annette Kellerman, the divine silver screen mermaid and Hollywood starlet (1887-1975)
If my life had gone differently in my earlier years I think I would have become an architect. I love buildings and all the trimmings. I’m still trying to teach myself all the right names for the parts of buildings. I go out and take photos of old buildings, mainly derelict farm houses here in Ontario. I also like going to the main street of a small town or city and looking up. That’s where you see the fancy parts of old stores, homes and banks. Most of the old parts below have been renovated away.
Maybe I never would have been a great architect. I like the old stuff too much to make the modern looking type of building with more right angles than curves and more sensible and practical elements than elegant columns, gargoyles and gingerbread trim. It would be hard to design something just to stand there rather than to pose there.
I am still very attracted to anything building/ house related. Art with houses draws my eye. Even fiction about a house stops me long enough to at least skim it. The old woman living in a shoe caught my imagination from a young age. How did she live in that shoe? Did she use the laces to cool the house off in winter and then tie them up tight again to keep warm in winter? How did she put a roof on the shoe, was the sock still around to be stuffed over head? Did she make the eyelets for the laces into windows? Did she put the door back at the heel where it would have been strong but had that higher step down or somewhere else? So many questions. Living in a shoe didn’t seem that appealing all things considered.
I’d rather live in a castle, except I’d like a much smaller and cosier version of a castle than a real castle. A castle like Dr. Who’s Tardis, bigger on the inside than the outside could work well. Like the Tardis, no one ever seems to need to clean it either.
I have drawn my perfect house. It was harder to pick the location than the decide on what I wanted inside the house. But the harder part still was to limit myself to less rather than more when it comes to how the outside of the house will look. There are so many great old things that could be added. Small like old iron doorknobs to huge like a dragon sculpture taking up a large part of the garden.
I enjoy drawing unusual houses. I’ve drawn the shoe house. I’ve drawn a house made in a teacup. I’ve drawn a plan for how very small people would live in the standard sized world. I’ve drawn magical houses for elves, fairies and of course dragons too.
There is something special about a house, any building really. People make them, plan them, live and work in them. Keep them. Repair them. It’s saddest of all when a place is abandoned and left to the elements. There is a mystery to the abandoned places. Something time and people forgot. I never feel they are creepy or haunted. just sad and yet still dignified and majestic in some way. We give a house a power by it’s creation and everything we put into it beyond that point. You can’t just lose that when the house is empty. It’s there, right in the very design.
I think I would have been an amazing architect.
From the March 1831 issue of Atkinson’s Casket (aka The Casket), tips and information on the art of painting on glass:
Found after reading this post at A Tad Too Tan For Taupe.
Men may be, as we are told, visual creatures, but many women adore and collect vintage images. Pinups and those ‘trashy’ covers of pulp novels do more than just flirt with men ya know — we women like them too. And if this includes you, then girl do I have a treat for you: Illustration Magazine.
Collectors of trashy vintage pulp novels, Elvgren pinups, and vintage magazines (be they men’s magazines or turn of the century copies of Collier’s) will drool. Pop culture addicts will greedily await the next issue. Art lovers, artist themselves and anyone with an eye for style will enjoy flipping through Illustration to find classical creations, stylized advertising pieces, elegant deco drawings, fine art, eccentric arrangements, and other works to ooh and ah over.
While the publishers occasionally devote an entire issue to one artist, most issues are a mix of the humorous, the sinister, the sleazy, the graceful, the surreal, the charming, and the cheeky.
It’s clear from the quality that for the publishers this is not just another job, not just a way to make some money — this is an act of love.
Printed on heavy weight, glossy paper, the high quality reproductions of of these illustrations are a joy to behold. The magazine includes articles by the artists themselves, as well as historians, professors & fans of the artists and their works; making it not only fun to read, but so informative, each issue is suitable for research.
Since the golden age of American illustration is considered to be the period of 1890 to 1960, the magazine covers more than just the girlie side of art. Inside Illustration, you’ll find the art of comic books, story illustrations, postcards, sci-fi book and magazine covers, posters and other ephemera of graphic delight.
What makes this publication unique is that it focuses on commercial illustration. Since the works were commissioned or contracted for clients approval and needs rather than “it’s own sake”, it often appeared without artist credit. These artists certainly weren’t celebrated for their commercial works, even if they had gallery success. As little was written about many of the artists, Illustration focuses on biographies of the artist themselves. Illustration celebrates and documents these masters, yes, but the biographies and articles also help to put the works in context. And I think that’s equally important in understanding their purpose and value.
For example, Issue Number 11 has 31 pages on Robert Bonfils, a prolific and gifted producer of those 1960′s trashy adult paperback covers. Not only do you have two articles (by Robert Speray and Lynn Munroe), a plethora of color cover reproductions to gaze at (including several full-page images!) from collector Bruce Brenner, but a piece by Bonfils himself. Reading all of this, one gets information on the trashy book biz, how Bonfils worked, the life of the artist, the culture of the 60′s, and even information on collecting paperbacks in this genre. Now that’s a lot of information.
And yet that’s not all that’s in the issue!
Also in #11 are “Men’s Adventure magazines in Postwar America: The Rich Oberg Collection,” “The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards,” “Larry Admire, Star of Pulp World,” along with book reviews and information on exhibitions and events. What more can you ask for?
As a person who dabbles in collecting in these areas, I’ve learned much from my issues of Illustration. As a woman who loves to ponder the cultural components of pulp novels & pinups, I appreciate how works and artists are put into context. As a girl who just likes pretty things, it’s a feast for the eyes.
This magazine is for connoisseurs & collectors alike.
Illustration is published quarterly, and you can subscribe directly from the publisher at Illustration-Magazine.com, where you’ll also find some back issues. (Both eBay and Amazon have back issues of Illustration Magazine too.)