Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Story Portraits

While browsing in an antique store you might spot a shoebox filled with large cardboard-mounted portrait photos (known as cabinet cards) or smaller versions printed in black-and-gray on a square of metal (tintypes). Generally speaking anyone depicted in either type of portrait photo lived during the Victorian era, and should be sporting period-appropriate clothing and hair styles. These old photos are special in several ways, not only for the processes with which they were made, but for the moments in time they captured. They're also stories waiting to be told, and terrific character and world-building inspiration for the fiction writer.

My personal collection of Victorian-era photos is small and not especially valuable; I'm drawn to old portraits more for their content than their condition. What I look for are faces that catch my attention and lots of small details in dress and composition. The two types of portraits I collect, cabinet cards and tintypes, were fairly common during the time period and both were made with interesting processes (and if you'd like to see larger versions of any of the photos in this post, simply click on the image.)

Cabinet cards, which are albumen prints glued to cardboard mounts, were printed from glass negatives onto paper prepared with egg white. According to author Kristina Harris, an estimated six million eggs were used in 1866 to make albumen prints. Cabinet cards caught on in America that same year, and for the next forty or fifty years were quite popular. Although most were not dated, if you do your research you can estimate the age of a cabinet card based on the type of cardboard mounting used.

Tintypes, also known as melainotypes or ferrotypes, were photo images printed on iron plates. Although they were never as popular as cabinet cards, they were more durable than paper. They also had a special appeal for soldiers fighting the Civil War, who would have tintype portraits of themselves made for family, or carry tintype photos of their wives and children with them during the war. One trick Kristina Harris mention in her book on Victorian photography that you can use to determine if a tintype is genuine is to put a magnet on the back; magnets stick to real tintypes.

Btw, if you can't afford to buy originals (and I refuse to pay more than a couple of bucks for any I find), you can do an image search for cabinet card and tintype photos scanned and posted on the internet, and print those out on paper.

Inspiration from old portrait photos for me starts with the initial attraction when I see it -- there is always something compelling in the picture that grabs my interest. It can be the subject's expression, the way they're posed, the clothing they wear, their hair style or some other little detail that intrigues me. Because the Victorian photos I collect are black and white, I have to fill in the color details, but for me that's part of the fun. So is making up a name for the person in the photo and imagining who they were and what their lives were like.

Take this cute couple, for example: young, attractive, probably engaged or newly-weds. The petite young lady is beautifully dressed, and you can clearly see many of the interesting details of her gown. I really love the expression on her face; she seems almost wistful. Her guy, on the other hand, is a strapping, handsome fellow who doesn't seem tentative at all. No, he looks like he'd kick your butt and stroll off whistling. She's posed with her hand on his shoulder, almost as if she's bracing herself on him for support, while he's kicked back and seemingly not worried. That's a good show, too, but to me his gaze seems challenging, as if he'd never for a moment tolerate any nonsense, especially toward his lady. As to who they eventually became for me in my story, that would be Rachel and Christopher Kittredge -- Kit's parents.

Each time I worked on Kit's parents as part of her backstory I looked at this cabinet card; the visual clues gave me inspiration and direction. The photo helped me decide that in Toriana the use of fur to trim gowns is confined to the ton, and snow-white fur would be the most expensive. Rachel, who is not ton, couldn't afford a fur-trimmed gown -- but her wealthy guardian certainly could. As for Christopher, his no-nonsense expression blossomed into a characterization that significantly contributed to one of the most important events in the backstory; one that is basically the plot catalyst of the entire series.

Here are two more cabinet cards that inspired some other secondary characters in the Disenchanted & Co. books:

Meet Fourth (aka Horace Eduwin Gremley IV), one of the tenants in Kit's building, and Miss Maritza Skolnick, the daughter of another tenant. These two have an ongoing role in the series and in Kit's life, and have their own story playing out in the background. Remember when I mentioned how you can roughly date a cabinet card based on the mounting? The unusual gilded edging on Fourth's portrait indicates his portrait was probably taken sometime between 1880 - 1890.

Drawing world-building inspiration from the little details in old portrait photos means putting on your detective's cap and really studying the images. Here's a close-up of one of the women shown in my tintype example (and I've lightened it so you can see her better, too.) Note her unusual striped hat and the way she's holding her parasol, as if she were prepared to draw out a sword. In my view that hat definitely doesn't go with that dress, so why is she wearing it? Could the style of her hat have something to do with her social status or perhaps indicate membership in a secret society? As for the parasol, maybe there is something long, sharp and lethal hidden inside it. Maybe she lured the other woman to the studio for a reason other than having their portrait made -- or perhaps the photographer is the target. And what's inside that short, broad decorated column, for that matter, and why is the other woman practically hiding behind it?

Some of the portraits in my collection are still waiting for me to figure out their story. One of the most maddening so far is this lady's picture:

For the time being I've dubbed her Mona Lisa, and I have a few suspicions about who she is. Her features, the big ruffled sleeves and even her fingers tell me she's hiding something pretty huge -- in plain sight, no less. What I've yet to imagine is why she's doing this dangerous thing, and what's going to happen when it blows up in her face. So I'll keep looking at her portrait until the universe lifts the last of the veils and shows me her whole story.

While I focus on Victorian-era and other antique photos to spark my world-building ideas for the Disenchanted & Co. books, you can do the same with photos you find from any other time period, so don't confine yourself to cabinet cards or tintypes. Most families have some old photo albums passed down to them, so raid your relative's closets. You can also find tons of portrait photos on sites like Flickr that also allow you to search by keyword.


  1. My BFF has been collecting old photos for years. There's never been a time we've been out scrounging that she hasn't found a dusty old box filled with pictures. And she always buys some. I once asked her why, because really, who are these people? She told me that's exactly the point.

    1. I think I got started collecting antique photos because it made me sad to see such lovely memories for sale. Then one portrait inspired a character in one of my short stories, and I realized that while I can't reunite them with their real-world families, I can give them new lives and people to love them in my fiction. Weird, I know, but there you have it. :)

  2. You creative types have wonderful brains, I wonder if something special would show up on a brain scan.. I look at my photos from years back and I can't remember who people are, never mind really old pictures. I shall now look at my photos in a different light and make up my own stories about who the people are.

    1. It might jog your memory, too, Fran, or the memory of someone in your family. I started looking through an old album that belonged to my guy's mother, and found a photo of a pretty young girl he couldn't remember. The smile made me think of his older sister, and when we asked another family member he confirmed that it was her in the photos, and that they were taken about ten years before my guy was born.

  3. These are fascinating. Now I'm wondering about that hat, too.

    1. The expression on her face is positively wicked, isn't it? Which made me think Victorian assassin. :)