George W. Conkey (US, 1833? - 1898): A Day's Catch
Albumen print cabinet card, print size, 4 x 5.75 inches/10.3 x 14.5 cm, ca. 1890
This amusing image is perched halfway between a sportsman's trophy picture and a portrait. It's clear from the wide borders on either side that the photographer could have shown the full face of the fisherman, but elected instead to mask out most of his features. Nearly all photographic portraits from this time were made by professionals working in studios like Conkey's establishment in Glens Falls, New York. Since the customer had the right to reject unflattering likenesses, it is unusual to find photographs from this period that slice the sitter in half, concealing his identity.
The tree is a studio prop and the woodland backdrop is clearly painted, but the fish seem entirely real. Perhaps the sitter wanted this picture to be all about the fish. Or perhaps the subject of this photograph is Conkey himself, playing a trick on us. It's an image that invites the viewer to analyze it and theorize about it, like the staged tableaux of contemporary photographers Sandy Skoglund and Cindy Sherman.