Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Mysterious Photographer

Not often do I speak historically of photography, but sometimes knowing something about period photography helps in understanding some of the mess I'm digging through. Recently, I was getting a few Ossman pictures together for a cartoon idea, but then I realized something about one of the pictures I was using. 
I opened this picture for the first time in a while, and noticed that it was not taken at the Edison studio in c.1898. I cropped this larger version of this crappy image from this:
Edison? What?
Okay, so the first thing that caught my eye and made me realize that this was not taken at Edison was that wallpaper. I've seen that wallpaper quite a few times in Columbia studio pictures. Just so you can all visually see that this wallpaper is most certainly Columbia's is through this picture here:
We know for certain that this group of musicians is the Columbia orchestra. Thanks to The Phonoscope, we can be assured that these are familiar musicians that we've seen before, such as the clarinetist and the piccolo player. Those two recognizable musicians are William Tuson and George Schweinfest, with any one of the cornet players probably being Tom Clark. The picture above is certainly Columbia's studio, as not only do we see familiar Columbia musicians, but we also see those distinct windows that were on that immense building that Columbia occupied in the late-1890's. You can't see those windows in that picture of the studio in 1898:
Unfortunately the picture was taken just so that you can't see those windows, but everything inside is the same as usual. You can see them here though:
There's those windows!
So anyway, now that we've got that sorted out, let's get back to that Ossman picture. 
We can now see that it was taken at the same place as this picture, according to the familiar wallpaper sheathing the background of every early Columbia picture:
there's that same wallpaper!
So with all of this evidence of Columbia being the location of that crude Ossman picture, what of it?
Well, it's not Edison as the note below it states. So, since I've gathered all of these early Columbia pictures from around the same time, this had led me to question something. 
What's with all these crude pictures?
It can seem curious to look through all these Columbia pictures and find a pattern. What I've noticed about these Columbia pictures is that they are nothing like the well composed Edison pictures from around the same time, and a little earlier. Even the earliest Columbia pictures have a period composition that were taken by a skilled photographer. The strange composition of these Columbia photographs is not typical to what I've seen in general from the time period. They're out of whack and uniquely composed. 

I mean, it would be hard to look at that Ossman studio picture and not see that it's weird. Just like the 1898 exhibition picture, it's clear someone was experimenting. Also, after doing some more digging through my studio pictures, I realized that the one picture of Estella Mann making records was also taken at Columbia...
That same wallpaper!
The composition of these photos is very strange, and I hope that you see why. Not often do we see in an 1890's photograph a picture like the Ossman one, likely taken down the hallway from the main recording room, leaving the door open and taking up half of the photo's composition. Being in an advanced placement art class, my teacher would give that image a funny look, since often photographers are advised to compose the image with balance, but that Ossman picture has not that at all. Even with my inner artiste talking, I love these strange Columbia photographs. They're especially unique, not just from the technical standpoint of noticing the same wallpaper, but also from the artistic standpoint of the weird composition. With all of Columbia's rotten corporate rules and atmosphere, they still had the most down-to-earth bunch of leaders on their recording staff. Another thing to keep in mind with these Columbia pictures is that they were all taken around the same time, within a two year time frame(or so). The time I mean here would be from 1897-1898. Even though I have not used the exhibition picture as an example, that picture also is included in this study. It be about time to use it again anyway:
This image is composed similarly strange to the other ones. 
Really look at it. 
This image was likely taken at that rounded corner that we can see in the picture of the outside of the place in 1898. Since we can see all of this, here's the real question...
Who was taking all these pictures?
Of course since there's no "Columbia Archive" anywhere, we can't definitively see who took thee pictures, but we can have some good guesses. We know many of these Columbia recording stars were experimenting through their long recording careers, but the one specific guess I have would be Len Spencer. We know that in 1895-96, both Spencer's along with Steve Porter and Russell Hunting tried entering in the new film business. After that endeavor collapsed, Harry Spencer was left with all the equipment and connections they made, the remnants of this you can see in the earliest edition of The Phonoscope. Considering Spencer's relentless experimentation, it would be too surprising if he was part of the reason for those strange Columbia pictures. Since he did have an "artsy" side(being that he was naturally a lefty) he must have had an apt viewpoint when it came to taking photographs. Another reason I think it may be Spencer is because of who is missing in the exhibition photograph. We see Harry Spencer clearly identified, but no Len in sight. I'm not saying that I would always assumed the Spencer brothers to be together, but since the image above is of an exhibition, it would be very likely that Len was elsewhere in that chaotic scene. By elsewhere, I mean "experimenting" with a camera he had. When considering Spencer's nature to experiment, it wouldn't be surprising if he was responsible for that exhibition picture, or the strangely composed Ossman one from around 1897 or so. 
Let me reiterate that picture again, just so we can all see it again:
That's the stranger portion, where we're peeking into the recording room at Ossman while he makes records. It's a clever photograph really, even with the almost too wide door. 
The other seemingly random half of the picture here is this also interesting character:
Who's that?
When looking over this image once more, I almost immediately recognized that guy. He's got to be an Emerson brother. But which one exactly is the question...
Well, as I went to dig through all the pictures of those three brothers, I assumed first that it was the most obvious guess, Victor. We all know about Victor, with those intense eyes and red hair, with a stare that'll knock anyone cold(and not in a good way!). 
There he is...You can just see the evil in his eyes...
After looking at pictures of the three Emerson brothers, I saw that this figure was not Victor, but it was George. 
The handsomest of the Emerson boys, also the youngest. 
You can see that this mysterious engineer in the artsy Columbia picture is George for a few reasons. 
One...That's exactly the same mouth and lip structure.
Two...those distinct ears, that were slightly different from Victor's more pointy ones. 
Three...That curly, wavy hair. All three(there were four mind you) of the Emerson boys had this hair type, but it seems that George got the most prominent variation on this theme, and you can see it in the artsy picture, as can be observed in the picture directly above.

Another observation...if that's George Emerson in the Ossman picture(of whatever it is...), he looks older than his age. Lets say that picture was taken in 1898, so with that, Emerson would have been 22. He looks older than a young chap of 22. Thanks to The Phonoscope we know that he was the sporty one of the brothers. He got himself into tangles with wandering women, and it looks like he was a drinker as well, similar to Victor in a certain aspect. 

Anyway, it seems I've exhausted this topic for now, hopefully I can sometime see the originals of these images and get a much better scan of them, wherever they're kept hidden...

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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