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Family Album
R. Wayne Parsons
The Stark Studios, “Amelia”

This is a family photo only in a very loose sense. My sister-in-law, knowing my interest in photography, bought this portrait photo on the web solely because it appealed to her and she thought it would be a much-appreciated gift for me. She was certainly correct on that count.

We know nothing about this subject other than that she sat for her portrait in the early 20th century at a commercial photography studio in Reading, PA, where my wife and her sister grew up. The location of the studio suggests that the picture was made around 1920. I prefer to endow the girl with a bit more of an identity than is afforded solely by the photo and will therefore call her Amelia.

One of my first reactions to this image of Amelia is one of loss. No, not loss as you think I mean, but loss in that our culture has largely lost its appreciation for black and white photography. When was the last time you saw a school portrait or family snapshot in anything other than color? But you don’t have to spend much time with this image to appreciate its rich, warm tonalities, the subtle tonal gradations as your eye moves around the image. Technically, the only thing I dislike about this image is the too-abrupt burning in at the bottom of the picture; I would appreciate a more gradual transition from Amelia’s drape to the near-complete black below. But this was a commercial portrait done by a photographer whose time was at a premium and as a result no doubt could not afford to experiment in the darkroom to “get it right” –- you can’t make much of a living that way. Better to have a fixed routine (the same lights always in the same place, camera always at the ready in the same spot, same amount of time in the developing tray, standardized procedures for making prints for the customer, etc.) so you can crank out those photos at a reasonable pace and be able to make the rent.

Looking at any photographs of unknown, vanished people raises the same common-place but still poignant questions of the trajectory of a life, the meaning of a life: who they were, what they did in life, what became of them, were their lives successful, did they have more or less of their fair share of happiness. I ask these questions about Amelia, though it is clear they will never be answered except in my imagination. My fantasy is that a child as attractive as she lived a long and rich life filled with a loving husband, children, friends, comforts, meaning, and satisfaction. But I could be wrong.

But the above comment reveals a pervasive prejudice in our and most societies: we favor physically attractive people over those who are not. The last decades have seen long and hard-fought battles to counter discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, body size and so forth. But when did you ever hear of an advocacy group for ugly people? Who would join such a group? And who among us can truthfully say that they respond equally positively to the lesser endowed as to those who had the winning draw in the attractiveness sweepstakes?

Amelia’s smoldering sexuality is one of the most striking –- and disturbing –- aspects of this photo. Notice the nudity of the shoulders and upper body, which is emphasized by the heart-shaped locket on a chain around her neck, the gauzy drape wrapped in an apparently casual manner as if to suggest effortless removal, the ever-so-slightly-parted lips that are the hallmark of seductresses the world over, the intensity of her gaze which suggests the possibility of being the favored recipient of her charms. The carefully groomed hair style would be just as appropriate on a circa-2011, downtown hipster looking for a hookup as it was ninety years ago. Obviously Amelia’s role as a siren is not her doing, as it is too sophisticated for her few years. Since this approach to child portraiture was virtually unseen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I can only assume that the choices were made by her parents with the complicity of the photographer. One wonders what kind of people they were –- presumably not your typical middle-class adults governed rigidly by popular mores.

But regardless of whether this portrait is exploitative of Amelia or borders on kiddie porn, I must admit to being smitten. I wish I had known Amelia. Don’t you?

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You can read the earlier parts of this series here: <Part 1> and <Part 2>.

Family Album by R. Wayne Parsons

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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery