The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
One of the top U.S. tourist destinations, Niagara Falls has been photographed countless times since the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, and referenced throughout pop culture, from Marilyn Monroe’s Niagara to the Woody Woodpecker Show. Today, with a little help from the internet, tourists can post their Niagara experience for all to see. Currently, a search for “Niagara Falls” on Flickr results in over 330,000 photographs. Looking back to the nineteenth century, advances in transportation opened access to western New York. By 1841, steam-powered trains carried passengers from New York to Niagara Falls in as little as forty-eight hours. In this same year, M.H.L. Pattinson made the first daguerreotype of the waterfall, according to Anthony Bannon in the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Photography, 2008. About nine years later, Platt D. Babbitt set up shop, as the first “resident photographer on the American side.” As seen in the above image, he photographed visitors as they stood by the edge, and then sold the resulting daguerreotypes as souvenirs. Bannon writes that “Babbitt…is among the first to make a photograph to enhance a tourist’s experience.” And shutters have been clicking in Niagara ever since!
Christin Boggs is an Intern at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
More cameras in more places. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the installation of red light cameras and the controversy surrounding their use that’s continuing to spread across the country. More recently, I came across an article by Alan Schwarz in the New York Times that describes yet another kind of camera and software system; this one’s currently being tested at San Francisco’s Giants’ stadium and records not only the speed and location of baseballs in motion, but every move of every player on the field. Four high-resolution digital cameras mounted atop light towers capture what’s happening at two million distinct locations on the playing field below. The data streams into a control room where it’s collected and analyzed. Baseball is a sport that’s defined by and enamored with statistics, and this new technology is going to give fans torrents of new facts and figures to obsess over and argue about. It’s also likely that data extracted from this system, which will cost about $5 million per stadium to install, will be used by major league teams to determine players’ compensation packages, too. While Big Brother showing up at a ball field near you may indeed be news, it’s hardly the first time photography’s been used to monitor on-the-job performance. Early in the 20th century, Frank Gilbreth and his wife, Lillian used time-lapse photography to make images, like the one below from around 1914, to analyze workers’ activities and measure their efficiency in the workplace. Which makes me wonder—while we’re on the subject and if you’re reading this at work—where are the closest cameras looking at to you? In fact, what cameras do you know or suspect are photographing you during the course of your day. Please comment to let us know.
Wedding season is upon us, and so it is no wonder that this beauty, with her frothy veil and layers of lace has been very popular on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons. Looking at this photo, I realized I didn’t know why brides wear white wedding dresses and so I decided to do some digging.
Many brides assume that the tradition of the white wedding dress comes from the color’s ancient symbolic association with virginity and purity, but in reality, the white wedding dress is a much more recent development. Surely brides wore white gowns before, but it was Queen Victoria who truly popularized this tradition. While royalty typically wore embroidered brocade and crimson robes for weddings, Victoria donned a white satin gown with layers of lace made by two hundred women and a white veil. The lavish dress and the wedding between Victoria and her cousin Albert in 1840 were written up and illustrated in thousands of publications worldwide. Soon, American etiquette books decreed that the white wedding was the "proper style." The white wedding dress became a symbol of wealth and social status—after all, white could not easily be cleaned or worn again outside of hot summer months, and very few women could afford to buy and wear a dress solely for one occasion. And most likely, our bride above made sure to get to the photographer’s studio for that very reason—to demonstrate that she had the social standing and wealth to have a white wedding dress (and of course, to memorialize an important occasion, her youth, and beauty, as we all like to do!).
Even so, until recently bridal attire was simply dictated by what a woman had in her closet and by what was au courant. So, while brides in the Western world have worn white, they’ve also donned every other color of the rainbow (yes, even black!). For example, during the Civil War brides often wore purple to respect and honor the dead. By the late 1800s, American and European brides went wild for dresses in the bright, rich colors created by new synthetic dyes. During WWI, many women considered it their duty to give up a "white wedding" in wartime, and during the Depression most brides had no choice, simply making do with their best dress or suit. But in the 1930s, garment manufacturers began specializing in making wedding dresses, and an onslaught of bridal magazines filled with photographs began marketing the white wedding dress as part of a romantic ideal, a custom from "the earliest ages." And whether contemporary brides embrace or vehemently reject the "traditional" white wedding dress, it is this marketing, rather than any ageless tradition, that has made the white wedding dress a ubiquitous part of our visual culture.
In keeping with our summer travel theme, I began to investigate some of the ways in which photographers were first able to travel with their cameras. To give a brief background, the invention of photography in 1839 coincided with the Romantic period and the Transcendentalist movement, both of which encouraged the pursuit of the picturesque landscape. Concurrently, the Industrial Revolution produced a growing middle class in America that typically worked 40-45 hours during the week and had leisure time in the evenings and during the weekends. As such, it was fashionable to spend free time travelling from the populated cities out to undeveloped land. And what better way to commute but by bicycle!
The cycling craze was short-lived, as the automobile quickly replaced the two-wheeled contraption as the ideal form of transportation. But the practice of photographing leisure experiences in nature clearly continues today, though in much greater proportions thanks to the ease of the cell phone cam.
Christin Boggs is an Intern at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
Recently photography has said goodbye to two industry icons. Polaroid stopped production of its instant film, and Kodak announced that it is retiring Kodachome, its oldest film stock, because of declining customer demand in an increasingly digital age. As the Smithsonian and institutions of all sizes face the staggering challenge of digitizing their vast photographic collections in preparation for creating, shaping, and using virtual archives, the questions around "what photography is" are constant. How do you create the state of the art when the state of the art keeps changing? As shocking as it is to contemplate a vanishing species, the story of obsolescence is not new to photography (and perhaps, also fitting, as the introduction of daguerreotype portraits in the mid-nineteenth century single-handedly eliminated painted miniatures as an art form). Consider the Lewis family of New Windsor, New York, who became within a few years of photography’s announcement in America the largest manufacturers of Daguerreotype equipment in the United States. By 1850 they held the most photographic patents and their operation was so large that Quassaick Creek, the small town where they built their factory, changed its name to Daguerreville. But in just a few years, cheap-to-produce tintypes and paper photographs made from negatives in turn replaced the daguerreotype. The population of the town, as well as the Lewis’ rise to prominence in photographic history, came to a jolting halt. Often the history of daguerreotype to digital is a story of progress based on commercial gain, practicality, and sometimes just plain obstinacy. The wet plate collodion process was replaced at the end of the 19th century with dry plates, which offered growing numbers of photographers the option of glass plates already coated with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin. The gelatin-based process greatly increased the speed of the plates, enabling shorter exposure times. And with more photographs, the popular appetite for photographs of all kinds increased as well. Change was not always welcomed warmly. For the most part, each new process was greeted with a mix of derision and anxiety. For example, the albumen process (which used egg whites to coat the plates and which produced a shiny, if sharp, image in various tones of purple, yellow, and brown) was described as having an "offensive and vulgar glare" (and possibly an equally pungent aroma) which was "detrimental to pictorial effect." Nevertheless, the process caught on, and by the 1860s it was in general use, and continued until the turn of the twentieth century. Photography journals printed recipes for using the egg yolks left over after the whites had been used for photographic purposes. Until gelatin paper replaced it, one supplier of albumen paper alone was using sixty thousands eggs a day. The latest fox in the henhouse of photography is digital imagery. Many of the digital imaging techniques were developed in the 1960s at research institutes such as MIT, Bell Labs, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during research for applications to satellite imagery, medical imaging, and character recognition. And then there are the rest of us who, with cameras, PDAs, and cell phones, make all kinds of images for all kinds of reasons. There are some that see this as a distinct advantage digital cameras have over film cameras; others see it as the death of photography itself. But it seems that photography’s short history has already proven that innovation is part of the nature of photography itself. For one thing, photography’s progress gives us more things to see.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.