Going for a bike ride? Don’t forget the camera!

Untitled, by Unidentified photographer, c. 1905, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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! Samuel Murray and Benjamin Eakins on Bicycles, by Thomas Eakins, ca. 1895-1899, Hirshhorn Museum

According to Jay Ruby, author of The World of Francis Cooper, 1996, “In the 1890s the ‘wheeling’ craze rivaled photography as the favorite form of outdoor recreation for the middle class." Until this time, cameras were far too bulky and complicated to carry on a Sunday stroll, while early bicycles were much too cumbersome for a casual daytrip. However, as technologies developed, manufacturers designed products to further encourage the pairing of cycling and photography. For example, the Tele Photo Cycle Poco, created by the Rochester Camera and Supply Company, is described by the company’s catalog as “’the wheelman’s companion, being made very light and compact and can be easily carried on the wheel without inconvenience. It is equipped with two tripod plates fitting our bicycle clamp, which can be placed on the handle bar of the wheel, the wheel serving as a tripod." As a result, hobbyists were able to travel into the picturesque landscape and return to their everyday worlds with a memento of the occasion.

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.

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