Salt Prints

November 25th, 2011

The Museum where I work (and sometimes curate exhibits that include modern art) has featured photographs by artist Hal Hirshorn in three exhibitions: “Tending the Fires”, “Memento Mori: The Birth & Resurrection of Postmortem Photography”, and “In the Spirit: Modern Photographers Channel the 19th Century”. Working with an early 20th-century view camera fitted with a mid-19th century lens, Hirshorn uses 19th-century techniques, including Henry Fox Talbot’s salt printing process, invented in 1834.

Tending the Fires

This salt print is from Hirshorn’s series shown in “Tending the Fires.” It was taken two years ago in the kitchen of the Merchant’s House Museum. Others featured the same model — representing one of the Irish servants who once lived and worked in the house — cleaning the parlor grates. One of those photographs was published in the Historic House Trust newsletter, where a visiting historian saw it and marveled at how lucky the museum was to have original period photographs of its servants…

It was a natural mistake, given the atemporality of the image, though it is extremely uncommon to find photographs of servants dressed in their working clothes from the mid-19th century — even more rare to see one in the act of cleaning. I was particularly amused because I was the model portraying the servant. I made the dress I wore in less than three days, then sweated through an August heat wave in a corset and three petticoats while holding really, really still for the long exposures. Before the shoot, Hal brought over books of photographs by Arthur Munby, a British photographer who broke with his own social class to document 19th-century working women — most famously taking many photographs of Hannah Cullwick, a maid-of-all-work who was also secretly married to Munby.

Earlier this year, I — and lots of other people — participated in another series by Hal Hirshorn, this time recreating the death and funeral of Seabury Tredwell in 1865.

It was an incredible project, a production of prodigious proportions. Hirshorn shot in three historic locations, including the Merchant’s House Museum, Grace Church, and the New York City Marble Cemetery. There were 14 different models — some taking part in multiple shoots — each wearing some sort of mid-19th century mourning costume. The weather was less than cooperative. The final shoots had to be rescheduled thanks to hurricane Irene. An earlier shoot took place despite an impending rainstorm that let loose just as we were heading home. You haven’t lived until you’ve chased four men in top hats carrying a coffin down Broadway, while wearing a corset and a hoop skirt, in the middle of a torrential downpour.

If you’d like to see the funeral photographs in person, you’ve got three more days, until Monday, November 28, to visit the exhibit at the Merchant’s House Museum. Works by Sally Mann, John Dudgale, and RA Friedman are also on display, along with historic spirit photographs from Thomas Harris and The Burns Archive.

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