The happy meeting of a young matron and an extraordinary camera produced a memorable record of turn-of-the-century America
The little group of figures below, who have composed themselves with such artless grace on a sun-dappled lawn beside a lake, were photographed in the first decade of this century by an ingenious camera called the Number 4 Panoram Kodak. It was manufactured in relatively small numbers between 1899 and 1907—and some still exist. The photographer simply levelled the camera by referring to a device like a carpenter’s level mounted on the top of it and pushed a button that made the lens swing from one side to the other by means of a spring. Inside, the lens rotated on its optical center, scanning the curved film through a slit. The view finders on these cameras were tiny and inadequate, which meant that the photographer really had no way of knowing what was going to be on the negative. We do not know whether our photographer relied more on her view finder or her intuition, but we do know she had a refined eye for artistic composition. This print, for instance, has about it something of the ambiance of the celebrated Renoirs painted in France at about this time and conveys the same sense of ease and insouciance. The panoramas in this portfolio were taken from the family albums of the James A. Drake family of Corning, New York. Drake was a well-to-do bank president, and their life epitomized the comfortable upper middle class of the age. It was Mrs. Drake, Isabel Walker Drake, a small, slender, reserved woman, who took most of the pictures, thereby recording on film the activities of her family and friends. There is no indication that she thought of her picture taking as anything but a family chronicle, for her pictures are as unpretentious as her subjects were under the near-constant scrutiny of her lens. The camera was just one of many innocent amusements indulged in by the family, an interesting new plaything. Whether the Drakes and their friends were clowning for the clever machine or caught unawares in the middle of a walk, there is a candor in these pictures that tells us a great deal about the happier aspects of American life from 1899 to 1910. The horizontal sweep of the panoramas gives a sense of time expanded that reflects a leisurely spirit. A surviving niece, Mrs. Alden Van Campen of Corning, has graciously provided biographical material for a glimpse into the life of the Drakes, and her memories of those bygone days have the same width and wonder of a child’s vision of the past that the panoramas convey. “The camera,” she says, “we called ‘The Bull’s Eye.’ It actually had a round, shiny black eye, about the size of a quarter, which moved in an arc when Aunt Isabel pushed the magic button. At three or four years old I thought whatever was in that box was alive . I have never seen another like it.” The Drakes, with their typical zest, did their own developing and printing. They were too eager for the results to send film off to Kodak. Mrs. Van Campen remembers “photographic paraphernalia soaking in the bathtub and film hanging to dry over towel racks and gas fixtures in the bathroom.” There were three Drake daughters: Margaret (“Madge”), intelligent and executive; Martha, tiny, beautiful, and charming; and Dorothy (“Dort”), an animal lover and competent cook and driver. Their circle of friends was enormous, for the Drakes radiated bonhomie. Their life was cultivated as well as comfortable. Everyone travelled regularly to New York City for theatre and opera (as well as baseball games) and went out west for horseback riding. But it was Drake Point, at Keuka Lake, their summer place, that was the focus of their lives and of Mrs. Van Campen’s memories. “Every minute of it seemed charged with magic promise,” she recalls, “the feeling that something new and wonderful was about to happen.” Drake Point was a family compound of two great frame houses and assorted servants’ cottages, sheds, stables, and boathouses, and the place was always filled with friends and relatives. It was in many respects a lovely time. It seems as if it should have lasted forever, and in the aura of wistful recognition the pictures conjure up for us, it has. It is time not lost but interrupted. We are grateful to the Corning—Painted Post Historical Society for its assistance in preparing this portfolio.