Friday Night Flickr stuff

by John Holbo on June 26, 2009

I like this pair of images from this ‘costume and dresses’ set.

Boadecia – Mother of England:


And these three women, sitting for a portrait:


Thought for the night: I find it very difficult to judge the age of people in old photos. Probably you’ve had the same experience. It reminds me of that section in Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, where he reflects on how faces go in and out of fashion. But partly it demonstrates – what is obviously at least half-true – that in judging people’s age we rely on deductions from their clothes and hair styles and such. (We know that such and such clothes are worn by 20-somethings, so someone dressed that way is probably 20-something.) But that doesn’t seem quite right either. Thoughts?



mpowell 06.26.09 at 4:17 pm

The women in these photos have remarkably unblemished skin. That is a great way to achieve an ageless look. Is that just because of the photography? I think it is more plausible that we identify people’s age by their skin, facial structure and hair than by their clothes. The markers that we use could change over time, but the fact that the photography is so different could be another problem. We need a culturally distinct, but genetically and economically similar society compared to our own with similar photographic technologies to test our theories…


Adam Roberts 06.26.09 at 4:42 pm

That first photo? Saucy.


apthorp 06.26.09 at 4:53 pm

My first impression of Boadecia was teens, the triple early twenties. On reflection, smooth skin is the primary hint i picked up on. Also, of the three, the center is the oldest, based, again on reflection, on sharpening of the features that seems to be a distinguishing change in the 20’s.

Probably another factor is that in the old photos of my family everyone looks older than they are, with 40 being “old” looking.


Sebastian 06.26.09 at 4:56 pm

Perhaps less sun exposure confuses our main method of determining age? Also, less skinny was in fashion, which would tend to lessen wrinkles somewhat.


Matt 06.26.09 at 5:02 pm

I wouldn’t have thought the Mother of England would wear such a short skirt, though I guess he is wearing tights. But you’re right about the photos. It doesn’t even have to be that old, though- look at photos of high-school kids or college students from the 50’s or early 60’s and notice that they look older (not just “more adult”, but also older, I think) than many a grad student, junior professor, or young professional these days. The face stuff is interesting too. The example that interests me is how there are “american” faces that don’t have to do with race- the children of Asian or Eastern European immigrants, for example, if they are born or even mostly raised in the US, will have noticeably “american” faces, I think, in their expressions, how they move their mouths, eyes, etc., none of it consciously learned.


The Raven 06.26.09 at 5:04 pm

The exposures in minutes probably lead to a blurring of skin detail like, say, wrinkles. At least I think so. Also, I believe painting on the prints was standard practice; it made them look more like paintings.


alex 06.26.09 at 5:24 pm

Boadecia? Boadecia? Boadicea, at least, Boudica if you want to be up-to-date…


gmoke 06.26.09 at 7:49 pm

I’ve noticed by looking through old family photos that we tend to replicate the faces of our forebears. I have the face of my mother’s mother’s father, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. I have a cousin who has the face of our mutual great-grandfather on my maternal grandfather’s side. They are both good strong faces. My mother’s mother had the face of her great-grandmother. I have a photo of her at ninety which is exactly my grandmother’s face at that age.

Faces may come and go out of style but we reiterate our family’s faces through time.


Matt L 06.26.09 at 8:24 pm

The Raven is right. Retouching photos to eliminate or minimize skin blemishes and wrinkles was the norm for the era. So clothing is probably the best way to judge age.

You would also have to take into account class and occupation. A peasant or factory worker at the age of 20 looked a lot older than a middle class woman or man. And yes, there were photographs of peasants and workers from this time. Not many, but some. Mainly for the ethnographic delectation of the middle classes.


Matt L 06.26.09 at 8:25 pm

Oh, and by the way, what fun photos! Thanks for putting them up!


Mike C 06.26.09 at 8:28 pm

The comment in the OP regarding the use of clothing and style as cues raises an interesting question about the second photo: Exactly how close in age are those women? The two on the ends are wearing similiar dresses, but the dress in the middle is notably different. Is it a contemporary style, or maybe notably older? It’s less decorative; maybe she’s married and they aren’t? They could be sisters, or friends, whose ages span as little as 5 year, but I would believe it if someone told me the woman in the middle was 10-15 years older than the one on the left.

I suppose my point is that in addition to judging someone’s style independently as mentioned in the OP, we also judge style relatively, i.e. “Guy 1 is in a t-shirt and jeans, while Guy 2 is in khakis and a tucked in polo. Guy 2 is probably older”, even when it may be misleading.


Z 06.26.09 at 10:32 pm

And for the ultimate challenge, I recently stumbled on a copy of the portraits of the hundred most beautiful women of Osaka, as chosen by a women’s periodical of 1907. Not only is it hard to guess the ages of the person depicted (though it is reasonable to assume they are young), it is also often hard to guess the gender (though female should be a given). I also agree with Matt that “american faces” are easy to recognize, independently of the ethnicity, though in real life situation, the voice is a even stronger give-away (american speak a good third below most, and an octave below some). Such experiences lead me to conclude that the way we process physical appearance is much more culturally dependent than we would think.


John Holbo 06.27.09 at 12:45 am

“Boadecia?” I know, I know. That’s what the photo is titled.


Bloix 06.27.09 at 4:12 am

If you click through to the flickr link you’ll see that the birthdates of two of the women are 1863 and 1865 and that the image is dated variously as 1900, 1910, and 1905-15.


mpowell 06.27.09 at 9:21 am

14: There is no way on earth that is how those women looked naturally at the age of 40. So I’m going with the retouched/different photo explanation here… but the culturally different facial expressions are also an interesting point.


bad Jim 06.27.09 at 9:54 am

There have been pieces in the L.A. Times about costuming (1) for Disneyland employees, noting how much thicker we’ve become since the park opened back in the 1950’s, and (2) for movies, lamenting that contemporary actors no longer look convincing in roles set in the first half of the twentieth century. Guys back then tended to be skinnier.


mollymooly 06.27.09 at 10:44 am

Boadecia is clearly Miranda Richardson, from an episode of “Blackadder 0: Roman through the gloamin”


Danielle Day 06.27.09 at 7:08 pm

Some US tourist attractions (especially in the West) offer photographs taken with authentic 19th century equipment, exposed/processed/printed the same way, etc. The subjects are allowed to dress in authentic period clothes and hold authentic period props (firearms, etc.) They *still* never look the same as 19th century people do in actual old photos. In fact, the difference is stunningly apparent.


Bloix 06.27.09 at 7:28 pm

“Guys back then tended to be skinnier.”

Back then, being heavily muscled meant you were a manual laborer. Now, having muscles means you have the leisure to work out in a gym.


The Raven 06.27.09 at 7:44 pm

Danielle, I have real doubts that the photographic practices in such attractions are truly period; there are not many non-specialists who will use glass-plate negatives, for instance. Hand-painted prints are also no longer common.

BTW, I looked over the magnified images and there is more than enough detail in the eyes to show that the exposure time was relatively fast. I suspect everyone was sweltering in the sun, however.


Tangurena 06.27.09 at 8:10 pm

I find it fun to look at Shorpy from time to time. The focus is mostly 20th Century, and almost exclusively American.


Peter 06.27.09 at 9:23 pm

I’m generally a poor judge of age, but for whatever it’s worth my guess is that the two women on either side in the bottom photo are no older than their early 20’s – in fact, the one on the right might still be in her teens – while the woman in the middle is in the 25 to 30 range.


Peter 06.27.09 at 9:37 pm

A startlingly modern old photo is the 1865 picture of a handcuffed Lewis Paine, one of the conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Replace the old-fashioned manacles with modern handcuffs and the picture could have been taken yesterday.


Mike Shupp 06.28.09 at 1:57 am

I’d go for an age of 14-15 for Bodicea — she still seems to be carrying about some pre-adolescent baby fat. As for the women in the bottom picture, from left to right, I’d guess 20, 33-35, and about 30. Something about their expressions and the degree of wariness in their eyes.


Anders Widebrant 06.28.09 at 8:53 am

Skin colour might well play a role — it’s definitely something we’re subconsciously very sensitive to.


Pete 06.29.09 at 8:31 am

@23: photoshop out the manacles and you could run it as a Gap advert. Or possibly for hair care.

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