The Lighter Side of Early Photography

Long before the selfie, there were these gems

The lighter side of early photography

Photography is the visual capture of time: the good times, bad times; the happy times, and sad times. All are important. With early photography, the limitations of the process tended to capture the somber mood of the times.

Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, the types of photography available in the  1840’s through the 1870’s, required precise mechanical and chemical skills. Long exposure times were needed. Landscapes were the first examples of early photography because the
subjects were limited in movement during the long exposure times. The longer times also meant the images had a dark, foreboding look. Shadows in particular would lose detail, turning into black or gray areas. Early daguerreotype and ambrotypes were in cases and these tended to leak around the edges, allowing deterioration that darkened an image.

With advances in technology, shorter preparation and exposure times were possible and many of the limitations of photography were overcome. Portraits became the new market for photography. While exposure times had drastically diminished from many minutes to less then a minute, a minute can still be a long time to maintain a position. Slight movements caused blurred images.

Photography was still very expensive and time consuming. This was not a fun time to have your photograph taken. As a result, you sat still, and didn’t smile, as it is harder to maintain a smile during long exposures and movement needed to be limited as much as possible.

Even if it meant using torture type devices to keep you still.

The introduction of the wet plate glass negative in the 1850’s was a game changer. And a few years later, the dry plate glass negative was introduced. Now the photographic process was simpler and faster.

By the late 1890’s and early 1900’s not all portraits were stiff and gruesome. Some fun was had at picture-taking time. People were looking for a much less formal settings for their families and groups. Stiff overstuffed chairs, couches and strange columns popping up in photos weren’t as appealing to the younger generation.

One of the most popular was the moon prop. These appear to have started in the early 1900’s and continued well into the 1930’s.

Cars, planes and airships were also very popular. These could easily be made into postcards and sent to others or saved as photos and cabinet cards.


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The early 1900’s saw a large increase in amateur photographers who also developed, pun intended, an interest in controlling the whole process including developing film and making their own prints. Composites or montages of photos were widely made, long before Photoshop was even an idea. With the size of glass negatives and control of exposure, double exposures were very easy to make.

The new flexible cellulose negatives made it possible to couple two negatives together that would be printed as one image. Cutting up several photos and pasting them onto a background, then photographing them as one photo was another popular technique.

Fake news in the 1900’s!

Ghost photo’s? Spooky but simple to do.

I doubt these airborne visits happened over the streets of Iowa.

Perhaps this photographer was so good that he capture the same airship in the
same direction in two locations.

No major airshow over Fredericksburg!

And definitely no trolleys went down the center of Main Street!

Kodak revolutionized the photo industry and brought photography into the
hands of amateurs. Along came Kodak box camera’s and Brownie camera’s. Taking pictures
became incredibly popular.

Informal outings and gatherings were a way of life and these old photos show
it! While not all life was rosy, after a long work week, heading to the beach
or park was within the possibilities of most families.

And how about a real bargain? A $.25 photo and wonderful memory from a
photo booth?

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Or a photo arcade face hole booth?


or outdoors.


or friends.

Photography and technology has come a long way. Digital photography has
made taking pictures easier and quicker. Can’t imagine what Alexander
Graham Bell would have thought of his telephone being used to take almost
as many pictures as being used to make phone calls!

-Bob Walden

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