An appreciation for the charming Mrs. Austin
A photographer friend of mine alerted me to an interesting pair of photographs she stumbled upon while flipping through the book Notman: A Visionary Photographer.
William Notman (1826-1891) was born in Scotland, but emigrated to Canada in 1856 and settled in Montreal. He opened a photography studio that would eventually have branches throughout Canada and the United States. There are photos in this book of old Montreal that are so vivid you feel you could step into them and go back in time, but the Notman studio’s bread and butter was portrait photography.
Notman’s photographers were in demand by U.S. Ivy League schools and photographed famous folks like Mark Twain, Sitting Bull, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Buffalo Bill, but anyone could come into their studio and have their photos taken. Their talent in capturing an expression at just the right moment is striking, particularly considering the complexity of taking a single photograph at the time.
And so we come to the mysterious pair of photos titled “Gent for Mrs. Austin” (1889). The text in the book explains the photos to some degree, remarking on the level of trust required between photographer and subject. It “is not immediately evident that the subject is actually a young man [sic]. In one, a half length portrait, the accoutrements of Victorian femininity – a high-necked dress with a corseted waist, copious lace detailing and a bonnet that covers most of the sitter’s head – are elaborate enough to absorb our attention for a few moments.” It was the photographer’s job to create a satisfactory portrait, and the studio’s technicians were complicit in concealing all traces of masculinity.
It is only in the second portrait when the sitter is without the bonnet that her assigned gender is revealed. The studio took pains to be discrete with these photos, as a note in the studio’s Picture Book where normally the contact prints were pasted for reference commands “Not to be put in”.
There’s so much I love about these photos, but so many things that make me wonder too. Who was this Mrs. Austin, and how did she find the courage to present herself to the Notman studio to have her picture taken? It seems the Notman studio responded to her request with a big shrug and, being true professionals, assured her they would handle the photo shoot and the prints afterwards with discretion. And what a gift Mrs. Austin has given us trans people of the future in once again providing evidence that, yes, we’ve always been here. Most of all perhaps, I smile that trans folks are still doing what they were doing since the early days of photography: obsessively asserting their existence by having their photos taken.
Notman: A Visionary Photographer, published by Editions Hazan in association with the McCord Museum, Montreal, 2016. ISBN 9780300223675.