Sunday, April 13, 2014

Little Town Photography

Lately re-organizing the house, I discovered all the many places that I have photos. Just like most people, I have an abundance of photo albums, but I also have numerous albums of CDs with just photo images edited and saved. There are 6100 images on Flickr; here most images contain no people - just places and things that I have made. There are 5500 images on my laptop, along with approximately the same number of different photos on my PC. These, too, are all backed-up to an external hard-drive, as well as in Snapfish. In fact, when I downloaded Picasa 3 to the laptop, I spent four hours working on the facial recognition task.

At one time, my brother joked that I would someday be one of the most documented persons who was never famous. Nowadays that cannot possibly be true. With all the digital photo options literally in hand, everyone is overly self-, friend-, and family-documented whether they are famous, not famous, or infamous. Even though I am not a smartphone user at the moment, I too have a place among millions of photo hoarders and image sharers.

by Jenifer Steller, Brookgreen Gardens, MD, Butterfly Observatory, July 7, 2009

Knick of Time Interiors
My real fascination, however, is with those old sepia and black/white shots of times past - those times lost or unknown to us generations who now have inherited those images. The American Museum of Photography shares, "From tentative beginnings in 1840, the practice of capturing a persons' perfect image and identity with a camera became an industry, an art, and a means for Americans from all walks of life to send a personal and often intimate message about themselves into the future."

What are those messages to us? For many who have our ancestors' images, we know that photography became, in a way, the great equalizer. People who could never afford painted portraits could then have photos of themselves, family, and friends. For this reason, families may have at least one photograph of a loved one. You can read more at The Museum of Family History.     
The earliest photographs that I have of family are cabinet portraits with the name of the studio on the bottom of the card or on the back. These photographs were mounted on cardboard and are ambiguous about the true date. Since the studio may have used blank cards stored for many years, many genealogical sites suggest dating the photo by the style of dress. Also cameo portraits were popular in the United States during the early 1870s. This cameo photo is of my maternal grandfather's mother. Since he was born in the 1890s, this one is turn-of-the century. The Museum of Family History writes that "Around 1890, more and more studio portraits were created as vignettes, i.e., portraits where the edges of the image were somewhat blurred out, giving it a bit of a fuzzy appearance."
Why the awkward poses? Were all these people very serious? Were they unhappy?

Historical Boys' Clothing tells us that technology was a major factor because early photographers were working with extremely slow-speed plates; therefore, subjects could not move. To prevent spoiling the photo during an extended wait, (1) the subject's head may be held in place by a stand; (2) subjects were asked to be solemn; (3) subjects were seated; (4) subjects could place hands on seated members to balance.

Thank goodness for itinerant photographers! For rural communities, the photographer came in horse and buggy or by train. In the city, the street photographer was popular. For these reasons, we have photographs of large families and their homes, as well as more casual and intimate ones where the subjects were caught by surprise. These photographs are highly prized in my family.

The Dodrill Family of West Virginia

According to The Museum of Family History, cabinet portraiture was popular until the early twentieth century when Kodak introduced the Brownie camera in February 1900 for $1.00. 

You can listen to memories of the Brownie here.

We will visit using a Brownie camera for the next post. See you then!