23 October: Evolution

Date #23Photographic technology shifts shape, and with it our perceptual framework; we see differently, so we “think different.”

I have been wading through old newspapers available online at the National Library of Australia hunting obscure local photographer of the mid-1800s, Frederick Henry Coldrey (†19 May 1889) whose composite assembly of bearded worthies, the Pioneers and Old Residents Association of the  Castlemaine District I discovered still graces the dim, cramped hallway of their offices in the 1857 Telegraph Station building in my town, where I visited in search of information.

Frederick Coldrey (1881) Pioneers and Old Residents Association, Castlemaine District. Cartes de visite glued to cardboard, contemporary frame. Mobile phone copy.
Frederick Coldrey (1881) detail, W. Adams, G. W. Tracy, in the group composite Pioneers and Old Residents Association, Castlemaine District. Mobile phone camera photograph by the author.

In Ballarat, where they had a collodion studio adjoining the Horse Bazaar on the Main Road, Alfred Fenton (an enthusiastic amateur who was no doubt the actual inventor) with Frederick Coldrey, in 1857 applied for a patent for a “new improvement in photography,” a collodion negative print on black leather, known now as a Pannotype, which was promoted as convenient for posting; “Likenesses can be taken by this newly invented process on leather, and being once varnished, they become insensible to touch.”

The process involved making an underexposed collodion negative, giving the added advantage for portraiture of a shorter exposure time, and transferring it from the original glass support to black oilcloth, leather or even wood, the result being an unbreakable photograph. It seems that the Pannotype was ‘invented’ several times and each practitioner used their own collodion recipe with good adhesion to its unusual substrate being the aim, so whether Fenton and Coldrey’s was sufficiently unique to justify a patent is not recorded beyond their applying for one, or forgotten perhaps because of disasters which followed.

After the death in March 1859 of his first son at age 4, and various other misfortunes, including a robbery, floods, and the departure of Fenton from the partnership, Coldrey was declared insolvent in 1860, due to £11 8s in debts he could not clear through the sale of his equipment and possessions. He continued as an itinerant photographer across the state from Avoca to Jerilderie until he joined Charles Wherrett here in Castlemaine as an ‘operator’ at a studio known for its ‘spirit photographs’, before in 1874 taking up management of Kerr’s Portrait Rooms a few doors away where he made a living from cartes-de-visite, adding an employment agency to augment his business and securing a wine licence for his home, an old hostel. He enjoyed minor celebrity for his ‘glee’ singing around town. He and his wife produced six more children and he took a strong interest in municipal affairs and the Independent Order of Oldfellows benevolent society.

Shortly after producing the composite of the Pioneers above, the Castlemaine Mail of 21 October 1881 reported a Borough Council meeting at which

“W. H. Coldrey, call[ed] attention to a photographer’s tent being erected in the Market Reserve. This, he complained, is an injustice to him, as he pays heavy rent and taxes which disable him from competing against person paying a small rent for a short time.”

As is the case even now,  councillors discussed the matter, as reported in the paper, at punctilious length, until the Secretary was moved to point out that the Council had let the Market to a Mr. Burge who could rent it to whomever he liked.

This letter appeared in the following edition, 24 October 1881, headed “Petty Spite”:

SIR, Would you allow me to say a few words on the subject before your worthy Council at their last meeting as to the erection, of a photographic tent in the Market Square by the American Gem Company. It would seem that your local photographer objected in his letter to the undue competition. Now, as to my not paying water rates nor rent sufficient to allow him to compete with me, (being proprietor of the company), I may here state that I pay Mr Burge the lessee of the market, nearly as much rent as he does for his studio, besides 10s a month water rate, as well as the expense of laying on the water. As to the site, I could have chosen plenty of others, but of course, took the most central. I am renting a house and furniture in Templeton street, so am paying a share of rates. Every shilling that has been expended on the erection of the tent has been laid out in Castlemaine, so that I have done all I could to further the interest of the town. Had Mr Coldrey complained of not having the new appliances in photography, his petition would have been more intelligible. Thanking him for ventilating the subject, and apologising for occupying so much space
Yours truly.

American Gem Album
Unknown American photographer (1860s–1880s) American Gem Tintype Album, 94 tintypes. Album 7.6 × 7.6 × 1.9 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Mike and Mickey Marvins

The ‘new appliances in photography’ to which Millar (who was to operate in The Western Australian goldfields 1895-1901) mockingly refers Coldrey was a product of the American Gem Company, of which letter-writer is a franchisee.

A form of tintype (a.k.a. ferrotype or sometimes melainotype)  a “gem”, was a tiny portrait photographs usually anywhere from 20mm to 25mm wide and 30mm high produced in a multi-lens camera with repeating back making multiple exposures on a single photographic plate. It was the most prolific photograph in the 1860s in America.

Proprietary patent cards to hold them and that would fit carte-de-visite albums were marketed for them and special ‘gem’ albums also produced. Stewart & Co. of 217 Bourke St, Melbourne offered ferrotype cards in 1873 and franchises were opened in Melbourne, Ballarat and Sandhurst (Bendigo) and many smaller towns. The Sandhurst studio closed in 1882, but Millar was one of many ‘flying’ itinerant operators.

Five days after Millar’s letter, an advertisement appeared in The Age, Melbourne:

GEM Camera, wanted to Buy. State price, F. Coldrey, Post Office Portrait-rooms, Castlemaine

Being a photographer means keeping up with changing technology!

Stewart & Co
Stewart & Co (1880s) Sitter Guidelines, reverse of carte-de-visite proof.

If you are of a certain age, depending on your perspective, either as a traditionalist or a radical, you look back on the late nineteen-nineties as bringing – or imposing – the digital revolution in our medium, with the arrival of the Nikon D1 (though the QV-1000C had been around since 1988). Just to keep up, we now change cameras faster than we did film stocks for our old SLR. But look back and one can identify a receding series of revolutions in ‘imaging’ (i.e. in seeing) all brought about, not by style and aesthetics, but by invention, the nuts and bolts of photo-imaging.

You might remember the 2010s for the advent of HD video in your DSLR (the Nikon D90 had it first in 2008) — which arrived before you had thought you even would use your 35mm camera to make movies —and back to the turn of the 21at century for the first camera phone, made an indispensable feature since the first iPhone in 2007. 1990 had brought Photoshop and the scanners necessary to use it. Prior to digital imaging an almost unbelievable innovation was autofocus; in the SX-70 Polaroid in 1978, and the Pentax ME-F which introduced it to the 35mm SLR in 1981.

Fred Springer-Miller April 1965 Popular Photography preview of the American version of the Pentax Spotmatic

Consider the ho-hum tech, against the artistic revival in photography, of 1970, the year resin-coated B &W paper took off (though the first batches soon turned yellow and cracked) followed by a decade dominated by the broader acceptance of the chromogenic print, which had been around since 1958; the period during which through-the-lens metering was being developed and was first realised for the SLR in the Pentax Spotmatic of 1964, building on the success of another first by Asahi Pentax which brought out the earliest Japanese SLR with an instant-return mirror in 1954.

I remember 1962 for the appearance of the Nikon F Photomic, of which my father bought two to replace his Nikon S2 and S3 rangefinders, passing them on later to my bother and me. The post-war 1950s had seen 35mm – a ‘miniature’ format to its detractors – being accepted by newspapers and magazines — I recall my father’s fanatical devotion to the format, but that’s as far back as my life memory goes, though 35mm too by then had a long pedigree starting with the pre-WW1 Leica. Variable-contrast B&W papers were still a boon for him, though they’d been around since the 1940s.

Coming in 1935 in time for WW2, was Kodachrome, then Agfacolor, shouldered aside in the mid-fifties by the faster Ektachrome. It had taken a long time to make colour photography a reality, though the the Autochrome Lumière made it accessible to (wealthy) amateurs in at the turn of the century, a major innovation which competes with digital for being revolutionary.

Josef Maria Eder (1933) History of photography, 1978 English translation by Edward Epstean, Dover editions, New York. Cover: Thompson’s Revolver Camera, c.1862

To comprehend the various ‘breakthroughs’ and incremental steps toward the 1930s one can do no better than to read Josef Maria Eder‘s Geschichte der Photographie (‘History of Photography‘) — I have the 1945 translation by German-born American Edward Epstean. Though it is encyclopaedic, intended as a reference book, it is possible, if you wish, as I did, to follow Eder’s incremental chronology of all steps leading to the invention and development of the medium.

Eder published four editions 1881 to 1932, painstakingly updating and expanding each as the medium to which he improved himself as a chemist, physicist, mathematician, as founder in 1888 of the Institute for Photography and Reproduction Techniques and then as a professor at the Vienna University of Technology from 1892 to 1925.

With the photochemist Valenta, he produced the portfolio of X-Ray pictures Versuche über Photographie mittelst der Röntgen’schen Strahlen in January 1896, less than a month after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen published his discovery of X-rays public with his groundbreaking paper “On a New Kind of Ray”.

Valenta, E., & Eder, J. M. (1896) illustration in Versuche über Photographie mittelst der Röntgen’schen Strahlen, von … J.M. Eder und E. Valenta. Wien: R. Lechner.

His account in History of Photography starts with the theories on light of Aristotle, Plato and Ibn al Haitham, credits Eudoxia Macrebolitissa (Aelia Eudoxiafor the first description of the crucial effect of sunlight in purple dyeing, and in a section Early Anticipations of the Effect of Light Action, describes the employment of a light-sensitive substance requiring a dark room in Sophocles’ poem Trachiniae (‘Women of Trachis’) of c. 450–425 BC. He notes how “fancies of the Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius (A.D. 40-96) [anticipate] the daguerreotype process” in his The Hair of Earinus:

“Then a boy from the throng, who, it chanced, had brought on his upturned hands a splendid mirror of gold studded with jewels, said: ‘This also let us give to the temples of our fathers; no gift will be more pleasing, and it will be more powerful than gold itself. Only fix your glance upon it and you leave your features there.’ Thus he spoke and showed the mirror with the image [of Earinus] caught therein.”

Eder gives great emphasis to discoveries of fellow German  Johann Heinrich Schulze of the early 1700s in the light-sensitivity of silver salts, but  his book is not chauvinistic; his account of Nièpce is amongst the most thorough I have read and he gives space fairly not just to Germans, but to British, French and American contributors to the development of photographic materials, equipment and processes, and the breadth of their applications. His History provides a unique concentration on technique rather than aesthetics.

It is University of Western Ontario Professor Emeritus Patrick Maynard who in his 1997 The Engine of Visualization unpacks the notion that it is invention that is the mother of necessity, and not the other way around; an idea he credits to founder of “modern historical studies  of technology, Lynn White Jr.,” from whom he quotes:

Necessity is not the mother of invention, since all necessities are common to mankind living in similar natural environments. A necessity becomes historically operative only when it is felt to be a necessity, and after prior technological development makes possible a new solution. Even then, what seems needed and feasible to one culture may be a matter of indifference to another.” (Lyn White Jr., “The Origins of the Coach (1970), in White, Mediaeval Religion and Technology)

Maynard’s thesis is that;

“What is involved in making something “felt to be necessity” is a large and interesting topic, in which photography has played an increasingly important role. Even in consumer societies that partake of what Harold Rosenberg well termed “the tradition of the new,” the job of inventors is twofold: first, to invent a technology; second, to invent a need for it. This explains why modern innovators such as Talbot typically provide wide lists of uses: they are not always sure what their inventions are for but are eager to encourage users to find out and let them know. Such case studies open questions central to the philosophy of technology…as standard assumptions about technological “progress” are in question.”

As Maynard puts it, technological development is akin to Darwinian evolution, arising from mutations and variation of existing structures and processes through invention, and natural selection through necessity.

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