Monday, 6 August 2012

Vintage Photos of Women Readers

About five years ago I started collecting vintage photos and artwork of women reading. The collection started by accident when someone sent me a link to an image of Marilyn Monroe on a now-defunct blog called Babes with Books. (Do not Google this site-name; it has been resurrected by a pornmeister.)

I went looking for other vintage photos of women reading, and bought a few of the more interesting ones, including a couple of risque French postcards. (One of which ended up as the poster art for the 2010 BSANZ conference run by the Centre for the Book at Monash: see here.)

Part of what interested me at first about the images I found is what might be called the "erotics of reading"—or, in much cruder terms, the application of Rule 34 to reading (an internet meme stating that "If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.") Because if you look for vintage images of women reading an awful lot of them eroticise the act of reading.

A good eighteenth-century example of an eroticised reader, taken more-or-less at random, is Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié's "Woman Reading" (1769) (see here).

Looking at this image I am left wondering whether the act of reading is only an excuse for the artist to show a woman in dishabille, that the book legitimises the partial nudity because is a plausible situation for a woman to be in a state of undress. Having exhausted the artistic possibilities of "woman bathing (nude)" or "women sleeping (mostly nude)" we have "women reading (partial nude)." That is, rule 34.

Among the postcards, that I bought in 2007 and 2008, this one is, perhaps, the best example of using a book as a plausible-prop-for-naughtiness. Note well, the book is upside-down!

(I recently bought another which depicts a couple reading a copy of the Kama Sutra, and have seen a photo recently—even more self-referential—of a naked model reading a book called Nude Photography! Why didn't I buy it? Some residual good taste perhaps. I will post some of these another time.)

Returning to Monroe. I loved this post on Monroe, particularly this quote:

If some photographers thought it was funny to pose the world’s most famously voluptuous 'dumb blonde” with a book—James Joyce! Heinrich Heine!—it wasn’t a joke to her. In these newly discovered diary entries and poems, Marilyn reveals a young woman for whom writing and poetry were lifelines, the ways and means to discover who she was and to sort through her often tumultuous emotional life. And books were a refuge and a companion for Marilyn during her bouts of insomnia.

As the author goes on to explain, Monroe was a serious reader and had an impressive collection of capital-L literature on her shelves, but it seems at least part of her willingness, enthusiasm even, to be photographed reading was iconoclastic.

Her love of books was genuine, and if it seems that she lost no opportunity to be photographed while reading it was only a desperate need to be taken seriously as a human being and as a thinking, intellectually curious, down-to-earth woman with something extra beyond her obvious physical charms that motivated her; she should be forgiven.

Unfortunately for Monroe, the icon was not so easily broken.

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Returning to my first collection of vintage images of women reading: just as my small collection started to take shape I lost interest in it. There didn't seem much point in collecting images to illustrate the obvious relevance of rule 34 to reading and so, in 2010, I passed the dozen or so images on to Monash University. (See here.)

But one year later I started again. I found an article on the way in which books were used as props in the photographs of a single, nineteenth-century Canadian studio. It got me wondering how books were used as props in general, and how reading was used as a signifier in early photographs in general (studio and candid photos). And, indeed, what were the functions of books and reading in artwork in general.

Although I am interested in exploring this wider area, and am prepared to track it from the eighteenth-century up to WW1, I decided to maintain the focus largely on women readers for academic and practical reasons. The practical reasons are the limits of what I can afford to spend and how much space I have available.

The academic ones are varied, but I am most interested in eighteenth-century women writers and their contemporary and later readers. The history of these writers and readers can only be understood in relation to attitudes in general to women as readers and writers since the eighteenth century.

(And, as I discovered when looking at the history of eighteenth-century erotica, much of the most important part of the history of erotica took place in the nineteenth century. This is when material was either collected or destroyed, when facts were recorded or not. The nineteenth century was the valley of the shadow of death through which every work of eighteenth-century erotica had to pass before they could "lie down in green pastures" and dwell in a library forever.)

* * * * *

Enough introduction. I always intended to post images on this blog of the artwork I collected and I am starting now. I will provide whatever information I have been able to gather about each image, principally about photographers and clothes, hairstyles etc to justify the dating. (Dating is often difficult, and I am learning as I go so I am happy to revisit and revise dates and I learn more, and as I find more online reference material and I get more reference books to help with identifying fashions.)

I will, on occasion, make further comment where it is appropriate. The literature on this topic is tiny, but where I can make connections to scholarly material I will. So far the only book I can find on readers is the article I mentioned above and Readers: Vintage People on Photo Postcards from the Tom Phillips Archive (The Bodleian Library, 2010), see here, and my copy has not arrived yet!

Today's image is an albumen print on a carte de visite (abbreviated CdV or CDV, see here) of a young woman, seated, holding a book or photo album.

The photographer is identified as "C. H. Williamson, Brooklyn, established 1851"—Charles H. Williamson operated his gallery in Brooklyn from 1851 to 1859.

The photographer's dates suggest late 1850s for this image. But, if you look here and here you will see that the subject is wearing clothes that appear to date from the 1880s (a tight fitted jacket, with a high white collar, lots of buttons in a row, and tight fitted sleeves). However, her hair is severe and you can see part of her ears (suggesting a date in the mid- to late 1860s), and the logo on the back must pre-date the mid-1860s too.

All very confusing. I am going to opt for early to mid-1860s, assuming the fashions in the early 1880s were a return to similar fashions of the early 1860s and that Williamson's backing-cards continued to be used beyond 1859.

Since buying this CDV I have tended not to buy images that do not depict actual reading (even if staged), particularly when—as here—the book and the subject cannot be identified.

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