Signs of Life

In 1865, Dante Gabriel Rossetti orchestrated a series of images of Jane Morris to be photographed by John Robert Parsons. While they are all interesting and beautiful to me, my favorite is the one above for one reason: that scarf.

There’s a gauzy scarf that is seen repeatedly in Rossetti’s works.

Detail from The Blessed Damozel.
Detail of La Ghirlandata.
Detail of The Bower Meadow.

The blurred movement of the scarf speaks to me.

It’s so alive, so ephemeral.

For those of us who pursue people of the past, these are the moments that sustain us.

These are the details that bring us joy.

Signs of life.

Something a photographer might have seen as an imperfection is a fleeting blur of vitality to me.

We can look at photo after photo that is carefully posed and stoic, where the sitter puts their best foot forward and is photographed for posterity.

What I love are moments they could not escape and accidents of nature they could not predict. The hazy movement of Jane Morris’ scarf. Or the splash pattern on this photograph of the Rossetti family, taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)

The Rossetti family, photographed by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), albumen print, 7 October 1863

“It was our aim to appear in the full family group of five, but whilst various others succeeded, that particular negative was spoiled by a shower, and I possess a solitary print from it in which we appear as if splashed by ink.”–Christina Rossetti (source)

By the way, Dinah Roe incorporated the seemingly spoiled family photo beautifully into the introduction of her book The Rossettis in Wonderland, which I highly recommend.

We pursue the past for many reasons. Knowledge, understanding, a deep interest in a person’s work. Through that pursuit there are glimpses of vitality that captivate us and propel us to keep going, keep digging.

For me, the image of Jane Morris’ scarf lightly dancing in the breeze is a like a private view into what it was like in Rossetti’s garden that day in 1865: Beautiful Jane poses. Rossetti discusses the photographs with Parsons. A gentle breeze made itself known. 

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