WTF Mystery Photo
June 19, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

I bought this photo at a yard sale today. The woman who sold it to me had no idea who the people in it are. She said she'd had the photo since 1960. It's clearly a lot older than that. What, if anything, can you tell me about it?
posted by grumblebee to Media & Arts (61 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
It appears as if they're actors in a play. Big white beard to the left seems fake and he's holding some sort of prop in his hand. Reclining dandy on the ground has "shackles" on his wrists.
posted by ColdChef at 10:06 AM on June 19, 2010

Assuming it's not just a cast photo as ColdChef points out, the pith helmets tell me that, all exoticism aside, these people are English (British) -- the majority of them anyway. The temptation is to say it's an annual Christmas card from the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) circa 1910, but I doubt that crowd would ever have gone for a group photo (particularly in all their mystical garb). But if you're looking for an arena to investigate, I'd start with something like Thelemic Mysticism and see where it takes me.
posted by philip-random at 10:08 AM on June 19, 2010

Yeah, my first thought was "cast of a play." I'm trying to imagine what sort of play this would be.
posted by grumblebee at 10:10 AM on June 19, 2010

I wonder if it's the cast of an opera? Higher likelihood of uniforms and mystics and shackles and more!
posted by desuetude at 10:16 AM on June 19, 2010

posted by ColdChef at 10:19 AM on June 19, 2010

I was thinking an art school costume ball along the lines of a Beaux Arts Ball but there aren't enough young people in the shot.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:21 AM on June 19, 2010

I agree that it looks like a play, maybe from the late 1800:s?
I wonder if the stars on their hats mean something? (Almost all of the people in the photo have stars on their hats.)
posted by gemmy at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2010

A photo from Salome circa 1905
posted by ColdChef at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2010

My guess would be a play about Rasputin and the Russian imperial court, not accurate costumes, but they are more modern (and flamboyant) than what people would do for a biblical setting. I don't know what play it could be though.
posted by Some1 at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2010

My first thought was Gilbert and Sullivan -- the principals (but not the choruses) of Yeomen of the Guard, maybe?
posted by nonane at 10:25 AM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think "Salome" is a dead end, as no one seems "trampy" enough.
posted by ColdChef at 10:29 AM on June 19, 2010

Yeah, my first thought was Salome as well.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:31 AM on June 19, 2010

> My guess would be a play about Rasputin and the Russian imperial court

Nope. Nothing in the photo looks even vaguely Russian, even allowing for theatrical inaccuracy. I think philip-random has the best guess.
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on June 19, 2010

The pith helmets tell me that, all exoticism aside, these people are English (British) -- the majority of them anyway.

Not necessarily. Pith helmets were used by most of the military powers. So I don't think they narrow down the nationality.
posted by greycap at 11:19 AM on June 19, 2010

That should be colonial powers...
posted by greycap at 11:21 AM on June 19, 2010

It's not Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.
posted by neuron at 11:47 AM on June 19, 2010

Maybe Fidelio, or another opera with a similar plot.
posted by oddovid at 12:14 PM on June 19, 2010

It looks to me like the guy on the ground's bib reads "60", which wikipedia says could have something to do with the ancient Babylonian's sexagesismal number system.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2010

Well, it can't be the execution of John the Baptist, because the people in the background are dressed like Catholic clergy. The crosses are pretty obvious and the descending dove (representing the Holy Spirit) is an image that still appears on Catholic vestments today. So, if they are the bad guys shackling or executing someone, a better bet might be the story of someone executed by the Catholic Church for heresy. At first, I thought that the shackled man might have the initials "G.O." on his shirt, but I can't find any record of an executed heretic with those initials, so now I'm thinking it's probably the number 60, but no guess here as to what that could signify.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:32 PM on June 19, 2010

Oops--I just saw the detail picture. Didn't realize there was more. Nix what I said about clergy--although the religious symbols have to mean something.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:37 PM on June 19, 2010

Have you already taken the back off the frame to see if there's any faint writing on the backside of the photo?
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:46 PM on June 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeomen of the Guard is a very intriguing lead. There are 18 people in the photo and 18 principal roles. There is a headsman and a prisoner (isn't the prop Beardy's holding a head-chopper of some kind?) and even an appropriate number of females for the cast. There are 60 yeomen of the guard but I haven't come to any evidence from the libretto of why Colonel Fairfax would have "60" on his robe. The play is set in Tudor England... I think those doofy costumes could pass for Tudor.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:05 PM on June 19, 2010

As for the hats, Wikipedia says stars, known as "mullets," are common heraldic symbols in England and Scotland; the ones here look to be "pierced." A mullet in heraldry sometimes denotes a third son. According to this page, it also may be called a "spur-rowel" and mean "preparedness" or "pressing on." Two of the hats look to have a "seme of mullety," a.k.a. lots of little stars.

Also from that link, the eight-pointed snowflake-looking thing on the chest of the guy standing in the center is an "escarbuncle," which stands for "supremacy."

It's that guy in the handcuffs with the weird expression who really comes across in the picture...I'm dying to know what this is!!
posted by sallybrown at 1:24 PM on June 19, 2010

Just as a point of comparison; here's a cast photo from an Ottawa production circa 1918
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:53 PM on June 19, 2010

I agree- it's a Yeomen of the Guard Cast photo.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 1:59 PM on June 19, 2010

> And pith helmets have been issued to American armed forces as well, to say nothing of policemen, British and American.

NB also, as of the 1880s there were a great many licensed amateur productions of Gilbert and SUllivan, and this does look to be an amateur crew to my mind.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:10 PM on June 19, 2010

They're not even vaguely dressed like Beefeaters. Here is an American picture from 1915, lest you think only Brits get the costumes right
posted by A189Nut at 2:14 PM on June 19, 2010

And they aren't pith helmets either. Look at the crown.
posted by A189Nut at 2:22 PM on June 19, 2010

It could be a gathering related to the Order of the Eastern Star, based on the star motifs on most of the headgear.

The Order of the Eastern Star is the largest fraternal organization in the world that both men and women can join.

Eastern Star initiation ceremony. Note that this involves 18 people- the Grand Matron plus 17.
posted by beagle at 2:28 PM on June 19, 2010

The play is set in Tudor England... I think those doofy costumes could pass for Tudor.

The doofy costumes could pass for amateur Tudor-via-Edwardian. The hair on the women and the necklines look quite Edwardian, but the sleeves look like an attempt was made toward Tudor-style bell sleeves for the one woman and puffed sleeves for the other.
posted by desuetude at 2:32 PM on June 19, 2010

Order of the Eastern Star is interesting - something like that was my first thought, though they lack the medallions I'd associate with such like.
posted by A189Nut at 2:34 PM on June 19, 2010

EOTES for comparison
posted by A189Nut at 2:35 PM on June 19, 2010

No, don't now think so - men must be Masons to join the Order of the Eastern Star (my bad on initials above.) But still looks like some sort of pseudo-mystical bunch to me.
posted by A189Nut at 2:38 PM on June 19, 2010

I'm counting 8 women. This is the minimum number of female officers in the Eastern Star.

In Yeomen of the Guard, only 4 of the principal roles are designated for women.
posted by beagle at 2:43 PM on June 19, 2010

I can't see it being "Yeomen of the Guard." There's an ingenue character I don't see. The women in the photo are either career women or they're too old. And there's a fool. I don't see him, either. Neither are minor characters.
posted by grumblebee at 2:53 PM on June 19, 2010

If it is an esoteric society though, why the false beard (it is false?) and why the guy lying on the floor? It's hardly a formal pose and does suggest more dressing up for a performance. The background has a curtain on one side. Anyone know their opera? Or their George Melies?
posted by A189Nut at 2:59 PM on June 19, 2010

I asked a friend of is a longtime member of the Eastern Star to look at the picture, and she wrote back: "To the very best of my knowledge, this pose, as dramatic as it is, are not officers of the Eastern Star. It looks more like members of a cast .. something out of the Nights of Arabia!"
posted by beagle at 2:59 PM on June 19, 2010

The star isn't oriented right for the Easter Star people- it's upward pointing in the OP's photo, and downward pointing on the ES website and on the hats in the older photo linked to by A189Nut.
posted by Adridne at 2:59 PM on June 19, 2010

It's that guy in the handcuffs with the weird expression who really comes across in the picture...I'm dying to know what this is!!

And it looks like he's dressed as a woman and wearing a wig. So what play has a cross-dressing handcuffed man?
posted by tamitang at 3:05 PM on June 19, 2010

Old guy with beard and carrying a knife - only Christian iconography I can find is St Bartholomew (based on the idea that there is something Christian here from the dove) though he usually is carrying his skin.
posted by A189Nut at 3:15 PM on June 19, 2010

I was going to guess G&S' Yeomen as well, but it would be interesting casting to have that many women. Also the more I look at the costumes, given the apparent age of the photo (and thus the proximity in time to the official D'Oyly production), the costuming seems really odd. Too fake-Middle-Eastern. It's been a while since I've seen the play though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:32 PM on June 19, 2010

Just a thought: Theosophy was founded in NY in 1875 and here is Madam Blavatsky robed up.
posted by A189Nut at 4:01 PM on June 19, 2010

Just a thought- you've probably been over this, but is it possible to remove it from the frame to determine if there is an inscription on the back?
posted by arnicae at 5:11 PM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think that this is Eastern Star. Too costumey and especially the fop with shackles lounging in front makes no sense. And while yes, men and women are both eligible for Eastern Star, it's really a primarily women-led group.
posted by desuetude at 5:37 PM on June 19, 2010

Looks like the cast of a Guy Maddin film
posted by canoehead at 8:00 PM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

so nobody seems to have mentioned that the reclining gentleman is wearing ballet slippers. i don't know if that's important. and they aren't just slippers; they actually lace up. the military/police fellow directly above mr. ballerina's head--are those crossed keys on his jacket? IT'S A CLUE! well, maybe not.
posted by miss patrish at 9:16 PM on June 19, 2010

Who do we have in the picture?

1 man in a wig and dark plain dress/gown, with "60" on a bib, and in chains
5 people (3 men, 2 women) in Hat A: triangular base with 5 pointed outline star in the middle front, puffed fabric above.
3 people (2 men, 1 woman) in Hat B: puffed fabric below, fez-like cylinder above. (One of these men has a big white fake beard and is showing a curved knife)
2 guards
"queen" with ornate costume, fringed shoulder pieces, hat puffed fabric below and rounded beanie piece above, with long decorated ear flaps, wire rim eyeglasses;
"king" with ornate costume, bird on chest, ovoid helmet coming to a point at top, with 5-pointed outline star, big moustache
"prince" with military costume, 8 spoked star on chest with a cross on each spoke, ovoid helmet coming to a pint at top decorated with metal dots
1 young nurse? princess? triangular hat with star, but no puffed fabric above, plain white costume
1 older nurse? hat like the "queen's" but much plainer, muted light-color costume
2 people (1 man, 1 woman) in modern/Victorian/Edwardian dress in the back row

So we need 16 or 18 characters, depending if we want to count the modern-dress people in the back as part of the cast.

The costumes are meant to be what, Russian/Turkish/generically Eastern European? The king and prince and guards' helmets seem German to me, but the guy with the white beard and the curved knife, and the fez-like hat, says Turkish. Is the bird on the king's chest an emblem from any real place? The 5 pointed outline star seems like a Communist thing, but this would be too early for that.

Prisoner of Zenda?

Could it be something set in the Crimean war? Maybe something about Florence Nightingale (if we think the young woman from left is a nurse and is meant to be prominent in the picture)?

Prisoner of the Caucasus - doesn't really fit based on the description, but could be a reworking of similar thing?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:31 PM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not a million miles from Theosophy -- could it be something related to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? The three founders were masons, and from what I know of Mathers in particular, the man did love him some theatricality. This was probably taken some time after the founding, due to the Edwardian dress, but they would have still been active, I think. And the members often splintered off into other groups.
posted by kalimac at 2:50 AM on June 20, 2010

I now think it is might be amateur production of Verdi's Nabucco (1842 onwards.) Amateur because the costumes are a bit cobbled together.
posted by A189Nut at 3:56 AM on June 20, 2010

There's nothing on the back.
posted by grumblebee at 7:34 AM on June 20, 2010

Two problems with Nabucco, though it's a good guess:

1) The characters are (mostly) ancient Jews. Yet, in the photo, the stars are not Stars of David. They are five-pointed starts. Maybe the costume designer just wasn't well educated.

2) The prisoner characters in the opera is female. Yeah, I know the guy on the floor looks a bit like a man in drag, but is it really likely they'd have a guy play the female lead (presumably a soprano) in a Verdi opera?
posted by grumblebee at 7:47 AM on June 20, 2010

Yeah, I know the guy on the floor looks a bit like a man in drag, but is it really likely they'd have a guy play the female lead (presumably a soprano) in a Verdi opera?

Perhaps it's the Hasty Pudding Club. There were a few ivy league schools at the turn of the century that had men performing the female parts. The only other two I know of for sure are The Triangle Club at Princeton and The Mask and Wig Club at University of PA.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2010

Maybe the guy in drag is supposed to be a man playing a man dressed as a woman? It could be a man who was dressed as a woman to escape some past misdeed, but then got caught and put in handcuffs. Or, for example, if it's Prisoner of Zenda, the guy in handcuffs would be the King, whose captors dressed him as a woman to smuggle him out of the castle or whatever.

Or maybe this is a more pantomime-type play, and the male actor was chosen to play a female character for the laughs--akin to Charley's Aunt. This blog post lists some famous "drag queens of theater" but I couldn't find any connection.

It also looks like there were a lot of parody plays going on in the late 19th and early 20th century, so maybe the use of a man is to parody some over-the-top damsel in distress character in a more serious play? Maybe this is a burlesque of a Verdi opera, made to look ridiculous? See here: Early theatrical burlesque was a form of musical and theatrical parody in which a serious or romantic opera or piece of classical theatre was adapted in a broad, often risqué style that ridiculed stage conventions. In late 19th century, the United Kingdom, in particular, such dramatic productions became very popular, especially at particular theatres such as the Olympic and the Gaiety in London. In Britain, burlesque was largely a middle class pursuit, where the jokes relied on the audiences' familiarity with known operas and artistic works. Its predilection for double entendre and casting female stars in the lead male roles (or 'breeches parts') gave burlesque its risqué popular appeal.

This would be absolutely ridiculous, but the queen type person in the center looks a lot like Queen Victoria, who loved the theater, and who had a very close attachment to Abdul Karim, her Indian servant (see here for the Daily Mail treatment of the issue).
posted by sallybrown at 9:54 AM on June 20, 2010

Could it be from the opera Sampson and Dalila? The reclining figure in chains and long hair could be Sampson, the others priests and philistines. It was popular at the end of the 19th century.
posted by canoehead at 10:05 AM on June 20, 2010

I wondered about Samson, but why the fairly modern dress guards? For that matter, why if it were Nabucco. In my wild moments I wondered if it was Oscar Wilde himself on the floor, in a performance of Salome?
posted by A189Nut at 10:38 AM on June 20, 2010

I wondered about Samson, but why the fairly modern dress guards?

Not to mention the crosses.
posted by Anything at 11:14 AM on June 20, 2010

Re the crosses, I didn't take those to necessarily be christian, rather just one of many decorative elements on the costumes.
posted by canoehead at 11:45 AM on June 20, 2010

Re the crosses, I didn't take those to necessarily be christian
They aren't, necessarily, but there's also the descending dove on the "king's" costume, which is definitely a Christian symbol in many other contexts. Though perhaps not here.
posted by beagle at 12:01 PM on June 20, 2010

Yes I think you're right beagle.
posted by canoehead at 8:27 AM on June 21, 2010

Since there seems to be no resolution in the matter I thought I'd throw my idea out there.

My husband's great-grandmother ran the local small town theater group and hubby's grandpa has a lot of old pictures like these. Most of the plays were written by members of the community or by Grandma the Director, they couldn't afford the rights to actual plays.

I think it is entirely possible that you may never know what this picture depicts. If you knew what town it was originally from you could look for notices in old newspapers about what local plays were being put on and see if any sound like they might fit. That honestly could take years. If it is from a large town or if it was a church performance, there may not have been notices and in that case you'll never know.

I think you'll have to be happy knowing that you have a fun picture of an old theater group from some time around the turn of the 20th Century (give or take 10 years or so.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:51 AM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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