June 25, 2016

The Hand in the Pocket

Washington, D.C., circa 1911. "National Photo Co. post card shipment." A very young-looking Herbert French on the left with his associate "Artie" Leonard at their H Street studio. 8x10 glass negative.

Daily life, as recorded on 8x10 glass negatives fromShorpy Historical Photo Archive :: The Young Entrepreneurs: 1911, is often seen in more detail than our faux-vintage Instagram age.

One of the persistant pleasures in very old photographs is that they hold a lot of detail if you but care to look; details that tell you the things behind these images lived. I went into this -- in some detail -- myself in The Summer of Our Content. I notice it again here in one telling detail from the photo cited above from Shorpy. Only this time it is a detail in the hands of the men pictured. With the man on the left, his left hand casually grasps a claw hammer as he strikes the casual pose of a man taking a brief portrait break.


This is not at all that remarkable. Hands holding tools are common in all photography of the men from a time when men actively built the nation. But if we look closely at the man on the right we can see the small confirmation of this lost moment in time in Washington DC over a century past. We see this:


It's by way of this kind of detail that these sections of times lost beyond recall hold their fascination. That momnt when time had a stop and we can see down into the marrow of things; into the weight and the heft of the fabric of trousers stretched over the knuckles of a now long dead hand. For all the trillions of images that we capture now, we won't leave that much of mark.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at June 25, 2016 11:32 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Years ago, I worked with some newspaper staff who handled the technical side of production (so not journalists) and they had to process the news pictures taken by the photographers. I can clearly recall one old guy in absolute ecstasy over a photo, taken in the 'fifties in an industrial city, of people lining up for the train to go on vacation. The man was gushing about the level of detail in that black-and-white photo, how clear and sharp the detail was -- just I think like the example you give. He contrasted it with a more modern picture and pointed out how the recent photo was full of action but it was generally flat and lacking crisp information. So you are right: our multitude of digital images today will leave little to see.

Posted by: UKer at June 26, 2016 5:23 AM

Most people have the idea that early photography produced very crude images. Not particularly so! Very quickly the photosensitive chemicals were applied to silver or glass plates and those were capable of amazing detail. Lenses had been around for centuries and highly developed by the time photography came along so there was no problem there. The crudeness of early photography was primarily manifested by the large, cumbersome cameras, huge lenses and photo plates relying on the long exposure times of the old chemicals. Long exposures tend to create dawdling and not diligently watching the exposure time or not computing the time correctly to begin with. The plates required rigorous attention at keeping them from unintentional light exposure and the processing of the exposed plates was not so easy as it is/was today. Those with the photographic gift for attentiveness and attention to detail took many high quality photos we still see today while the failures could never get those cameras to give up their secrets.

Posted by: Dink Newcomb at June 26, 2016 3:02 PM