The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archive: 06/2009 - Page 1
Recently, Kodak announced it was discontinuing production of Kodachrome products. Known for its vibrant color, Kodachrome, was a child of the Depression, a process invented by two musicians—violinist Leopold Godowski Jr. and pianist Leopold Mannes—whose names fueled the photo-industry joke that Kodachrome was created by God and Man.
Seventy-four years ago, Kodachrome was introduced as a 16mm movie film, around the same time that Technicolor was aggressively marketing its 3-strip color process for motion pictures. As the economy and the nation’s spirit faltered, there was a deep need and a growing market for bright, colorful pictures. By 1936, Kodachrome’s vivid color palette was made available in a 8mm movie film format for amateur film makers and in the 35mm slide format that—by mid-century, when fortunes and moods were rising once again—encouraged snapshooters to create and star in slideshows about their everyday lives. Kodachrome color was unique and beloved because it captured and intensified life. It spawned a love song (Paul Simon’s 1973 hit, Kodachrome) and a park in Utah (Kodachrome Basin State Park) was named after it. But, Kodachrome was a complex product to manufacture and process. And as consumer taste shifted toward hand-sized prints and instant photography, and once digital photography was introduced and widely marketed, Kodachrome sales tanked.
And now it’s gone. We’ll miss it, because while Kodachrome’s demise doesn’t mean that all the color’s been drained from our lives and pictures, if we want "those nice bright colors" and the "greens of summers" that Paul Simon sang about we’ll have to make them for ourselves by fiddling with software on our laptops and desktops. R.I.P photo magic. And one more thing to add to our "To-Do" lists . . .
A couple of years ago, as soon as Google’s Street View application was introduced, it generated worldwide controversy. Ground-level photographic images, shot from cameras mounted on cars were, critics complained, a violation of privacy. Some Street View pictures collected in 2007 by Wired.com, for example, showed incidents and events that some of the people depicted, I’m guessing, would rather not be recorded or seen. By 2008, after people in cities around the world (where most of the pictures are made) kept complaining, Google introduced face-blurring technology, to respond to growing public concern and to avoid running afoul of privacy rights laws on the books in various countries and locales. Case closed. Sort of. In mid-June, according to a recent CBS.com news story, Dutch police arrested twin brothers who, last September, knocked a 14-year-old boy off his bike in Groningen, then took his cell phone and a couple of hundred bucks from him, too (A lot of money for a kid to be carrying, right?). The thieves got away, but this past March, as the victim was looking at images on Google Street Views he came across a photograph of him and his assailants taken only moments before they accosted him. Because all faces in the image were blurred, the local police contacted Google, and an unblurred version of the image was made available to them, the first instance of Google being used to solve a crime in the Netherlands. A local detective immediately recognized one of the two assailants (I guess they’re fraternal twins . . .) and prosecutors are deciding whether to press charges.
Imagine that you are the first person to take a photograph. What would you choose to picture? Most likely something pretty important to you, something of value, something or someone you loved. In the United States many of the first photographers were scientists—chemists, doctors, dentists, astronomers—and those nineteenth century tinkers’ skills quickly lent themselves to an understanding of the chemical recipe for fixing an image in the darkroom. Not surprisingly, among the earliest images are pictures taken through telescopes and microscopes of things ordinarily too distant or too small to otherwise be studied. And that suggests another challenge of early photography. Even if you knew what you wanted to photograph, you would then have to make a camera that could make the image. Dr. John William Draper was a professor of chemistry at New York University. With the help of his friend and frequent collaborator, Samuel Morse, Draper began experiments with photography in 1837, two years before the public announcement of the inventor Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype process in France, and three years before it arrived in the United States. Draper’s scientific knowledge gained during his previous experimentation on light (see Steve Turner’s click! photography changes everything commentary) meant that he was able to take advantage of all the minute details of a technique which led to making photographic images. He also must have had a talent for re-purposing the stuff of everyday life. Draper constructed his first camera out of a cigar box and an eyeglass lens which he used to photograph his sister, Dorothy, one of the first portrait photographs made in America. At first he coated her face with flour in order to enhance the capture of light during the long exposure. He then discovered that by increasing the aperture of the lens and reducing its focal length he could significantly reduce exposure time (and also eliminate the flour makeup that Dorothy had to wear). And then he enhanced the detail even more by adding a blue filter to his lens and controlling the spectrum of light taken into the camera and onto the photographic plate. Even so, it still left room for Draper’s other discovery: that the sitter still had time to blink her eyes without it showing in the final image. When Draper sent the image of a wide-eyed, stylish young girl to John Hershel, another early photographic experimenter in England, it was greeted with astonishment. Even Daguerre had despaired that his invention could never be used to make portraits of any quality. Though today Dorothy’s face is available only through later copy prints (due to a bad cleaning job early in the twentieth century the original daguerreotype is now quite dark), we still have a glimpse of the intensity the Drapers, both maker and sitter, brought to their unprecedented collaboration. Besides photographing things he loved on earth, Draper also photographed the heavens. In the same year he photographed his sister, he made a little wooden camera that fitted onto the end of his telescope, making the first photograph of the moon. He also made cameras that fit onto the end of his microscope and photographed things too small to be seen by the naked eye and today, many of these images are in the collection of the Smithsonian. A modern day Draper, Phillipe Kahn, a proud father in search of a way to more easily transmit images of his family, and the inventor of the first camera phone solution, writes in his click! commentary that, "In the history of photography, function often follows necessity when it comes to invention and innovation." However they are made—cigar boxes or cell phones—photographs remain amazing instruments of progress and passion.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
The cover shot of Popular Science’s July issue, which focuses on the future of energy, uses some interesting new photographic technology—called augmented reality—to make a point. Buy a copy of the magazine, bring it home or to work, hold it up in front of your Webcam and the fun begins.
As reported in a recent New York Times article—about the slow creep of advertising onto the covers of magazines—what you’ll see on your computer screen is a Flash-based, 3-D version of the cover photo. And then, if you blow air at your computer’s microphone, the fan blades turn. Woo-hoo! Fun, right? So what’s the problem?
Well, the buzz in media is about if or how the cover further blurs distinctions between editorial and advertising space, given that GE (which makes energy products and has been promoting its augmented realty images for months) sponsored the magazine’s cover but didn’t pay for it. (General Electric did, however, buy three pages of ads in the issue.) It turns out that placing ads on the cover of magazines violates rules set up by the American Society of Magazine Editors. But tough times in the media business, with production cost rising as readership declines and the number of ad pages drop, demand new approaches. In this case, let’s leave it to others to duke this issue out.
But from our photographic perspective, questions raised by this media dust-up are interesting to consider. How far are we willing to go when we use photographs to attract attention? How much do we expect, or want, to interact with images? And what’s the next advance in photographic technology that’s going to get us there?
Since the Smithsonian began uploading photos to the Flickr Commons, there have been some clear crowd favorites. The photo above, for example, is by far our most popular photo on the Flickr Commons, with over 42,000 views and 950 favorites since it was uploaded about a year ago. We decided that it might be worth highlighting some of these popular Commons photographs as a way of delving deeper into our collections and perhaps answering some of the questions about these photos posed by Flickr users.
Clearly, many were startled and amazed by this photo of a postal carrier with a child in his mail bag, and so for some clarification, I spoke to Nancy Pope, historian at the National Postal Museum. She reiterated the information from the Flickr caption for this photograph: first, that this photo was actually a staged piece, and second, that there is little evidence that babies were sent through the mail other than in two known cases in which children were placed on train cars as "freight mail" as this was cheaper than buying them a regular train ticket.
While it is certain that sending babies through the mail was not commonplace, I did find a small sampling of articles on the subject in New York Times from 1913-14. One of these articles, titled "BABY BOY BY PARCEL POST: Rural Carrier Safely Delivered 10 ¾ Pound Infant to Grandmother," tells the story of how mail carrier Vernon Lytle delivered a baby, "well wrapped and ready for ‘mailing,’" from his parents’ to his grandmother’s house, a mile down the road. Perhaps tongue in cheek, the author ends, "The postage was fifteen cents and the parcel was insured for $50." Just a year later, the Times wrote another article about a two-year-old baby who was delivered from his grandmother’s home to his aunt’s home twenty-three miles away. Finally, and in a more heartbreaking instance, the Times printed an article regarding a recent letter to the Postmaster General from a family wishing to adopt a baby located in Georgia—they inquired about the proper specifications for wrapping a baby so that they could receive a youngster by mail at their home in Pennsylvania.
However the services may have been (mis)interpreted during this era, these stories point out that mail service was particularly important during a time when travel was difficult and cost-prohibitive for many Americans. But perhaps more interestingly, they indicate that the mail carrier was considered a crucial part of communities—a touchstone with family and friends far away from each other, a bearer of important news and goods. In some ways, Americans trusted their postmen with their lives (and in the cases mentioned above, with their babies!).
View more photos from the National Postal Museum.
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