Victorian photography was bizarre. I’ll say it. Seen through the eyes of a modern person, their sense of humour, their fascination with oddities, their budding scientific theories (and lack thereof), and their increasing access to photography that made everyone able to capture their own sense of weirdness… well, it all adds up to a bunch of freakishness.
They were fascinated with what they considered oddities; the rich collected such things, whether they were butterflies pinned to a display board, or porcelain figures, or live animals or human beings. I’ve already discussed the practise of Memento Mori – it’s been an on-going discussion ever since. But there were other practices, just as weird, and ones which our sensibilities today revolt at just as much as propping up dead loved ones for a photo op: Our sense of dignity for the individual, be they human or animal, is at times repulsed by their lack of it – people born with deformities were displayed in travelling circuses as freaks. I try to see it from different perspectives, and while it exposed those unfortunate individuals to public ridicule, it may have sometimes also given them a purpose in life with an income and a home (rather than, say, being locked away or experimented on), and a family that was the close-knit circus crew; they looked after their own. Nevertheless, they were bought and sold as commodities; one case in point was the tragic story of Julia Pastrana, also known as The Ape Woman. Another well known figure in history is Joseph Merrick, also known as “The Elephant Man”.
In the slideshow below, I have only included two examples of deformities that would have been displayed – the girl with the deformed legs, and the bearded woman; both would likely have been circus performers, or freak show exhibitions. Thank God for modern medicine.
One fad seems to have been manipulating photos through double exposure, thus creating “ghosts” in photos or making the subject headless; another seems to be something akin to making macabre Halloween cards by defacing a photograph to make the person look like a zombie (there are two examples in the slide show of the “before” and “after” photos). Others are simply weird; why would someone photograph a toddler with a saw? Or someone with antlers, or a bear, or a skeleton? There was a practice of what’s been called “hidden mothers” in photographs of children – the mother was hidden beneath a cover, or behind a chair, to help hold the child still for the long exposures of the photograph; but when some of them are so badly hidden, why didn’t they just take the opportunity to photograph the mother as well?
Below are a few random photographs found around cyberspace; I don’t know who owns any of them, but if you know of credit that should be given to a museum or collector, please do let me know and I’ll be glad to give it. Enjoy a look into the past.