It started 20 years ago, on an afternoon of lunching and perusing downtown antique shops with my friend Kim. We wandered through collections of crystal lamps and Royal Doulton, from Victorian buffet cabinets to Art Deco arm chairs, until a lovely beaded lamp atop a doilied pie crust table (circa 1880) caught my eye.
Upon closer examination of said sparkly lamp, I noticed a nondescript basket of vintage photos. I gently flipped through this little collection until the face of a girl stopped me dead in my tracks, lamp forgotten. She was no great beauty, wore no fancy plumed hat, nor dress, nor jewels, yet something made me stop. I stood there entranced until Kim called out to me to come look at something she’d found. Taking one last glance at the girl, I hesitantly replaced the photos and went to see some thing or another that Kim had found.
Picking up my earlier route again brought me back to the table of pictures. I felt compelled to look at the portrait one more time. A thick card of 4 by 6 inches bore the names of the photographer O.E. Flaten and the location of Moorhead, Minnesota, with the actual delicately thin photograph of a dark-haired girl pasted onto it. She was a long way from home, there on the Gulf coast of Florida.
I studied the time-worn portrait as though trying to recall something long past until Kim was done and it was time to go to the next shop. Once more, I begrudgingly put the photo down. I remember very clearly feeling that I HAD to have that picture. That it belonged to me. That it traveled all that way because I was meant to have it. I got to the door of the shop with all of those voices screaming in my head: “GET THAT PHOTO!”. I physically could not leave the store. I stopped in the doorway, Kim looking at me concernedly, until I realised I could not, like a ghost crossing water, cross that threshold without that portrait. And so I paid a whole hot 54 cents to the shop keep and went home with my picture- one of my most prized possessions- in a small blue checkered paper bag.
I bought an antique-y looking frame and used the bag as a backing paper. It has been only a very few times that I have removed her from behind the glass for fear of deterioration. I have scanned her into my computer so I have at least a copy in case something happens to the original, lest she forever be erased from existence. In my desire to know who she is, and, thus, to understand why I was so compelled to have her, I have researched Moorhead, Mr. Flaten, and early photography. In the process, I have learned a bit about Minnesota’s history, architecture, and life in the mid-19th century, as well as photography.
What I haven’t learned, yet, is who she is. I call her Bridgette. As far as I can figure, based on Mr. Flaten’s own history as one of the town’s 2 photographers, the type of photography used, and her style of dress and hair, that Bridgette’s portrait was taken somewhere between 1870 and 1890. She is most likely of Scandinavian descent, as most of Moorhead was at the time (in which case, my spelling of Bridgette would not be exactly correct).
Bridgette started my collection of vintage photos. I do not just buy anything I see. I do not look for certain types of pictures or people. Rather, I buy what catches me, like Bridgette did. None have ever affected me so much as she, but they are all- these orphaned, forgotten folk- like family. Several are framed and hung on my wall like family portraits should be. As odd as it sounds- and some of you will think I’m just nuts- I feel as though they appreciate having family again.
This type of photo is called a Cabinet Card, and is an albumen photo mounted on thick card. Yes, the albumen that comes from egg whites!