There’s a mystery afoot; one which started around 1928 and ended around 1933. And I’m going to need your detective skills to help solve it. So put on your sleuth hats – it’s time to take a look at the Puthon Collection. But before we get into the origins of this perplexing mystery, I want to make available a resource list for those Sherlock Jr. types just looking to jump into the action – bonus points if you caught the Buster Keaton reference there. Anyhow:
- Finding Aid – A dynamically updated spreadsheet, by box, of what’s on each slide, including people (when known) and locations (color-coded by year when identified)
- Puthon Collection Map – A map with identified locations pinned, and relevant slides cross-referenced by color-coded year
- Box 1 Post
- Box 2 Post
Some time ago, I bid on a collection of amateur glass stereoviews on eBay – and was surprised to get them for a remarkably low price. With few expectations – the listing was not very descriptive, which probably explains the low closing price – I opened a box some days later to find 21 boxes of 45x105mm glass diapositives. There was one plain cardboard box, and twenty Vitra boxes like the one in the header image for this post. Opening the plain box first, I found 11 slides – most dated 1928 – and started to pop them into my Unis stereoscope. The views were of various quality, taken in the French and Swiss Alps, most of them featuring people. In the margins of each were handwritten notes – some brief, some descriptive. Nice find – clearly amateur work, but the photographer had a good eye.
Then I popped open a random Vitra box, one of the few with a label – “Chamonix 1933”. I examined them more closely with my Unis, and was excited to find considerably better photography from the same region. And there was a good mix here – expansive overlooks and ornate lunches at picnic tables and exciting mountain-climbing scenes and… wait a minute. I realized that, although the writing was done with a thinner pen, and the quality of the emulsions on the plates was higher quality and uniform, the handwriting looked a lot like that in the first box. Could it be…? Third box. Unlabeled Vitra. Same scenery. Same handwriting. I hadn’t just obtained 21 boxes of amateur stereoviews – I’d gotten my hands on a photographer’s collection! And not only that, but it was clearly a progression from someone who’d rarely held a stereographic camera in his hands – we’ll get to why “him” and definitely not “her” in a moment – into someone who could take some very accomplished shots, taking full advantage of the capabilities of the format. And since these were diapositives (as opposed to prints made from negatives) – I almost certainly had the only extant copies of any of these stereoviews.
I had been thinking about starting a blog on stereography for a while anyhow – I’m an avid collector of WW1 stereoviews, and also have decent collections of “oddities”, WW2, cave & cavern, aviation, and risqué stereographs. But I’d started and stopped numerous times, mainly due to time constraints, until I began to wonder more and more about this collection – would I ever find out anything about the photographer who took them? What should I call my new collection, the “Alps Collection”? The “Mountaineering Collection”? But then I realized that what I had was…
The Puthon Collection
Having thoroughly enjoyed and scanned the first two boxes from the collection, I noticed something – in the first box, there was a 1928 slide which identified some of the subjects, standing next to a building, with two passersby behind them. One of the subjects was a Mme Puthon. In the second box, a very contrasty 1929 stereoview of a group of ladies bore a label with set of first names, as well as… Mme Puthon. Interesting. So the same photographer was in the same region with the same married woman two years in a row – did she live there? Did the photographer live there? Did they travel together?
Then for a while I got busy with other things (like continuing to earn a living), and set up a special place on one of my display shelves for this new collection. I started stacking boxes. Then, on the front of one of the boxes – the very one displayed in the header above – something written in tiny letters caught my eye…
M Puthon. Monsieur Puthon. A male. Probable (though not proven) husband to Madame Puthon, subject of stereographic photos taken in two concurrent years. M Puthon. Mme Puthon. It fit. Either they lived in the area, or they visited regularly – I’d viewed three boxes, and scanned two of them already, and now I was resolved. When I had some free time – which I did a little under a month ago – I’d figure out how to start a new blog. And then when I had another chunk of free time, I’d start dissecting this collection. But this is not a task for one unilingual photographer who has never left North America. To delve deeper, I’d need help. Your help. Sherlock Holmes had the Baker Street Irregulars. I have whoever stops by this blog. So by now, I hope you’re anxiously wondering…
How You Can Help
As I make posts displaying and describing the Puthon Collection, one box at a time, please chime in with any insight, guesses, deductions, translations… anything which pops into your head might provide a useful piece of the puzzle here.
Perhaps you’re fluent in French and can read the cursive handwriting better than can I – many of the slides I have scanned so far have ???? notations in my finding aid because I just can’t make out a word. I’m rubbish at reading cursive in my own tongue, but can usually fill in the gaps based on context. Being that my knowledge of the French tongue extends to “oui”, “bonjour”, “bisous”, and a number of words that I probably shouldn’t spell out in polite society, perhaps you can decipher the missing word. Perhaps my official translator – Google Translate – has gotten something wrong, and a native speaker can provide a better contextual translation. Just use the “Contact” form at the top of the page, and drop me a line.
Or maybe you know the area – whether you’re a native, or long ago made a visit while backpacking through Europe. In any case, if you recognize a location with any more precision than the slides’ captions can give me, let’s narrow it down! If all I have to go on is the caption “Lac Vert 1928”, then all I can say about the slide is that it was taken at Lac Vert in 1928. If you’ve been to the spot pictured, and know that it’s the northeastern corner of the lake – that’s new information! So please, again, use the “Contact” form and reach out.
Perhaps you notice something that I haven’t yet mentioned. Matching faces between different slides or different boxes; the same dress being worn in two stereoviews; the same exact peak from two different angles. Some interesting fact about the fashions of the day, or something in one of the photographs that I’ve missed. Anything at all that isn’t mentioned in the blog – “Contact” form!
All information is good information – and if you have a hunch, even if it leads nowhere, it’s a new avenue to explore. So please drop a line. At the bottom of each post, there will be a “Contributors” section, and everybody who contributes anything – big or small – will get a credit there (unless they wish to remain anonymous, which is totally okay). And if I ever decide to make reprints of these images on Holmes-style cards, my most frequent contributors who wish to own them will be receiving mail. Not that I feel the need to bribe you – hopefully, as I open these boxes, scan them, and add them to the site, you’ll be as intrigued as I am as to what the Puthon family was up to, and hopefully that will be incentive enough.
And you’ll be seeing the images shortly after I do – being that I’m not going to look at the next box until I have enough time to scan, update the finding aid and map, and post a blog post about the box in question. So no peeking ahead for me; we’ll be on this journey together! Fun, right?
Finally, every post on this blog has a “Comments” section at the bottom, and you are heartily encouraged to use it. Maybe a particular stereoview strikes you a certain way, or maybe you have a story about that time that you too visited the Gorges du Trient. Maybe you stopped by one of the little roadside inns pictured and spent the night, or maybe you just think that slide #3 has some really bizarre stereoscopic effect. The comments section is open to all and will only be lightly moderated, to remove blatant advertising / attempts at linkbacks; hate speech of any sort; rudeness directed at fellow commenters and contributors; unnecessary vulgarity. It’s an open forum, and all are invited. And now, let’s talk about…
Processing the Collection
I’ve given this a lot of thought, and this is the basic order of operations I’m going to undertake for processing this collection:
- Open a new box, giving it the next number in the sequence
- View all of the slides
- Scan all of the slides, giving them designations BoxXXSYY, with XX being a two-digit number corresponding to the box number, and YY being a two-digit number corresponding to the slide number as it originally appears within the box
- Update the finding aid with the new box & slides
- Update the map with the new box & slides
- Create anaglyphs (see below) for all images, as well as any other detail images for any slides I want to explore in more depth in the blog post
- Write the blog post on the box in question
- Continually update existing blog posts as new information arrives, whilst waiting until I have enough time to open another box
That’s it! Simple enough, right? But how best to present each blog post? Here’s how I intend to organize each post, though I’m open to suggestions that would work better. Each post will be organized as such:
- Introduction. A short introductory paragraph describing what’s in the box in general, whether it all dates to a certain year, and anything special or particular about it.
- Slides. Each slide will be presented clickable to 1600 pixels wide with its original caption as well as an English translation. Following this, there will be three sections: Description, Technical, and Addenda. I’ll get to those in a moment, when I describe the “Slides” section of each post in greater detail.
- Discussion. This is where I – and you – will analyze the slides in the box both in and of themselves, and in context with those in earlier and later boxes. Synthesizing information from various boxes will give us a deductive basis to figure out as much as possible – about who appears, how many times, and where; what a possible timeline might look like; what the social status of the various characters might be – really, the possibilities are endless. The beginning of the discussion will be static, but as people write in or leave comments, I’ll expand this section accordingly. This is also where details from various stereoviews will be shown blown-up to high resolution. References to slides within the particular box in question will be formed as SYY with the YY being the slide number; slides from other boxes will be prefixed with BoxXX with XX representing the box in question.
- Anaglyphs. In my home, you can scarcely open a drawer or look under a couch without finding a pair of anaglyphic glasses. If you don’t have a pair, you might want to search around for one now, since this blog – including the Puthon collection, but for many other collections as well – will heavily use anaglyphs. For those that are new to stereography, anaglyphs are 3D images that can be viewed on a computer screen, Android screen, tablet, piece of paper, anything really – with a pair of glasses that have two different colored filters over them. I’m going to be using the current standard of red/cyan glasses (and this is an important distinction from some of the old red/blue glasses that came with old comics, etc) – if you don’t have any, I just checked Amazon and you can get 50 pairs for 10 bucks. I’m sure you can find them even cheaper elsewhere. Trust me, when the photos suddenly pop out of your computer screen in vivid 3D, you’ll agree that it was the best couple bucks you’ve spent in a long while.
- Contributors. A list of everybody who’s contributed anything whatsoever to the article, which will constantly be updated to keep discussion on the collection dynamic. Those wishing to remain anonymous may, of course, do so.
Simple, right? Just one more thing to discuss here before I throw up a sample blog post and go to bed: the bulk of the blog posts, which is the slides section. There will be 3 discrete subsections:
- Description: A brief description of what is depicted, including any known locations, people, timeline information, mountains in the background, etc. This will be my initial impression, and will be static – I will not update the description in light of new information; this is the whole point of the “Addenda” subsection.
- Technical: Any notable technical details about each slide. My (subjective) judgements as a photographer regarding things such as composition and exposure, as well as objective details such as stereographic quality (hyper-stereo, flat stereo, etc), emulsion grain, emulsion coloration, and so on. Feel free to skip this section if you’re bored by the technical aspects of stereography & general photography – this is for the “nerdier” amongst us. Also static – any disagreements, etc will be handled in the final subsection.
- Addenda: This will hopefully, if and when this blog gains a readership, become the most interesting section. Anything contributed will be discussed, and anybody who respectfully disagrees with me (or any other contributor) about a particular slide will be heard out here. I’m always open to constructive criticism on my appraisals, and most importantly – any new information which comes to light will be put here, in the “updates” section. This subsection will be updated any time there is new information or discussion on a slide; new information on the box or collection in general will go in the “Discussion” section of the main blog post. Besides the captions (which will be dynamically updated as people who can actually read them help supply translations) this will be the only changing part of the “slides” section.
So, that’s the theory of how a Puthon Collection post will work. Now let’s see it in practice – sort of. It’s late, and I am not going to run through the first box tonight. So instead, let’s make a fake blog post on a fake box with only 1 completely unrelated slide in it, which would pretty much look like…
Puthon Collection Box 00: Not Even Related to the Collection!
So this is where the “Introduction” paragraph would go. Typically I’d talk about what’s in the box, but… In today’s fake box, we have only one slide: a single 45×107 glass diapositive of a WWI scene from Verdun published by Brentano’s / Over There Group. So we might as well be movin’ right along to the next section:
Note that you can click on the image to pop out a much larger version of it for free-viewing or to study the details in the scene. This sort of italicized text would not be in a proper blog post, but it’s useful in learning to navigate the blog. Also, the “Addenda” section below is clearly just me pointing out one of its many uses – although I have intentionally left my erroneous reading of the caption in place to demonstrate one of the innumerable ways in which readers can help this project out.
Description: The scene depicts three French soldiers (identifiable by their uniforms and helmets) manning a machine gun, apparently at “Fort Vause”, for which I cannot find any reference online. It is a machine gun of the belt-fed variety, requiring two soldiers to operate, while the third man appears to be looking into the barren far horizon.
Technical: The composition is very good, especially considering the fact that most glass stereoviews published by Brentano’s were taken by soldiers during actual combat situations, many of whom had little technical training, and were simply issued cameras and boxes of plates by the French government. The emulsion is thin, as expected with a commercial diapositive transfer. It is of an orange color cast, and displays the effect of being underexposed – both of which are almost certainly products of the printing process and not indicative of any actual underexposure or problems with the photographer’s negative. Photographer was likely an advanced amateur.
Addenda: It was pointed out to me by Jane Doe that, if no place called “Fort Vause” seems to have existed, it’s possible that it actually reads “Fort Vaux” – which would indicate that it was taken at Fort Vaux in Verdun. The Fort Vaux hypothesis was confirmed by John Doe, a native speaker of French, who pointed out that in the French cursive, the ‘x’ is formed differently than in English cursive, and can resemble ‘se’. I have changed the caption in order to reflect this new information.
This is where I’d generally give an overview of what could be gleaned from the set, on the basis of this set alone. Or I might include details to illustrate points made by myself or others, such as: The entire set of 1 image is set at Fort Vaux at Verdun, which saw action between 1914 and 1916. The soldiers were definitely French, as evidenced by their uniforms and distinctive helmets. For example:
Jane Doe has pointed out in the comments that the fact that they appear as French soldiers doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, but since there is no historic evidence that anybody else swiped French uniforms and operated heavy machine guns at Fort Vaux, I think it’s at least overwhelmingly likely that they are, indeed, French.
There would typically be no text here, but I do want to make one point about how I’m going to be doing anaglyph galleries in future (real) blog posts on the Puthon collection. All images will be converted to B&W and their levels optimized for viewing. This simply makes sense, especially in a box that contains multiple color casts – particularly along red or cyan lines. In general, there will just be a gallery below, with images that, once clicked, can be navigated with right/left arrows, and when moused over will display captions. But compare the inferior, uncorrected anaglyph at left with the superior, corrected one at right in this faux “gallery”:
- Jane Doe, suggestion for improved translation on slide Box00S01 & comment regarding making assumptions based on uniforms
- John Doe, confirmation of improved translation on slide Box00S01
End of Fake Blog Post
And pretty much the end of this real blog post, although I encourage commentary here as well – feel free to use the “Contact” button at the top, or to leave a comment below, and we’ll take it from there. But there is one final section I need to add, just in case people frequently ask any further questions, since I already have been asked two questions by hopefully soon-to-be sleuths whom I’ve told about this undertaking:
Frequently Asked Questions
- Once you’re done making all these high-res scans from this collection, are you going to resell the original slides (and if so, can I get in on it)?
No, no, a million times no. Yes, it’s going to take a long time to scan all of these, and moreso if they ever get popular enough to clean them up to make reproductions of them. But I’d never part with the glass. It’s great seeing high-res anaglyphs on a computer screen, and it’s always nice to have reproductions in case something happens to the original. But nothing compares to popping one of these into my Unis viewer and having it merge and fill my entire field of vision with an incredibly sharp, emulsion-on-glass image. Especially after putting work into researching this collection for what will probably amount to hundreds of hours, I’m not letting go of the physical media. This began as a way to explore the things I love (actual stereoviews), and they’ll be staying with me. Sorry.
- Are you going to make these available as reproductions?
In a word, maybe. It really all depends on how much interest there is. I do have a template I use to create repros for friends & people who ask for them, and generally only charge a buck a pop for them – I love sharing stereography, and I have a job that I love, so I don’t exactly need to try to turn a profit off of this project. I would love to share these with people as Holmes-style 3.5×7″ cards for home viewing, and I have a printer that I work with to make such cards. However – and it’s a big however – a lot is going to depend on the condition of the remaining slides; remember that I’ve only seen 3 boxes so far, and only scanned two. Copying a preexisting Holmes-style card is easy: scan it, print it, give it to a friend. Glass is different. These would require significant clean-up of scratches, dust specks, etc to be suitable for reproduction, and there will likely be well over 200 of them. So if there’s a ton of demand, I come up with a ton of free time to actually retouch & design them, etc, then yes, I’ll make them available. If only a handful of people want their own copies, then it’s just too much effort. We’ll see what the future brings.