Foreign/Film

Marrakech Street

I am exceedingly excited for two reasons. First, my son and I are getting ready to travel overseas. We’re visiting Myanmar, where my brother-in-law and his family live. Second, I bought ten rolls of Fuji Velvia 50 and have my Mamiya C220. I first bought this camera in early 2009 to take to Morocco for this same BIL’s wedding. The shutter blades were stuck so I disassembled it as well as I could and got them working again. It has been my favorite film camera ever since and it was worth the weight to bring it on this trip, which will probably be once-in-a-lifetime.

Marrakech Night

We’ll be staying a few weeks so I hope to get a decent sense of how the city of Yangon works and take plenty of photos.

Update

It’s been a slow process to get back to being a functional historian. The first step was doing the work of a public historian. A VT research assistant and I photographed the 9 historic structures owned by the Town of Blacksburg, including the Armory Building, pictured here — it was rhythmic, practical, and tangible. Photography is something I enjoy a great deal and, along with rowing, is not something I have been able to do much of since I started my career. I was happy that this project coming out of my preservation class gave me the chance to get back to it.

The entrance to the Armory Building in Blacksburg, VA

Historic Aerial Photography – Soil Conservation Service

Next up in blogging the book project is a return to aerial photography.

Background: during the New Deal, agriculture was a key priority, and soil a specific component of that — see, for example, Don Worster’s The Dust Bowl. So the Department of Agriculture set up the Soil Conservation Service which photographically documented land coverage and usage through aerial photography across the country. The whole country.

Right now you’re already probably salivating at the thought of what this could tell historians, and especially urban historians. These still exist and are in storage in the National Archives (off-site I’m told, not at I or II). Some states and areas have been digitized, but it is hit or miss by state. They have been digitized for the State of Illinois, which is great. I came across these before, but the University of Illinois has actually done one better and made this a better, more accessible resource by making the interface and file management simpler. Find the county within Illinois, then use the schematic index to find the image. You can easily download the individual images. Here’s one.

Foregoing the cumbersome MrSID viewer can make these seem less accessible, but you can pull several images together on your own if you have Photoshop (access) or maybe Photosynth. Basically, take the image and trim off any black border with the crop tool — this is just an artifact of the film sheet in the holder from the 30s. Find all the images you want and do this with all of them. Then, using the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, select all of the images that are contiguous and run it. It takes a little while (5 to 10 minutes) and some decent computing power, but Photoshop pulls these together (and does the minor necessary warping of any images to make them match automatically) and puts out a composite image. So from the above, with about twenty-four images, you can get this:

The above is the area where Argonne National Laboratory is now. The small town at the bottom is Lemont, IL. Route 66 was just two lanes in this area and cut diagonally from lower left to upper right. The body of water is the Michigan and Illinois Canal. A good bit of the immediate area is now forest preserve, but there has also been much development, including I-55 and I-355, which would both be on-screen here, as well as Bolingbrook and places like Naperville, a little farther to the north. Either way, building these composite images from such a great resource is a wonderful way to get a sense of spatial change from the late 1930s.

Happy hunting!

Historic Photography

A photo project I’ve recently seen passed around Facebook is the Detroit re-photography project by David Jordano. A Chicago-based photographer, in 1973 Jordano was a Detroiter and conducted a photo survey of his city. He recently revisited those sites and worked to reshoot the photos. Some instances seem like a twist on the standard “ruin porn” of decaying Motor City landmarks — this one of the interior of the Michigan Central station, for example.

However, Jordano’s efforts get somewhat more poignant when his 1973 images illustrate just what has been lost in the interim.

In Jordano’s depiction, the great hall really was a waiting room, with black and white Detroiters caught in moments of calm and repose between trains. His image is testament to the loss of an era of grand architecture, where private commerce could sustain a public good and enrich the lives of all the citizens residents and travelers.

But Jordano’s photos also illustrate the loss of modest structures, ones that made no list of architectural achievements or corporate headquarters. This photo from 1973 nearly makes me weep to think of the careful tending and modest but forceful design intended in the building. The top image could come straight out of an exhibit in Kelo v. New London or mid-century urban renewal pamphlets.

And now we’ve got a semi parking lot or distribution center. Woo chain link.

Also, I must note that, despite the talk of the affordability and quality of digital cameras, Jordano’s rig (likely an expensive large format view camera) from 1973 vastly outstrips his new camera. A better lens, better resolution, and more masterful lighting make the black and white images simply better on nearly every count. They seem like fine art pieces, far more so than the well composed but lifeless digital equivalents.

Together, this pairing of images from 1973 — nearly the apex of postwar prosperity — with contemporary versions tells a story, a narrative of loss and unfulfilling rebirth in a new neoliberal framework, where old-line retailers and their buildings are replaced by the hostile headquarters of computer software companies, and ramshackle but dignified homes are bulldozed for Pepsi bottling plants. Here we really see the cost of deindustrialization and the limited gains for places like Detroit, not simply imagining what must have been there before the parking lots. Being confronted with this reality is, in fact, much worse than our imaginations could conjure.

Cincinnati Riverfront Daguerreotype

Cincinnati 1848

The Smithsonian twitter feed brought the Cincinnati riverfront daguerreotypes to my attention the other day. Above is part of one of the 8 images taken from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River in 1848.

I was surprised and annoyed to learn how good the resolution of daguerreotypes are. I say this because I have heard numerous presentations, read many articles and books, and visited several museum exhibits on photography, none of which ever made reference to the exceedingly high resolution of daguerreotypes. This fundamental chemical information must have escaped scads of scholars and curators (as it had me) who did not understand the basic chemical and mechanical processes of daguerreotypy. This is simply not acceptable for historians.

National Building Museum

National Building Museum

This image I took of the Great Hall of the National Building Museum last year was posted on Reddit and got a flood of views, so perhaps its worth a bit of explanation. This building, designed by Montgomery Meigs and based on the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, was formerly the federal Pension Office Building* and was constructed as a Civil War memorial. There is a frieze on the exterior wrapping around the whole building depicting the march of men to battle. It is just a gorgeous building in addition to housing a great museum and anyone in DC should take a visit. I had the good fortune to receive the Field Fellowship at the National Building Museum and worked doing research on campus planning and urban renewal in the DC area for part of the spring and summer.

*Former employees’ records were rolled up and wrapped with a piece of red fabric, so when anyone wanted to claim their federal pension, a bureaucrat would have to “cut through the red tape” to help someone make their claim. That red tape is now available for purchase in jewelry form from a National Archives vendor.

People-Powered Digital History

Wista DX II View Camera

A great example of the kind of democratic historical work drawing on knowledgeable amateurs that is increasingly possible with digital tools like wikis and web content management systems — Camera-wiki.org.

An old site, camerapedia (now on wikia), was the go-to place for information, images, manuals and whatnot about old cameras. When the founder sold the website, which relied on the knowledge of a broad community of users, that community declined to follow along and instead reconstituted itself under a new banner. The transitional efforts seem to have invigorated the whole community and enterprise.

What kinds of cameras do you have? I’ve got a Toyo 4×5 view camera, a Burke & James 4×5 [one of the kinds Weegee used], a Mamiya C220, a Zenit 35mm, a Kodak Hawkeye 2A, and a Holga.

Just for fun, here’s a Weegee image — Heatspell, 1938, depicting children sleeping on a fire escape during a New York City heat wave.

Heatspell 1938

Kodachrome: Over

Vanity Fair has the images from Steve McCurry’s last roll of Kodachrome off the presses, including this one.



Way back when I promised images of my own last roll of Kodachrome. It took me a while to get them shot and then developed, but eventually I did it.

Here’s an image from the get-together in Ann Arbor after my dissertation defense this summer. It does have a nice, smooth set of colors that are not too saturated.

Post-defense get-together

One more from a family get-together around July 4th in Kalamazoo. I little bit washed out, but it was good to have the family back in one spot, if only briefly.

The Winlings

Vivian Maier

Every image from street photographer Vivian Maier seems to improve on the last. 40 years of negatives — maybe 100,000, and we’ve only seen a handful from her. Walker Evans comes to mind, but I’d say Maier’s work is generally more personal and somewhat more sympathetic. Here’s a feature from CBS News. John Maloof has a blogspot site devoted to her work, as well. Warning: you could spend several hours on all of this.



It’s fascinating just to catch a glimpse every so often of a recognizable spot. This photo was taken in front of the Reliance Building,

which you can see in this HABS photo from the 1960s.

Reliance North -- HABS

Timothy O’Sullivan

Recently I went to a Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit on Timothy O’Sullivan, a photographer with several geological surveys of the west in the 1860s and 1870s. I was pretty excited about this because I have read about O’Sullivan’s work in Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs (badly reproduced in the paperback) and the Oxford History of Art book on American Photography. His medium was mostly silver albumen prints, which discolor somewhat, but they really are quite visually striking with very deep and rich tones. There were dozens of these prints in the galleries. As a bonus, there were quite a few stereoptic images, and the Smithsonian had blessedly put up two stereoptic viewers (kind of like a big, wooden, 3-D viewmaster from back in the day), and some of these images were done quite well, with foreground elements just about jumping out of the photo. O’Sullivan worked with the wet collodion process on glass plates, which necessitated a traveling darkroom during the surveys, one of which you see here. A glass plate was evenly covered with chemicals, soaked in a tub of other chemicals to make it all light sensitive, encased and put in the camera until the exposure, then developed. (more here) The photographer also worked for a short period for Matthew Brady of Civil War and NY/Washington studio fame. He died at 42 of tuberculosis.

In the exhibit I think everything was a print. No negatives. I love the detail, the precision of collodion glass plate exposures and prints, and seeing some more of those negatives would have been great.