Saturday, May 12, 2012

Group Portrait on a Hillside

The first few times I looked at this Real Photo postcard, without benefit of magnification, I succumbed to an optical illusion so strong that I still struggle with it even after multiple viewings and close inspection. In the middle distance, running horizontally across some two-thirds of the image, I saw what was apparently a body of water, with a white line of sand at the base of the hills in the background, and two small white sailboats, one at the far left and the other just below the man's left hand... except that none of it is real. The shoreline is in fact the apex of what appears to be a single long roof, the "sails" are architectural features of that roof, and there is no "middle distance," as the building — whatever it is — blocks out what lies behind it. There may be a river on the valley floor, but if so we can't see it.

That illusion, and the fact that we are so high up relative to the long building that nearly all we can see of it is its roofline, is only one of the unusual elements of this photo; note also that the photographer appears to have shot from a very low angle, right down in the weeds, probably in order to get the hills in the distance in the same frame. There's an incredible amount of detail in the background, much of which emerges only when the image is blown up: houses, outbuildings, smoke rising from a chimney, railway trestles.

On the right side of the close-up below, just to the left of the sharply sloping filigreed roof of another building, is a dark vertical object that may be a pipe or some kind of cast-iron structure, and running across its base are two faint parallel lines that may be telegraph wires.

Even further to the right, and completely invisible to the naked eye without magnification (at least, invisible to my naked eye), is one more ghostly, chimneyed building, so faint it almost blends into the distant hills:

In the center of the frame we see three women and one man, probably the husband of the woman whose hand he barely touches. Someone's straw boater has been set down among the tall weeds at their feet. If you look back to the full image you can see that there's a well-worn path directly behind them, visible on the left side.

The card, which was printed on a variety of Velox photographic paper manufactured from 1903-04, bears no postmark, mailing address, or other clues to the identity of the subjects or the location; the topography should be identifiable but is unfamiliar to me. The hills in the background are mostly barren, as if they had been clear-cut recently, and the houses look like new construction. I'm guessing that we're looking at a boom town, perhaps in a mining area. (Manitou Springs, Colorado has been suggested.)

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