Strangers on the River


I love old timey things. The older the better, especially if we’re talking about photographs. I’m particularly interested in Carte de Visite (CDV), Daguerreotype and tin-type era portraits. It’s the faces of strangers that draw me in (we’re all visual creatures after all) and I like to think about the lives these people might have had, the people they loved and what they were thinking at the specific moment their photo was being taken.

During my recent trip to Paris, I spent a huge part of one day just riffling through boxes and boxes of old snaps. Each time I came across one of those little green second-hand stalls that line the River Seine I had to stop and have a look at what they had. If it hadn’t been for limitations to available funds and to my baggage allowance on the return flight, I would have just bought whole boxes. That said, maybe that would have taken some of the fun out of it.

This seems miraculous to me, but two of the photos I found were of the same man. A rarity, I think. I don’t know who he is, or perhaps was is a more apt term, but there was just something about his face that appealed to me, so I had to bring him home to Australia, where he’ll now live within my growing collection.
All I do know for certain, thanks to some faint pencil markings on the back of both photographs, is that this is Oncle Henri.

Henri 1

And here he is again, later on in life.

Henri 2

Obviously, I’ll never know who Henri was or what kind of life he ended up living, or how he died. Still, I think the value of photographs like this, particularly to our generation, is that they remind us that our own lives are so insignificant in the scheme of things. So many other people have lived and died before us and so many more will do so when we are gone. When we’re all old and grey or have shuffled on to the next life though, who is going to be finding our old snaps in riverside stalls or in flea markets? With the advent of digital photography and media, will anyone ever find us at all?

Maybe I am way off with this though… maybe I was drawn to Henri because we knew each other before. I mean, if we believe in the concept of reincarnation it’s not so far fetched to believe that perhaps we have all encountered each other before. Personally, I am not sure where I stand on the whole reincarnation/rebirth thing. It certainly has a kind of romantic quality that I find deeply appealing. Similarly, I have always wondered why we are drawn to certain people but not others. Why do we feel like we have known some people all of our lives, even if we have just met them? Maybe because we have, or we did. Maybe there are kindred spirits whom we have always and will always know. There’s some deeply comforting in that thought.

I’d love to hear from any other collectors out there, or any of you with a general interest in CDV, tintype or daguerreotype photography. If you’re in my general geographic vicinity and can think of any places where these are readily available I’d particularly love to hear from you!

Post script:
While wandering around one of the larger Melbourne bookstores over the weekend, I cam across the book Talking Pictures by Ransom Riggs, which details how own curious obsession with collecting thrift store photos of strangers. It warmed my heart to know that there are other peculiar folk out there. We should form a community.


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