Lewis Carroll was Creepy

Reginald Southey with skeletons and skulls, taken by Lewis Carroll in 1857

The fun thing about this project is that I keep discovering new things about photography that I never knew before, like the fact that the Germans invented contact lenses and blue jeans, ha ha. Today I was about to delve into the world of photo journalism, one of my favorite topics (a long time ago as a naive high school student I once fantasized about winning a Pulitzer Prize for war photography). Instead, I tumbled down the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll photography (did you see what I did there? Rabbit hole?).

For twenty-five years, in the late 1800s, at the very beginning of photography as an art form, Lewis Carroll experimented with the wet-collodion process (also known as “wet plate photography”), taking a fascinating series of portraits of his friends, including the photo above of Reginald Southey, a famous English physician. Carroll also took many, many, many portraits of…ahem, children. Particularly young girls. In fact, you could say he had a “thing” for young girls. That’s about as far as I’ll go with that. Thankfully, in all of the pictures the girls are fully dressed, and through all outward appearances they are appropriate photographs (Google them if you like–I’m not going to post them here), BUT, I find them rather unsettling.

Lewis Carroll was a brilliant and interesting man, and his natural light photography is quite stunning and innovative for the time. He was also a talented writer and illustrator (you probably know him as the author of Alice in Wonderland), but I think it would be generous to say that he had an unusual philosophy of life. In other words, the guy was creepy. To celebrate the Halloween season, I will do another post on one of my favorite creepy topics, the Victorian fascination with photographing dead people. So you have THAT to look forward to!

 

 

I Like Your LEICA

The Leica I, introduced at the 1925 Leipzig Spring Fair

The Germans have invented several things I love, including the printing press, the hamburger, denim jeans, and contact lenses. But my favorite of these is the Leica, a camera I love so much it features prominently in my novel.

Of course, I’ve never owned one.

They were invented to make photography portable and cheap for German mountain climbers. My favorite part about the creation story of the Leica is that the internal name for the product, within the Leica company and in the patent application, is the Rollfilmkamera. That’s right, the ROLLFILMKAMERA. I’m going to start referring to all cameras this way from now on.

Because of the high quality of its lenses and it’s portability and durability, the Leica became the favorite camera of photojournalists, including Robert Capa, a Hungarian born photographer who witnessed the rise of Hitler and became an iconic figure during the Vietnam War. I’ll tell his story in my next post about the the history of photography.

 

A Kodak Moment

The daguerreotype made photography popular, but it was still costly, and being a photographer meant own and hauling around a great deal of heavy equipment. It was difficult and time consuming to prepare and develop photographic plates, and the results were inconsistent.

After attempting and then canceling a trip to photograph Santo Domingo in the Caribbean islands, a young twenty-four-year-old photographer named George Eastman began researching how to make photography more convenient and less expensive. He developed and patented a gelatin-coated paper that came in a roll he called photographic film. He patented the emulsion process and the camera he invented to use it, and started the George Eastman Company of Rochester New York. Later, he renamed his company Kodak. He and his mother invented the name Kodak after playing around with an anagram word game. Eastman settled on the name because he felt it was simple and easy to pronounce, had a strong sound, and gave the company an identity separate from its founder. Later he would change his mind about that and amend the company name to Eastman Kodak.

Although the Kodak name would become synonymous with photography, George Eastman would die before the company became a runaway success, before the invention of Kodachrome and the Instamatic, before “Kodak Moments” and long before the company’s precipitous decline in the wake of the digital revolution.

In March of 1932, suffering from a painful and degenerative spinal condition, the same condition that left his mother wheelchair bound during the last years of her life, George Eastman shot himself in the heart, leaving behind a suicide note that said only, “My work here is done. Why wait?”

He was the first to take photography and make it something more than a profession, more than a special occasion. He changed the way we thought about capturing everyday moments, and in doing so we started to preserve these glimpses into the minutia and magic of life, capturing them on film for all time.

Portraits of War

President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan, October 3rd, 1862. Photographed by Mathew Brady.

Long before he invented the single-wire telegraph system and Morse Code, Samuel Morse was a painter. Throughout the 1830s he traveled around Europe painting and studying art, spending a particularly large amount of time in Paris. It was there, in 1839, that Samuel Morse met Louis Daguerre. Fascinated with the daguerreotype process, Morse wrote to the New York Observer and passed along a detailed description of this new technology, word of which spread throughout America.

When he returned to America, Morse was swamped with students, including the young Matthew Brady, who was only sixteen years old. By 1944, Matthew Brady was so skilled at making daguerrotypes that he opened his own studio. Along with taking famous photographs of prominent Americans, Brady also took pictures of soldiers home on leave. It was then that he got what he called “itchy feet,” a great desire to travel around the country observing, and photographing, war.

The task was expensive and dangerous and he was discouraged by everyone he knew, but Brady persisted, and not only did he capture some of the most iconic images of war that we have today, he basically invented the field of photojournalism. His popular shows around the country displayed, for the first time, photographs of dead bodies, capturing the real horror of war in a way written accounts could not.

It is a cruel irony that Brady’s eyesight began to fail him and that the cost of pursuing photography ruined him financially. On a January day in 1896 he was hit by a streetcar and died shorty thereafter, penniless, in the charity ward of a New York Hospital.

Photojournalism took photography to a new level. Once a curiosity, then used for stiff and formal portraits, photography was transformed into a medium for visual storytelling

Photography and the Constancy of Time

View of the Boulevard du Temple

Nicéphore Niépce spent five years trying to create permanent photographic images, few of which survived, because although he could make photographic images appear on glass and metal plates, he lacked a good method for fixing the pictures permanently. Exposed to light, they faded with time. His work was brilliant but ephemeral, and most if it is lost.

Five years into his experiments, Niépce died unexpectedly of a stroke. At the time of his death he was so penniless and destitute that he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Luckily, he left his notes to his partner, Louis Daguerre, a fellow artist and scientist who would perfect the chemical process Niépce started by creating what become known as the daguerreotype.

What made the new process revolutionary is that Daguerre figured out that if you removed the silver halide crystals from the surface of the exposed photograph, the image would be come permanent. To do so, he used a chemical called sodium thiosulfate, known today as fixer.

In 1938 he created the photograph you see at the top of this post. It’s a scene from a street in Paris called the Boulevard du Temple. The photograph required a long exposure of about ten minutes. Therefore, what was at the time a very busy street in Paris is rendered deserted. That’s because during a long exposure, only those objects that remain stationary can be exposed long enough to show up in the photograph. Everything else disappears: the people, the horses, the carriages, the stray dogs. They all moved on with their lives, disappearing into the depths of time.

All but two. At the bottom of the photograph you can see two tiny figures, one standing, once sitting. A man is presumably having his shoes polished. We can’t see any detail, and we’ll never know who these two men were, but they were the first in the history of civilization to be fixed onto a photograph for all time.

The Mind’s Eye: How the Camera Obscura Changed the World

The word camera (as in, my iPhone camera sucks), comes from the Latin: Camera Obscura, which literally means dark room. This was eventually shortened to just camera, and indeed, the first cameras were like little rooms. Little, dark, box-sized rooms. Before we knew how to capture images on film, we were able to project images onto other surfaces, using only a light and pinhole. For thousands of years we have used those images to create drawings and paintings. It wasn’t until the photographic process was invented that we were able to paint those images with light. The word photography means “to write with light.”

There is a natural phenomenon that occurs when you project an image from one place to another through a pinhole–a perfect replica of that image can be projected onto a wall or other surface, except that it’s upside down.

Did you know that your eye sees everything upside down for this same reason? An image of the outside world is projected onto the surface of your retina–upside down. Thank god the brain provides the helpful service of reversing that for us.

The resourceful humans, possibly as early as the time of Paleolithic cave paintings, discovered a way to project images onto walls and surfaces, and then paint or draw those images. On cave walls, through tiny holes in the cloth of tents, on walls and canvases and finally onto glass plates covered with chemicals which react to light.

Leonardo da Vinci was obsessed with the Camera Obscura. He drew and painted many pictures of it, and also was the first to discover that the human eye worked the same way, by dissecting the eyes of cadavers and studying how the lenses worked. He drew a number of different devices to harness this phenomenon, but we don’t know if he ever built any of them.

Fast forward three hundred years, when a young French artist, scientist, and inventor named Nicéphore Niépce, who went on the create the earliest known photographs, was experimenting with lithography, the process of using chemicals to create etchings on paper, metal, or wood. As he stood by the window working, he looked out and began to wonder what would happen if he tried etching with light. Little did he know that he would go on to invent a technology that would turn our world upside down.

Photography: A Little Storytelling, A Little History

The history of photography has been covered by many people over many years. What else is there to add? Well, I’ve recently been reading some biographies (Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo Da Vinci, among others), and I’m struck by the ability of writers to bring distant history and historical figures to life. I’ve been wanted to write about photography for some time, ever since digital took over and print photography became a thing of the past.

I spent much of my childhood hanging out in darkrooms watching my father work. He gave me his rejects, and I had a collection of horse photographs that was the envy of my little girl peers. In high school I was the photo editor for the newspaper and yearbook, and my fingers turned brown from being in the developer for so long (I could never stand to wear gloves). Then in college I spent more time taking and printing my own black-and-white photographs, the last being a series of photographs of my son about eight years ago. That was at the tail end of the availability of film (although you can still buy it online), and I haven’t touched a film camera or set foot in dark room since.

Nostalgia, and also a sense of curiosity, has propelled me to explore the history of photography for interesting stories rather than obvious facts. I will begin with Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Italy in the 13th century, more than three hundred years before the invention of photography. What does he have to do with photography? I’ll tell you in the next post.