The photograph as gizmo, recipe, experiment, charm
On February 23, 1848, the Pittsburgh Morning Post reported the following tale from Mr. Edmund Ruffin of Petersburg, Virginia. In the summer of 1736, a ship’s surgeon named Davis came ashore at York to visit a patient as a thunderstorm began. A lightning bolt passed through a pine tree, then through a window and struck the surgeon dead. A sad tale, it is true, and one with a curious twist, for on the surgeon’s breast was discovered an imprint of that very same tree. In colour.
Before Leo XIII became pope, he wrote an ode to photography that contains the line, “Novumque Monstrum!” (“O new marvel!”) After becoming pope, Leo sat for a cartede-visite by the London Stereoscopic Company and thus became, perhaps, the first pope in stereoscope. Later, in 1884, he commissioned a painting for the Vatican’s Galleria dei Candelabri. In the fresco’s upper half, the Church herself blesses traditional arts: painting and sculpture. In the lower half she blesses the minor arts: photography, of course, and carpet weaving.
In 1855 the Photographic Society of London became so concerned with the problem of images fading that it established a Fading Committee. This was a subject much on people’s minds. Eight years before the British weekly magazine Punch had cautioned
photo: wikimedia commons
readers about the ephemeral nature of both photography and love:
From 1850 to the late 1880s, when albumen was used to coat paper, photographers found themselves rarely far from the kitchen. They added egg whites, separated from yolks, to a saline solution and beat this until frothy. The hen’s diet affected the quality of the albumen. James Mudd, a Scot, preferred duck eggs. Some photochefs added honey to the froth; others treacle, malt, raspberry juice, ginger wine, beer, coffee or tea. Mudd proposed gin for its versatility. But what to do with all the yolks? The British Journal of Photography happened on a solution and, in its 1862 Photographic Almanac, published a recipe for Photographer’s Cheesecake. Its ingredients include a quarter pound of butter, a quarter pound of sugar, three yolks, half a grated nutmeg and a pinch of salt. Add lemon juice and rind and bake for twenty minutes in a dish lined with puff pastry.
Behold thy portrait—day by day, I’ve seen its features die; First the moustachios go away Then off the whiskers fly. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Those speaking eyes, which made me trust
In all you used to vow,
Are like two little specks of dust—
Alas! Where are they now? Electric lights in studios became common only at the end of the nineteenth century, so before then photographers had to be an ingenious lot. Take Dr. John Vansant, stationed at the United States Marine Hospital in St. Louis. In 1887 he put fireflies in a small glass bottle, covered its mouth with fine netting, and placed the bottle near his subject. He calculated that, since each firefly flash lingers roughly half a second, the exposure time required was the time it took twelve fireflies to make a total of fifty flashes. This should equal twenty-five seconds, but fireflies are an independent lot who take their sweet time recharging.
When the Photographic Society of London was established, Queen Victoria’s consort, Albert, donated fifty pounds. He died in 1861 but would not fade. During her Diamond Jubilee thirty-six years later, Queen Victoria wore a bracelet that contained a photograph of Albert. She often wore stanhopes—photographs set in lockets or miniature spyglasses and magnified with a plano-convex lens. One American stanhope depicted a Civil War battlefield set in a Civil War bullet. As for the French, one could always find pornographic stanhopes in Paris.
Photographers compared their art with other marvels of the modern age, like the railroad. Neither photography nor the railroad amused Frederick Locker, a minor poet and friend of the great William Makepeace Thackeray. Locker wrote in his self-published, 1881 edition of London Lyrics:
Where boys and girls pursued their sports A locomotive puffs and snorts, And gets my malediction; The turf is dust—the elves are fled—
The ponds have shrunk—and tastes have spread
To photograph and fiction.
After Heinz K. Henisch and Bridget A. Henisch, The Photographic Experience, 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes. Ven Begamudré writes magical fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He lives in Regina.