john c browne

John C. Browne (American, 1838-1918) A Children’s Play (Bluebeard’s Wives), ca. 1866, printed ca. 1975, modern gelatin silver print from the original collodion negative, George Eastman House

This rather haunting image is a modern day gelatin silver print made from the original collodion glass plate negative, and was created by John Coates Browne around 1866.  Browne was an amateur photographer who maintained a prominent role in the Photographic Society of Philadelphia. 

The morbidity of the image may come as a shock—five of the six young girls are play-acting dead. Hung by their hair, their faces are painted white, matching their ghostly gowns. The play is based off of a French fairytale, about a nobleman who has a penchant for killing successive young wives. An outcast, he is feared for his ugly blue beard. He has been married several times, and each of his young wives mysteriously disappears, frightening the village girls. The story takes place when his most recent wife, still alive, discovers his secret cellar where he keeps the bodies of his murdered former wives, and recounts her attempts to escape.

Browne stages this as a genre scene, not unlike those created by Oscar Gustave Rejlander or Henry Peach Robinson, masters of allegorical or staged photographs. However, unlike Rejlander or Robinson’s images, this one was not made using multiple negatives, rather the entire scene was captured in one shot. 

–Anne-Marie Walsh–