Department Store Photos

This is a photo of my sister taken in 1934, before I was born and in a rental house I never knew.  This is not about nostalgia.  It is about the photographer.

The photo is one of the best portraits I have ever seen, a masterpiece perfectly lit, mainly by the natural light from the window, but also from the opposite side by a diffuse light or perhaps a reflector.  Sunlight falls on the window frame, but not directly on her where it would only wash out her pale skin tones.   The camera angle is above her, looking down, emphasizing her vulnerable smallness.  Her leg and white shoe stand out starkly against the shadowy underside of the bench that shows no distracting detail.  The scene is carefully arranged with her doll on the radiator cover and a plant on the windowsill, both only partly shown to suggest, but not to distract.  A fresh white doily brightens the radiator cover and adds interest.  The dark window frame and the doily edge forms a giant arrow pointing to her, the center of our attention.  Her face is precisely at the one-third intersection that naturally draws our attention. Her eyes are looking to the side with guarded amusement.  She is enjoying the procedure, but is not relaxed, trying her best to follow every instruction.  Her details are in sharp focus.  She must have been told to hold still while it was taken (we all were for any photo), but also the camera was of professional quality, much better than the common types used for snapshots.  The surrounding area only inches away is slightly blurry, another way of subtly directing our attention.  Whoever took the photo knew exactly what aperture would give the proper depth of focus, and he nailed it.

The anonymous photographer was almost certainly a man.  The photograph is marked “Frank & Seder,” a department store at the foot of 69th Street near the transportation terminal (see 10/1/2005 posting), and also at 11th and Market Street in Philadelphia.

In those days, department stores would send out a photographer to take a portrait in your own home.  They would walk into a strange house, lugging all of their equipment, glance around, and quickly come up with a setting.  Most of the subjects must have been children with all sorts of temperaments.  My sister was obviously delighted with the attention and the chance to dress up on an ordinary weekday morning.  I can imagine my mother saying, “Hurry, hurry.  The photographer will be here soon,”  just like in a Bobbsey Twins book.

He had to get the children to sit still while directing their eyes away from the camera.  “Watch the birdie” referred to a stuffed bird on a stick that was held high and to the side, but I remember from my own sessions a puppet in the photographer’s outstretched hand while the other hand tripped the shutter by a cable extending to the large camera on a sturdy tripod.

I suspect the payment was only for the finished photo, and if it did not come out, the photographer did not get paid.  It was a tough way to make a living, working out of your car from a list of addresses, relying only on your talent and the hope your customers will appreciate it.

I digitally colorized the scanned photo—the original is black-and-white—but that was easy and took no talent on my part.  All of the credit goes to the unknown master who visited the house in 1934.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in History, Lansdowne and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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