slide show

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My father, my teacher, and the history of the photograph

My father is a teacher.

Actually he was and is many things. A firefighter. A father. A son. A brother. An amazing grandfather. A Volkswagen lover. A collector of many fine things. A husband. A 67-year-old cliff diver when he hangs out with The Man Child. A tamale maker at Christmas time. (those old pics from that post are killing me!) A photographer.

And a teacher.

And countless other times. This is in the very essence of who my father is. He's always teaching something. Teaching me something. Teaching my children something. Teaching most anyone that will listen something. It's part of him and who he is, this natural teacher, passing on the past and knowledge, stuff that should not be forgotten lest we forget who we are are where we came from. Teaching the crazy important stuff.
My father, otherwise known as Papa to me and GrandPapa to the progeny, was asked to do a little speaking to our local museum on the history of photography as it related to our community. He did. When I mentioned that he collected things, one of these many things are old photographs. Except they really aren't photographs yet because the photograph as we know it hadn't been invented yet. So we're talking pre-photogrpahs. Tintypes, dageurreotypes, opalotypes, ambrotypes and wet-plate collodion negatives... Ya, that last one is a mouth full. Lots of funky pre-photogrphy type words that are kinda obscure to this photography enthusiast. I should explain that we don't know any of the folks in any of these images. I wish we did. I wish they were my relatives. But they're not. But they are someone's relatives, and I can only image stories about the lives that these people lived. 
Another thing about my Papa is that he never ever ever shows up empty handed. Ever. He always has some type of food to share, and usually props, or rather teaching tools. On this occasion he was sharing with Livy about his recent speaking engagement at the local museum. She got the one-on-one version. I mean, how amazing is that! We're so lucky to have him as our personal teacher rather than having to share him with an auditorium of people.
This one below is the wet-plate collodion negative on glass, introduced in 1851 and most popular in1860-1890's. If I'm understanding it right, this was one of the first times someone could make multiple prints from a single negative, but it was "soft" and not really detailed. If you're really into this kinda of stuff I found this short video that talks more about collodion prints. I'm pretty geeky when it comes to photography so I liked it!
This next image of this fabulous woman is a dageurreotype. The first dageurrotypes were in the 1839 and they did not have a negative. The details of the image are sharp, crisp and amazing! Can you image seeing images in photo form for the first time if all you have seem before this were paintings?! I can only image that folks would be amazed at the process. What you can't tell at this from my photo below is that this image is on a mirrored surface. you kinda have to tilt it just so to actually see it right and see the details.
This one is an ambrotype from the 1860's. They were little pictures printed directly on glass. The amazing part is that it's actually a negative. And when it's put against a black background, it appears as a possessive image. Pretty cool, hu?!
Did you notice his pink cheeks? That was painted on the glass after the image was made. 

Here's another ambrotype, but this one doesn't have the black background any more. When you hold it up to the light and look through it you can easily see that it's a negative. 
But hold it against a black background and voilà! You've got yourself a positive!
I can only imagine that a single photo of your child was treasured far beyond what we can imagine today.
This next one is a tintype, meaning the image was printed on a thin sheet iron, used in the 1860's and through the civil war. Some tintypes were put in little cases like this one, or often were put in cards like the one of the woman below. 
This tiny tintype is called a "little gem." It's a tintype in a little greeting card. Little gems were the smallest of the tintypes and were about the size of a postage stamp. I did a little research and found that one could get about a dozen little gems for about 25 cents. I can't imagine what it much have been like for a common person, one who wasn't wealthy to have access to a photograph of himself of the ones he loved. 
I love love love the young woman in the tintype below. I have all sorts of questions for her. Was she well to do? A student? Married? What did she want to be? What were her dreams? Where did she come from? Was she not so different from me? Or are we worlds apart?
This next one is an albumin print, invented in 1850 which actually used the albumin from eggs to print the image on paper, and it became the most popular type of photography by the late 1800's because it was relatively cheap and easy to produce. Here's another short video that talks more about albumin prints. 
So you see in part where not only my love of photography comes from but my love of teaching. My father has never owned a digital camera or edited a digital image. He never will. He's a purist and loves film and the darkroom. But he does love passing on what he knows. And that is a thing we definitely have in common. 

And I love him so much for that. 


  1. Your father, it appears, isn't the only teacher in the family. I just learned so much! This was such a fun post to read!


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