Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why 1851 is a pivotal year for photography

So...it's been a little while since my last post.  I haven't quite gotten myself settled into a posting schedule yet, but I'd intended to post once a week.  We'll see how that goes. In the meantime, thanks for visiting! Your interest and your patience are greatly appreciated.

So anyway...

As I've mentioned before, one of the many things I love about the 19th century is how much of our modern culture really originated in 19th century discoveries and practices, whether social, economic, personal, scientific or technical. Photography is one of the many technological advances that seems so commonplace today yet was born in the 19th century.

Imagine realizing, for the first time, the ability to capture an exact image on a static medium! For some people, it must have seemed like magic. Sure, realist painters could render near perfect replicas of an image, but such images were still approximations--and still, I'm sure, subject to at least some subjective artistic interpretation. And it just plain takes a long time to paint. Camera obscura dates back to well before the 19th century and was used as an aid to rendering images, but it's generally accepted that photography as we know it began in 1839.
  • In case you would like to know more about the advancements that led to the birth of commercial photography during the 19th century, the always wonderful Victorian Web provides a timeline of the history of photography
So...as I write, I tend to encounter great moments of synchronicity (or maybe serendipity...I haven't found *the* word to capture what I mean).  Let me take you down a side road to give you an example:  Years ago, I had a *great* (insert sarcasm here) idea for a story of women's fiction with a supernatural element--something about four damaged women who found themselves brought together by an ancient pagan force to heal not only themselves but the fabric of the universe (or something like that).  Well, I remember looking into numerology sometime after I'd set up the bones of the story and finding out that the locations I had selected (each character lived in a different town between Philadelphia and a New Jersey shore town) were distanced from each other precisely according to some of the sacred numbers. At the time, I felt as though the cosmos must be validating my story and practically commanding me to write it.  (Never did get very far with it.  Made lots of rookie mistakes.  Tucked it away unfinished. Sigh.)

The point is that I'm frequently amazed to find tidbits of reality that fit perfectly into the story I'm writing.  It's probably like that phenomenon when you buy a car and suddenly see those cars everywhere.  There probably hasn't been a sharp rise in those car sales--they've probably just been around but haven't entered your consciousness because there was no reason for them to.  Still, I relish finding historical facts/developments that coincide perfectly with my story.  Don't you?

In this particular case (or current manuscript), I selected 1851 as the year of this story (and a few loosely related ones on my To Do list) long before photography became pivotal to the plot.  So it was a delightful synchronicity that 1851 turned out to be the year that the wet collodion process was introduced in the photographic process.  Prior to 1851, developing photographs took a long time, and an image captured could only be made once.  For instance, a daguerrotype photograph could not be reproduced. This new process enabled photographers to produce images more quickly AND, perhaps more importantly, to make multiple copies of the same image.
  • Here is a detailed and informative video from The J. Paul Getty Museum about the wet collodion process.
One of the key plot points I built into my early drafts assumed that multiple copies of a photograph were possible. Really, it was an essential element in the story. So I did some internal pirouettes when I eventually read that this revolutionary process was introduced in...1851.  Again, it seemed like the cosmos must be validating my work. (Well, that has yet to be determined. And I'm sure the cosmos must have more important things to do.)

So I have become increasingly fascinated with the evolution of photography and photographic products throughout the 19th century!  Such technological leaps in such a relatively short time.  Here's one last link from the Concord Library that traces that evolution of 19th century photography. (I find the carte de visite very cool as well.  Must remember to use that in an upcoming story.) 

Ooh, speaking of evolution...another development born in the 19th century...but, wait.  I'll leave that discussion for another day...

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