Nostalgia ain't what it used to be - Jan Faul
As the dawn of the digital age recedes to become a pale shadow of the promise it once held, the ‘throttle up’ full speed rush to the future takes over. Gone are the days of needing to see a photographer to get pictures of your kids. Now you pull out your iPhone and make your own or give it to somebody you trust and he or she does a group shot of all of you.
Also gone is the power pyramid where the best of the best living photographers compete with the dead ones of the past. Even though he died almost 30 years ago, Ansel Adams is still at the top with a bunch of mostly other dead folks in the top ten. It is somewhat constipated thinking to imagine that any film photographer can compete with a trained digital shooter who has never shot film and grew up with a mouse in his or her hand. Digital wizards have supplanted professional photographers everywhere except in the collecting world where they cannot yet gain traction among the traditionalists. Hero worship has always been a key element of photography but heroes are disappearing beneath the waves of the flood. These days you see somebody’s work you like or can emulate, and as the copyright law has gotten so weak, it is easy adapt it for your own direction. Today’s heroes are mostly packaged and presented to the public as the faces to follow and whose faces represent photography today. Open any picture publication and you will immediately see who they are. We still need heroes, but they are no longer so accessible.
Try to imagine how one would go about selling a photography-based product from the days of film, which within the last 10 years has gotten crushed by the 100 million amateur photographers who put their daily efforts on social sites to share their creations. Pretend that you own a company whose future is indelibly tied to photography. Think of sellers of photographic products like National Geographic (travel and style), Leica (cameras and lenses), and Ilford (paper and film), whose products have enriched the photography world for more than half a century. They once knew what their target audience was and how to reach them, but today they are faced with an amorphous group of camera owners who besides not needing any of their products, get their news and views from nontraditional sources.
A casual question asked of me over lunch one day in early 1996, was, “Is Kodak a good investment?” I had recently returned from CES and played with a bulky Canon/Kodak DCS for most of a day and even though Canon said it was ’light’, I thought at 31 ounces it was heavy. It was obvious as I strolled around the halls, that but both professional and advanced amateur photographers would love to carry this digital behemoth around no matter what it weighed. As it is sleek and black, of course it will attract millions of buyers. My broker wanted to know if Kodak was a viable investment and I had to tell him “No!” He looked at me like I was crazy. Kodak was partnered with Canon and still considered to be invulnerable. Not being much of a betting person, I knew Canon would abandon Kodak’s sensor and produce its own within five years.
The above companies have marketed themselves as purveyors of exceptional photo products for at least 50 years but now find their firms playing second fiddle to owners of camera-phones which will never send an image to a printer, can send images wirelessly via WiFi and 4G, and have one thing in common: A child can learn to use one in ten minutes. Brands which built successful advertising campaigns on how cool it was to use their cameras, films and papers, find themselves pushed to keep the pressure on brand loyalty by marketing certain photographers as creators of “iconic” photographs.
Try to imagine how to market a photography product in this world gone wild with billions of images made and published weekly. Geographic is touting Steve McCurry as such a photographer, but not for his shot of a girl who might be considered as iconic, but other images unknown to many.
Iconic images have been made by Eddie Adams, Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Judy Dater, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynne Bullock, Margaret Bourke-White, Irving Penn, Imogene Cunningham, and others just to name a few. We all strive to make powerful images, but becoming ‘iconic’ has to do with serendipity, not a marketing plan. Many make highly marketable images, but an iconic image is on a different plane.
National Geographic tells us Mr. McCurry is at the top of the heap while he tries to play down his prominence by doing street photography in New York. Except for Judy Dater, everybody on the above list might be shooting in Heaven or Hell. Mr. McCurry made one incredible/lucky/wonderful/iconic image National Geographic marketed the hell out of and it has no doubt inspired thousands of photographers from pre-digital days to make something of their photographic dreams. As we have been told for decades, we are only as good as our last shot.
Many think a nugget may still be lurking amongst the negatives and positives found by tearing through photographic archives for hours, days, months, and years. I believe we are all looking for the wondrous image that may enrich our futures. Many spend immense amounts of time searching shelves, closets, shoeboxes, and storage areas for forgotten slide boxes, packs of drugstore negatives with prints, stacks of Polaroids, plus sheets or boxes of film which we can scan and make into a collectible product. When somebody appears with a stack of pictures of the past, now we stop and ponder images of a time very definitely gone by. We all seek a lost picture of the Beatles or Lincoln, and they are still out there.
In 1975, it was estimated that 75,000 photography graduates were launched into the world. They became the future practitioners of the art of making images for all manner of endeavors from advertising to photojournalism while others toiled In glamour shops selling modeling dreams to the mothers of young girls, and even more hoped to become artists along the lines of the earlier landscapists of the West.
The making of images to be saved on film is what tens of thousands dreamed of after getting caught up in the photo-techno revolution that began as the American West was being won in the last quarter of the 19th century. The trend to become a photographer of any note began before the introduction of the automobile and the airplane and has blazed on for more than a century. It began when images rarely appeared in publications and the people who made them took extreme risks to provide us with images that became iconic because there were so few. Don’t think for a minute that any of those early photographers you see in a landscape holding what looks like a crate in their hands is having an easy time. Most shot 4x5” or larger cameras and until the invention of the dry plate, photographers carried portable darkrooms to locations far and wide to develop their images on a plate which if dried, would lose its image.
Speaking of things which are over, every time I meet somebody over 40 with an interest in photography, I discover they had a basement darkroom. Some know of such a darkroom built as far back as into the last century. I don’t mean the 20th century, but the 19th. I was touring a private home some time back, and discovered the house had an excellent darkroom complete with an 8x10 enlarger. It had been built for developing and printing glass plate negatives in the 1880’s and modified to work with film about 1910. By the time I got there any evidence of its photographic history was unfortunately gone.
A longtime friend told me he spent a year searching his onetime basement darkroom for negatives he had developed in high school and college, but sadly found nothing of interest. Now he is in his 60’s and getting nostalgic. He speaks wistfully of his early efforts and wishes he had chased different dreams. With the disappearance of home darkrooms, it is unlikely that digital photographers will ever be able to find a trace of youthful inspiration. Photographers from the not so distant past are mining their memories for treasures from the analog age. I too am among them, and therein lies a story.
When I was 14, one of my aunts gave me a couple of boxes of mementos from her father Edwin N. Walkley, who had died in 1925. In the boxes were a few dozen card prints, some loose cellulose nitrate negatives from the early 20th century, about 50 Indian Head pennies, a blue GAR soldier’s reunion hat with reunion badges, roll of 45-starred US flags, wooden 4x5” field camera, and 545 4x5” and 5x8” glass plate negatives wrapped in yellowed newspapers.
At that point in my life I owned an Agfa box camera and a Retina Ib, but borrowed my father’s Retina IIc every chance I got. I had never seen a glass plate negative, although I did have a few tintype portraits of relatives.
I had never held or seen a glass plate negative, but somehow I knew that sulfurous old newspapers and silver did not mix. That was the beginning of my quest to protect and preserve my great-grandfather’s glass negatives made between 1882 until 1910. Even though like his daughter, he is long dead, I could kill him all over again for switching to Kodak cellulose nitrate film negatives in the early 20th century. They can self-ignite (http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/cellulose.pdf), and the few I have are sealed in an airtight metal container in a cool dry place as I do not dare to scan them for fear of them catching fire on my scanner. I know it sounds strange, but this has already happened to a friend.
When I received these mystery boxes I was being dragged to Switzerland for a few years courtesy of my parents fascination with getting me away from the DC School system. They stayed in the box until I returned. In the days before the worldwide web, the information I needed was not as readily accessible. So EN Walkley’s negatives and mementos waited silently for somebody to look at them as they had for 50 years.
By my 19th year I again felt obliged to begin the task of preserving what I had. One of my aunts was still alive so I went to see her to get her thoughts on her father’s film. She hadn’t thought about it in 40 years and didn’t know much except that he was a passionate photographer. She recalled him using flash to shoot in their kitchen while he threw a ball to her sister Anna through the camera’s field of view. I have that negative and the ball is invisible but her father’s hand is blurry. The room is lit with flash and I’m sure the exposure was fairly quick. What would I guess? Judging from the motion of his hand, about ½ second.
My first task was to get them into protective envelopes, so in short order they were moved into pH balanced envelopes from Hollinger and stored in sturdy acid-free heavy boxes where they remain today, 50-odd years later. Like it or not, I continued to be a moderately wet behind the ears amateur photographer and although I worked in a camera shop and had access to all manner of photo supplies, I still didn’t know enough to make prints of these largely unknown plates. I sorted them into categories and gave them numbers and titles as there were few notations. Then I went through them again and put them into more finely tuned delineations so I could plan how to print them. I made contact prints with POP paper, fixed many prints and added gold toning for more permanence although using gold almost broke the bank, even in the 1970’s. As I learn more about Connecticut history 50 years later, I am still discovering where many of my grandfather’s images were taken. This summer I hope to go to Southington and look around. His name is on a Civil War monument in the center of town, so I’m sure to discover something new.
I made contact prints of the best, tried to see if any of them were worth looking at and had them on my worktable for a few years as a silent homage to my grandfather. My photography career was taking more of my time and energy than I thought it would, so the plates languished on the table waiting for an ‘Aha!” moment. Almost everybody I contacted said I should toss them out and get a life. They reminded me of the story of Eugene Atget’s glass negatives being plied in the gutter in Paris, somehow neglecting to tell me how Berenice Abbott had happened upon them and thankfully carried them off to preserve the images so the world could see the magic Atget made with his 20x25cm camera in the gardens of Versailles. His pictures are wonderful, but few of my grandfather’s images bear any similarity. Atget did portraits to pay the rent and my grandfather made portraits of those around him as a hobby. The best news is that he didn’t spend all his time photographing his children or himself.
EN Walkley worked with what he had at hand. He lived in Plantsville, Connecticut and the family car was a horse-drawn buggy. He was employed by Peck, Stowe, & Wilcox (Pexto) in the town of Southington, where he was a vice-president. Between his home and office was a distance of about two miles, and although it can be driven in six minutes today, I am certain it took a lot longer before the invention of the car.
He lived in a house which still stands today, and it is a neat clapboard white two-story house set back a bit from the main drag through Plantsville. It is the house from which he photographed the various July 4 parades which appear in his photographs. In this home he photographed family members, visitors, aunt and uncles, nannies, pets, and his four children, including my grandfather.
He was in a camera club called ONTRE which nobody today has any knowledge of. He made pictures of his peers, friends, family, home, interiors, summer house, vacations at the beach and also took his camera out to work with pictures of railways and water. He built or bought a ‘softbox’ with which to light his sitters and there is a picture of it filled with 16 incandescent lightbulbs.
He portrayed his family in sometimes flattering light while also working with his club at their outings and lunches In what appears to be woods where a sign admonishes “Don’t tie horses to trees.” His camera club members liked to ham it up; sometimes another man appears with a plate on his head. Everybody is covered in clothing from head to toe and even at the beach the swimsuits cover bodies from neck to mid-calf for the men and from neck to ankle for the women. “Sexy” was not a term which applies to any of his pictures. One of the singular things about his life is that he enjoyed showing his likes and loves on film.
He spent what I can see was a great deal of time playing with light and time to display the passage of time in his life. There is an image of he and his father, the Civil War Veteran, sitting in the parlor and library. It is clearly a portrait of Stephen Walkley Jr. at his desk and it is a bit overexposed as he stands unassisted and blurry to perhaps show the passage of time. While his father sits in ¾ profile in the far room, he stands directly in front of a mirror over the mantle. Film was slow in the 1880’s and portraits were made of people leaning on a prop to keep their head steady and unmoving during the exposure. But ENW clearly stands without such a prop, as does his father sitting ten feet away. In a shot of his front hallway, both hands on the lock are in motion and the fireplace is lit with the diffuse light of many flames. The blurred hands show the exposure to have been five minutes.
But the most incredible thing about his images is that none of his camera club peers seem to have been lucky enough to have their photographs survive into the 21st century. I have just learned of a source of Southington images and I am very curious to see if any of these new pictures are similar to ENW’s.
© Jan Walkley Faul, 2013
ENW's work is available through Fineartamerica.com and via Gallery 1839 in the UK.
It will also be available on Jan's website at artfarm.net