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Candid Camera

May 2024
1min read

Horace Engle’s An amateur photographer surreptitiously captured the mood of unsuspecting neighbors—with affecting results

“I photograph for my own pleasure and culture.” Thus Horace Engle—agriculturist, mineralogist, electrical “experimenter”—summed up what was an avid hobby for most of his eighty-eight years. Engle took his most unusual photos when in his late twenties in 1888-89. They were the product of a “spy” camera, a round can six inches in diameter and less than two inches thick. It had a fixedfocus lens and single shutter setting—but no viewfinder. Engle wore it hidden underneath his coat, with the lens protruding from a buttonhole, and pointed himself at the subject, pulled the shutter cord (also concealed, in a pocket), and hoped to catch the subject unawares and in frame. The camera could snap six stills on a round glass plate that was rotated after each shot by a tiny knob. As many as eighteen thousand spy cameras were sold at the time, but, strangely, few photos still exist; so the nearly two hundred taken by Engle are a unique collection, including some of the earliest examples of candid photography. Just as remarkable is how the photos were salvaged after fire and exposure had done considerable damage. A bachelor, Engle was an obsessive accumulator—used rail tickets, letters, a tuft of his own hair (before he went bald), bits of lace. Stacks of his methodically filed materials were stored in an attic and corncrib of a niece’s farm near West Chester, Pennsylvania. Her young niece used several photos for a project at Pennsylvania State University in 1971, and there they caught the eye of Edward Leos of the School of Journalism. Aware that few views of everyday life had survived the spy camera itself, Professor Leos hastened to save the Engle memorabilia. The following portfolio of Engle’s candid photographs—taken mostly in his native Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, area—provide a slice-of-life glimpse of a quieter America.


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