In a waiting room recently, I took my cell phone in my hand, not to annoy the other patrons but to re-live some fun moments. I checked through my saved pictures — my hubby and me at the Angels/Sox game at Fenway, Charlene Sands and me drooling at a Tim McGraw concert, a bazillion pix of our year old grandson — and I enjoyed everything all over again.
When I got my Kodak Instamatic for a graduation present sometime last century, I thought I was on the top of Everest. With its Magicubes, it was so state-of-the-art. In my wildest dream then, I never imagined a future where I could take pictures with a phone….and email them to a computer! Or use a digi-cam where I can delete all of my faux pas in a flash and where everything’s got a date for instant record keeping. Or scan a horde of old photos for publication on the Internet for you to see.
I wanted to share today some of the gorgeous antique photographs that inspire me. But beforehand, I’m going to make you suffer through a brief history of photography through 1900. After all, I am a retired schoolteacher and lecturing’s a hard habit to break.
Cameras existed long before J.N. Niepce produced the first permanent image, a heliograph, in 1826 – an exposure that took 8 hours with a camera obscrua! This was an image of an outside scene formed by a simple lens and sunlight shining through a small hole into a darkened room. (Camera obscura means “darkened room.”)
In 1837, his partner, Louis Daguerre, began to produce images on silver iodide-coated copper plates that took 30 minutes to develop with warmed mercury. Two years later, Fox Talbot introduced the negative from which many positive images could be produced. But paper negatives didn’t produce the detailed images of the daguerreotype. In 1841, he patented his “calotype” negative/positive process with its 5 minute exposure time.
London sculptor Frederick Scott Archer never patented his 1851 wet plate collodion process, where he spread a mixture of nitrated cotton dissolved in ether and alcohol on sheets of glass. The result: the 10-second exposure “tintype.” Much cheaper than the daguerreotype, the tintype brought photography to everyday people. The name probably comes from the tin shears or scissors needed to cut the small pictures (about 2″ x 3″), rather than the metal plates on which they were reproduced.
In 1861, Scottish physicist James Clerk-Maxwell came up with the color-separation method by using green, red, or blue filters when taking black and white photographs. And during the Civil War, Mathew Brady and his staff exposed 7,000 negatives while covering the war!
British physician Richard Leach Maddox developed the dry plate process in 1871, using an emulsion of gelatin, the protein in animal bones, and silver bromide on dry plates. (Gelatin is still used today.) Exposure time: 1/25th of a second!
When he was 24 in 1880, George Eastman set up his Eastman Dry Plate Company in Rochester, NY. By 1888, the general public had access to a simplified camera, thanks both to his “Kodak Number 1” model and his mass developing/processing service. A year later, Eastman produced the first transparent roll film. This was a vast improvement over the 20-foot roll of paper in the “Number 1” that produced 100 two-and-a-half inch circular pictures.
The next year, 1889, Thomas Edison improved the Kodak roll film to 35mm and put the perforations down each side. This became the international standard for motion picture film. Briton Eadweard Muybridge, who had changed his name from the unexciting Edward Muggridge, is credited as the “father of the motion picture” for his 1877 time-stop sequence photos of Leland Stanford’s galloping horse. He didn’t copyright his images, though, and lost a lawsuit against Stanford when he published them. Yes, that’s the same guy who named a university for his son. (Mr. Muybridge and his “flying horse” play a brief but adorable part in a work of mine that likely won’t ever emerge from my hard drive. But oh I had fun writing it!)
In 1880, the first half-tone photo appeared in a newspaper, and ten years later, Eastman introduced the Kodak Brownie box camera.
Okay, now the lesson is over. Last year, my mom moved to a beautiful retirement apartment, leaving my brother Paul and me to shovel out her old house. While the process that he and I have nicknamed The Upheaval has its ups and downs, one “Up” is the treasure trove of antique photos I’ve found. Going through them is like nirvana.
This tintype of my great-grandfather shows him handsome enough to star in his own romance novel. Agreed? Even more interesting is the tintype in the same studio of an unidentified woman. It’s not his only sister. And it definitely isn’t great-grandma. An old girlfriend? No one knows. But Great-Grandpa was happily wed for almost 55 years to my darling great-grandma.
But, I do think Tintype Woman deserves a story of her own. Especially since I borrowed Great-Grandma’s name for a character in my first book.
The next photo touches me deeply. One of my great-grandparents’ seven sons passed away as an infant, little Paul. In the nineteenth century, it was common to photograph the dead children, but my ancestors fortunately passed on that tradition and only depicted his catafalque. I just can’t help being teary-eyed just looking at it; I think this could evoke a powerful scene in a future book.
Well, their second son was my grandfather, a prim and proper minister. It seems his profession gets short shrift in romance novels because of, ahem, the love scenes. Truth to tell, the hero of my Eadweard Muybridge tale is just such a preacherman. But I think Grandpa’s a dashing hero anyway. I just imagine him on the way to woo his beloved (my grandma), as proud of that buggy and his horse Babe as any fictional hero with his Stetson and stallion.
But now’s when things get interesting and I get to let my imagination run wild. A whole ton of the old photos aren’t labeled with any specific details. Grandpa and Grandma lived in a parsonage, so no one knows who belonged to this homestead. All that’s written on the back is: “A bird’s eye view of the place taken last spring. Oklahoma.” So without a who, exactly where, or when, I can people this homestead with whomever I want.
Very poignant is the picture of “Raymond and children.” No relatives alive today remember them. No last name. No date. No hometown. Where is Mrs. “Raymond?” Did she die birthing one of the kids? Was he heartbroken? What futures, what loves, what adventures did those little kids have? Did they have a stepmother later on? Was she wicked? Since I don’t know for sure, I’ll just give them a good stepmom in some future tale. I might even let Raymond find love again.
Now, your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to help me develop a story about the woman in this photo. All I know about her is the photography studio’s label, “Sedalia, Missouri.” Look into her eyes and tell me the story you see there when you comment today. In three sentences or so, give her a name, a goal. Conflicts and motivations. A future worthy of a romance novel heroine including of course, a hot hero. My family members will pick the “story line” they like best and that writer will receive a copy of my latest release, Midnight Bride, and a pair of sterling-silver cowboy hat earrings.
So get creative. Who is the pretty lady? Where does she live? On what journey would you like her to go? And most important of all, who will be the love of her life?