American Beauty

05 25 marie doro 3Today is the birthday of this lady, a long forgotten star of silent film called Marie Doro. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart in 1882, in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Like most early film stars, she began her acting career on the stage. Also like most stage actresses, she began working in the chorus. By 1901, she was appearing in a play by David Belasco called ‘Naughty Anthony’. It doesn’t seem to have been one of his better plays and she appears to have been the best thing in it. She played a hosiery model who, in one scene, has put on a pair of silk stockings and is demonstrating their fit to three shocked Salvation Army women, when… a man walks in. It doesn’t sound like much to you and me, but in 1901, it was pretty scandalous.

In 1903 she was spotted by impresario Charles Frohman who took her to Broadway. In 1905 she travelled to London where she worked alongside William Gillette in a play called ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Gillette was the first man to play the role of the detective. I mentioned this play when I wrote about Charlie Chaplin back in April. The sixteen year old, then unknown, Chaplin also had a small part in the play. He still remembered seeing her for the first time when, years later, he wrote his autobiography. He said:

“She was so devastatingly beautiful that I resented her. I resented her delicate, pouting lips, her regular, white teeth, her adorable chin, her raven hair and dark brown eyes… But oh God, she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”

And who can blame him? The photograph below was taken around 1902 by a Broadway photographer called Burr McIntosh. It’s a wonderful picture, she is indeed, radiant.05 25 marie doro 2 I was glad I managed to track down the name of the photographer. I only wish I could tell you who was responsible for her costume.

Ten years later, Marie and Charlie were both in Hollywood. Marie told a friend that she was a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin and would like to meet him. She had no idea that they had once acted together. When they were introduced he said: ‘But we’ve met before. You broke my heart. I was silently in love with you.’ She answered ‘How thrilling.’ He told her how he had timed exactly when she would leave her dressing room, just so he could meet her on the stairs and gulp ‘Good evening’.

Marie appeared in several plays alongside Gillette, including one he wrote himself called Clarice in which she had the title role. It is about a doctor and his young ward who are in love but neither knows the other’s feelings. There are some suggestions that Gillette wrote the play with her in mind. Frohman and Gillette exerted a strong influence on her development as an actress and she later admitted that she had been ‘hypnotised by them.’ She was rather typecast as the weak and pretty woman but people who knew her described her as very intelligent and funny. She was an something of an expert on the work of Shakespeare and on Elizabethan poetry.

After Frohman was killed in the sinking of the Lusitania she made a sideways move into cinema. She appeared in eighteen films all together, almost none of which survive. Old films were shot on cellulose nitrate film which tends to rot away. Either that or it spontaneously bursts into flames. It will carry on burning, even if you submerge it in water. Maybe 75 % of all American silent films are lost. The titles of her films are intriguing, I’d love to be able to show you a clip from ‘The Mysterious Princess’ orMidnight Gambols’, but I can’t. She does have the honour of having appeared in the first 3D film to be shown to a paying audience, in 1915. It was just a few test shots, but still, that’s quite a claim.

I can’t tell you a great deal about Marie Doro’s life. She married in 1915, was divorced quite soon after. She never married again. She never had any children. In the 1920s, she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left. Marie later made a few films in Italy and at least one in the UK. After returning to New York, she became increasingly reclusive and died in 1956, leaving $90,000 to the Actors Fund, which provides financial support for workers in the performing arts and enntertainment industry. Her life and career may be lost to us but, thanks to Burr McIntosh, we still have these lovely images…

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Now You See It

04 09 isambard kingdom brunelToday I am celebrating two birthdays of two innovative Englishmen. Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was born in 1806 and Eadweard Muybridge who was born in 1830.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth. He has an odd name. The Kingdom Brunel part is just his parent surnames and Isambard is a Norman name of Germanic origin that, rather fittingly for an engineer, means ‘iron bright’. Brunel was both prolific and innovative. He built dockyards, railways, steam ships bridges and tunnels. He also invented a vacuum powered railway and a prefabricated hospital to send to the Crimea. But today I want to tell you a more personal story about him.

 In 1843 Mr Brunel was performing a disappearing coin trick for his children which involved putting a sovereign in his mouth and pulling it out of his ear. Unfortunately he managed to somehow inhale the coin and it lodged in his windpipe.  He approached the problem like an engineer and had himself strapped to a platform, of his own specifications, that could turn him upside down. He hoped the coin would drop out. He felt it fall but it lodged against his epiglottis, he began to choke and had to give up. Then he had a  tracheotomy, which he would have undergone without anesthetic, and surgeons attempted to remove the coin with forceps. The operation caused more distress and had to be abandoned without success. The incision was kept open though and when he had recovered enough, he was again inverted on his machine. This time, because of the tracheotomy, he could still breathe when the coin fell against his epiglottis. So after a couple of coughs the coin fell into his mouth. The sovereign had been lodged in his chest for around six weeks.

04 09 eadweard muybridgeEadweard Muybridge also has an unusual name. He chose it himself. He was born Edward Muggeridge. He also suffered an accident, but the consequences were more long-lasting. In 1860 he was a successful bookseller in San Francisco who was travelling by stagecoach across America on his way home to England to buy antiquarian books. In Texas the stagecoach crashed and he was thrown out and hit his head badly. He had to be taken 150 miles to Arkansas for treatment. He remained there for three months, suffering from double vision, confused thinking and impaired senses. He then had another year of treatment in New York before he was well enough to continue his journey. It is likely that he suffered serious and permanent brain damage. Friends said that his behaviour changed significantly he became erratic and eccentric. He also became… a photographer.

04 09 yosemiteIn 1867 he returned to America to take a series of spectacular landscape photographs, particularly in the Yosemite valley. He seems to have had little sense of personal danger. That tiny figure in the photo on the left, the one perched on a rock overhanging a 2,000 ft drop, that’s him.

Muybridge is most famous for taking the series of pictures that proved, for the first time, that a horse has all four of its hooves off the ground whilst galloping. He devised a way of taking a number of sequential images using twelve separate cameras. At first, the shutters were triggered by a thread as the horse passed by. He later used a clockwork mechanism. He even found a way of making the photographs into a moving image, by copying them in silhouette onto a glass disc and spinning them in a machine he called a zoopraxiscope which could project the images. His machine would inspire Edison to build his kinetoscope which would in turn fire the imaginations of the Lumière brothers. Muybridge went on to take thousands of sequential images, both of animals and humans, particularly for the University of Pennsylvania. I’m particularly fond of this galloping buffalo.

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Balloons and Catacombs

04 06 nadar in a balloonToday is the birthday of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known by his nickname: ‘Nadar’. He was born in 1820 possibly in Paris, maybe Lyons. Initially, he was training to be a doctor and was particularly interested in the emerging field of psychiatry, but gave it up, probably due to lack of funds. His nickname seems to have come from a tendency among his friends to extend any word by adding ‘dar’ to the end of it. It was a sort of code, a little like pig Latin, but it was a sort of mock medieval French. Hence he became ‘Tournachondar’ then ‘Tournadar’ then just ‘Nadar’.

Nadar had a pretty lean time in his youth and soon fell in with similarly impoverished aspiring artists and writers. He wrote, edited and drew caricatures for a couple of satirical magazines called ‘Le Charivari’ and ‘Petit Journal Pour Rire’. One of his fellow artists was Gustave Doré, who I wrote about in January. In 1854, someone persuaded him to open up a photography studio, specialising in portraits. He left the running of it to his brother as he had a lot of drawing to do. But his brother wasn’t great at it and Nadar soon became interested in photography himself.

04 06 nadar studioHe soon became a much sought after portrait artist and, in 1860, moved in to much larger premises. You can see his studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines on the left. A glass fronted building with his signature on the front of it in huge letters. I wonder what those people on the roof are doing… Nadar depicted his subjects simply and did not surround them with props. He enjoyed being able to put people at their ease and saw his work very much as a collaboration between himself and his sitter. He believed that by applying what he called ‘the psychology of photography’ he could produce an intimate portrait that more closely resembled his subject. He photographed so many famous people that it’s hard to know which to show you. Below are Gustave Doré, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote ‘The Three Musketeers’ and his friend and fellow flying enthusiast Jules Verne. The other picture is a series of twelve self-portraits. Someone has thoughtfully made them into a gif, which I can’t post here, but if you want to see Nadar twirling round and round you’ll find him here. The originals were taken in about 1865, that’s several years before Muybridge’s galloping horses.

04 06 gustave dore04 06 alexandre dumas04 06 jules verne04 06 twelve nadars

04 06 catacombs parisHis work was not just confined to portraiture, in 1858, he became the first person to take aerial photographs. He did this by taking his camera up in a balloon. This was even less easy than it sounds because the glass plates he used had to be prepared, exposed and developed during the flight. As well as taking pictures from the air, he was also the first to take photographs underground. In 1861, he used an early kind of arc lamp to give enough light to photograph the catacombs underneath Paris.

In 1863, he commissioned the building of the biggest balloon in the world It was called ‘Le Géant’. The balloon was 196 ft (60 m) high with a capacity of 6,000 cubic metres. It carried a two storey wicker basket that had six cabins including a printing room and a toilet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a huge success. It was mainly the landings that were the problem. It’s second flight took its passengers 400 miles, but it hit a strong air current as it descended and almost hit a moving train. Nevertheless, the huge balloon inspired Jules Verne to write his first adventure novel ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon’  and Nadar himself was the inspiration for the character Michael Ardan in Verne’s ‘Rocket to the Moon.’

The failure of the balloon led Nadar to the conclusion that the future of flight was in heavier than air machines. He and Jules Verne established  ‘The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines’. Nadar was president, Verne was secretary. I’ve been unable to find out if there were any other members. Maybe I didn’t look too hard because it’s quite fun to imagine it was just them. Nadar didn’t totally give up on balloons though. In 1870/71 during the siege of Paris he helped organise balloon flights carrying mail, connecting the besieged city with the rest of the world. It was the first air mail service.

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03 22 virginia oldoini 1Since the invention of digital photography and social media it is not uncommon for people to amass hundreds of photos of themselves. In the nineteenth century, that was not so easy to achieve. Virginia Oldoini, the Countess da Castiglione managed to provide us with over 400 pictures of herself between 1856 and her death in 1899 and it is her birthday that I am celebrating today.

She was born in Florence in 1837 and was the daughter of a Tuscan marquis. At seventeen, she married an Italian Count, but it was not a happy marriage, she had numerous affairs and extravagantly spent all his money, eventually leaving him bankrupt. In 1856 the couple visited Paris and she was urged by her cousin to plead the case for the unification of Italy with Emperor Napoleon III. Italy was then, not a single nation but a collection of city states.  Her instructions were “succeed by any means you wish, but succeed.” She dazzled everyone at the French Court with her beauty. At a ball hosted by the Emperor, her entrance caused such a sensation that the even the orchestra stopped what they were doing to look at her. It wasn’t long before she became Napoleon’s mistress. The affair caused such a scandal that it led to her divorce.

03 22 virginia oldoini 4It was during her affair with Napoleon III that she first visited the studio of Mayer & Pierson and discovered the delights of photography. She was terribly self absorbed and narcissistic and probably quite annoying to know. The Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador, described her thus: “Wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the colour of pink marble! In a word, Venus descended from Olympus!…after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves.” After her first portrait she went back again and again but she was no passive subject. She literally called the shots. With the help of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, she began to recreate moments from her life and the beautiful and sensational gowns she had worn. Then, she began to dress up as historical, mythical or fictional characters. In one photo she might be a courtesan, in another a nun. When her ex-husband tried to get custody of their only child, Giorgio, she 03 22 virginia oldoini 5sent him a photograph of herself dressed as Medea holding a dagger dripping with blood. She would choose costumes, props, even camera angles and directed the hand colouring of some of the pictures. She became totally obsessed with her own image, spending all her money and even getting into debt in the process. Virginia Oldoini enjoyed particularly using mirrors in her photographs. Even when she was capturing her image for posterity, she was looking at herself. Some of her later photographs have an almost surrealist quality. There are photographs that are of just her legs, which was not only unusual but quite shocking for the time. There is even a photograph of her, from the waist down, lying in a coffin.

03 22 virginia oldoini 2As she grew older she became reclusive, living in an apartment of rooms painted black. The blinds were kept drawn, there were now no mirrors and she only ventured out at night. This made her very mysterious and intriguing to a poet and dandy named Robert de Montesquiou. He loved the idea of a great beauty locked away in darkened rooms. He really wanted to meet her, but the Countess was then living a rather squalid existence and she declined to receive him. After she died in 1899, he claimed that he arrived at her funeral just in time to glimpse her face as the lid of her coffin was shut. When her possessions were disposed of, he bought her nightgowns and 433 of her photographs. He also composed her biography ‘La Divine Comtesse’. It is clear from her later photographs that she was mourning her fading beauty. Although her life long project was born of extreme narcissism the photographs are beautiful and it is a truly unique 19th century record of one woman’s life.

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Gift To The World

08 19 daguerre 2Today I have a milestone in the history of photography. On this day in 1839 the French government gave us the secret of Louis Daguerre’s photographic process. It was their free gift to the whole world (well almost all of it). Daguerre had already been making his images for at least four years (the picture above was taken in 1838) but he was having difficulty raising financial interest. Rather than apply for a French patent he exchanged the secrets of his process for a government pension. I can’t tell why, I lack both the time and the will to look at nineteenth century French patent law.

Daguerre was an accomplished painter who used a camera obscura to paint enormous canvases which he displayed in his diorama theatre. The camera obscura (which means dark chamber) had been familiar to artists for hundreds of years. It could be used to project a brightly lit image through a lens onto a piece of paper. The image could then be traced but people had long wished it was possible to capture the image they saw without the need for drawing. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century quite a lot of people, Daguerre amongst them, were experimenting with light sensitive chemicals. What was needed though was not only a light sensitive surface but also a way of making it insensitive to further exposure so that the image could be viewed in normal light.

Through the optician who supplied the lenses for his camera obscura, Daguerre met a man named Niépce who was also attempting to fix a photographic image. Niépce was using a bitumen substance to coat a metal plate. The bitumen would harden where it was exposed to the light and the rest could be washed away. These images required an exposure time of at least eight hours, but it did work. The two experimented and exchanged notes for several years and eventually came up with a copper plate that was covered with a thin layer of pure silver which was made light sensitive by coating it with iodine. Niépce died before the method was perfected but his son also received a government pension in recognition of his father’s contribution. Once the plate had been exposed inside the camera it needed to be developed and fixed using fumes of mercury and sodium hyposulfite. If you’re curious, I was, you can watch this little video on YouTube. It seems like an extremely laborious, not to mention dangerous process. Mercury was, after all, the thing that sent hatters mad.

The images produced by the daguerreotype method are really lovely and seem to float above the surface of the plate. The reflective silver surface can make the picture appear as either a positive or a negative image depending on the angle you view it from. The image is extremely delicate and needs to be kept under glass to protect it from damage. Before the introduction of gold chloride into the fixing process, the surface of the daguerreotype was as delicate as the dust on a butterfly’s wing.

08 19 duke of wellingtonPublic interest in this new invention quickly became a kind of mania. Within weeks of the French government announcing the details of Daguerre’s method anything remotely related to the making of daguerreotypes was being swept off the shelves as quickly as it appeared. Within months instruction manuals could be found all around the world. It would be the most popular way of making a photographic image for the next twenty years. Millions were produced and many improvements made to the process along the way. It is because of the work of Daguerre and  Niépce that we have portraits like the one above, which is the Duke of Wellington and the one at the bottom which is Daguerre himself. Daguerre was not the only contender in the field of photography though. An Englishman called Henry Fox Talbot had come up with a rival method, also in 1839, but that’s another story for another day.

I did mention at the beginning of this post that Daguerre’s method was available for free to almost the whole world. There was an exception. Five days before the government’s act of extreme generosity Daguerre had taken out a patent which applied to England, Wales, the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and in all her Majesty’s Colonies and Plantations abroad.08 19 daguerre