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The Way It Was. . .
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 • Posted May 2, 2013

In some of the past articles I spent time talking about “saddlebag” maps that were the early examples of traveler’s or glove box maps that we know from our own recent past. Of course now many travelers, particularly younger adults, rely on GPS and “voices in the dash” for directions and never even have to look at a map. Another area where technology has dramatically changed even the recent past is in the area of preserving our memories through photography. The idea of electronic cameras and digital images has completely changed the way we think of photography, and I would like to take a tour back through the short history of recording life and the world around us on film through the view of a lens and camera.

After much experimentation and many basic trials the first photographs were made over 150 years ago and were blurry images of objects or buildings that did not move much. Once the concept was established with some success there was a very rapid evolution of the processes and materials, and by the time of the Civil War a few short years later there were clear and permanent photographs made of the people and tragedy of that conflict. The tools of the photographer were a large box with a lens in the front, a bellows to provide adjustment and focus, and a glass surface at the rear that was specially treated to react to light and thus record the image. It was a very clumsy process and involved the photographer under a black cloth to focus, and then someone to take the glass negative immediately into a dark room to develop and produce the photograph. The early photos were made on a stable backing, usually a tin or copper plate treated with more light sensitive chemicals to record the images. These early photos were often called tin-types, although there were several techniques to produce the image with varying degrees of complexity. Most all of these images were portraits of people, both the famous and well known and, because it was the much less difficult and costly than a portrait painting, there were many made of individuals and families.

In the 1870’s there was a development whereby paper could be used as a substrate for the chemicals for photos, and most images after about 1880 were of that nature but were mounted on a stiff cardboard for handling and display. Many of the images of individuals or small groups were for display and are most often called cabinet cards since they were sturdy enough to be leaned up on a shelf and did not need a frame to show them off. Another interesting development was the stereoscopic view whereby two cameras were used to take a simultaneous photo of an object from slightly different angles and the resulting images were mounted side-by-side and were seen through a special viewer that provided a three dimensional look. These were most often of landscapes or buildings and filled a marketing niche and were very popular for people who wanted to “see the world” but could not travel to see it in person.

With the significant technological changes of the twentieth century, and particularly the advances during and just after World War II cameras were commonly available to everyone to record their own travels or family gatherings. The lens were refined and produced much clearer images than the earlier “Brownie box” cameras, and the 35mm film was easily used and developed so that everyone could enjoy the hobby of photography. The camera continued to be modified, and new ideas were explored such as miniaturization and instant developing by Polaroid, but until the introduction of electronic photography most of the changes were refinements of the processes and equipment. This has of necessity been a very short and condensed history of one of the minor areas of our history, but it provides a brief glimpse into the ways that recent technology has completely changed the expectations and the way we see things.

If you would like to see some of the things I have mentioned you can see them at Red Door Antiques during this coming weekend’s Art Walk and for the month of May. We will have on display an 8 x 10 wooden view camera from 1890, a number of tin-type portraits from an earlier era, a stereoscopic view of the Alamo from the mid-1870’s, some of the 35mm cameras from the 1950’s and a few other photographic items from before electronic technology took over this hobby. We even have a very small “spy” camera that we believe was provided by the CIA to an oilman who was working oversees several decades ago. If you would like to see some of these pieces of photographic history, stop by Red Door Antiques on the north side of the Square any Friday or Saturday. With the rapid changes of electronic media we quickly forget all the technology that went before, but it is always fun and educational to take a few minutes to hold a piece of history or look back and enjoy ... the Way It Was.

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