Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Postscript: "I Hear America Singing"

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Postscript: "I Hear America Singing"

Article excerpt

In 1880, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company introduced George Eastman's gelatin dry plates for glass negatives.1 This was followed by a new generation of portable dry-plate view cameras. Together they revolutionized American photography by making amateur involvement possible. The plates were easier to use and were ten times more sensitive than those made by the wet-plate process. That sensitivity allowed instantaneous photographs to be made in available light.2 By the end of the decade, negative film photography and Eastman's Kodak box camera revolutionized how, as a society, we make pictures. The convenience of roll film, which could be exposed then sent to Kodak's processing and printing factory in Rochester, New York, completely freed the new amateur photographer from the darkroom.3 It also freed the sitter from the studio. Now friends could take pictures of friends upon any occasion without the intimidating presence of strangers or the artificiality of photographic props. The images they produced became increasingly casual. It was the birth of the snapshot.

Photographers who managed skylight galleries continued to offer their services, but the operator who used the new ferrotype gelatin dry plates in the 1880s and owned a portable tent, house, or car increasingly took over the business of making tintypes, as they were now generally called.4 The portable gallery became a familiar sight at amusement parks and summer camps (fig. 195). And as the craze for sea bathing engulfed the nation, the tintype operator would provide a seaside backdrop for his customers in his photographic car, which he hauled to the beach for that purpose. You need not change. Bare feet and bathing costumes were just fine (fig. 196).

During the last decades of the century, photographers increasingly relied on painted backdrops and rustic props for their portraits, as if the sitter squeezed between the two became just another decorative element in the final image. Such tintypes hardly needed an experienced or skilled operator. One could easily camouflage any defects in pose or character among the foliage and the artificial rocks (fig. 197). It seems that in the new age of the casual snapshot, distinctive studio scenery was something to be pointed out, as in case of the Connecticut photographer Thomas S. Oldershaw, who around 1910 posted the sign "LARGEST & BEST SCENERY" on the exterior of his tintype and photography gallery (fig. 198). It separated the professional from the amateur, or so it seemed.

Tintype operators also traveled from town to town making house portraits, most of which were predictable; the house was shown in full, with the inhabitants clearly secondary to the structure itself. Most of them seem unplanned, as if the tintype operator was the equivalent of the traveling salesman who simply knocked on the door and then with a carefully prepared speech convinced the homeowner to buy his merchandise. If the photographer was successful, the family would cram the front porch, balcony, or yard with chairs, dogs, horses, the caged canary, and themselves. The portrait was made, then the operator and his photographic wagon moved on to the next farm or house and the process was repeated (fig. 199).

By 1900 the tintype also had become the product of the instantaneous photo booth, where an Automatic Photographic Machine could make a portrait in thirty seconds. A decade later, a street photographer using a Chicago Ferrotype Company outfit could quickly expose and develop a direct positive postcard or photographic button while you waited. As lucrative as this business might have been for some, in the 1928 silent film The Cameraman Buster Keaton gained our sympathy as a bungling street photographer who was unable to attract interested passersby.

Although the street witnessed the final phase of the tintype, in 1929 there was at least one return to the traditional wet-plate process. That year Henry Ford celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Edison's invention of electric light by a worldwide tribute to Edison, and by establishing the Edison Institute of Technology and Greenfield Village, now known as the Henry Ford, in Dearborn, Michigan. …

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