As if altered at the time in a "photo-shop"
June 25, 2008 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Can you answer some questions I have about this recently uncovered photograph (circa 1830s) of an ancestress of mine?

Is it possible that this was taken in 1831? The photographic process itself was only invented in 1827 in France. Were traveling photographers already working in the Tennessee countryside by then?

Do you think those eyes are blind, or just badly retouched?

Did someone retouch her mouth? It doesn't seem possible that her mouth could be so broad.

All in all, she looks terrifying. "Dead for several days" was my first thought. But she had a bloody youth out in the wilderness, and a lot to be haunted about.
posted by Countess Elena to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In old photographs, the eyes in the picture can look strange. Since long exposures were used back then, a person had to sit still for a considerable amount of time, blinking their eyes in the process. The blinking of the eyes causes blurs. Also, the long exposures explain why no one ever smiled in pictures. It's hard to hold a smile still for that long.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:28 PM on June 25, 2008

How did you come across this? Did you scan it yourself or was it already a jpg? It looks like it's been run through some of the more 'artistic' photoshop filters. Or someone painting over the photograph in Photoshop or Painter.
posted by GeekAnimator at 6:37 PM on June 25, 2008

I agree with the above about the altered appearance eg of the hair-wrap, ruffles, etc. Also the line under her chin. What's up with the scanned version of this image? Does the actual image look like that?

Based on wikipedia's timeline of photography technology, it seems tremendously unlikely that this could have been taken in 1831. Even daguerrotypes are later.

Is the image printed on a hardish card or on a thin piece of paper?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:44 PM on June 25, 2008

My aunt sent it through email, GA, and it was sent to her by a contact I don't know. So I guess you could be right. It seriously didn't occur to me that it might have actually been shopped, although I did think it might have been altered by the studio, or however it was done in those days.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:45 PM on June 25, 2008

I'll have to ask her what the original photo is like, Lobster. Thanks for the timeline -- I could've sworn I read somewhere that people sat for portraits in the 1830s.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:50 PM on June 25, 2008

supplements to that timeline (I'm drawing here just on info from wikipedia, so take this just as starting point):

daguerreotype (from c. 1840 on), then succeeded by a few other techniques mentioned on that page
carte de visite (from c. 1860 on)
cabinet card (from c. 1870)
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:52 PM on June 25, 2008

From Mrs. Burnfirewalls:
"Several things about this picture say 1860s (or possibly 1850s) rather than the 1830s, based just on the clothing. Women's dresses in the 1830s were generally fastened in the back, whereas front-opening dresses with that kind of collar are more typical of the 1850s and on. Also, the hair style (center-parted with a little volume over the ears) is a standard 1860s hair style. The eyes do look strange, but certain early types of photography had unique responses to color; for instance, blue eyes typically appeared eerily light while warm tones, like red, orange or yellow, could appear black. That means the woman in the photograph, with her eyes looking like that, could be wearing the most shockingly orange dress ever! I have more resources if they want to read them."

And from me, a Photoshop kinda guy who has had some classes in old photography techniques, I agree with the comments above. I have never seen a old photograph with that kind of "chalky" pattern, only certain Photoshop/GIMP filters.

Hope this helps! If you need more info feel free to PM me.
posted by burnfirewalls at 6:58 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

fun facts about early photography from Neatorama (so again, not exactly an authoritative source) says the first photographic portraits were taken in 1839.

This is a great mystery you've got here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:59 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Burnfirewalls, you and your Mrs. are great resources! That makes this photo doubly interesting, as it was said to have been taken in 1831 and no later than 1836, but then that can't be right. Also, I'm told it's a tintype, not a daguerrotype, so then that can't be earlier than 1856, when the tintype process was invented. I wonder if that suggests a different identity? I'll have to see!
posted by Countess Elena at 7:09 PM on June 25, 2008

Don't mean to get my tintype-foil hat on here, but could someone be trying to scam your aunt somehow? Faked picture of "relative" with fake date...?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:20 PM on June 25, 2008

Is there anyway it's a photo of an older painting/drawing? It doesn't look like a photo at all to me, it looks painted by hand.
posted by whoaali at 7:23 PM on June 25, 2008

I find this photo oddly familiar, but, real old photographs tend to look remarkably the same. . What looks so totally familiar is the thing on her head, in the precise way it hangs. But it's extremely early in the morning (still on first cup). I don't recall my family having any photos that old.
posted by Goofyy at 7:34 PM on June 25, 2008

I was going to ask what whoaall asked: if it's possible it's a photo of a painting done in 1831 maybe? I suppose Photoshop could be entirely responsible for the pseudo-impressionistic look of the details, but my first reaction was "that's an oil, or an oil pastel, not a photo".
posted by GardenGal at 8:04 PM on June 25, 2008

Goofyy beat me to it; I know Victorian photos were pretty stylized but this looks really familiar.
posted by pointystick at 8:12 PM on June 25, 2008

No way this photo is 1830s, for the same reasons as burnfirewalls lists above. I agree that this photo looks more 1860s. Retouching photos (sometimes quite heavily) was a common practice during the last part of the 19th century. I've seen some retouched photos from this era that look like strange paintings and I've also seen images of deceased relatives' faces superimposed into group photos. I think you are dealing with a bit of both of these factors.

My theory about this photo is that it is more of a collage. I think this image was put together after the death of the subject pictured and her face superimposed onto another body, with a halo of hair painted around her head. Perhaps she had one existing photo of herself, likely as part of a family group and it or the negative was in poor condition. She dies and her children want to do something to honor her, so they have a photographer copy her face from the negative or a photograph of the original photograph to create this image to display.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:45 PM on June 25, 2008

An even creepier theory is that the only actual photo of this woman was post-mortem. That would explain the heavily painted eyes.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:48 PM on June 25, 2008

It was very common at the time for traveling portrait artist to prepare a painting in advance of the sitting, maybe even a generic painting of "man in suit" or "woman in Sunday dress". Then all that had to be done was paint in the facial features. It was also a way for people to upgrade their social status or fashion sense -- even if they didn't own the latest frill from Paris, they could "wear" it in the painting.

There is a definite cut and paste of the face here. Oddly, the face itself -- bar the eyes -- is the only part that is surely a photograph.

Goofyy may have it in that it's entirely possible the portrait background was copied from one of a well-known personage.
posted by dhartung at 11:22 PM on June 25, 2008

If you look at the inside corner of the left eye, it really does strengthen the case that open eyes were painted over closed ones. Plucky, you may be on to something.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:18 AM on June 26, 2008

My first thought when I saw the photo before reading the [more inside] was that I'd seen this photo before. So I would agree with those advising to check into the motivations of the person who sent it to your aunt.

And I'll agree with everyone else that it looks like some Photoshopping has taken place.
posted by mikepop at 5:29 AM on June 26, 2008

I know Victorian photos were pretty stylized but this looks really familiar.

I have definitely seen this photograph before. I'll see what I can find.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:11 AM on June 26, 2008

An even creepier theory is that the only actual photo of this woman was post-mortem. That would explain the heavily painted eyes.

This actually happened fairly often, as dead subjects tend to stay very still and make for some of the best portraits. After looking through a couple hundred gaunt-faced tin-types, I'm less certain that I've seen this before.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:37 AM on June 26, 2008

Agreeing with commenters who think this is a case of Photoshop effects. It looks like a face has been stuck on and a "painting" effect applied.
posted by PatoPata at 7:29 AM on June 26, 2008

It was actually fairly common for photographs to be overpainted with oils and tempera before the 1900s. My father, who was an antique dealer and a photograph collector, amassed a collection of several hundred examples of completely painted-over photographs of all types - from Daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes to later paper processes.

I think it is completely reasonable to think that this photograph of your ancestor was painted over, at the time of original purchase. It could also be an earlier painting that was photographed later, perhaps after the sitter's death.

A quick search of ebay in the photograph secion with a keyword of "painted" gets you several examples: see here.

There are a few (very few) books written about this practice - the most common is Henisch's "The Painted Photograph ..."

Of course, without seeing it in person, it is really impossible to say what you have there. But don't rule out something odd or out of the ordinary. There were many, many, portraiture practices that were used before and concurrently with early photography - many that we do not see examples of nowadays. To immediately jump to the coonclusion that it has been "photoshopped" (as in the software) is pretty laughable.
posted by gyusan at 9:23 AM on June 26, 2008

I don't think everyone here jumped to that conclusion but rather based it on experience with digital and non-digital manipulation of images.

Sure, the fact that it looks like the face was cut out from another image and pasted onto this one (line under chin, overlaying of one ear on top of another, jaggy line up the side of the face, different skin tones, etc.) could be explained due to something non-digital/old-timey, but add in the tell-tale look of some common photoshop filters and you have to move "something odd" towards the bottom of list of probabilities.
posted by mikepop at 11:22 AM on June 26, 2008

Different skin tones on face and neck were actually rather common for working women in that period. Also manually messing with photographs. I'm not saying the photograph isn't altered (I tend to agree that it might have been a hpoto of the deceased that has been altered by a victorian portaitist) but wouldn't it have been awfully easy for any photoshopper to remove the line under the chin?

As far as broad mouths go, take a look at the image of my great-great-great grandfather and his wife.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:20 PM on June 26, 2008

Y'all are great. You called it -- it was photoshopped, if by kindly intention, it seems. This is what my aunt wrote to me today:

[Her contact Jim] is Mary's g-g-g-g-grandson. Several items had been handed down through the generations and from what Jim has told me, he is probably in his 70's or 80's. Regarding the picture, he said he has the original tintypes taken of Mary [that's her] and [her husband] George "late in life" which had been handed down through his family.

In my research, I found that Mary died in 1851 but George died in 1836. I assumed the two pictures were taken at the same time, but it's possible that Mary's might have been taken later. If tintypes were not invented until 1856, then both of the pictures in his possession could not be of Mary or George, since both had died by that time.

Jim scanned in the tintype or a photo of the tintype. The original was extensively damaged. Lots of scratches and when copied, areas around the brows, furrows in the forehead, around the nostrils, the lips, and chin turned white. He used Photoshop to try and correct those imperfections.

. . . If this picture was taken in 1851 (the year of her death, the latest it could have been taken) she would have been 91 years old. But her hair is dark, also, which makes me wonder. I would expect it to be gray or white?

Jim is going to send me the original file he scanned in. I hope it is before he did his retouching.

So the face was definitely altered on a computer. But I wonder if it wasn't already altered somewhat; the more I look at it, the more painted or paintfiltered it looks, even down to the frills of her headpiece. I'll just have to see the real image. (I expect the hair is black either because of the optical effect described above, or because the sitter refused to have white hair for the occasion.)

I had no idea that mourning portraits could be used as the basis of a pastiche to create a portrait of a "living" person. It made me realize that the idea of a photo having some kind of "integrity," as a fixed moment in time not to be altered without fraudulent intent, is a very modern one. It appears to have been treated first as just a new kind of painting.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:47 PM on June 26, 2008

Also, luckily, no money is involved here. My aunt's pretty canny, I should say. Because members of our family tended to quarrel, split up, move to adjacent hollers and forget about each other's existence, it's pretty easy to accidentally come across distant cousins of ours in Tennessee.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:52 PM on June 26, 2008

Glad to hear you're getting more clarification, and that your aunt's not being swindled somehow.

There have been a couple of Mefi posts about postmortem photography in the 19th century:
older memento mori
more recent ones
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:57 PM on June 26, 2008

And let us know what else you find!
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:57 PM on June 26, 2008

19th c. photo tricks, adding in absent people after the photo was taken, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:06 PM on June 26, 2008

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