Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Fade Away

These images -- I believe they're chromolithographs, but don't quote me on it -- are souvenir or advertising cards commemorating the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. They've been enclosed in a scrapbook, probably for well over a century, and thus their paleness is not the result of exposure to the sun but is either due to the natural deterioration of the ink or to the fact that they simply were made to look as they now appear. (None of the other material in the album shows significant fading.) Scanning them hasn't really helped matters; the horizontal stripes, for example, in some of the scans are real but far less noticeable in the originals.

Main Exhibition Building

Machinery Hall

Art Gallery

German Government Building

Arkansa State Building (sic)

New York Tate Building (sic)

Agricultural Hall

I'm afraid the uncanniness of these cards -- especially the first three above -- doesn't quite come across in the scans (the delicate blue skies definitely don't). The aqua color in the windows of the Art Gallery produces an eerie, almost three-dimensional depth, which may have been the intent but also may just be due to the limitations of the process employed. The tiny figures in the foreground, and the vastness and isolation of the buildings, seem all out of scale for a crowded 19th-century metropolis -- in fact they don't seem to belong to our world at all. They're faint echoes of a time no one living now remembers, dwindling ghosts growing every more distant from their corporeal origins.

These pictures must have been endlessly reproduced and copied and either given away or sold cheaply. I've seen barely distinguishable versions online, and in The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition published in the year of the fair there are numerous black-and-white engravings depicting similar or identical scenes. Because the cards are pasted onto the pages of the album I can't tell what if anything may be on the other side.

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