Curio, or ‘The Love of Looking’

Recently picked up by Scopophilia Publishing for their ‘Bristol Stories’ collection, I thought I would rewrite and reimagine this piece. It seems to have confused a few people, which is no bad thing.

The Edwardian gentleman could often be found perusing curious photographic oddities that came about with the developments in the artistic uses of the aforementioned craft when it was in its infancy. Alongside the earliest and quickly circulating examples of pornography were the ‘miracles of the magic lantern’, fantasmagorias of photography which fooled the eye into seeing an image which disguised another beneath it. Famous examples included the Diabelerie D’Argent, an image which, at first glance, showed nothing more than a mountainous pile of money overrun with rats, and yet, upon blinking, the viewer would immediately realise that what they had mistaken for the shadow cast by the largest rodent was, in fact, an ornate headpiece, and the glinting of the silver made up for the eyes, nose and mouth of a beautiful woman. Once the face was seen, it became impossible for the viewer to regain sight of the original, fleeting image that had first confronted them, and no matter how they attempted returned to the image with fresh eyes, the money had been lost, the rats evaporated.

The most legendary, and indeed, most complex of these carnivalesque images is widely known as the ‘Man Eater’ photograph. Currently part of a private collection in Vermont , it shows a young girl in a bustle, sitting astride a bicycle and looking demurely at the photographer. To her left is a hanging basket containing a wide variety of blooming autumn flowers, and from the position of the shadows, the viewer can deduce that it is approximately quarter past four on a September afternoon. Other details include such stalwarts of the early 20th century photographer’s repertoire; a cup, placed at the young lady’s feet, and a homunculus-like figure, the printer’s devil, if you like, peering from a corner.

What becomes apparent within a matter of seconds is that, of course, the bicycle and the maiden are mere phantoms, shadows and edges of what was believed to be the true picture; that being a portrait of the late hunter Kenneth Anderson, posing with his most celebrated prey; a dead tigress whose mouth is agape and whose ear has been removed. The tigress is none other than the celebrated frontispiece of many a penny-dreadful, the Maneater of Jowlagiri, a famed and bloodthirsty slayer of twenty imperial human victims. However, what we had originally seen as a wheel on the bicycle could now be viewed with no mistake as being part of the striped pelt; the girl’s back makes up for the left side of Anderson’s rifle, and so on, and so on. The viewer feels as a fool for missing such obvious details, for failing to recognise such an iconic image immediately, and despite yearning to catch glimpse of his original mistake, cannot begin to scrabble for a handhold on which to do so; all that remains is a memory of another scene, and an agreed blindness which obliterates all but the new one.

What is truly astonishing about the Man Eater photograph is that when it was viewed by the third son of the Viscount Jensom, a certain famed and charismatic man by the name of Patrick Ellois, he managed to see yet another image composed of the curved sides of Anderson ’s hunting hat. What Ellois claimed, at great length and with many a flourish of the hands (as was his habit) was an optical illusion comprised of the victor’s hands placed in the crook of his knee, juxtaposed against the heavy jungle foliage to his left. With a lengthy squinting of the eyes, and by using his cane to fragment the image lengthways, Mr. Ellois was able to note down what the photograph revealed to him, and was later revealed to all others who were shown where and how to look at the image, simply by taking a step back from the frame, and approaching it slowly, unblinkingly. What Mr. Ellois saw were words, a page in a book which took up most of the frame, and blinded those who recognised it to the aforementioned image of the man and dead beast which, as we now understand, were merely an illusion and a testament to the photographer’s skill. The girl and the bicycle became something of a myth, with many of the company claiming to have never seen it at all; those who had learned to refrain from discussing it. The fact that it took several decades for viewers to recognise the photograph for what it is – a simple lithographic copy of a text (albeit a smudged and greatly foxmarked one), almost beggars belief.

The words were as follows:

I keep my days in mesh boxes
The locks are barely existent
And every month
One of my women
Finds where they are hidden.

They get their cutters out,
Sharpened on curiosity,
And spill the contents all over
Tomorrow morning’s pictures, but
We soon forget again.

The passage cannot be attributed to any author.

The Man-Eater photograph can be viewed in receipt of written permission from the collectors.

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About Benjamin Norris

Published writer of short stories, long stories, poems. Well received art critic and cultural commentator for Berlin magazines. Collaborator with operatic societies. Co-writer of fictional historic psycholinguistic journals. Lecturer of architecture and art history at a Budapest University. View all posts by Benjamin Norris

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