I have decided to write some book reviews. These will not be your usual type of review, meant to sell books. Instead, these will be reviews of books mostly out of print and unobtainable. Why review them? Because I find them incredibly interesting, addicted to history as I am.
I have already reviewed a book titled The Cottage Physician a self-help book of the late 19th century. I suspect anyone self treating with advice from that tome might have undergone some strange results. That document, as most of these others, may be found in digital form at Internet Archive, http://tinyurl.com/cdv2tdr. You will probably never find a copy in the dusty shelves of your local used book store.
The two books I'm going to mention now are about photography. I find them interesting not so much from the viewpoint of learning about that art form, as about learning what our ancestors were like. Today nearly everyone carries a smart phone capable of full color instant photos and videos. More serious photographers use digital cameras with an almost infinite range of possibilities, and so cheap to operate as to be practically free. I myself can remember the old days of Kodachrome and film. When I was about ten I used a Kodak box camera and learned how to develop and print roll film in the basement. That was a technological accomplishment. As an adult I could never walk into a camera store without spending forty or fifty dollars on supplies.
Now scroll back to the year 1854, and an aspiring photographer learning his skills from a book titled A Manual of Photography, by Robert Hunt, published at the University of Glasgow. Mr. Hunt lists himself as “Professor of physical science in the metropolitan school of science.” Also, “keeper of mining records,” among other things. I first ran across this book when I was doing research for my novel Spiritcatcher, which is about an early day photographer in San Francisco.
Reading this manual, I can only feel a sense of awe at the persistence and dedication required to make pictures in those days. The first photograph in history was made by Niepce in 1826. The technology advanced rapidly: twenty years later there were people all over the planet taking pictures. Robert Hunt goes into detailed description of how that technology proceeded. It began when someone noticed that a compound of silver and chlorine turns dark when exposed to sunlight. Incidentally, this stuff is commonly referred to as horn silver because it resembles a cow's horn in color and texture. Deposits of horn silver were found in Nevada and elsewhere when early prospectors began looking for silver. It was found to be about 90 % pure silver. It's all gone now, of course. But that's a digression.
Reading A Manual of Photography, one gets the impression that you would need a full scale chemical laboratory to practice the art of taking pictures. It does seem that scientists of the day were still confused about the nature of light itself. Hunt preferred the term “heliography” to photography because he wasn't sure if silver turns dark because of light, or of something else, maybe heat. At one point he refers to “molecules of light.” No one understood why silver darkens more rapidly in violet light than in red light. We know today it's because violet light with its shorter wave length contains more energy, but that answer had yet to be worked out.
Hunt goes into the different characteristics of Daguerreotype, calotype, chrysotype, cyanotype, and amphytype, among others, all different processes. Some of the chemicals involved include cyanide, sulfuric acid, nitric acid and mercury. I wonder what was the life expectancy of the average photographer? Hunt even includes a lengthy explanation of how to produce glass lantern slides. I found his instructions incredibly complicated and won't go into them here. No wonder that particular technology has been about forgotten. Given the difficulties in photography of the day, I'm amazed there are so many good photographs in existence: tintypes, Daguerrotypes, prints on paper and even on cloth. I gain more respect for my ancestors.
Now fast forward 66 years, to A.D. 1920. With all those years to work on it, photography has become easier. Thus, the book Photography Made Easy, by R. Child Bayley, published in London. Well, I guess it was easier by then. Anyone trying to follow the instructions in this book today would probably end by tearing out one's hair. In 1920, not everyone had electricity. That was still a new invention. Further, light bulbs of the time were not that bright. In this book there's no mention at all of electric lights. Instead, the author recommends the use of “gaslight paper,” a printing paper that could be developed by gaslight rather than sun. At least one could buy the paper already made up. Back in 1854 you had to mix your own chemicals, purchase the right kind of bond and coat the paper yourself with stuff like gelatine or egg whites. And then use the paper before it spoiled.
Bayley urges the amateur photographer to concentrate on easy subjects such as distant buildings and full length portraits. Anything like moving objects or up-close portraits would require expensive equipment as well as experience and training. Well, at least one could produce “instantaneous” photographs, with shutter speeds as low as ¼ second. Back in the old days an exposure might have taken 10 or 15 minutes. But for anything serious, you would still need a big camera with glass plate negative, mounted on a tripod. Celluloid film did exist, and had been introduced by Mr. Eastman several years earlier. But it was mainly for amateurs.
The author here goes into great detail about developing and printing. Sometimes he used compounds of silver or gold to produce a final tone. There were dozens of other options for chemicals to develop or print, with different effects. Not mentioned was the expense involved. The box camera had brought amateur photography into the buying range of the middle class, but a serious hobbyist might spend a great deal on equipment and chemicals. And then there were enlargers. Bayley mentions them, but doesn't encourage his readers to try one without more experience and money to spend. There were basically two types of enlargers around: the daylight type, which was used in sunlight. Then there was the more expensive gaslight enlargers, which of course used gaslight. Both types sound like they were nightmares to use.
Even the trays used to hold chemicals were a problem. Metal trays would react with developer and fixing solutions; glass and porcelain were expensive. The author recommends papier mache. Plastics were decades in the future.
I have found that reading about the history of any particular technology teaches me much about the lives of the people who made it. I believe our ancestors were willing to go to any length to preserve the world around them, an urge we have not abandoned. Photography is one page in the vast book of history. It was certainly not a hobby for the faint of heart.