- Historic Sites
Windows On Another Time
A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Photographs have also the singular power to sum things up. Consider how one beautifully composed picture makes clear at a glance the famous relationship and the joint achievement of Alexander Graham Bell, Annie Sullivan, and the brilliant woman they redeemed from darkness and silence, Helen Keller (see page 46). Street scenes from the past, whatever the event that led the photographer to take them, do double duty in their backgrounds by reminding us that the familiar world about us, changing so little day by day or even year by year, can become in a few decades unrecognizable. On the other hand, while the scene shown on page 52 of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is familiar after a fashion today, sixty-three years later, the event taking place is almost unbelievable. Here, in 1925, are forty thousand sheeted and hatted members of the Ku Klux Klan parading past an estimated three hundred thousand spectators; those watchers who are visible seem friendly enough. You can read about this resurgence of bigotry in any good text on American history, but to grasp it fully, you have to see it. You can also note, if you look a minute, that the police are routing the marchers away from the car tracks, which would have led them in front of the White House, disturbed President Coolidge’s regular nap, and forced him to take a stand. Whether he stayed in or came out, either could have been interpreted as deliberate: a snub or a boost. Lucky Mr. Coolidge, who once again escaped, but you have to spot this in a picture, not in a book.
What constitutes an “old” photograph is a subjective and relative matter, depending mainly on when you were born. To my young friends, my college pictures from the 1930s are quite comical, everyone perpetually clad in suits and ties and felt hats—except at sports—and our hair ridiculously short. If you are in your nineties, I suppose “quaintness” begins around the turn of the century and runs backward through other comical costumes and hairstyles. But photography is all very recent anyway, even though the optics of it were used as early as the sixteenth century by Leonardo da Vinci, tracing images projected through a pinhole onto the facing wall of a darkened box, upside down. Other artists also employed this camera obscura (literally “a dark room”), but experiment as they would, no one found the chemical secret that would fix the image until, in the 183Os, Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce and his partner Louis Mandé Daguerre began to have luck on copperplates coated with silver. The final triumph came after M. Niepce’s death and was modestly named after himself by the survivor. A nosy American, the painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, got in to see the daguerreotype early. He ordered himself a camera made to Daguerre’s specifications and diverted his scientific friends back home with the apparatus, later augmenting his professor’s salary by teaching daguerreotypy to others. Among them were a farm boy named Mathew Brady; Albert Southworth of Boston, who set up the noted firm of Southworth & Hawes; and Edward Anthony, the founder of a great photographic house bearing his name.
Photography was a small club. Morse dropped out to experiment with electricity and invent his telegraph; Daguerre went back to painting. In the Civil War, Anthony’s company, on credit, furnished supplies to Brady’s large staff, numbering as many as twenty-two cameramen at times, covering the many campaigns. When it was over, and Brady failed for years to get the reimbursement that he had expected from Congress and went bankrupt, Anthony took over one of his two great plate collections for debt. It was an anxious club, too, and generally ill rewarded, however enormous the price that occasional stray originals from those times produce today at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, where they are reverently sold as “vintage photographs.”
Yet how recent the vintage, or vintages, are! It occurs to me suddenly that when the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of photography is celebrated in 1989, anyone like me who was born in 1914 will have lived through half of it. And that after fifty years of working one way or another with photographs, I will have been plugged into that world for a third of its duration.
The most all-encompassing lifetime in photography, however, is that of William Henry Jackson, born in upstate New York in 1848 to a farmer-turned-blacksmith-turned-carriage maker and to his artistic wife. As early as 1860, in the day of the wet plate, he was a photographer’s helper in Vermont. After serving in the Civil War, he headed West, where he became famous and successful photographing the new railroads for their owners and covering the areas of future national parks. This kept him busy through the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s. At the end of the century he came back East, to become the head and chief photographer of the famous Detroit Photographic Company, which is credited with our picture of Niagara Falls.