Category Archives: History of Photography

The Baker Street Irregulars

Fogure 1 – Children carrying Christmas greens. In the public domain in the United States because of its age.

In my searches for images of Christmases past I came across the photograph of Figure 1. It shows a group of London children, with delighted faces, carrying holly and mistletoe. The picture was from 1915 so both Edwardian and during the First World War. In that context there is a lot going on – poor children, grubbily dressed, both still with happy faces.So it isn’t a charming little image of Christmas in the “good ol’ days,” but rather a rawer image of Christmas past.

To me it is most reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

     “At this moment there was a loud ring at the bell, and I could hear Mrs. Hudson, our landlady, raising her voice in a wail of expostulation and dismay.
     “By heavens, Holmes,” I said, half rising, “I believe that they are really after us.”
     “No, it’s not quite so bad as that. It is the unofficial force—the Baker Street irregulars.
     As he spoke, there came a swift pattering of naked feet upon the stairs, a clatter of high voices, and in rushed a dozen dirty and ragged little street…. There was some show of discipline among them, despite their tumultuous entry, for they instantly drew up in line and stood facing us with expectant faces. One of their number, taller and older than the others, stood forward with an air of lounging superiority which was very funny in such a disreputable little scarecrow.”
     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign of the Four (1890)

As a result, we can see this as a kind of triangle of fiction and reality. Conan Doyle is writing fiction, but describing what he sees and what is familiar. The photographer is making a social statement, projecting what he perceives to what we see. And finally we, as viewers of the image, complete the triangle. We relate it back to the fictional characters that are part of the collective thought of generations of Sherlock Holmes readers. And we recognize, through Dickens, that life was not always so lovely.

The Consistency of Christmas

Figure 1 Woman and Christmas tree c. 1860. in the Public Domain in the United States because of its age.

Yesterday was our first snow of the year, and this morning it is absolutely gorgeous! I have been trying to get into the “Christmas Spirit” by ignoring world and national events and by searching the web for antique Christmas images. What I have found is an amazing consistency of western tradition. Christmas is pretty much the same as it has always been. There are styles and regionalisms, of course, but the fundamental celebration remains the same.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

There are literally thousands of images, both candid and posed, of excited children and families in their “Sunday Best” posed rigidly in front of Christmas trees. These span the period from the 1860’s to today. I am particularly delighted by a photograph of “mom” from 1959 happily holding her cherished gift of Ricky Nelson albums. 

Figure 1 shows a young woman in crinoline from around 1860 standing before “the family” Christmas tree. We feel that we could inject ourselves, or be injected, seamlessly into this little happy scene. I find myself wanting to extend my perception, to look out the window and wonder what is going on in homes next door.

“Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t.”
 Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

We connect with frozen memories, contrived or real, from Christmases past. And we are compelled to add to the mountains of photographic memories. So many will be posted on Instagram and Facebook this December 25. Let’s take a lesson from Old Scrooge and remember how to laugh.

“Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years it was a splendid laugh!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The great fuzzy time

Figure 1 – van der Weyde Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building in a Sunday Storm 1 – February 20, 1916, from the New York Tribune, in the United States LOC and in the public domain in the United States.

By definition the past is fuzzy. And the only reason that we may feel otherwise about it is that our minds “abhor a vacuum,” and we fill in all the missing pieces. Memories fade, I’m afraid that we tend to, well, make things up.

We have looked at a lot of old photographs on this blog and spoken about capturing moments in time. And one of the dominant features of photographs, unlike memories, is that they can be crystal clear. Indeed, we so often marvel in their sharpness and feel almost that we are intruding on the past. How were photographs distributed in the past? There were three basic modes: 1. as personal cherished images themselves, 2. in magazines, and 3. in newspapers. Magazines and newspapers were the internet of their day. Newspapers probably more so because they were daily. But one point to remember is that photographs in newspapers were generally printed by rotogravure. This was not an inconsequential piece of technology, its origins date back to 1852 when Fox Talbot described using a piece of cloth to produce a photographic half tone plate.

But a key problem was the fuzzy dots of newspaper images. Brilliantly sharp and vivid photographs were reduced to an unpleasing blur. And when the photograph was something of beauty, this could become rather disappointing. Case in point, I’d like to consider Figure 1, which is an image from the United States Library of Congress’ Newspaper collection, specifically from the New York Tribune issue of February 20, 1916 – 101 years ago. The photograph is by van der Weyde and shows New York’s Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building. Here, at least, the goal was to capture the fogginess of the stormy moment, and the image is charming. You can feel the resistance of the wind as the lady makes her way across the park and, when you can empathize with someone in a photograph, you know that something great has been accomplished. The trash bin is a bit of an enigma or incongruity. And of course, we have the Flat Iron Building itself in the background, this made photographically famous twelve years before by Edward Steichen’s iconic 1904 photograph “The Flatiron Building at Night.”  It is a stunning photograph and you wish it was clearer and less blemished.

The development of communication media has been and continues to be an unstoppable march towards broader dissemination and greater sharpness and fidelity. The long period of fuzziness in newspaper photographs, a process that continues to exist even today, is but a strop along the way. More pixels, greater dynamic range, and vivid color are where we are inexorably marching to. But this does not necessarily equate with greater vision on the part of the photographer or greater perception on the part of the viewer. We have so many images that photographs are expected and no longer precious commodities. They have become cheapened by familiarity. So on this particular morning, I prefer to walk with the lady with the hat and umbrella along an imagined winter walk in Madison Park. The image is fuzzy and the memory all the more so.

Thanksgiving weekend

Figure 1 – Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker living in Ledyard, Connecticut. Photograph by Jack Delano for the US Farm Security Administration, Nov. 1940, from the US LOC and in the public domain.

In the United States the time of Thanksgiving Weekend is rapidly drawing to a close. As a result, I have been reflecting on family, friends, and memories of Thanksgivings past. Holidays are memetic and we judge them against an archetype. This afternoon, I sought out that archetype in the the archives of the United States Library of Congress and came across the wonderful photograph of “Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker living in Ledyard, Connecticut.”

Jack Delano (1914-1997) worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration, the United Fund, and the Farm Security Administration. It has been said of Delano that his photographs ” elevate the ordinary individual to heroic status.

This particular photograph uses the trick of image in a mirror. It is a, not so classic, foreground-background flip image. Your eye darts back and forth. Is it a photograph of the pies and cakes or is it a photograph of the family? They seem on a different plane, framed in a glowing silver, set upon a field of simple, yet sweet, flowered wallpaper. You wonder for a moment if it might not be a Norman Rockwell painting. I marvel at the complexity of angles and planes in this photograph. The image within the image is capturing a divine and personal moment in time. With our advantage of hindsight, we understand and recognize that the world was becoming engulfed in war – a war that would evaporate their way of simple American life. Yet they persist in a moment of family, and we wonder about the face of the little girl turned away from us – wonder what she looks like and wonder what became of all these people.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers! May you be blessed.

Promises, promises

Figure 1 – Percival Lowell in 1914, observing Venus in the daytime with the 24-inch (61 cm) Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona. From the wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

Young David was promised air-cars and men on Mars. Don’t think I’m complaining; I am. Well finally, we are talking again about reaching out into the solar system and finally going to Mars. To us Star Trek fans, it’s a matter of destiny.

But just as I am starting to feel good again, Stephen Hawkins weighs in with the dire prediction that we must leave Earth within 600 years. Bottom line we are using up and spoiling the planet, and in general making a dogs breakfast of it. It is, of course, totally depressing. Who’s going to leave the Earth? I am pretty sure not so many of us, or more correctly the them which is future us – very confusing I know. The rest of us/them is going to need to stay behind to choke on our own effluence, and judging from current events, I am pretty sure that a government that is prepared and heartless enough to take healthcare away from twenty-one million people cannot be counted upon to choose the survivors equitably. I remind you of the scene from the movie “Dr. Strangelove.

“Muffley: Well, I, I would hate to have to decide…who stays up and…who goes down.

Dr. Strangelove: Well, that would not be necessary, Mr. President. It could easily be accomplished with a computer. And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross-section of necessary skills. Of course, it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. Ha, ha. But ah, with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within say, twenty years.”

OY, this could be a problem!

Despite this sticky issue, it now appears that we are moving forward towards our rendezvous  with the Red Planet. Lots of folks are ready to make the sacrifice even those associated with a one-way ticket: a multiyear journey, exposure to deadly radiation levels, living the rest of their lives in cramped corners with the same people. And then there is the most hideous fact of all – no online shopping, no more, no how, never again! Frightening! Still Mars is out there, as elusive as it is tangible.

And Mars has long fired the human imagination. Saturday marked the one hundred and first anniversary of the death of Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855–1916), who led the movement in favor of canals on Mars – alien life – an other that challenged human hegemony over the universe. Lowell is shown in Figure 1 in 1914 his eye set, in this case, not on Mars, but rather on whether the 24-inch Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona could pick up Venus in the daylight. It could, and this is a wonderful photograph with a coffee sepia tone that adds a sense of age. The subject matter portrays the intricate scientific instrument. Lowell is the master of the technology, like the professor behind the curtain – the universe revealing its secrets to modern science. Or in this case fooling the old professor. There are no sentient being-made waterways on Mars – or at least not that we know of. Our robots have been there,  guided by our hands. Lowell’s canals are not real. But the belief in alien life – in an otherness that intrigues us and challenges our belief structure remains. In Lowell’s own words:

“If astronomy teaches anything, it teaches that man is but a detail in the evolution of the universe, and the resemblant though diverse details are inevitably to be expected in the hosts of orbs around him. He learns that, though he will probably never find his double anywhere, he is destined to discover any number of cousins scattered through space.”

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Figure 1 – A “gob”, two “Tommys,” and a Red Cross girl in Paris, November 11, 1918 – out to celebrate the Armistice. From the US Library of Congress, taken by the US Army Signal Corps, and in the public domain in the United States.

I have set today’s post to publish at 11 am GMT, that is ninety-nine years to the moment of the armistice that ended World War I, the moment that the Western Front fell silent. In some sense it seems strange that World War I ended still less than a century ago. It seems such a remote and alien time – the time of our grandparents. People gasped, and people celebrated. They went on to live their lives, but always carried those times with them.

Figure 1 is from the United States Library of Congress and is a photograph taken by the United States Army Signal Corps

– Paris, A “gob,” “two Tommys,” and a Red Cross girl went to make up this merry quartette [sic] in Paris on Armistice Day.

A “gob” was an American sailor. A “Tommy”, as we have previously discussed, was an English soldier – much like a GI Joe in America.

There are lots of pictures of people celebrating the end of that war from all around: New York City, London, Paris, Sydney … But these images are usually of great crowds, and your eye has to draw in to isolate individual faces. But here the camera has magically and intimately done that for us, and as a result empathy is easy, as we catch their eyes.

In the end, it was not the war that ended all war, but rather a first episode in a series of terrible conflagrations to end European monarchy and imperialism. But at that moment there was great joy and great hope for the future. Look no more into their faces. We have failed them.

“This is a war to end all war.”

President Woodrow Wilson

Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

George Santayana, Spanish-American philosopher

Lewis Wikes Hine

Figure 1 – Lewis Wickes Hine, “Climbing to the Promised Land, Ellis Island, New York City. c 1908”  From the Wikipedia, from the Brooklyn Museum and in the public domain because of its age.

Well shame on me for not probing a little deeper, for not exploring the next hyperlink. Yesterday I posted a photograph of young oyster shuckers from the US Library of Congress. What I didn’t realize was that this was a photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874 – 1940). Hine was an American sociologist, who used his camera to effect social reform. Yes, you guessed it, his photographs were instrumental in changing child labor laws in the United States. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Hine studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and New York University. He subsequently became a teacher at New York City’s at the Ethical Culture School, where he encouraged his students to use photography as an educational medium. Significantly, Hine would lead his sociology classes to Ellis Island photographing immigrants as they arrived in the New World.

I have chosen one of these examples as Figure 1 as illustrative of Hine’s work on a different but important subject. It is currently in the Brooklyn Museum and is entitled “Climbing into the Promised Land Ellis Island.” The climbing part is very evident in the image and I think connotes two points. First, this last step towards becoming Americans was a difficult one for many immigrants. It was by no means an assured moment. Many were turned away for medical and political reasons. But those who made it were reborn, resurrected. The Brooklyn Museum is famous for its Egyptology collection and I think it not so far fetched to recall as related the ancient Egyptian journey of the dead to the afterlife, a journey of testing and ultimately if you were worthy of resurrection.  The second point about climbing is one that Joseph Campbell made in his comparative mythology studies.  Sacred place exists on a higher plane. You walk up into a church to achieve the sacred and then descend back down to Earth to return to the profane.

Yesterday’s image from the Maggione Cannery still haunts me and probably always will. Hine was a pioneer in social photographic activism. The most effective photographs of this genre never cease to evoke empathy and sympathy. They are sacred in that they reveal the subjects’ souls, pains, hopes, and aspirations in their eyes. Look into those eyes. Are they your ancestors, mine,…?

Oyster shuckers

Figure 1 – Oyster Shuckers Josie 6, Bertha 6, and Sophia 10. From the US Library of Congress and in the public domain.

Thought 1 – I like oysters as much as the next guy, but I have to say that the thought of trying to shuck one open with a sharp oyster shucking knife has always terrified me.

Thought 2 – Ever since my post about  Mulberry Street, I have become enamored of the United States Library of Congress Photography Collection.  Literally, I have spent hours searching it and there are some amazing images.

Combined thoughts – Figure 1 is an image from the National Photo Company Collection at the US LOC. The National Photo Company was a kind of news agency of its day, which was 1850 – 1945. It shows young oyster shuckers – no correction, it shows Josie 6, Bertha 6, and Sophia 10, who shucked oysters for the Maggioni Canning Company, in Port Royal, SC, some time between 1909 and 1932. So terribly Dickensian!

This photograph raises many questions. Questions like: How long did these children work in the cannery before suffering serious injury? Is the bowing of Sophia’s legs an indication of Rickets? Would you be willing to pay more for your oysters so that these children could be in school? All I can say, is thank God for the LIberals and Progressives who brought us Labor Unions and child labor laws.


And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street

Figure 1 – Photomechanical print of New York City’s Mulberry Street c1900. From the US Library of Congress and in the public domain in the US because of its age.

I sigh a deep sigh. I have been looking at so many disturbing images today. It has been two weeks of disturbing images, and each day brings the promise of more. Finally, in desperation, I decided to look for something old and beautiful – an autochrome perhaps. In the end I stumbled with delight upon the image of Figure 1, from the US Library of Congress. In shows New York City’s Mulberry Street around 1900. I am not quite sure if it started out as an autochrome or not. It was published by the Detroit Publishing Co., no. 53641 and is a photomechanical image in its final form. It is truly stunning not only for its brilliance of color, but also because it transports us back to the turn of the century when Mulberry Street teamed with immigrants at its unique position where New York’s Chinatown meets New York’s Little Italy. 

The image is amazing simply spectacular. You do more than see the scene you smell it – olfactory-visual integration. It is so wonderful. It really spans the temporal gap in an instant. It really defines the point that I have so often made that part of the magic of the photograph is to connect people across time. In the foreground the crowd is looking at the photographer.

I am reminded of Dr. Seuss’ poem “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.”

“I swung ’round the corner and dashed through the gate,

I ran up the steps and I felt simply GREAT!

For I had a story that NO ONE could beat!
And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!”

William Howard Taft and the legend of POTUS in the Tub

President William Howard Taft, March 11, 1909, from the Wikipedia, original in the US Library of Congress. In the public domain because of its age.

I know that it is a bit of a deviation from my usual photographic theme, but I wanted to talk today, just a bit, about the 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft (1857-1930). I took note yesterday (Friday, September 15th) that it was Taft’s 160th birthday and I read an article by Alexis Coe about him in the New York Times. Taft was the only man to serve both as President and as Chief Justice of the United States. It would be hard to imagine that kind of accord in our day and age. More’s the pity. Notably, Taft was the anointed successor to Theodore Roosevelt and was elected President in 1908., Roosevelt had buyer’s remorse and in 1912 Taft was defeated for re-election by Woodrow Wilson  after Roosevelt split the Republican vote by running as third-party “Bull Moose.Party” candidate.

I remember from high school history class – yes, friends, in those days we studied history – the legend of Taft, who was the most corpulent of American Presidents, getting stuck in the White House bathtub and requiring four of his staff and possibly butter to extract him. Ms. Coe reveals the sad truth that the bathtub story is, well, “false news.”  I am shattered!  Apparently, the originator of the legend was White House usher and butler Irwin (Ike) Hoover. Ike worked at the White House for 42 years In his 1934 memoir, Hoover describes Taft’s love of the bath and how he invariably needed help getting out. But, apparently there was never a moment of national crisis or need for butter.

Everyone should check their facts., I was going to say something to the effect that long before POTUS was called POTUS there was “false news.” But I was mistaken the acronym POTUS is not modern in origin. Rather it was developed as a  telegraph code for news agencies and its first appearance was in a book known as The Phillips Code published in 1879. See how easily it is to state falsely.

I have chosen as Figure 1 a portrait taken on March 11, 1909 of then POTUS Taft – cool mustache, no comb-over. This is how we want our presidents, Romanesque.