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2009 In the Media


Photos of the Forgotten

Haunting images from past evoke earlier times, trace development from dawn of photography

By Joanne E. McFadden

Published June 21, 2009

TROY — The Photography Center of the Capital District’s latest exhibit, “The Unknowns: Images from a Bygone Era,” which runs through July 26, captures one of the main reasons that executive director Nicholas Argyros opened the venue two years ago.

Quite simply, he wants to preserve not only the technological history of photography, but the images of the people who went to the trouble and expense of having their portraits taken in an era when it wasn’t just a matter of whipping out a cell phone and snapping a digital image in a matter of seconds.

Photography in the 1800s went through numerous advances in technology within a period of 50 to 60 years, Argyros said, before the advent of flexible film, which was used for almost a century. The rapid changes in technology are analogous to the switch from film to digital photography that the industry has seen in the past decade.

Argyros, who is retired from the state Department of Education, made this discovery after he began collecting old photographs, purchasing them at auctions and other places.

Tracing Technology

He realized that the photos were made with different processes, and he has organized about 75 of the images into this latest exhibition, which traces the technological advances in photography through the portraits of unknown people.

Some of the photographs are daguerreotypes, the first successful photographic process invented by French artist and chemist Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s. Photographers treated silver-plated copper sheets with iodine to make them light-sensitive, exposed them in a camera and used warm mercury vapor to turn the image into a photograph.

This technology spread rapidly across the globe, and portrait photography was born. The delicate surface of these small photographs that were roughly 2 3⁄4 by 3 1⁄4 inches, required that they be covered with a piece of glass and mounted in a frame or case. The exhibition includes several daguerreotypes, including a profile portrait of a woman — uncommon, Argyros said, as most were full-face frontal views.

Daguerreotypes cost from $2 to $5, expensive at the time. This process gave way to glass plate photography. The exhibit includes many examples of this type of photography, including several that were discovered in an attic in Pennsylvania.

In the 1850s, James Ambrose Cutting of Boston introduced the “ambrotype” process in the United States, which required less exposure time and was much cheaper than its predecessor.

Not too long after that came the tintype, a variation on the ambrotype that was produced on a metallic sheet, rather than glass. Its ease of production and low cost made photographs available to the working classes, not just the wealthy.

Visiting Cards

In the same decade, Paris photographer Andre Disderi introduced “cartes-de-visite,” which were photographs that measured about 2 1⁄8 by 3 1⁄2 inches, mounted on thick paper cards. The process allowed the photographer to produce eight pictures from a single plate, making them immensely popular. During the American Civil War, soldiers and their families posed for cards before they were separated.

Many of the photos are small; enlarged versions will be on display so visitors can see the detail. Also on display are the cameras used for the different types of photos.

“I find all those images from the 1800s to be very poignant and moving,” Argyros said. “Some have very haunting kinds of expressions. Some are very beautiful.”

Argyros said he can only guess about the people and their time periods in the photos, taking clues from the clothes they are wearing and the photographic process used to make the photo. “Every one of these people has an unknown, unwritten story that goes far beyond a single instant in time that was used to capture the photograph,” he said. “You can infer the story from the images that are left to us.”

For example, there is a photo of a group of young women, older than high school students, standing in front of what appears to be a school building. A stamp on the back reads “Poughkeepsie,” and Argyros hypothesizes they are Vassar College women. From the fashion, he estimates that the photo was taken in the 1890s.

“That group of people — we don’t know who they are — they’re probably all long deceased. There was no family that wanted to keep this picture,” he said.

Facial expressions also tell stories: One photo shows two children standing underneath a Christmas tree. The little boy looks bored, while the girl is delighted, holding a brand new doll. She obviously got what she wanted on Christmas morning.

Some photos are amusing. One that Argyros likes shows a well-dressed woman wielding a rake and shovel, working hard out in the yard. Standing half out of the frame is a man in a suit, having a cigarette, looking at the photographer. “He’s probably assuming he’s not in the picture, leisurely smoking a cigarette, letting the woman do the work,” Argyros said.

Other photos preserve our cultural past, such as a photograph of three men and three women skating on a frozen body of water or another of two men wearing straw hats and suspenders, ready to go out hunting with their dogs.

“The exhibit is all about people, and these are unknown people,” Argyros said. He began building an archive of the photographs because he wanted to make sure they didn’t get thrown away. About half of the photos in the exhibition were taken by amateur photographers.

“These are people who went to the trouble of learning how to develop and print the photograph,” Argyros said.

Argyros says the exhibit honors both the subjects and the photographers.

“I don’t know how to express how moving some of these pictures are,” he said. “They fulfill photography’s promise of stopping a moment in time and preserving it.”

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