Background to the Collection

I went to Nova Scotia in May 1972, to do fieldwork for my Ph.D. in anthropology, and lived at Horton Landing for 20 years. In the first few years I traveled widely in southwestern Nova Scotia, and visited a lot of antique stores. Many of these establishments had the remains of local estate sales, including framed portraits and photo albums, and sometimes very miscellaneous collections of snapshots and tintypes. I bought thousands of pictures, long before vernacular photography was a fashionable medium, and created slide presentations of the most risible. Some photographs had limited provenance --a photographer's name, or a penciled identification on the back-- but for most there was no information at all about who the subject was, or when or where the picture was taken.
When old folks died, the ragtag of household goods that heirs didn't claim often went to stores that specialized in resale, mostly to local clientele. Some establishments identified themselves as "antique stores" but many were commonly known by their owner's name, or no name at all. If you needed a table or a couple of kitchen chairs, Elwood Morse or Pauline Oickel would probably have them; if for some reason you wanted a kerosene lamp or an ox yoke or an old cast iron stove, the item could be found and purchased for not much money. If your taste ran to pictures of other people's ancestors, there were stacks of old frames for sale, many of them still tenanted by the portraits that had hung in parlors or repined in attics. And there were boxes of old photograph albums and stacks of tintypes and cabinet cards and cartes de visite, all depicting people whom nobody could identify anymore. These remnants had little sentimental or monetary value, and I was able to buy literally thousands of Nova Scotia Faces. I started puzzling through the trove 40 years ago, and I'm still trying to make sense of the life stories that the photographs summarize.
Most of the images have nothing to identify their subjects, though some tantalize with the name and location of the photographic studio, and a few have cryptic legends on their backs, which can sometimes be decoded. The albums sometimes have family information to identify them with a particular locality or household; most are identifiable only by time and occasionally by place, but their dramatis personae are otherwise anonymous. One is tempted to construct stories, imputing character on the basis of expression and physiognomy, and imagining the circumstances under which the subjects entered photographic studios. Quite a few images were taken in the Boston States and sent home to Nova Scotia as evidence of the success of the sender.

I always meant to put together a book of these found objects, incorporating what I knew or could reasonably construct from available evidence, and creating likely stories where concrete data were absent, but the right medium and audience was never quite clear enough. For the last 15 years or so I've been thinking about a Web version. I started putting items into Flickr in November 2005, one or two a day (see the set here, and for a really good time, try viewing as a slideshow), but that was simply too slow, or anyway that's what Gardner said. And it's all very well for me to give my readings of these gems, but it would be at least as interesting to hear what others have to say. Some people have added comments to the (more detailed, larger) Flickr versions of the images.

This example will sketch some of what I mean to accomplish:


As with most vernacular photography, the question is ?why was this snapshot taken? ...and the answer generally has to do with capturing an event: a trip, a celebration, a rare conjunction. This one has nothing written on the back, and I know no more about it than that I bought it at Mr. Morse's antique store in Berwick NS almost 40 years ago. The sartorial splendor of the person on the right quickly named the picture: Cousin Highpockets Comes to Town.

The bodaciousness of this enterprise can be gauged from this example:

...taken by Adrian Lewis in 1973, when he was learning the basics of photography (he went on to do marvelous work, a lot of it while traveling in India ...wonder what happened to it?). The subjects: myself, my wife Betsy and daughter Kate. We, too, were Nova Scotia Faces, to be sure.