THE AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER
On August 16, 1892, one Rudolph Michaelis (1869-1935), from Marion County, Missouri, got married to Rosa Belle Allen. The ceremony took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and they went on to live across Lake Michigan, in Chicago, Illinois, from at least 1900 to around 1905.
Rudolph and Rosa eventually moved to the West Coast, travelling across Colorado and Utah, as some surviving archived pictures apparently demonstrate.
Despite the relative obscurity of their lives, we know that by 1906 the couple was already settled in California, having witnessed the aftermath of the great San Francisco earthquake and the devastating fire that ensued.
Around 1908 the Michaelis family took residence at 2212 Grove Street, in Berkeley, California, and it was in that residence that, in 2015, a trove of glass plate negatives and prints that documents part of their lives was found.
The images captured by Rudolph (possibly with the help of Rosa Belle) include urban views (mostly of Chicago, Grand Rapids, San Francisco and Berkeley), family portraits and everyday scenes, as well as landscapes captured in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, Utah and California.
Not much is known about the circumstances in which Rudolph took up photography, but by the time the Michaelis moved to Chicago, they were in their early thirties and the former was already an accomplished photographer.
[you can see part of his work here]
WHY SHOULD WE BE INTERESTED IN RUDOLPH AND ROSA BELLE?
In this picture, which documents a thanksgiving dinner over at a friends’ house, if you pay attention to Rose Belle (right) and compare her with the woman directly in front of the camera, you can see that Rudolph’s wife seems stuck in the normative feminine dress of the early 1900s, stemming directly from the previous century.
Rosa’s silhouette is very likely moulded by a corset, and she dons a dark dress with loose top and sleeves, with the characteristic high and rigid boned collar. The skirt would probably be bell-shaped and reach all the way to the floor. The same modesty inherent to a body covered from the neck down all the way to the feet, is also on display in the picture below, taken at the Michaelis’ Chicago’s parlour.
Rosa Belle must therefore be perceived as a woman aligned with her times, modest, quiet and conservative.
The same assessment of normality and conformity could be made of Rudolph, if the picture at the top is indeed illustrative of the man. Despite the somewhat lyric pose and set up, before our gaze stands a rather conventional early 20th century middle class urban American.
RUDOLPH AND ROSA
And yet, in the Michaelis glass plate collection, two rather different pictures of Rosa Belle were also found, taken in the same parlour that we’ve seen in the picture above.
Although these days, as the ongoing revenge porn epidemic demonstrates, couples show little concern for letting themselves be photographed naked by their spouse or companion, in the beginning of the 20th century this was not the case. And therefore the fact that Rudolph photographed his wife Rosa in the nude, and kept the negatives, must be considered as clearly unusual.
The Michaelis, as a detailed analysis of the household items and clothes in their pictures show, in all likelihood belonged to the sort of burgeoning urban middle class that emerged in America in the early part of the 20th century, when the country was setting itself up to become the dominant economic and technological power in the world.
The houses of some of the Michaelis’ friends, captured in some of pictures taken by Rudolph, evidenced a relative prosperous social circle, and Rudolph’s hobby of photography certainly wouldn’t be cheap in those days.
Yet, there were the Michaelis, engaged in the bold action of taking nude pictures.
NAKED BEFORE THE CAMERA
From inception, photography was employed at the service of the nude genre. And by now, we are all familiar with the naughty black and white pictures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, as the records show, most of the men and women that appear in those images came from the “bottom of the pit” (the same applies to the models of famous 19th century painters).
That an early 20th century middle-class couple would partake of such artistic daring indeed marks them as surprising and privately disruptive couple.
It is because they flouted convention, even if within the confines of their private realm, that the present is paying attention. We are ensnared by the surprise prompted by their actions.
Rudolph and Rosa prepared for this session. The wife had to undress and release her long hair from the elaborate coiffure that trapped it, while Rudolph prepared the machine, the plates, and arranged furniture and light (did they have electricity? Chicago was one of the first cities to go electric).
We can imagine Rosa and Rudolph discussing poses and exchanging ideas.
Conjecturing why the couple kept these forbidden plates, we can believe they simply forgot about them, or assume that they were proud of an achievment that signalled courage and would not be duplicated by most.
WHY SHOULD WE REMEMBER THEM?
We remember Rudolph Michaelis and Rosa Belle Allen not because of the nude pictures (these days we have enough of those) but because they took these surprising stills as a couple, more than a century ago.
What are you doing now that the future will feel tempted to remember?
What unexpected endeavour, even if always kept private, would disrupt the norm and surprise the future?
What are you attempting now that would surprise your former self?
To dare something naturally implies exposure to risk. You cannot expunge the possibility of loss in the context of a true adventure.
Rudolph and Rosa’s actions exposed them to the judgment of others, in their own time or in the distant future. Third parties could then criticize the photographer’s technique, the aestethical choices, the morality of the pictures or even the qualities (or demerits) of Rosa’s body.
Had the plates containing Rosa’s nude pictures been divulged, their social standing could be affected. Rosa would be mortified and Rudolph humiliated (perhaps this explain their move from Chicago to the West coast). And yet, had they not done it, the experience of taking those pictures would be lost for them, the Michaelis would have no memory of such bold action, no possible pride in their quiet resistance to social conformity.
WHAT HAPPENED TO RUDOLPH AND ROSA
Rudolph died in Alameda County, Califórnia, on Jan. 22, 1935.
There is not much we know about enigmatic Rosa… But we’ll try to find out.