Photo-sleuthing – Mixed Messages

Victorian photographers made extensive use of artistic props, particularly paper props. Sometimes they were used as part of a pictorial story, the subject holding a black edged letter to record a tragedy in the family, or a scroll to show academic success. Sometimes the paper was there to give the subject something to do with their hands or to stop children fidgeting during the crucial seconds the photographer need to take the snap.

This photo was taken by Willie Anderson of 364 Dumbarton Road, Partick. I am baffled as to the story he is trying to tell. The woman is not in mourning, she does not look sorrowful and she is too old for a ‘coming of age’ picture. She holds a letter in one hand and rests the other on a book which appears to contain an opened envelope. The mystery, however, deepens with the introduction of a 21st century search aid – the mobile phone.

Photograph by Willie Anderson of Partick

New i-phones have built-in macro-lenses for close-ups, and an i-phone was used to create this image of the letter. The enlargement reveals that it is a business letter from 13 Reid Street, Govan relating to an order for ‘Proof Cards’ and requesting payment. Unfortunately the woman’s thumb obscures the full text, but enough is visible to reveal that the photographer had given his subject some random correspondence off his desk.

Mystery letter

To date, I have been unable to identify the business at 13 Reid Street, Govan. A seaman, Vincent Messina, was a tenant there in 1893 but I suspect there was a specialist photographic materials retailer on the ground floor.

Photograph by Macnab of West Nile Street

The unknown woman visited a Glasgow photographer for her next picture. Here she is seen with one hand resting on a decorative brass standard oil lamp, the other (which would have revealed her marital status) concealed behind her skirt. Mr Macnab of West Nile Street took a very professional photograph but it has not been nearly as much fun as Willie Anderson’s pic!

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