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.

Updates! Inktober, NaNoWriMo, Photography, and More!

Hello again! Those that follow my blog (who knows why), will be happy to know that I have many posts incoming. This is an exciting time for blogging, and I plan to write a post (however brief) for each day of October. This is part of two events that happen this time of year, Inktober and NaNoWriMo. Inktober is actually for comic book artists and illustrators and requires them to do one doodle or drawing for each day of October. However, I’ve decided to do my own version, which is to blog about the history of photography. I’ll also be doing some blogging about NaNoWriMo prep and a tiny bit about teaching, travel, and family stuff.

As most of you know, I’m no longer on social media, and I love it. I don’t miss Facebook or Instagram at all, and it has been very freeing and relaxing to go about my life without having to make it look good for Facebook and Instagram likes. I know some of you miss seeing the kiddos, and are looking forward to Halloween costumes, so I will be posting a few updates about the kids this month.

I also have a novel update! Brace yourselves, this is big. My novel is currently at 51,000 words! I have written the ending, and have what is effectively a rough draft, but it’s pretty messy right now and not quite ready for readers. Typical publishing length for a mainstream novel is about 70,000-80,000 words, so I’ll also be fleshing it out and adding scenes. However, I’m spending October getting it in shape and hope to start sending it out soon. This is the closest I’ve ever been to finishing so I’m pretty excited.

First post about the history of photography coming soon!

Once More, with Feeling: Why I’m Leaving Social Media

At the end of December I took a month-long break from Facebook and Instagram, and it was great. I actually lost the urge to post, although I occasionally peeked in to check for notifications and messages. When I found myself browsing I remembered why I wanted to leave in the first place. Then, last week I went on Spring Break, and for the first time in YEARS I did not post during a vacation. It was heaven. When we got back, I reflected a bit, and then just flat-out deleted my Facebook and Instagram. I couldn’t be happier.

My problems with social media:

  • Social media is a waste of my time
  • Social media turns us all into dopamine addicts
  • Social media steals our data and makes money off of it
  • Social media perpetuates lies about our lives
  • Social media creates a false sense of intimacy

I’m closer than ever to finishing my novel, having written 250 pages and knowing the ending has made me super excited that this is the year I will finally finish. I’m also working harder at my job and taking on more responsibility, and I hate the way social media sucks away both my time and my ability to concentrate.

One way that social media accomplishes this is the through the manipulation of a brain chemical called dopamine. Every time you get a notification: someone likes or comments on a post, you get an email in your inbox, or you hear a ding–your brain gets a hit of dopamine. This is a powerful and very addictive chemical and your brain will do anything to get more. This is why when you’re active on social media you are always thinking about your next post. Your brain knows how to get its fix.

Not only do we want to post, we want to make ourselves look good, so we spend a lot of time thinking about what we should post that will make us look good. Let’s show the rest of the world that we are busy, happy, well-traveled, and well-liked. How can we make ourselves the envy of our neighbors, friends, and family? Or, at least, show them that we are as good as they are. It has been interesting for me to witness the real lives of some people who post on social media, and let me tell you, their posts do not reflect their reality. And while most of us know this on one level, I’m sure we all still feel a little bad, a little behind, and a little left out when we scroll through social media.

I’ve noticed that social media also creates a false sense of friendship and intimacy. I’ve made a lot of connections with people on Facebook, and my posts are often well-liked, but this doesn’t translate into real-world warmth and friendship beyond the scope of what I’ve posted. I’m looking to foster deeper connections with a smaller group of people.

Although a blog is also a curated look at life, and only skims the surface of intimacy, it does have a few benefits. My blog belongs to me, not Mark Zuckerberg, and I’ve disabled comments to minimize notifications. It’s more of place for me to publish my thoughts and some pictures rather than add to the endlessly scrolling newsfeed filled with people trying to prove something to each other.

There is a concept in marketing called “the bottomless bowl,” which is the idea that, as humans, we will eat more from a container that is constantly being refilled than we will from a set portion. Social media and news outlets have taken advantage of this with endlessly scrolling newsfeeds filled with misleading clickbait.

I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I want to be more conscious of how I spend my time, and I want to model that for my children. I’ve decided that the negatives of social media far outweigh the positives. Instead, I will focus more on reading books, writing, spending time outside and with my kids, and writing emails and texts to friends and family who don’t live near me. The few people who will miss my presence on social media know where to find me.

Back to School (+novel progress)

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Aria reading at the library.

The kids started school last week, and I started teaching this week, hence the lack of blog posts. We’ve been busy, busy, busy! I’m taking some time during a busy teaching day to write this post because I’m determined to keep up this blog.

This semester I’m teaching my usual ed theory and writing methods courses, and I’m also acting as coordinator for my area (English Ed), which adds an extra level of responsibility (and stress) to my work. However, one of my classes is online, which is nice because it gives me a little extra flexibility for things like hanging out with the kids after school while they are still young enough to want to hang out with me. Their new favorite thing is to go to the library after school. I love this too, because it’s such a nice, friendly little library. The librarian in the kids’ area actually used to babysit Oscar when he was a baby.

Now that I’m done prepping for the first few weeks of classes, I’m ready to turn my attention back to the novel. I’ve managed to slowly ratchet the word count up a few thousand words, and I’m telling myself that slow progress is better than no progress. Baby steps!

Novel Progress report for January 15th, 2019

Suit of Coins: 21,786 words

Excerpt:

They left Lem’s house and headed back to Anna’s. They were silent for the first few miles as Maria drove deftly through LA traffic. Then Anna said, “I think he’s hiding something.”

“You can be your sweet ass he’s hiding something,” said Maria, suddenly merging across several lanes of traffic. She never took her eyes off the road, but smiled as Anna began bouncing in her seat like a kid.

“Ooooh, this is exciting. Do you think he killed her?”

“No, nothing like that,” said Maria, “but I do think he saw something. Something he’s not telling us. I’m just trying to figure out how he never got interviewed by the cops.”