The following article was published in N-SPHERE March 2010 issue.


Good evening and welcome to the Spheres. To frame our discussion, I will start with the predictable questions first: who is Paul Frecker/Beniah Brawn and what does he do?

I’m Paul Frecker and I deal in vintage photographs, mainly material from the nineteenth century. I also collect photographs, mainly British and French cartes–de–visite from the 1860s. Beniah Brawn is an alter ego I adopted to share my collection via Flickr with anyone who’s interested. I “borrowed” the name from the first husband of one of my ancestors. The original Beniah Brawn was a soldier in the British Army who died in India in 1820.

When did you start collecting static imagery in form of photographs and how important has your personal background been?

I started collecting vintage photographs in 2003. I began with cartes–de–visite and they’re still the format that resonates most for me. Before I became a dealer, I was a fashion stylist. I was working for magazines like The Face in the 1980s, then in the 90s I moved into TV commercials and music videos. Obviously, styling is a very visual profession so I suppose I was always training my eye and developing my aesthetic.

Why a particular interest in the Victorian Era? Were there any influences or elements that triggered it?

I’ve been interested in history since I was a child and for me a photograph is at the very least a window into the past. Occasionally an exceptional one can even acquire some of the qualities of a relic, in the religious sense. As for influences, it’s actually the other way round: vintage photography created my obsession with the nineteenth century. Through collecting cartes–de–visite I got more and more interested in the period and now I’m reading for an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck University.

How many pieces does your collection amount to now?

I’ve got over 1500 cartes by Silvy and more than 1000 by Disdéri. Then there are all the other cartes, probably 2000 or more, plus there’s the post mortem collection, which amounts to about 300 photographs now. Also a few more cabinet cards, stereoviews and other formats.

Even for the ignorant eye, it is easy to notice that your collected items are not the typical portrayals of Victorians. From sideshow freaks to sexual “inversion”, do you think that photographs manage to individualize them or alter them into “types”, considering the Victorians’ fetish with classification?

I don’t think the photographing of them necessarily turned them into “types” but I think there’s a danger that the collecting of them can do that. However, some photographs were certainly seen that way when they were taken; for example, my collection of Russian street vendors or my collection of Peruvian “types”. But to take another area of my collection, people with their backs to the camera, each of those was a portrait of an individual when it was taken. Similarly, my collection of black Britons or my collection of ambassadors from the East. It’s only by acquiring a number of them and storing them together that a classification is created. It’s the same for any other theme that one might collect, be that opera singers, ballet dancers, nuns or dogs.

Delving into the complex tapestry of the Victorian Age definitely has to be a challenging experience. What was the most bizarre thing you came across in terms of imagery and how hard is it to find items?

All the more bizarre images that spring to mind are ones that for one reason or another I failed to acquire! I remember a cabinet card of the back of two shaved heads with numbers painted on them. There was also a carte–de–visite of a hand holding up a sheet of corrugated iron that had been peppered with holes during a hailstorm in Ireland. As for how hard it is to find photographs, extraordinary ones don’t come along very often. You need a lot of patience and a bit of luck to be a collector. You can’t just go out and buy a collection. You have to choose your theme and then wait for photographs that interest you to turn up. And hope that when they do you’ll be in the right place at the right time.

Are persons approachable when it comes to revealing fragments of their ancestors’ lives?

Actually, it’s often the other way round. Most people know nothing of the lives of their ancestors and I’m usually the person providing the information.

Do XIXth century photographs furnish evidence on ways of living? Would a photograph be capable of mirroring a past reality or does it become a reality in itself through the artistic medium?

During the period that interests me most, the majority of the surviving photographs bear witness to the lives of a particular section of society, which by and large is the most privileged section. Most of the population didn’t have access to photography. With a few notable exceptions, there are relatively few photographs of poor people. However, those that could afford the luxury did leave us evidence of their existence and these photographs do mirror a past reality, in so far as they make the statement “I was here”.

Almost 200 years ago, genealogy was significant as it ensured a position in the social sphere, photography being a big part of that. Do you think that our roots are still relevant in our time when everything tends to get homogeneous?

For me, personally, my ancestors are very relevant, though not because they ensure any social position. My family tree is a complete mixture of social classes and I’m just as interested in the ancestors who died in the workhouse as I am in the more illustrious ones. The blood of all of them runs in my veins. My existence gives meaning to their lives and their lives give meaning to my existence.

The Victorians are thought to have been very secretive in certain aspects, especially if we think about the constructed dichotomy of private/ public. Do you think that the things we come across now are what they “allowed” to be seen, a whole unknown space being hidden from us as it has never been documented?

There’s a lot of nonsense written about the Victorians. They’re much maligned and much misunderstood. I think the whole thing about the dichotomy between their private and public lives is hugely exaggerated. That said, I think we all make conscious and subconscious choices concerning the facets of our personalities and lives we present to the camera. I don’t think the Victorians did this to a greater or lesser extent than we do today. Admittedly, a visit to the photographer’s studio entailed a lot more conscious decisions about self–representation than, say, a friend taking a snap of you on his mobile phone does today. But Victorian photographs weren’t just images, they were also objects, with a physical presence, which is why so many survive. In our digital age, most of our photographs are just images on a screen. Given the way in which they’re stored, how many of the snapshots we take will survive into the next century?

Your collection also comprises a large number of postmortem photographs. It is perhaps a paradox that in the XIXth century sex was considered to be private, while death was brought into the public sphere. Do you think we could talk about a reversal nowadays or more likely about the erasure of the “private” notion, since everything tends to be recorded, captured and made public?

That’s a very interesting comparison. I think one could easily argue that nowadays sex has been brought far too far into the public sphere, while conversely many people now find it awkward to discuss their own mortality. Queen Victoria was deeply fascinated by the minutiae of other people’s funerals and left detailed instructions for the execution of her own. Today, many people would consider that morbid. Certainly, many people nowadays consider the practice of photographing the dead somewhat macabre. Personally, I find the Victorian attitude to death far healthier than ours.

Following that thought, would this age we live in be of any interest for collectors in the future?

Yes, of course. Every age will inevitably becoming interesting. And it takes a lot less time now for a period to acquire the roseate glow of nostalgia than it once did. I don’t think anyone in the 1870s was particularly interested in the 1850s, at least, not in the way that the 1970s and 1980s are already considered of such interest to cultural and social historians.

Are there many collectors of XIXth century artifacts in the United Kingdom nowadays?

Yes, I think so. Of course there’s not only vintage photography but also many, many other spheres of collecting. Books, ephemera, toys, china, glassware, antiques, textiles, farm tools… I don’t think there can be many varieties of nineteenth–century artifact that aren’t collected by somebody.

Most persons interested in collecting bygone eras’ items belong to the upper class, as these articles are unattainable to a large number of people. Do you believe that visual culture has to be restricted to a certain social stratum for its own preservation?

You seem to be confusing the rich and the upper class; they’re not the same thing at all, at least, not in this country. But in any case, I don’t think what you’re saying is true. One doesn’t need to invest huge sums of money in order to assemble an interesting collection. Well, perhaps if you choose to collect seascapes by Gustave Le Gray but not if your chosen area is cartes–de–visite portraits of ladies in riding habits or hussars or croquet players. And that’s just in the world of vintage photography. Even a schoolboy can afford to collect coins or stamps. As for restricting the collecting of visual culture to any particular social stratum, I don’t think the rich necessarily look after the items they collect more carefully than those collectors of more limited means. It’s true that the most serious collectors keep their collections under atmospherically controlled conditions but most adverse conditions that potentially damage a photograph can be avoided by taking a few sensible precautions.

Would you argue that by using the Victorian past, we could also aestheticize contemporary reality?

I live in Central London and the Victorian past is all around me every day, in the architecture and in the very infrastructure of the city, which is still essentially Victorian. But even if you’re in a prison cell in the middle of nowhere, you can use the past to aestheticize your reality. If you pin a postcard of a painting onto your wall, or even a page you’ve torn out of a magazine, you’ve changed the aesthetics of your reality.

What was the most peculiar thing you have witnessed while selling/acquiring photographs?

I’ve seen photographs that should have sold for thousands of pounds sell for only a few because they were badly catalogued in an auction and I’ve seen photographs which should only have sold for a few pounds sell for ten times what they were worth because two people with deep pockets and too much testosterone both wanted the same thing.

If this is not considered to be a private matter, is there any shaped pattern regarding your customers?

To be honest, because I deal mainly on the Internet, I don’t know all that much about the majority of my clients. I have a professional relationship with them but I don’t know enough about them to categorize them. But from the ones I do know on a more personal level, I’d say they don’t fit any pattern.

What does you sphere of interest include, other than collecting vintage photographs?

Well, there’s my MA in Victorian Studies that I’m working towards, and I lecture occasionally on cartes–de–visite. And last year I had an article on Camille Silvy published in History of Photography. Oh, we’re still in the nineteenth century, aren’t we? Well, back in the modern world, I took up Latin and Ballroom dancing about a year ago. I’m taking my first level exams in May. And I’m fairly obsessed with Mexico and Mexican culture, particularly the Day of the Dead.

And to conclude our discussion, do the Victorians continue living through the existence of their photographs?

Yes, definitely.

Artwork: Alba Studios :: Actor Giorgio Majeroni. 1899. Sydney, Australia

questions by Diana Daia

Full article here.