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Photographic Fictions: Montages, Multiples…and Mischief (Page Three)

Photographic Fictions: Montages, Multiples…and Mischief (Page Three)


Giorgio Sommer (1834-1914; born in Germany, active in Italy): The Tarantella
Albumen print circa 1880, 7.6 x 9.8 inches

The Tarantella is a folk dance that originated hundreds of years ago. Tradition has it that in the 15th to 17th centuries a wave of tarantism, a form of melancholy thought to be caused by the bite of a tarantula, swept a city in southeastern Italy. The only treatment was to engage the victim in energetic dancing to a particular melody until the symptoms subsided.

This photographic creation incorporates a number of Sommer’s studies of the picturesque “types” found on the streets of 19th century Naples. At the far left, the pipe-smoking man sitting in a basket is a “lazzarone” or tramp. The man in uniform next to the far door-frame is a “Bersagliero,” a member of a military unit known for their plumed hats. The wine-drinkers– and presumably the other figures as well–could all be purchased as separate photographs. Vesuvius, which is billowing smoke in the distance, was also a frequent subject for Giorgio Sommer.

It is difficult to know the precise techniques used to create this picture–it may combine photomontage (in which sections of several images are printed together onto the same piece of photographic paper) with photocollage, where pieces of several photographs are cut out and pasted together. In any case, a great deal of touching up by an artist is evident, and the floor looks like it was entirely created with a paintbrush.

Certainly “The Tarantella” violates the stern dictum of Henry Peach Robinson, that “no departure from the truth of nature shall be discovered by the closest scrutiny.” It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that the children sitting on the floor are gazing intently in the wrong direction, and they are out of proportion with the rest of the figures. The tramp also seems to be looking away from the frenzied dancers.

But none of this apparently bothered Sommer’s customers, as this image has survived in several formats and seems to have been a strong seller.

Unidentified Photographer (U.S.): Choral Group with Melodeon
Albumen print photomontage or photocollage, circa 1875

Anyone who has ever tried to take a photograph of this many people can attest to the difficulty involved in obtaining a harmonious picture with pleasing expressions on every face. The maker of this group portrait may have thought the technique of photomontage offered a winning solution– for, as Henry Peach Robinson wrote, it enables the photographer “to devote all his attention to a single figure or sub-group at a time, so that if any part be imperfect from any cause, it can be substituted by another without the loss of the whole picture, as would be the case if taken at one operation. By thus devoting the attention to individual parts, independently of the others, much greater perfection can be obtained in details, such as the arrangement of draperies, refinement of pose, and expression.”

Unfortunately, the photographer has failed to heed another part of Robinson’s advice: “in making a photograph of a large group, as many figures as possible should be obtained in each negative, and the position of the joins so contrived that they shall come in places where they will be least noticed, if seen at all.” The mistake can be seen when looking at the pattern of the floor. Because the camera has been moved between exposures, the regular checkerboard pattern on the floor has turned into a crazy-quilt. To the right, the woman in the dark dress has apparently had her feet cut off, giving her the appearance of levitating.

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Quotations from Pictorial Effect in Photography by Henry Peach Robinson (London: Piper & Carter, 1869), pp. 191-199

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