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"Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again."

Henri Cartier Bresson

Historical Snapshot

Very Early Days

Generally speaking, photography is a relatively modern invention. Had it been available much earlier, the legacy it would have

left us and future generations, would have been beyond price.

It has been said that photography is the most significant invention since the discovery of printing. It owes is existence to the marriage of two natural events; the fact that certain substances have the ability to react to light (the slime of a kind of Mediterranean snail will turn purple when light acts upon it!) and the other, that light, when entering a darkened room or box through a small hole, will produce an inverted image of what is outside and opposite the hole. The latter effect was used in the camera obscura (literally "darkened room") and was first described in 1558 by a gentleman with the grand name of Giovanni Battista Della Porta. However, even before this, the great inventor Leonardo da Vinci also described the camera obscura in detail, but his writings on the subject did not become public knowledge until much later. Camera obscuras, once a widespread attraction at Victorian seaside towns, can still be occasionally seen at such places, such as at Aberystwyth, in mid Wales. (left)
The first possible mention of the word 'photography' appears in a letter to Fox Talbot (the well known English experimenter who lived at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire) from his equally renowned friend, the astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1839. Fox Talbot, along with two Frenchmen, Niépce and Daguerre, are probably the most significant experimenters in the early 1800s. However, to describe in detail the development of photography since then  - no pun intended -  would be too lengthy and tedious here so the following may be of passing general interest.

Image loading, please wait At one time, practitioners of the "black art" of photography, which was initially referred to as the pencil of nature, were forced to lumber about the countryside with a complete darkroom on their backs. Since the photographic plates used at the time had to be exposed whilst still wet, these hapless individuals had to travel with a chest full of bottles containing chemicals for coating, sensitizing, developing and fixing the glass negatives. They also had to carry a goodly supply of glass plates, a number of dishes, scales and weights together with glass measures, funnels and a supply of clean water for rinsing the finished results. They also needed a tent in which to carry out their activities. It comes as no surprise therefore, that these early pioneers frequently engaged the services of a porter, or pushed a handcart or wheelbarrow containing all their equipment. The more successful could afford a carriage, which, in some cases, simply served to convey the photographer and his equipment to the scene, or in others, was completely fitted out as a travelling darkroom. Indeed, photographers such as William Henry Jackson, who photographed - amongst other things - many of the narrow gauge railroads which once traversed the Rockies, in the States, was supplied with his own darkroom car and locomotive! Truly an assignment to be envied! 
Today, like other pioneers of his time, the photographs he has left us  represent a magical and absorbing record of a vanished, and altogether different day and age.

Victorian and Edwardian Days

From these early beginnings, photography quickly penetrated the realms of commerce and photo journalism, with famous names such as Roger Fenton who recorded war scenes in the Crimea together with a multitude of HighStreet photographers offering "likenesses" of individuals and families, now treasured by many. Victorian cameramen recorded the massive structural and engineering achievements of the day, whilst the firm of Frith's toured the country recording scenes now lost or changed forever.

Cameras have been used in a wide range of unusual applications. For example, in 1881, one Thomas Bolas designed a "spy" camera for Scotland Yard got up to look like a book and the so-called detective cameras soon appeared as parcels, picnic baskets, opera glasses, revolvers, watches and others concealed in purses, walking sticks, hats, cravats and hidden beneath waistcoats.

By contrast, one of the most elephantine types of camera was the aptly known Mammoth, which was made in Chicago in 1900. It was ordered by the Chicago and Alton Railroad company which wanted extremely large prints for the Paris Exhibition of its new St Louis Express, these to be single prints rather than a montage.
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 The Mammoth took pictures 4½ x 8 feet wide and measured no less than 9 feet high by 6 feet wide; when fully extended with its gargantuan bellows it topped 20 feet long! This monster weighed no less than 900 lbs with each glass plate being specially coated at a cost of £40 each. Its lenses were made to order by Zeiss with focal lengths of 5½ feet and 10 feet respectively. For transporting this huge piece of kit, the railroad company provided a truck (20 feet long) together with a locomotive and also a furniture van for town travel. Processing the plates - after an average of 2½ minutes exposure - was not without difficulty either; the operation required the services of 15 men and 5 gallons of developer and fixer!

The Victorians were also keen proponents of the stereo image. These views were - and still are - produced on a custom made stereoscopic camera which takes two identical shots simultaneously but from slightly differing horizontal spacing. This spacing is equivalent to the distance between the human eyes. The two negatives were printed and then stuck adjacently on a small card which was then put into a hand held viewer and the picture sprung into life as a three dimensional image.

 Stereo photography is still a very effective and fascinating medium but since generally only one person can view the image at once through a 3D viewing device, its popularity has waned somewhat. Today it is effectively used in aerial photography to accentuate the topography, the spacing between the two lenses being increased to enhance the three dimensional effect

Later Developments

It was in the early twentieth century, with the increasing availability of film for the cinema industry, that the 35mm camera was born. Although the use of this narrow gauge film was tried by such worthies as G.P.Smith of Missouri, who constructed a camera using 1"x1½" frames on this medium, together with Levy-Roth of Berlin who made a camera utilising 50 exposures of 18x24mm on cine film, it was really the pioneering efforts of Oscar Barnack, of Germany, who gave us the 35mm camera we know today. Barnack  worked for Leitz as a microscope designer and constructed a prototype of the Leica. In 1924, this camera was put into production, having a focal plane shutter and using 5 foot lengths of 35mm film loaded into daylight loadable cassettes. The use of a focal plane shutter, which is within the camera body as opposed to being integral with the lens, allowed the Leica to have access to a wide range of inter-changeable lenses of different focal length and, unlike the present day Hasselblad, for example (which still has a shutter within the lens elements) kept mechanical complexity to a minimum.
The twin lens reflex camera, using medium format roll film was developed by Franke and Heindecke in 1928 and appeared as the famous Rollieflex, a design which has been copied endlessly ever since. At the other end of the spectrum, the advent of the 'snapshot' market, with no artistic pretensions, was given impetus by Kodak in 1900 who produced their well known "Brownie" camera, a simple but effective tool which brought photography to the general public on a wide scale. The name 'Brownie' became an everyday generic term for a simple point and shoot camera, rather like 'biro' is now applied to any kind of ball point pen. Today's low priced digital cameras are perhaps the 21st Century's equivalent of the Brownie.  

At notable 19th and 20th Century events, the camera has always been present.......  

 it has also been there to record incalculable faces and places having no claim to fame whatsoever.

Today it's precious images often provide our only insight into a vanished age around the globe. Since the invention of photography, the taking and viewing of images has given pleasure to countless millions the world over, no matter their race, creed or social status. Of the untold number of images that could have been used to exemplify this, that to the left is chosen quite deliberately. Captioned "Cross Coombe Sunday school tea ", it is of little  importance and today even the names of the people are now quite unknown to us. But who knows? Perhaps there is someone,somewhere, who is still able to blow the dust off some half forgotten photo  album and put names to some of these faces, now frozen in time from that summer long ago.The little chapel where they once worshipped is long since demolished to make way for a wartime airfield, itself now gone. These individuals may have 'lived and laughed and loved and left' but are still able to smile down the staircase of years, and their little local event, on a warm summer's day in 1916, near St Agnes, Cornwall, occupies a miniscule niche in our social history. This, thanks to a forgotten photographer, with his brass-bound camera, his glass plates and his chemicals.
"As time passes by and you look at portraits, the people come back to you like a silent echo. A photograph is a vestige of a face.
 A face in transit. Photography has something to do with death.  It's a trance."  Henri Cartier Bresson

Photography at three hundred fathoms

If photography 'at surface' during the 1890s was attended with some difficulty, imagine the problems underground! Many may have seen the evocative pictures taken by J.C.Burrow, within the Cornish tin and copper mines, hundreds of fathoms from daylight, and if that sounds like a nautical expression, this is indeed the case, since all depths in the West Country mines were measured by the fathom (six feet). Here, Burrow has photographed shot holes being bored upwards,well over 300 fathoms below the surface in East Pool Mine. At such depths, temperatures could reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, causing instant condensation on lenses. Added to that, the problems of lighting by lime-light burners and magnesium powder, where drips from the roof could wet the powder as soon as the lid was removed, making it instantly useless, together with the attendant smoke from this flash and that from blasting, it is amazing any results were obtained. His equipment consisted of bulky half plate cameras, fitted with Zeiss Anastigmat lenses, manufactured by Ross & Co, dark slides and glass plates with the tripod often  lashed to timbers. Preparations were usually extensive, with helpers adjusting lime-light burners, oxygen and hydrogen cylinders and others preparing the magnesium lamps. All these scenes are now but a memory, the locations where they were photographed now lost beneath hundreds of feet of dark, green, silent water. The pictures appeared in a book titled 'Mongst Mines and Miners which  was first published in 1893 and now is a rare collectors' item.


Arthur William Bird      1871 - 1963 Image loading, please wait

Irreplaceable images from a bygone age would not be available to us today without the discerning eye of many of our forefathers who took time and trouble to record events which were happening around them. Today, we take such things for granted, since photography (and video) are part and parcel of our daily lives. But to the Edwardians the medium was still by and large the province of the professional photographer. There were no digital cameras or mini-labs then! Although not a professional photographer per se, A.W.Bird, as a young man, was keen enough to set up a darkroom in his cellar and point his camera lens at everyday scenes and events taking place at the turn of the century in and around his home town of Nottingham. One such was the construction of the Great Central Railway northern extension  (the last major railway building activity within Britain) as it burrowed beneath the sandstone of the city and crossed the River Trent on lattice girders. An early case of "progress photography"!  Nor was the city itself missed, and his evocative sepias of the local street scenes, with their horse drawn tram cars - frequently sporting the almost obligatory "Brasso " or "Frys Cocoa " advertisements - together with the more rural outskirts, are nowadays a pleasure to study. They exemplify many cities throughout the land at this time and give us a unique taste of the lifestyle of the period. His photographic collection now resides in the Local Studies Section of Nottingham City Library.

Today, we can take and view our digital images instantly. We can send these images around the world at a click of a button. How our forefathers would have marvelled at such technology !