Home > Uncategorized > A photograph is a moment in time, part 1

A photograph is a moment in time, part 1

April 20, 2012

Snapshot, Australia, 1940's. No individual faces are visible. What prompted the photographer to step back so far, and produce this wonderful composition? Click to embiggen.

I want to talk about Instagram, but first some light photo history. About twenty years ago I worked with antique photographs a lot. People brought in old contact prints and tintypes and Daguerreotypes dating back as far as the Civil War, and I made copies for them. I got very good at the technical challenges presented by each kind of image, and at rescuing the most information from the ravages of time.

Once I became accustomed to the historical settings, the people in these images started to look just like the people I see today on the street. Well, mostly not as fat as we are, but they seemed less like historical curiosities and more like actual people. Connecting the images with what I know about history was fascinating.

A typical example: the customer had brought me a group photograph, about thirty people, c. 1890.  She wanted copies to give to her relatives, many of whom were descended from the people in the picture. I took her order and filed it for the next day’s shoot.

Under the lights of my copy stand I could examine the picture closely. It looked like a family reunion, and someone had brought in a photographer. Nowadays everyone has a camera but at the time the photographer’s equipment and process were pretty exotic.  And bulky. And often as not, toxic.

The image was a contact print from a glass plate negative, and under magnification I could see it was fabulously detailed. Images like this one were fun to work with, appealing to the history major in me, to the latent writer, to the armchair psychologist and to the photo technician.

Today we are accustomed to images of people smiling for the camera. But antique photos, especially group photos made before the invention of high-speed films, are blessedly immune to this artifice. The subjects were instructed to “hold still” for the picture. And that, along with the historical setting, is what makes it interesting.

The people in the picture were not living in our past; they were living in their present.  Or even, in the future! They were not wearing costumes; their Victorian clothing and hardware were the height of modernity – the very latest thing. They had every reason to be proud of their achievements, posing for the camera. The photographer would have been standing on a step stool, his large camera on a tall tripod. They looked up at him, stock still, their faces in repose.

A beautiful young woman, a child, a young man. Another woman of indeterminate age, next to a hard-looking man. His hands were gnarled, his face was lined and suggested nightly alcohol. She wore an expression of resignation, as if he might suddenly hit her. His head was slightly down, his lips pursed, as he eyed the camera suspiciously. A child, his face slightly blurred with movement. Was he uncomfortable in the shoes he had been forced to wear for the occasion? I looked at each face in the magnifier. There was a young man, seemingly bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. In the background was a horse, tied to a gazebo or some kind of shelter, and waiting patiently.

Most likely no one in the picture was still alive. They had lived through wars, diseases; the younger ones would live through another war and a depression. The very youngest, yet another war. Possibly some of them lived to see the Russians launch a small radio transmitter into orbit. They had worked and lived and given birth and suffered and played and died and been mourned – or not – a community set floating on the giant river of history. On a tiny planet in trackless space; context is everything.

Got some old photos? Spend some time looking at them. Use a magnifying glass. Most likely their names are not even known today, but they were people as solid as you and I. They harbored private thoughts; try to pick out the one with the terrible secret. What was it? Imagine each adult as a child. Pick a few of the children to die before reaching adulthood. Try to figure out what each of them would be doing the day after the photo was taken. Imagine the young woman’s surprise when presented with her first refrigerator.

Now look around you. Listen. Electric lights, the furnace blower. Internet. Sound of cars outside.

You know what made that trip possible? A box with a lens in front of it, and a chemically-treated plate of glass. We’re still using boxes with lenses in front of them, but we’ve replaced the chemical method with millions of pixels. It doesn’t matter what technology is used: at some point someone sees something and saves it so you can look at it later. We can actually save images! And share them! Representational visual art is unique to humans, so far as I am aware. The invention of the camera, and then of digital photography, revealed that this is something that nearly everyone wants to do.

Next post: Instagram

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 21, 2012 at 08:34 | #1

    A thought provoking post that makes the mind start to search for answers in ones own life. you certainly have a eonderful way with words George!

  2. Chas, PE SE
    April 21, 2012 at 16:59 | #2

    “The people in the picture were not living in our past; they were living in their present…”

    What a wonderful concept!

  3. WeeDram
    April 22, 2012 at 18:45 | #3

    I’ve been scanning old prints (like when I was a baby) and old negs and slides of mine. Part of the satisfaction is just reliving the moments in my mind.

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