I'm not one to seek out antique shops regularly, but on the rare occasions I do go, I look for old photographs. And not just any old photographs: I'm drawn to the ones in which something's a little strange, the ones that contain hints of something other than what the sitter likely meant to be remembered for, or the photographer likely intended to show. These are the rare ones to be sure, and I'm not always sure what I'm looking for, until I see it, like this one:
I don't think I've seen an altered ambrotype before. Not that I didn't think you could alter an ambrotype -- clearly you can just scrape the collodion emulsion off the back of the glass plate -- but I've certainly never seen one deliberately defaced like this. Carefully defaced. Literally de-faced. Just the identity of the sitter obliterated, and everything else, including the velvet-lined case, completely intact.
Of course I had to buy it. It now sits on a bookcase in my living room, and I stare into the absent face, and, unlike most old photos, it does not appear to stare back. And, for some reason, I'm all the more drawn to it because of that. Of course, I have thought about who the woman was in the portrait, and the fact that no one now will know. But there's only so far you can go with that, and I've thought thoughts like that before. So I think more about who would so painstakingly remove her face yet leave the rest of the image intact, and why. I wonder if it's a historical or a modern alteration to the glass plate. I wonder if the person who did the defacing knew the person whose face was being obliterated. I wonder if there are more images like this.
I begin to think that all images are like this. They are like this even when we can still see the faces -- we see the old pictures as anonymous people from the past, who could be anyone, and everyone, and our future selves, and no one all at the same time; they stand in for all the other people who are lost to time and memory, for all the photographs that will lose reference to anything or anyone known and yet will still endure as compelling physical objects. We can see this, see ourselves, see the human condition, and see the limits of photography, both as information and as object.
But we also see the act of an unknown hand on the image, the one that did the defacing. I imagine that person, whose face is for me as unknown as that of the woman whose was originally in the picture, sitting at a desk, scraping tiny bits of the image off the back of the glass plate with a tiny sharp knife, an action that becomes what the image is now about -- the image is now a picture of that action, that impulse, that gesture, that need to obliterate the image and to preserve a record of the action of obliteration, more than it is a picture that used to be of someone, and now is not.