Category Archives: History of Photography

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.

Pretty in pink

Figure 1 – Autochrome of Madame Curie from the Curie Archives and in the public domain in the US because of its age.

While writing yesterday’s blog about Marie Curie, it occurred to me that she lived during the autochrome era and that it was likely that somewhere there was a color image of her. Well, sure enough, and Figure 1 is such an autochrome from the Marie Curie archives. It is a bit antithetical since she is wearing a very feminine pink dress. She is pretty in pink.The straw hat is charming and humanizing as well. It is always curious when the color is revealed when we know someone basically in black and white. In a black and white the pink dress would have passed simply and somberly as white. Our surprise is revealing. We all live colored lives and every black and white captures, indeed transforms, a color moment. So here in the dramatic beauty of the process Marie is transformed. We are a bit closer to the real breathing person.

Marie Curie

Figure 1 – Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory c 1904 from the Wkipedia and in the public domain by virtue of its age. Photographer unknown.

Let’s face it, demagogues and rock stars are generally more popular than scientists. Still it may be argued that the legacy of the scientist is ultimately more enduring. I started thinking the other day about historic photographs of great scientists, and the point struck me that such images are often very contrived in the sense that they are often constructed so as to show the scientist in his/her natural habitat, as it were. There is so often a symbol of their discovery in the photograph. They are memetic, and probably their endurance derives from the timelessness of the meme. More fundamentally, these images are so often advertisements. We always hear about how the scientist is ever seeking money to fund discovery; so often the image was taken for fundraising purposes.

I think that a very key example of this are images of Madame Curie. She was always seeking money to fund research or charities, and her story, her trials and tribulations, are legendary. Figure 1 is a classic image of the Curies in their laboratory. Pierre is gentlemanly and gaunt. He looks at us and seems to stand in deference to his wife. Marie is beautiful in simplicity. And the instruments, we love looking at them. Principal here is the balance. But there are others, and Pierre was famous for his self-built instruments, often the finest in the world.

Let me pause for a moment. The Curies were truly heroic figures, and it is not because of the difficult conditions that they worked under, nor because of Pierre’s untimely death by horse carriage. It is because every chemist of the day knew the fundamental mantra of chemistry, that matter could not be created or destroyed; it could only change its form. The transmutation of elements, turning lead into gold, was misguided superstition. But then their research led them down the forbidden path. They checked their calculations and then heroically followed that path. I cannot overstate the point. These were Olympian figures that created a new age.

L0001759 Portrait of Marie Curie and her daughter Irene
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Photograph: portrait of Marie Curie and her daughter, Irene; anon., 1925.
1925 Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

But the public image of Madame Curie was more complex. Yes, she was a great scientist. In 1903, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Significantly only after Pierre’s protestations that she be included. In 1911 she won it for a second time in Chemistry.

There were so many images that emphasized her feminine side – motherly portraits with her children. My favorite is Figure 2 from 1925 that shows Marie working in the laboratory with her daughter Irene, who ultimately also won the Nobel Prize. The image that completes this developed public persona is that of Figure 3, which shows Madame Curie with a nurse and her portable X-Ray machine to help French soldiers on the Western Front during World War I.

Figure 3 – Marie Curie with a nurse and her mobile Xray machine during World War II. From the Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain in the US because of its age.

Marie Curie was on of the great scientist of and for all time. She stands as a defining figure of the twentieth century. Her own words about being a scientist were simple:

“A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”
But let me not end with a quote. I’d like to share one more photograph – something very different that seems so meaningful. Figure 5 shows Madame Curie and Albert Einstein together deep in conversation. The image, like the world it alludes to, is foggy, grainy, and dark. It is cold and not yet known. It must be confronted and the cobwebs of fairy tales cast aside.

Figure 5 – Albert Einstein and Marie Curie from the Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain in the US because  because its copyright has expired and its author is anonymous.

Also posted in Essays on Photography

Down with the topmast! yare! lower, lower! Bring her to try with main-course.

Figure 1 – NASA’s Aqua satellite captured infrared temperature data on Hurricane Irma on Sept. 8 at 2:29 a.m. EDT (0629 UTC). The image showed very cold cloud top temperatures colder than minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius) in the storm, stretching over Hispaniola, eastern Cuba and the Bahamas.
Credits: NASA JPL/Ed Olsen

“I have great comfort from this fellow: methinks he
hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is
perfect gallows. Stand fast, good Fate, to his
hanging: make the rope of his destiny our cable,
for our own doth little advantage. If he be not
born to be hanged, our case is miserable.”

William Shakespeare “The Tempest (1623)

We are all now glued to the news, television and internet, watching cliched, yet iconic images from Southern Florida. It is like the storm in Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” which was meant to take place in Bermuda. But hurricane Irma is not conjured up by any wizard Prospero, as much as it seems along with the California wildfires and hurricane Harvey to be the wrath of nature. Global warming has turned up the heat and more so the oceanic storms boil violently.

I thought it appropriate to share an image of Irma today and knew just where to look – on the NASA website. It is a frightening gallery, yet in an eerie way so beautiful – the violence of the storm shown in so many different ways. But what struck me as the image that was so frighteningly beautiful and at the same time heuristic was an image taken on September 8 at 2:29 am EDT. Figure 1 was taken with the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder or AIRS instrument aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite. This is a thermal camera and what you see are the temperatures of the cloud tops in the upper atmosphere. See the scale on the top of the image. Churning, churning, churning. It captures the very energy, gigantic convective waves, of the storm driven by the ocean temperatures. The eye is so well-formed and the darkest clouds above the strongest thundershowers are colder than  minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius).

These are truly the engines of destruction. And we have turned up the power. Back in May, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said: “I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”  OK, but we may remember the famous quote from English political theorist Algernon Sidney:God helps those who help themselves.” Famously, Benjamin Franklin later used it in his Poor Richard’s Almanack (1736).

The tempest is so like the looming clouds above NYC’s West Side in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters. Who you gonna call, people? I suspect that there will be no defeated Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Gozer will not be vanquished, and we will awake in the morning to the same old terrifying memetic images of destruction.

Also posted in Reviews and Critiques

A fruitcake for the ages

We’ve spoken often about the magic of photography, and one of the magical aspects of it lies in its ability to bring us the unexpected, allowing us to see what we never expected to see like: Mozart’s wife and a two-hundred and fifty year old pretzel. Seeing such things is an unexpected bonus of the magical ability of the camera to record and preserve.

So speaking of the unexpected and the, well, preserved, I’m offering up today an image of a one hundred and six year old fruitcake. This particular fruitcake belonged to the Cape Adare-based Northern Party of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-13), and was found by the Antarctic Heritage Trust in Antarctica’s oldest building. It was constructed by a Norwegian explorer’s team in 1899 and subsequently used by Scott’s team in 1911 And therein lay the frozen fruitcake..

There is the immediate question whether it is still edible and the related question whether it ever was. I am reminded of a story that a friend of mine told me about his father. Around 1998 they were cleaning out the family barn and found some chopped beef labeled “1948.” My friend’s wife grimaced and said, “Can you imagine what that tastes like?” to which my friend’s father replied, “It was pretty good actually!”

Arthur Eddington and the great solar eclipse of 1919

One of Arthur Eddington’s photographs of the great solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, which “proved” Einsteins General Theory of Relativity. From the Wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

There’s a lot of discussion in scientific circles about the upcoming solar eclipse. And the world is dividing between those going and those not going. If you have a chance, I highly recommend it. The three-dimensionality of the corona, the shadow bands, and the wildlife driven to insanity are awe inspiring. We understand for the first time how primitive people must have felt from such a sight, and in our own way are just as filled with wonder.

My thoughts drift to what is perhaps the most important solar eclipse of modern times. The great eclipse of  May 29,1919. Figure 1 is one of the photographs take of that eclipse by British Astronomer Arthur Eddington (1882-1944). Figure 1 is one of the photographs that Eddington took of that eclipse. What is significant are the little star trails. Look closely you can see them. Just four years earlier, Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity . which predicted that a massive object like the sum would bend like as it passed the star. This would be seen as a deflection in position. Eddington’s photographs and measurements offered the first proof of the General Theory.

Black holes, worm holes, warp drives. It all fuels the inguisitive imagination. It all began with these photographs.

Seeing and believing

Figure 1 – 1937 “Spy” photograph purporting to show Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, in the Marshall Islands after their crash landing. From the US National Archives and in the public domain.

Now almost 180 years after the birth of photography, it remains the case that seeing is believing. Indeed, this simple adage can define the use and abuse of photography, especially in a digital age. This coming Sunday the History Channel will air a new special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence.”  Legendary aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared 80 years ago. But, we are told, a newly discovered photograph taken by a “spy” in the Marshall Islands suggests that she survived the ill-fated round-the-world flight only to die at the hands of the Japanese, although the Japanese government has no record of this. The picture is shown here as Figure 1. The photograph shows a woman seated on the dock with her back towards us, sporting Earhart’s signature pants and short-cropped haircut and who resembles Earhart, and a man facing the camera appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan. If all this is true, then we’ve solved one mystery only to create 100 more.

I am looking forward to the show; so I won’t opine on the subject, except to comment on its symbolism in terms of the meaning of a photograph. Photographic evidence is eclipsed only, perhaps, by modern day DNA forensics. Seeing remains dominant to believing. And the limits of belief lie buried in the optics and grains, which define photographic resolution. Resolution is an ultimate limit to the eye. We can see it, or we cannot. It is a lot like the Heisenberg uncertainty theorem in quantum mechanics and its close-relative impressionist pointillism. Ultimately grains, pixels, and lens resolution set limits on human certainty.

Also posted in Essays on Photography