Alice Adams on the streets of New York

Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)
Organ Grinder, ca 1896 (photo by Alice Austen)

I spend a lot of time looking at images, photos, paintings, portraits, diagrams, maps. It’s the way my writing-mind works. I need to see things to write about them.

But I always have to remind myself of something crucial: It’s very easy to be misled by the images that are readily available. There are great resources online for almost anything, but the choice is usually both  narrow and shallow. Looking for information about the clothes women wore, you’re likely to come away with the idea that every female wore bustles and corsets cinched down to twenty inches.

That’s why I like Alice Adam‘s work so much. She was one of the first female photographers to do documentary work, outside a studio. Her photos are full of information.

This is an organ grinder who posed for Adams, but somehow manages to seem undaunted by the oddity of the request. The lady with him may be a stranger, a wife, a sister — there’s no way to know. But what is clear about her is that she is not rich. She takes care of a family or works in a factory (or both). In the winter she wears multiple layers because she wouldn’t have a coat, at least, not the kind of coat we think of these days when the issue is getting ready to go outside in January.

This kind of photograph is immensely interesting to me, and very useful. I love the portraits Whistler did in this period, but for other reasons.