Happy Accidents & other weird and wonderful tales

Nedre Slottsgate in Oslo, Norway, in 1882, source: National Archives of Norway

Today I want to draw your attention to the Public Domain Review, which is probably the discovery of the year for me.  It’s a not-for-profit project dedicated to showcasing the most interesting and unusual out-of-copyright works available online. Their reach is amazing – films, audio, sketchbooks, maps, manuscripts, artworks and, most relevant to us here, photography.  In this section you’ll find collections of lantern slides, corset x-rays, the housework postures I blogged about last week, men in wigs and the results of Dr Julius Neubronner’s miniature pigeon camera. There are dozens more.

Each entry comes with a short introduction from a scholar or an artist, and every image is linked back to its original collection. There’s also a guide to finding interesting public domain works for yourself. They have a tumblr, pinterest and twitter feed too, if that’s the way you like to discover things.

So just a couple of examples, both of which are instances where the final, and I think beautiful result was not planned by the photographer at all, more a by-product, a serendipitous windfall. Firstly, a collection of double exposures. They come from all over the place, and are in the main unintended, but there are one or two from practitioners of the dastardly art of fake spirit photography too, which perhaps deserves a post of its own.

Family outside house, unknown place and date, Found photograph, source: Flickr

Family outside house, unknown place and date, Found photograph, source: Flickr

Jan Matulka seated in his studio, ca. 1920. Source: Smithsonian

Jan Matulka seated in his studio, ca. 1920. Source: Smithsonian

A girl with flowers, a family appearing behind, ca. 1905 (possibly intentional, made as a ‘spirit’ photograph). Source: Library of Congress

A girl with flowers, a family appearing behind, ca. 1905 (possibly intentional, made as a ‘spirit’ photograph). Source: Library of Congress

Double exposure involving drawings on a blackboard, Cape Breton Island, Canada, 1936. Source: Flickr

Double exposure involving drawings on a blackboard, Cape Breton Island, Canada, 1936. Source: Flickr

Second is a collection of decayed daguerreotypes. The fixing process being notoriously unstable, these early images had terrible problems with permanence. The plates were extremely sensitive to scratches, dust, stray hairs and so on, and as the glass deteriorated, bubbles of solvent would explode onto the surface of the picture. Contemporary artists like Sally Mann have come to revere this unique and unpredictable aspect of the procedure, but in its early days, results like these would have been bound for the trash can. Interesting how times change.  All of the images below are from the studio of Matthew Brady, part of a gift of to the Library of Congress from the Army War College in 1920.

Portrait of an unidentified man about 40 years of age and a somewhat younger woman, both in Oriental costume, between them is a hookah, the stem of which both are holding [between 1850 and 1860]

Portrait of an unidentified man about 40 years of age and a somewhat younger woman, both in Oriental costume, between them is a hookah, the stem of which both are holding [between 1850 and 1860]

Portrait of unidentified woman [between 1844 and 1860]

Portrait of unidentified woman [between 1844 and 1860]

Portrait of unidentified man [between 1844 and 1860]

Portrait of unidentified man [between 1844 and 1860]

Portrait of the U.S. President James Buchanan [between 1844 and 1860]

Portrait of the U.S. President James Buchanan [between 1844 and 1860]

Happy foraging…

www.publicdomanreview.org