Camera Obscura

Yesterday, I cleared away our Christmas decorations and found a card from a relative that simply read “The postmistress has started putting sausages through my letterbox. I’m a worried man!”

It reminded me of the scraps of paper I use to find in books, ranging from enigmatic messages that sounded like Cold War code:

To ones like this rather strange find:

These remnants of lost lives are tantalising, particularly the photograph albums that have no names, dates or locations in them, showing us so much and telling us so little.

My latest find is an album of tiny, negative-sized prints that look as if they were taken in the 1910s and 1920s:


We begin with what looks like a lower middle class family, a century ago. The man may be smiling under his moustache, but it’s hard to tell. The clothing is respectable, but the two children in the front have bare feet!

Perhaps it’s a holiday snap.


My lamentable ignorance about military uniforms and cap badges always lets me down. I assumed that this was taken during the First World War, although their relaxed, informal pose suggests a slightly later time.

The person in the background looks a little like Robbie Williams.


I’ve found hundreds of old photos over the last five years, but never one of a sleeping child before. It’s a very touching image, although the wallpaper reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s last words.

Another photo of somebody asleep and I’m aware that my reaction to it is very different. With the boy, I see sleep as a healthy, nurturing part of growth.  When I look at this photo, I’m reminded that in Greek mythology, sleep and death were twin brothers.

Sorry if that sounds rather morbid. I think all these celebrity deaths are getting to me.


Perhaps the cause of the gentleman’s siesta was some over-zealous sandcastle building. I know how easy it is to get carried away, particularly when the tide’s coming in.


I love this photograph, with its meeting of two very different eras. The woman was probably born in the 1840s or 50s, around the same time that Dickens and Thackeray were at the height of their careers. Unlike the generations of women below hers, who adapted to the more utilitarian fashions of World War One, she remains resolutely Victorian.


In contrast, this woman is thoroughly modern. The photo is on the same page as the Victorian matriarch, so I assume that they were vaguely contemporaneous.


Is this the same woman, but taken before the war? It’s very difficult to tell.


Cat photos are also fairly rare among the albums I’ve found. There are plenty of dogs pictures; probably because they’re more biddable and remain still while the shutter is open. Dogs also let you put sunglasses and hats on them.


This is another unusual picture of a Victorian journeyman – a man who has found himself living in a very different, mechanised world. I don’t know what he’s holding in his right hand; it almost looks as if he’s popped out for a carton of milk.


The album ends with a touch of 20s glamour. I think this is the woman we saw three photographs earlier, in the beautiful dress.

I’m always interested in albums from this period because of the huge rupture that took place in people’s fashions and social mores after the upheaval of war. It feels as if we’re on the verge of another upheaval – hopefully minus a war – and who knows, in ten years’ time, we may all be wearing sparkly catsuits and tricorn hats.

One can only hope.


  1. zungg

    “No news from Crackington” (which seems to be in Cornwall, unless it’s a person) could be the title of an absurdist play.

    Could the item in the right hand of the man in the penultimate photo be a lunch container of some sort? That sort of weathered face you almost never see now.


  2. Sofa Head

    The second “scrap” appears to be a mishearing (or a deliberate corruption) of a line from the song ‘Set The House Ablaze’ which appeared on The Jam’s 1980 LP ‘Sound Affects’. The actual lyric is: “But something you said set the house ablaze!” Make of this what you will!


  3. George

    Well, William Styron’s first novel was Set this House on Fire, which I think is a quotation from one of Donne’s sermons.

    There is an element of aggression, it seems to me, in taking a picture of someone who is sleeping. That opinion may derive from the time a shirt-tail relative took a picture of his grandmother asleep with her mouth open, which did not at all please her. And my son and some of his snide friends started a blog built around pictures of persons found sleeping in their university’s library.


    • Steerforth

      I agree that there can be a desire to humiliate or ridicule – sleep is the great leveller of social status and the person who is awake can sometimes enjoy a rare sense of power over the sleeper.

      But we can also take pictures of people who are asleep because there is something very touching about their vulnerability. My younger son is now trying to affect a world weary cynicism, claiming that he is too old to play with toys any more, but the other night I found him asleep with his arm wrapped around a teddy bear – I had to take a photo. I won’t be sharing it on any social media, or using it to embarrass him.


  4. Joan Kyler

    They are interesting photos. The fact that we don’t know who they are or what they were doing (in the larger sense) allows us to imagine. My late mother and I sat down one day many years ago and went through a shoe box of family photos. She told me who they were and when the photos were taken and I wrote it all on the backs. There’s still much to know about my relatives (my mother told me one person always wanted a pair of red shoes – and I fervently hope she got them), but much is guaranteed to be left to mystery since the old generation is dead and mine is now on the firing line.
    Could you do a book of these old photos? I’d buy it.


    • Steerforth

      It’s good that you had the opportunity to do this with your mother – so many people don’t.

      I think the photos I’ve found could make an interesting book, partly because they weren’t seen as worth keeping and were almost destroyed. Abandoned things have a magic call of their own.


      • Joan Kyler

        They do, don’t they? My friend Jenny and I have just been discussing the allure of abandoned buildings, especially houses. She’s found a tumbledown house in the woods near her house, but it has a sinister atmosphere – since she’s found the remains of butchered domestic animals there.


  5. Lucille

    So tantalising I find myself examining them with a magnifying glass! The military chaps don’t look English. And the one without a uniform has a torn coat where his button has pulled away.
    Could the old bearded guy be a chair mender?


    • Steerforth

      I agree, they don’t look English. It’s possible that the album has an Irish connection.

      I’m not sure about the bearded chap. I wondered if he was a bodger, but those sticks look more like kindling.


  6. Dale

    I thoroughly enjoy playing Sherlock with those old photos. Keep them coming!
    Here’s my guess at the barefoot kids one at top.

    Maude Belton was having a busy afternoon baking in her kitchen when the new fangly telephone that Pa Belton insisted on having installed rang, announcing an imminent visit from their former neighbours Clara and Cyril Peabright with their children Ada and Reginald, in the old neighbourhood for that day only. Maude just had time to tidy her hair and stow her apron, when the Peabright family appeared at the door. How well they were turned out! Maude blushed for the state of her Charlie and Freda, no shoes on and looking like Street Arabs, as her granny would have said. She was pleased she had had time to put a ribbon in Freda’s hair that morning, anyway. And the Victoria sponge had turned out a treat, so there was something tasty to put on the best china when it came out for afternoon tea.
    Pa Belton, ever the technophile, turned the topic of conversation to his new Box Brownie and volunteered to take a souvenir photo of the meeting. Peabrights, you stand at the rear, he said, and Beltons, you are at the front. Maude knew better than to argue, and she’d always liked Clara Peabright in any case, getting on with her far better than her husband had with Cyril. Cyril is a bit of stick, she thought privately, and Lord knows what his lively wife saw in him, but they say there is someone for everyone in this wide world and as long as my Bertie buys me a new electric oven to replace that filthy old coal range I have to struggle with, he’ll do me.
    But far from electric ovens, Pa Belton was secretly nurturing dreams of a new Model T Ford, the height of affordable luxury. He could almost smell the leather. Soon it would be his. Click went the Box Brownie, and back inside they trouped for another slice of sponge cake.


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