Vintage Shutterbugs

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Smithsonian’s photographic laboratories and equipment from the 19th century.

 

Did you know that May is National Photography Month? Declared by Congress as a month-long event in 1987, National Photography Month celebrates all aspects of photography. We invite you to see what our photographers were up to a century before this declaration in this behind- the-scenes slideshow of the photographic laboratory spaces, set-ups, and equipment of the United States National Museum in the 1880s.  Smithsonian’s first photographer, Thomas William Smillie, traded his photography skills for lab space in the Castle until he became the official photographer for the museum in 1871. A pioneer in the field of photography, Smillie patented photographic processes, published articles, and was active in professional photographic societies. His contributions to the field of photography are innumerable and his expertise put the Smithsonian on the cutting edge of the burgeoning field of photography.

United States National museum photographers with photographic equipment by the U.S. Fish Commission fish hatchery ponds located near the grounds of the Washington Monument, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4473.

Equipment in the photographic laboratory of the United States National Museum, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4458.

Photographic equipment made by Scovill Manufacturing Co., New York, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4260.

United States National Museum photography laboratory, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4454.

Photographic laboratory of the United States National Museum, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4461.

Chemical compounds and equipment in the photographic laboratory of the United States National Museum, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4457.

Camera set up to capture image through a microscope, 1900s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-22580.

United States National Museum photographer shoots objects from overhead, 1880s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-4455.

These days, most of us can create, process, and widely distribute photographs using just our phones. Despite the larger and heavier equipment and the need for some chemistry know how, our earliest photographers always figured out how to get just the right shot!

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