Friday, January 19, 2007

The Ebay Photo Archive

(1900's photograph of the Tempio di Vesta in Rome)

I don't know if it's because I've worked in historical photo archives on and off over the years, but my interest in older photographs has gradually increased over time. So why this didn’t occur to me earlier I don’t know, but I recently discovered what has to be the biggest online collection of old and antique photographs – the Ebay>Collectables>Photographic Images area. It's a sort of democratic archive of old photographs (although as it's constantly rotating, I'm not sure archive is quite the right word).

(I like this sort of proto-urban topographics night shot from the 40's)

At any one time there are often upwards of 20,000+ photographs for sale on ebay dating from before 1950. I've found it fascinating to trawl through just to see what's there - everything from Daguerreotypes to travel photographs to family portraits to strange landscapes to weekends at the seaside (and who knew our great-grandparents bought and hoarded so many naughty French postcards - enough to keep ebay going, literally, for years). The mother of all photo garage sales.

(I'm sure my parents brought one of these little credit card sized momentos back with them from their autumn in Paris in the 50's)

As I went through the auctions I realised there were certain things that interested me. First, this wasn't all just what you might call vernacular photography - family snapshots and the like. There was also plenty of work from professionals of one sort or another across the decades. As well, despite what the foretellers of doom predict about the overwhelming flood of digital photography, it was a little reassuring to see that there seemed to be as much bad photography produced in the 19th and 20th century as there is today. This despite the fact that for much of this time photography was a rather cumbersome pursuit, often utilizing toxic chemicals, and also comparatively expensive, yet there seems to have been no shortage of really really awful photography.

But there were also some gems – which is what really attracted me. And while there was the occasional legitimate Ansel Adams or Atget photograph up for sale (and well beyond my wallet), I took an entirely eclectic approach. I liked following various themes such as Victorian and Edwardian portraits of rather severe well dressed ladies or Travels in Egypt and Palestine or carte-de-visite of bewhiskered army officers and clergymen

(My all time favourite purchase so far the "10 Famous Marshals of the People's Liberation Army" accordion style book - what a great example of Communist kitsch meets Becher-like typologies)

And I went with what caught my eye - perhaps something quirky or an apparently unusual composition for the time, or an unconscious precursor of a later movement or style of photography.

What’s also nice about it (although perhaps depressing at the same time) is that most of these photographs sell for very little - and yet once they arrive in the mail, it's quite rewarding to hold something in your hand that's often quite beautiful and that was perhaps made in the 1890's.

(One that got away - I was too cheap to bid the extra couple of dollars for this and kick myself now...)


Stan B. said...

Thanks, Tim- I'm trying to save up for a printer here (as if Im not bleeding enough green with every must have monograph)!

tim atherton said...

sorry Stanco :-)

actually the 10 Marshal was the cheapest thing I ever bought on ebay - 10pence I think (okay shipping form China was a bit more -the seller even threw in a jade trinket!)

But other stuff on there was between $6.00 and $15.00 -go figure (sure you can pay a lot more)

You might not want to read the Three Books by Lee Friedlander post that's coming up though...

raul said...

The 10 Marshal pack is part of a larger set with about 100 generals and a few communist party bigwigs... they used to sell these in China in little packs like baseball cards.

tim atherton said...

thanks raul - cool!

I'd got the idea it was something like that from hunting around on google

gotta love the cult of personality