Instant Family

There’s something about the cold winter months and the distance they put between me and working on my projects that seems to give me amnesia when it comes to buying more projects. As the hours of toil it takes to bring them back to life becomes a fading memory, my garage begins to fill with more and more things that need a little patch here and a little paint there. However untenable the situation may become, I can never say no to antique pictures and portraits.

Some call them creepy. I call them instant family. I’m drawn to these captured moments in time and the stories they seem to tell. These were, after all, real people. They walked and breathed once. Their mortality makes some people uneasy, but I find their company comforting. Here are a few I’ve picked up lately.


These two WWI troop panorama photos are recent finds that will fill in a rapidly growing collection. Panorama photos were a popular way to commemorate events or large groups of people, such as military troops, graduations and business events. My collection began with my great grandmother’s college graduation photo from 1929. I loved the look of the picture on the wall and just began snatching them up. I love to cluster them togetherl, as you can see from my bedroom in this post.


For being nearly a century old, the images are often quite crisp. It’s always sobering to look into the eyes of these young men. For many of them who did not return from war, these images are the only photographic evidence of their existence.


Panorama photos are usually easy to date and identify. Generally they are always dated with a description handwritten on the negative by the photographer. This is especially helpful for military buffs who like to connect photos with certain military bases or events.


As much as I love the panoramas, this Victorian scene is hands-down my favorite antique photograph ever. My favorite flea-market dealer—who shares a mutual love for these old portraits—had this waiting for me one day. The minute my eyes hit it, it was sold. Everything about this is amazing: the colors, the frame, the subject matter. Antique photos often have a lifeless quality to them. They were an expensive and often serious affair. But these three young men—either a father and son or three brothers and their dog—paint a picture of a days gone by that aren’t so unrelatable. An adorable picture at that.


Pictures from this era are often black and white photos printed on paper and then hand-tinted using chalks and pastels to add color. This technique gives them an artistic, if not other-worldly, look.


But the reality of what I’ve bought must eventually set in. These frames always need a little work. At a minimum they must be cleaned and reframed for the safety and conservation of the pictures. And then there are cosmetic repairs to plaster and paint. As the work begins on these, I’ll show you how I do it.


Stepping back a few years earlier in time to the middle 1800s, we have these two portraits. The refined elegance of the frames as well as the photography techniques place them before the more exuberant late Victorian era. This portraits are printed on sheets of tin and then hand-painted with embellished details.


My favorite part is the elaborate detailing of the matting. Glittered, flocked and gilded—the expense and importance of these portraits is evident in the details.


Oval portraits, often known as “bubble frames” for their convex glass, were popular from the turn of the last century into the 1920s. By this point in time the expense of photography had decreased considerably, making it available to the masses. These photographs are printed on convex paper and hand tinted with pastels or gouache. The picture above was an antique store find and the color and pose are absolutely stunning. Rarely do these appear in such a solid, dreamy color—and even rarer is a nearly flawless frame.


Putting my other deals to shame, I snagged this family portrait at a thrift store for only $2.49! I had to read the tag twice and I even asked Tammy if she thought it was supposed to be $24.99. Nope. Usually oval portraits are just a single person, maybe two people. A whole family is an interesting find.


Soldier portraits, like this WWI era photograph, have been standard since the beginning of photography. Although a tribute to their service and heroism, it is important to remember that these photos were often the only remembrance families had for men who did not return from war.


And occasionally there is an orphan like this guy. Ousted from his frame and left behind by his family. In the 1960s and 1970s, a reinterest in Victorian arts led to many antique photos being shed so their frames could be used to display contemporary art or mirrors. But whenever I find these lonely people, I grant them refuge here in my instant family with a fresh frame and a spot from which to watch the world spin on.





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