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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Out for a Stroll Down by the River... why?

I don't collect old photos per se, but whenever I run onto an interesting one I tend to buy it. So I guess I do collect them. Anyway, I found this image interesting. It's a silver print, ca 1890-1900, showing a family somewhere in the American southwest, "getting back to Nature", Victorian-style-



I loved this photo the second I saw it, with its formally dressed, starched-collar family perched (seemingly) comfortably atop a boulder in a rugged river canyon. Anyone who has ever hiked in the canyons of Utah or Arizona will appreciate the difficulties involved in traveling along a rock-strewn river bank in patent-leather shoes, not to mention dressing in dark, volumous clothes, as these good people were, with the harsh sun beating down on you.



We've come a long way in terms of dressing comfortably for such activities in the past seventy-five years or so. Of course, these days we do have to change before dining at the lodge...



The photo shows some interesting details- a high white collar, cross and long gold chain worn by the mother, stiff collar and bowtie on the father, and short gold choker with what appears to be a cross, along with an enormous hair ribbon, worn by the daughter-



The father's shiny black dress shoes and the dainty bow-topped shoes the daughter is wearing were simply not made for climbing across wet rocks-



The father's umbrella and multiple gold rings, and the daughter's gold bracelet are nice touches in this wonderful picture. Obviously Victorian-era hikers were made of sturdier stuff than we are today... but maybe not. A few years ago Amy and I were visiting Bryce Canyon and we went on an afternoon hike along one of the longer trails. We'd been hiking in the back country of southern Utah the week before, and so we automatically put on our big hiking boots, and carried our backpacks with snacks and plenty of water. You're unlikely to get into too much trouble in Bryce, but hey, why take chances? Toward the end of the hike, on the way up, out of the canyon, we passed a group of French women tourists on their way down. They were all immaculately dressed and coifed, and many were wearing fashionable black pumps. Chatting happily with each other and evidently having a grand time, they could just as easily have been walking down 5th Avenue in New York. As we trudged by them in our boots and backpacks, we felt terribly over-dressed. Maybe it's all just a state of mind...

13 comments:

Cissy Strutt said...

I'd be happy wearing a tutu, as long as I had my Lady Lillehammers on my feet.

I do envy the effortlessly chic. And people who aren't as obsessed as I am about packing light, and therefore actually have things to wear whilst on holiday.

Thanks for posting such an evocative photo.

Mike said...

My wife wanted me to go for a hike with her and my son when we were in Zion last fall. I swear to God, it was the longest 5 foot hike I have ever been on. At the end of it I laid on the red rock smoking and begging my wife to go back to the truck for the Gin.

Naturally, she refused and after I rested for an hour or so I had to crawl back and get the Gin myself.

It was hell I tell you.

Sara Sue said...

I've been coming back to your site again and again today to look at this photograph. It has some sort of weird draw to me that I can't explain. I'm wondering now if perhaps I'm related to these people or something ... weird.

Sara Sue said...

(I love how you broke the photo down!)

anaglyph said...

Out West of Sydney there is a limestone cave system called Jenolan Caves that I have visited many times. In the old-fashioned bar of Caves House there are some photos from the period of yours - photos of immaculately dressed men and women at the bottom of caves, smiling for the camera.

I've caved at Jenolan and I can tell you for a fact that it's simply impossible to get down to some of the caverns in which these people are photographed without getting completely covered with cave mud and dust. Let alone lump down one of those old big wooden plate cameras and boxes of glass negatives. And magnesium flares for lighting (which must have made the air into a toxic nightmare each time a picture was snapped).

People were obviously made of much sterner stuff back in those days.

Colonel Colonel said...

Cissy- yes, those look a lot like the shoes we were hiking in. Packing light? You mean fewer than 3 suitcases each? Now that's roughing it.

Mike- My wife has made me- um, I mean, I have voluntarily gone hiking around Zion a few times. It's all scramble up, up, up, and then scramble down, down, down, and then you're right back where you started, except with a few bruises and scrapes. And there wasn't even any gin waiting at the bottom. But then we went over to the lodge restaurant and had a few bottles of wine with dinner and it all seemed to make more sense.

Sara- I know, it is an oddly engaging photo. It hangs on the wall in the hall outside my office and I see it a dozen times a day. I'm glad you liked it.

Reverend- One of the things that always amazes me about 19th century wilderness and frontier photography is the fact that those photographers had to trundle a -ton- of stuff (literally) around with them to take those photos. It's just amazing.

As for the crisp and clean men and women at the bottom of your caves, well, as you point out, there is no way to get down there without getting dirty. The obvious conclusion is that they changed their clothes once they got down there. So they had this co-ed group undressing thing going on in the dark at the bottom of the cave- no wonder they were smiling.

Phoebe Fay said...

Wonderful picture. I had a similar one of my grandmother's aunt and a group clambering rocks on an island (in the Puget Sound, I think). They were CAMPING out there, so they weren't quite as dressed up as this little family, but still, they had the full Victorian skirts and the high collars.

And they were camping. Doubt they had little inflatable air mattresses. *shudder* I consider "roughing it" to mean staying at a Holiday Inn.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

I'm particularly fond of the young woman's expression under the weight of that monstrous bow!



(If you can believe it, I stumbled to your blog by way of a search for Katie Lee Joel, whom I hadn't heard of prior to this morning, and I pleased to have found something better (this) at the end of my search.)

Colonel Colonel said...

Phoebe- Yes, Amy likes camping. I think of "roughing it" as having to use the elevator to get to the ice machine.

Kaytie- Welcome! And yes, some things, such as the "OHMYGODI'MBORED!!" expression on teenager's faces never change, no matter what era you live in.

You know, I had completely and utterly blocked all memory of Katie Lee Joel from my mind after her season on Top Chef. What's she done now?

l

Catalyst said...

I WAS famous for being able to bound across streams on rocks and dance up hills among the trees. But that was back some years before my center of gravity unaccountably shifted. The picture unfortunately reminds me of some from the book "Wisconsin Death Trip."

Kaytie M. Lee said...

Never fear--she hasn't done anything other than have a similar name to mine.

jgodsey said...

I secretly hope they threw off their clothes and went skinny dipping after the picture was taken. and the photographer and the daughter had sex on a flat rock.
the father ate strawberries out of his wife's navel.

i guess i look at the world differently.

Colonel Colonel said...

Catalyst- Your achievements have my admiration and respect sir, and I toast you with the beer I am holding as I sit on the rock at the side of the trail, watching you bound on by...

Kaytie- Thank God, I was afraid she was taking MagicChef back or something. My main recollection of her is that every time she appeared on the screen both my wife and I would shout "what is she wearing!?!?!", in unison.

Gods- that's what I assumed happened. I don't think it's odd at all. Those Victorians were a randy bunch, no matter how the history books try to clean it up.