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Photographic Preservation

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Tripod not Optional

 

Commemorative events in world history recorded in the early years of photography were entirely documentary, with the brutal results being a kind of topographical portraiture not often appreciated by modern viewers, at least for the efforts expended on behalf of their makers.

 

statue-of-the-republic-stevensDetail: Frances V. Stevens: American: 1893: "Gondolier passing Statue of the Republic" in Grand Basin of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. In background can be seen Peristyle from Liberal Arts building which overlooked Lake Michigan: vintage mounted gelatin-silver photograph: 10.8 x 9.5 cm: PhotoSeed Archive

 

Industrial and world expositions come to mind: the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris and 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia being some of the better known. Before the very early 1880’s, when the dry plate came into wide use, photographers attending these expositions would need a portable darkroom and chemicals mixed on the spot for the coating of glass plates- quickly inserted into the back of their tripod-mounted cameras in order to make an exposure. Major hurdles typically not ventured by the average photographer.

 

Enter the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, and the wide availability by then of dry plates and roll film for the teeming photographic masses. 1892 marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America and its’ commemoration from May to October the following year attracted over 27 million people from around the world. But so-called “serious” photography practiced there, along with capitalistic motive by those in charge, conspired against the dedicated photographer attending. With the exception of practical solutions for photographers in the form of railings, pedestals or fixed objects, only one attendee was allowed the luxury of lugging a camera tripod around the 600+ acre fairgrounds,  Charles Dudley Arnold, (1844-1927) designated the World’s Fair Official Photographer.

 

grand-basinDetail: Frances V. Stevens: American: 1893: "People Congregating in Court of Honor" on east side of Administration Building overlooking the Grand Basin at World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. vintage mounted gelatin-silver photograph: 9.2 x 12.1 cm: PhotoSeed Archive

 

Tripods aside, the biggest obstacle was financial, as a daily permit was required. After shelling out .50¢  for daily admission, someone intent on photographing the grandeur of the Chicago fair needed to pay an additional $2.00 for the privilege, almost $50.00 in today’s currency.  

 

“Of course, any one who pays the required $2 can obtain a permit to photograph in the World’s Fair grounds with a four-by-five (or smaller) camera, and without a tripod” ,

 

the Photographic Times helpfully informed its readership on September 22, 1893.

 

One person who had no problems with the price of a daily photographic permit was Miss Frances V. Stevens of New York City. A world traveler, she was an active and exhibiting member of the New York Camera Club as early as 1891 according to The American Amateur Photographer. Her society credentials were equally impressive, with the New York Times mentioning her in a July, 1890 article along with Louise Whitfield Carnegie, the spouse of Andrew Carnegie, one of the world’s richest people:  “Among the New York ladies who are amateur photographers are Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, … Miss Frances V. Stevens” it stated.

 

bullfrogs-on-columnDetail: Frances V. Stevens: American: 1893: at right: "Entrance to the Fisheries Arcade" (Henry Ives Cobb): a bullfrog can be seen peering out from a riot of frogs on the set of columns at right on the grounds of World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. This ornamental hand-work was made from staff, composed of plaster, cement, and jute fibers. Vintage mounted gelatin-silver photograph: 10.5 x 9.8 cm: PhotoSeed Archive

 

Six surviving examples of photographs taken by Frances Stevens, all signed by her and taken at the 1893 World’s fair, have now been added to the site. Believed to be contact-prints from cut or reduced 4 x 5” negatives, they had originally been individually framed. Improper storage has also taken a toll on the work and they each exhibit a large amount of surface staining-but not enough to preclude their artistic and historical importance from being seen here.

 

Even in the reduced format, the Stevens prints are chock full of nuance, and I’ve taken the liberty of showing details from select examples to illustrate this post. In many ways, her less scripted results by means of the smaller hand camera are extremely valuable documents-certainly in regards to artistic consideration-but equal in different ways to many of those captured by one of Charles Arnold’s 11 x 14 inch plate cameras. In consideration of preservation issues and speaking of the wonder of large glass plate negatives in general, a vast secret life waits to be uncovered by historians willing to take the time to save this material. Something crucial and I dare say almost too late for one of humankind’s greatest achievements, her invention of photography.

 

statue-of-laborDetail: Frances V. Stevens: American: 1893: "Statue of Industry" by American sculptor Edward Clark Potter (1857-1923): statue overlooks South Basin with part of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building seen on left and Agriculture Building at right. vintage mounted gelatin-silver photograph: 9.2 x 11.8 cm: PhotoSeed Archive

 

If one were willing and intrigued by the idea however, photographic archives from newspapers around the world dating to the early 20th century can be a wonderful starting point. For those seeking evidence and inspiration with respect to digital preservation, please check out Springfield Photographs, a site concentrating on the Midwestern American experience from 1929-1935 and most worthy of your attention.