Photo Detective: Unknown Subject

Photo Detective: Unknown Subject

This week's submission is a photograph of an unknown woman. The owner of the image does not know who the person is or when it was taken. The first step in identifying this picture is to establish what type of image it is so that a tentative date can be...

This week’s submission is a photograph of an unknown woman. The owner of the image does not know who the person is or when it was taken. The first step in identifying this picture is to establish what type of image it is so that a tentative date can be assigned. The size and appearance is consistent with a very popular type of photograph called a cartes de visite. They were so prevalent in the United States in the 1860’s that the fad was given a name — cartomania. There were many variations in the color and decoration of these cards. By consulting William C. Darrah’s Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography (published by the author, 1981) it can be determined that the double line frame around the image dates from 1861-1866.

Examining the photograph, an imprint of the photographer C. Dart of Bennington, Vt., appears in the lower right corner. The second step, therefore, is to establish when C. Dart was in business in Bennington. According to the Federal Census, a Calvin Dart was in Bennington during the 1860’s. He is the only C. Dart in the Bennington area. Since this assigns work dates within our suggested time frame, it is not necessary to undertake additional research about the photographer at this time. If the owner was curious, further genealogical inquiries concerning the photographer could be made, including contacting the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont, which houses a large collection of photographs taken by Dart in the 1880’s.

Dart used a theatrical backdrop and column to add interest to the photograph. It appears that the bottom edge of the backdrop was constructed of wood to anchor the cloth and add an authenticity to the surroundings. The column on the left also gave his subjects something to lean on during the photographic process. In this portrait the woman is resting her arm on the base of the column.

It is also important to analyze the clothing worn in the image to make sure all the clues agree. The short-waisted bodice and full width of her hoop skirt with a belt emphasizing her waist suggest a date of 1862-1865. This is a one-piece dress and is probably the nicest one in her wardrobe. Her hair is worn low on her neck and may be enclosed in a net. This was a popular hairstyle for the time period.

The final conclusion is that this picture was taken between 1862-1865. All the evidence suggests this time frame. Unfortunately, there is no caption or other clues that assign an identity to the woman or suggest why the picture was taken.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com.

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