When was the last time you looked at any of those old, grainy, black and white photographs stuffed in the back of your grandmother’s closet? Maybe they’ve been lovingly preserved in scrapbooks or simply scattered in old shoe boxes. Where ever they have been stashed, pull them out and look into the faces of your ancestors. It doesn’t matter if names have been forgotten it only matters that you view the grainy faces of past lives.
Old pictures show us how life was during the Great Depression, the Roaring Twenties and the end of World War II. They give us a sense of growing up in a cowtown, or New York City or Chicago as the 1800’s morphed into the 1900’s. Cowpokes bringing in a herd, the first cars gouging rutted tracks in dirt roads as they moved across the country, a photo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before they left for Bolivia and their eventual deaths. A history of America we can see through the eyes of the photographer as they lived that moment in time.
The first known photograph was taken in France by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826. It was a view from his upstairs study of the courtyard outside his window. That photograph is preserved in a collection housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Niepce used a process called heliography (sun drawing) to etch an image of the courtyard onto a polished pewter plate that was coated with bitumen Judea which is an asphalt derivative of petroleum. It took 8 hours for the sun to burn an image onto Niepce’s pewter plate.
The first human photograph was of Robert Cornelius in 1839. Cornelius used a method called daguerreotype to photograph himself outside his family’s store in Philadelphia.
It would take 49 more years before George Eastman developed the first Kodak camera in 1888. The Kodak camera was the first one to be massed produced allowing everyday Americans an opportunity to record their lives in pictures. In the beginning, these cameras were preloaded with film for 100 exposures. The camera cost was $25.00 and it cost $10.00 to develop the roll of film. The entire camera was sent to the manufacturer where the film was developed, set up with a fresh roll of 100 exposures and returned to the owner.
Since that time, an unlimited number of photos have been left in boxes, scrapbooks or simply forgotten in out of the places. Photographs that show life in the nook and crannies of America. Famous people and ordinary people, times and faces lost from memories preserved in black and white.
Written history gives us a chronicle of important events that shaped our country. It tells us about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but pictures bring the Indian fights, stagecoach holdups and Custard’s Last Stand to life. We have a chance to witness an early version of a traffic jam as an old locomotive waits on the track, it’s smokestack puffing black smoke as buffalo slowly move off the tracks somewhere in the west. Photos of proud Indian chiefs in ceremonial head dress, a family lined up on the front step of their weather stained home that had been stripped of most of the paint and pictures of the earthquake and fire that destroyed San Fransisco in 1906. Seeing is believing, so it is said, and by gazing into the eyes of your great-great grandmother, you can see a family resemblance.
Cameras today are a far cry from Kodak’s first model. Today, we carry cellphones with cameras that are ready at a moment’s notice to record an event. Every important episode in our lives are recorded in pictures from our first bath to that last Christmas with Dad. A hundred years from now will our faces be remembered by name? As today’s photos are pulled out of nooks and crannies of the future, what will they see as our faces are searched while they wonder what life was like for us.
The Wonderful World of Photography, Neatorama.com
Exhibitions, Harry Ransom Center-The University of Texas at Austin
About His Life, Kodak