A Tale of Two Photographers
Yesterday I heard two things that amused me a lot. First was a full-time pro photographer who referred to one of the new multi-megapixel cameras as a “Doctor’s camera”, meaning it was a toy for rich hobbyists, not a tool for a professional like himself. He at least had the decency to blush when I pointed out that a certain landscape photographer whose work he admired greatly was a physician who photographed in his spare time. The next was comment was from a photographer friend of mine who criticized a print I have because it was “all postprocessing, a real photographer does it in the camera”.
I was amused because both of the speakers felt that these two phenomenon—the serious hobbyist photographer and altering photos by postprocessing—are new things invented in the digital age. Both believed these new things were ruining photography. I’m kind of a history buff and wanted to tell them that these “new” phenomena of hobbyist photographers and postprocessing images were both about 150 years old. They could have made those exact same comments in 1860, and many photographers of the day did. Unfortunately, they fled before I could tell them my tale. So I’ll see if maybe one or two of you are interested.
Photography in the 1850s
While there were some prior crude attempts at photography, the the work of Niepce and Daguerre that resulted in the Dagguereotype (which allowed what we would consider real photographs to be taken) wasn’t completed until the 1840s. The process had its limits, however, because each photograph was a positive (not a negative) and couldn’t be reproduced. One picture, one print, that was it. In the late 1840s the Albumen Process was introduced, which used egg whites to coat photosensitive chemicals on glass plates, creating negative images which could then be printed multiple times. Photography exploded after this invention. So many photographs were taken that it is estimated that 1,000,000 eggs a year were used for photographic purposes in England alone. In the 1850s, the Collodion process, which eliminated the need for egg whites but didn’t simplify the process much, began to replace the albumen process although both methods were used extensively through the 1860s.
To make a photograph in those days required the photographer to be a chemist, mechanic, and artist. Photographers often made their own cameras (although usually not lenses). The photographer had to mix the chemicals to prepare the glass-plate negatives immediately before the photograph was taken. (The plates had to be used wet.) Exposure times were generally at least several seconds, if not minutes, and then the plate had to be developed as soon as the image was captured. Although the process of preparing plates and printing photographs was extremely time consuming, the number of full-time professional photographers in London, for example, skyrocketed from perhaps a dozen in the 1840s to 147 in 1857. (I can imagine Dauggere now, complaining about how mass produced prints were ruining photography.)
In this heady time, the Royal Photographic Society was formed, and began publishing the first journal of photographs in 1853. There were a number of “fathers of photography” active during this period. The two who are my personal favorites happen to illustrate that the points made by my professional photographer colleagues recently aren’t new ideas at all. The superb hobbyist photographer and the postprocessing “photograph alterer” were active even in the 1850s, and irritating the other photographers even then.
In 1856 and 1857, a large photograph might measure 5×7 inches and consist of a landscape scene, or perhaps a family or individual portrait. In 1857, a photograph by Oscar Rejlander, a Swedish born professional photographer working in England and Scotland, was first exhibited in Manchester. The huge 30 by 16 inch print, titled “Two Ways Toward Life”, was a complex scene with multiple figures reminiscent of a Raphael painting— a wide angle scene showing detail no camera of the day could possibly have captured. Rejlander had painstakingly created it from over 30 different negatives, printing them one at a time, from foreground to background, on two large sheets to make the final image. The process of creating this first photomontage took over 6 weeks to produce the final print.
When Rejlander applied to have the picture exhibited at the Photographic Society of Scotland, it was rejected. The judges didn’t consider the picture a true photograph, because it was a modified image, not “as seen by the camera”. (The risque subject matter and the fact that Rejlander, careful of his finances, used local prostitutes for his nude models probably didn’t help his case, either.) The decision prompted a huge battle among the society’s membership. The picture was eventually exhibited, but the Photographic Society of Scotland became so divided that many members eventually formed a separate society. The critiques of the day were equally divided between those in awe of the remarkable image, and those who scorned it as “a viscous and illegitimate application of the photographic art”.
Rejlander’s photographic career was remarkable. It wasn’t possible to practice “street photography” in those days, so Rejlander would use models to recreate scenes he observed of the poor in Britain at that time, producing haunting photographs that are collected in museums around the world today.
He was also the first to use a light meter— sort of, anyway. He would bring his cat into the studio: if the cat’s eye’s were like slits he used a short exposure, if more open a long exposure, and if the cat’s pupils were wide open he knew there wasn’t enough light to photograph!
His photographs of facial expressions were so superb that Charles Darwin used them to illustrate “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”. Prince Albert collected his works extensively. Rejlander unfortunately died a pauper and a collection was taken up by the Royal Photographic Society on his death to provide for his widow.
The Hobbyist Photographer
Charles Dodgson was something of a Renaissance man. Born in 1832 in Chesire, England he was an Anglican Deacon, received a doctoral degree from Oxford where he was a professor of mathematics for 26 years, published numerous books and poems, and was a patented inventor (including devising a game which we now know as Scrabble and inventing double-sided adhesive tape).
He also took up photography in 1856 and while it was never his occupation, he excelled at it. He was probably the first photographer to specialize in photographs of children, definitely the first to pose them in natural settings (rather than the stilted ‘sitting room’ portraits of the day), and one of the first to consider photographing pets. Many consider Dodson the first “Naturalistic” photographer.
In addition to natural poses, his photographs were known for what we would call a wide dynamic range today, and for the shine and luster of his prints — probably because his mathematical background led him to tinker with the chemistry of his “albumen preparations”. He produced the enormous number (for those days) of 3,000 images over his 25 year photographic career. He could have made many more as his photographic talents were in endless demand. But Dodgson never considered leaving his work as teacher, author, and inventor to become a full-time photographer. He felt that photography was his hobby and his pleasure, not something he wished to do for a living. In 1880, interestingly, he stopped photography suddenly and entirely. Some claim he felt the advent of factory produced “dry plate” photography around that time was ruining the photographic art, allowing people to take photographs without requiring the skills needed to make their own wet plates.
Among the images Dodson took are some of the few surviving photographs of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and a number of images of Alice Liddell, the daughter of a friend.
You probably will recognize Charles Dodson better by his pen name: Lewis Carroll. And you probably by now realize Alice Liddell became the main character in his most famous book, Alice in Wonderland. Carroll, who had an excellent sense of humor, even penned a poem, Hiawatha’s Photographing as an entertaining description of being a photographer in his day, a few verses of which are printed below.
From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera made of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
First, a piece of glass he coated
With collodion, and plunged it
In a bath of lunar caustic
Carefully dissolved in water –
There he left it certain minutes.
Secondly, my Hiawatha
Made with cunning hand a mixture
Of the acid pyrro-gallic,
And of glacial-acetic,
And of alcohol and water
This developed all the picture.
Think about this the next time you feel like complaining that your camera only shoots 5 frames per second, and it takes 3 minutes to download 200 images from your memory card 🙂
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