What's up in this photo?
October 10, 2017 5:40 PM   Subscribe

What is going on in this picture? It was put up in a Facebook librarians group and no one's definitively answered.

Leading theories include 1. It's a postmortem image, 2. It's an "ectoplasm" photo missing the ectoplasm, 3. She's hiding a deformity to her chin, or 4. She's Olive Oatman.

Can anyone here tell definitively - What on earth is going on?
posted by waitingtoderail to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Doesn't look postmortem (and even if it is, why the kerchief?) and Olive Oatman doesn't appear to have hidden her tats. Ectoplasm joke picture maybe?
posted by beagle at 6:09 PM on October 10, 2017

There is a smudge that looks like it could be part of Oatman's tattoo on her chin.

Assuming the photo is American, I'd probably date it to 1850s-1860s. The large buttons suggest mid- to late-1860s; the fullness of the skirt (and though it is difficult to tell, it doesn't look like it has a flat front) suggests it is not yet the 1870s. If it is American, and if the original is on paper, it also implies no earlier than the late 1850s (when albumen prints became popular in the States, slightly displacing the daguerrotype). If that's all correct, then it's too early for ectoplasm photos specifically--although there were 'spirital photos' in the 1860s (double exposures), and spiritualism was already underway, AFAIK ectoplasmic photos date to the 1900s.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:38 PM on October 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

Boy, this photo is making the rounds! I think if it was Oatman she would have a simple veil. This looks like she may be both obscuring a deformity/trauma and possibly dealing with saliva. (I will tell you no experts think it's postmortem)
posted by beccaj at 6:50 PM on October 10, 2017

I agree with flibbertigibbet, there's a mark on her chin that could be part of her tattoo. Also the left eyebrow is very distinctive, it almost looks like half an eyebrow on your picture and the picture of Oatman.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 6:53 PM on October 10, 2017

Disguising “phossy jaw” from phosphorus poisoning?
posted by carmicha at 6:54 PM on October 10, 2017

Is there a significance to the dark strips on her dress? ...signifying illness or mourning? The strips on her arm especially look like they were stuck on after the fact and rather haphazardly.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 7:12 PM on October 10, 2017

Perhaps hiding face rot from syphilis? If the jaw is eaten away it could also be catching saliva.
posted by marylynn at 7:34 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

The woman in the photo sure doesn't convey the idea that there's anything humorous afoot, so I'd nix #2.

I feel like there has to be more going on than just hiding a tattoo--why have this long thing sticking out of your face for that? it'd be easier and more becoming for a lady to use a scarf or veil. I would assume the thing that looks like a rolled up piece of paper is concealing a growth rather than just something on the skin.

It sure does look like Olive Oatman, though, especially as she appears in this picture: http://forums.ghosttowns.com/attachment.php?attachmentid=5576&stc=1&d=1271369824

Olive didn't get married until 1865, so positively identify the photo as being from before or after that would be a data point.
posted by nirblegee at 7:45 PM on October 10, 2017

It could be ectoplasm. Sometimes it looks a lot like cheesecloth, because that is what “ectoplasm” was made of to fool believers.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:12 PM on October 10, 2017

You can see a strap holding whatever it is to the chin. It does look like Oatman. Wouldn't makeup have been an option?
posted by theora55 at 9:46 PM on October 10, 2017

It's printed as a souvenir card, isn't it? So would presumably be someone well known.

It does look like Oatman, but then I haven't seen any pictures of her with that hair style.

Regarding the facial deformity hypothesis, there would also likely be nurses, for example, wounded by shrapnel in the civil war.
posted by Rumple at 10:08 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it is Olive Oatman (only due to the eyebrow, I've never heard of her before) and I think she is goofing off. That looks like a detachable (men's) cuff that shes holding in her lips to cover the tattoo for lols. She looks amused to me.
posted by fshgrl at 10:17 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

It does look like Oatman, but why the mask? There are plenty of portraits of her without.
posted by lalex at 10:27 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

That dress is very distinctive with the bars on sleeves and across chest, and is stylistically similar to Oatman's 1863 dress with cross-hatches (a slightly martial theme consistent with women's styles in the civil war?). If so then the woman is about the right age for Oatman.

I kind of like fshgrl's theory of it being a man's sleeve cuff: here are some from 1868 - note the v-shaped gap also apparent in the picture (the cross-hatch dress also appears to have sleeve cuffs). This would explain the apparent stiffness of the "cone" which doesn't fit with cheesecloth or, say, women's under-sleeves. The cone is clearly held on with at least one ribbon around the back of the head, and possibly a lower one giving the appearance of a double chin.

It's a little rude but both Oatman in this picture and the cone-wearing woman have notably thick, puffy fingers.

Having said that, Oatman has very full, round ear lobes and the cone-wearing woman appears to have slighter, squarer lobes. They do look very similar facially, but then they both look like Natalie Merchant so I dunno.
posted by Rumple at 11:04 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

OK last comment - in nirblegee's photo linked above Oatman has the tattoos retouched out. In this picture from the cross hatch dress series (not the same as above, different hand position) the tattoos have also been removed. And in this picture, she has full eyebrows on both sides (could be retouch of course).

So anyway, the point is some of her pictures show her tattoos, in others they are hidden, presumably via alteration of the photos.
posted by Rumple at 11:36 PM on October 10, 2017

Coming back after seeing all the other comments: the resemblance to Oatman is fairly strong. The thick fingers and correct dress for the period help to confirm. But it doesn't have the feel of a formal portrait, there's a little jokiness in her expression. If Oatman wanted a picture without the tattoos, she had the retouching option as noted. And if she was going to cover the tattoos with a mask, she would no have chosen anything like this, but had something custom-fitted. She certainly wouldn't have covered her mouth. I'm not seeing the ribbons people have mentioned — I think she has it clasped between her lips. So my bottom line is that it's a moment of levity in a photo session, in which she grabbed somebody's starched cuff and stuck it in her mouth.
posted by beagle at 5:26 AM on October 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Personally, I think the Oatman answer is correct but I guess no way to definitively answer, unless another identified copy existed. Thank you all.
posted by waitingtoderail at 5:36 AM on October 11, 2017

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