William Morrison (active Chicago, 1875-1900)
Albumen print cabinet card, 1895
That great arbiter of Modernism, Alfred Stieglitz, made dozens of photographs of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe's hands, beginning in June of 1917. He proclaimed that the hand images by themselves amounted to a "portrait" of O'Keeffe (who was Stieglitz's lover and, from 1924 on, his wife.) The concept was not exactly new at the time: around 1845, the Boston photographers Southworth & Hawes made a daguerreotype of the hand of a ship captain, showing where he had been branded with a hot iron for helping slaves to escape. And even earlier, a ghostly hand was photographed around 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of photography on paper.
Considering his studio location in a Chicago theater, Morrison's photograph may represent a pivotal moment of a forgotten play. Regardless, the photographer has wordlessly conveyed the spirit of celebration, by isolating a universally-recognized gesture. At the very peak of Victorian photography, when theatrical photographs were elaborately posed with exotic props, rich costumes, opulent draperies and ornate furniture, Morrison has opted for stark simplicity.