The Case of The Mysterious Roving Moustache

moustacheAs we have worked our way through the glass plates in our collection, cleaning, rehousing and digitising them as we go, we have become very aware that practically all of the negatives have been retouched to some degree or another. This is no great surprise to us. Photographic retouching, as an art, is something that preceeds Photoshop by many decades and is a highly skilled practice that is widely documented.  The Edwardian audience, used to the idealised image a portrait painter could produce, expected the photographer to be similarly flattering in the capture of their likeness.  We have seen explicit evidence of this kind of expectation in the instruction some clients gave Knights-Whittome with relation to their printed orders…”the head & figure stoops rather too much forward & this can easily be altered when cutting the photo for mount & I think they would look infinitely better if darker about the top of the head – Please adjust these items!” (read earlier blog post on this subject here).

Even with limited practical knowledge of how retouching was carried out on glass plate negatives, it is clear to see on our plates, just by tilting the glass in the light, that to varying degrees, fine pencil marks have been etched into the faces, hairlines and backgrounds of almost all the plates we have. On some plates we see where retouching inks, paper masks and dope or varnish, to hold the pencil markings, have also been applied to areas of the image.  On others we can see that the plates have been double retouched – worked over on both sides – to achieve maximum results.  It is a subject which fascinates me, and which I hope to cover in greater detail at some point in the near future on this blog.

Today’s post is related to this practice.  It is also related to Movember.  And it is very speculative!  I openly invite comment from anyone who may understand better than I, how the processes of retouching glass plate negatives may have been put to work in this case.  On the other hand, perhaps I am reading too much into the following images but as previously stated, I welcome comment and wider speculation!

We have been working through the quarter plates alphabetically.  Some time ago the following plates of a Mr Matyner were scanned.  There were two plates in the sequence,  both marked Mr G Matyner and dated 14th and 17th December 1910 respectively.

Mr Matyner 14 Dec 1910

Mr Matyner 14 Dec 1910

As I visually checked the files, ready for archive and upload to Flickr, these two immediately caught my eye; not because of Mr Matyner himself, but because, in the second image, Knights-Whittome himself is clearly staring out from the left hand side of the plate. How strange I thought. What is he doing there? Perhaps he was just using up the unused half of the plate after his client had left?  But I had never seen the photographer ever appear on one of his client plates before. And there are plenty of examples in the collection where only one side of the plate has been exposed.

Mr Matyner (right) and Knights-Whittome (left), 17 Dec 1910

Mr Matyner (right) and Knights-Whittome (left), 17 Dec 1910

As I puzzled over this, with the two plates in front of me, it suddenly occurred to me that the Mr Matyner in the first plate, does not have a moustache.  But in the second plate, the one dated just 3 days later in which he appears alongside Knights-Whittome, all of a sudden he does. Could this be the same Mr Matyner?  Both men have the same initial and appear to be identical apart from the facial hair.  They are wearing what appears to be the same suit and tie, though tied and posed slightly differently.  And doesn’t that moustache look rather suspiciously similar to that of Knights-Whittome himself….?

Although I am experienced in working on digitisation projects, and with Photoshop retouching techniques, my knowledge of Glass Plates as a photographic format was very limited when I arrived to work on this project. I have picked up knowledge and learned about techniques as I have gone along but my understanding of how these may have worked in practice is still very limited.

Could it be that Mr Knights-Whittome’s impressive moustache has indeed migrated across the plate to his client, and how would this have been achieved? Is there perhaps a way of isolating Knight-Whittome’s impressive moustache, overlaying it on his client’s image and then double exposing Matyner’s image so that the moustache appears to hover over his face instead?  Or am I just reading too much into these intriguing images? There is certainly nothing documented on the envelopes of these plates to indicate that any retouching may have taken place.  If anyone can shed any light on how,  or indeed if, this could have possibly been achieved I would truly love to hear from you.

Perhaps, after all, Mr Matyner was just so impressed by his photographer’s moustache that he returned a few weeks later to have his images retaken, and the dates on the envelopes do not reflect the dates of photography at all. Or perhaps Mr G Matyner had an identical twin with the same first initial.  I cannot help but hope that this is not the case – I would love this to be a case of vanity, smoke and mirrors and not just of my imagination running away with itself!

In the studio

David Knights-Whittome (and his moustache) in the studio.


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