Ven Bega­mu­dré

The pho­to­graph as gizmo, recipe, ex­per­i­ment, charm

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Fad­ing Com­mit­tee


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.

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