Salvaged Relatives

Salvaged Relatives: New work by Gracia + Louise
Milly Sleeping, Melbourne, 11th February, 2015
Review by Alice Cannon
Centre for Fine Print Research, UK
Book Arts Newsletter, mid-April – June 2015, issue 97
pp. 50–51 (pdf download)


If you are the type of person who likes to lose yourself in second-hand shops and junk markets, you will be familiar with a certain type of object: a faded photographic portrait of a person in 19th-century dress, pasted onto thick card. The name of the photographer’s studio is probably stamped on the bottom of the mount, but the identity of the sitter is usually unknown — unless a rare handwritten inscription on the reverse gives some clue. At some point these visages from the past have become separated from their descendants, too far-removed from those who loved them, and they have been sold or thrown away.  

I always feel a bit sad when I find them, for it is the inevitable fate of most of us — our lives forgotten, our likenesses discarded. These objects are cabinet cards, a format first introduced in the 1860s. Initially the portraits were made using albumen photographic paper, where the image layer was made of egg white sensitized with silver salts. Over time, albumen prints tend to brown and fade, sometimes also acquiring a smattering of pale spots, like cream-coloured measles. The popularity of cabinet cards waned at the turn of the century, when the Kodak Box Brownie camera put photography in the hands of everyone.

Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison seek to reclaim some of these lost souls. In February Melbournites were treated to a one-night-only viewing of Gracia + Louises' latest work, Salvaged Relatives. The exhibition consisted of three artists’ books, each a unique state, and each featuring 21 individual collages on cabinet cards with pencil and paint additions. Each set is housed in a beautiful linen Solander box (one red, one yellow and one blue), the lid of each inlaid with one collage. As ever, the work of Gracia and Louise is both technically exquisite and imaginatively dreamlike. The viewing was held at Milly Sleeping, a clothing boutique specialising in locally-made clothing, accessories and jewelry from designers in Australia and New Zealand. Owners Janette and Leah have long been supporters of Gracia + Louise and their petite store provided a perfect venue for viewing such intimate work.

Haby has clothed the three sets of anonymous folk in the luxurious costumes of the Ballet Russes, which were inspired by artists such as Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and the fairytale music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Stravinsky. Our salvaged relatives now also have birds and beasts as companions. A fish peeks out from the gold brocade jacket of a mustachioed gentleman. Another portrait features a mysterious man in a blue cloak and a zebra disappearing stage right. A serious woman with a severe part looks past the songbird on her shoulder. And in one of the more ambiguous images, a lady appears to be sprouting a tail from underneath her skirts.

Viewers of the exhibition of course had their favourites. Some were attracted to a particular costume, colour or animal. Others were intrigued by the look of a person, wondering at the thoughts and passions hiding behind their serious expression. Whatever the reason, we all started to wonder about the person in the photograph — what were they like, and what had they done on that day, before this portrait was taken? Would they have been delighted at their new clothes, or terrified by the presence of an aardvark, giraffe or gecko in close proximity to their person?

In the artists’ notes Haby writes, 'My Salvaged Relatives, tucked inside a fairy tale inside a Solander box-nest where old age and weary muscles will not find you.' For the forgotten this is a re-awakening. We have recognised them once again as individuals, as people with hopes and fears, as real, and not just dusty objects in a shop window.

Alice Cannon is a paper and photograph conservator. She is also the editor of Materiality, through pinknantucket press.