Tracing the transformative path of photography at Hunt Library

Sergei Fedorjaczenko (left) conferred with Daniel Karp.

Patrick L. Sullivan

Tracing the transformative path of photography at Hunt Library

FALLS VILLAGE — Daniel Karp delivered an overview of the changes in photography prior to the reception for “From the Great Falls to the Hilltops: Early 20th Century Photography from the Falls Village-Canaan Historical Society” at the David M. Hunt Library Saturday, March 16.

Karp, who teaches photography at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, had an array of cameras and daguerreotypes, tintypes and other contraptions and ephemera with him.

“This is show and tell,” he said to the audience of some 35 people.

To begin, he produced a split back contact printing frame and inserted an 8- by 10-inch negative taken with the massive Deardorff view camera he had on an equally substantial tripod.

He then added a piece of photographic paper that is light sensitive but won’t get ruined immediately by exposure to sunlight, and is long out of production.

“Do you have a stash?” asked someone.

“I used to work for the company, so yes, I do,” Karp replied, fitting the arrangement together and taking it over and propping it up on a windowsill with good exposure.

After a brief tour through the origins of photography, starting in China circa the fifth century B.C.E. with the camera obscura, he came to the 19th century C.E. and two processes that emerged in 1839 and 1840, respectively: Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype, and William Henry Fox Talbot’s salt print.

Staying out of the technical weeds, the bottom line was this: the daguerreotype produced a unique image, “a one-off,” while Talbot’s invention made it possible to make “endless copies.”

The 1850s saw the invention of light-sensitive emulsions that could be put on glass slides or metal — the “tintype.” While still cumbersome by later standards, the technology was getting easier to use.

The big breakthrough was when Kodak introduced flex film in 1889, and the Brownie camera in 1900.

Karp said, now that photography was available to a mass market, people no longer needed to hire a professional photographer and sit for a portrait. They could create their own candid images.

Karp said the reason people look so serious in old studio photographs is two-fold: The slow shutter speeds required to get a usable image meant the subject had to sit very still, and for most people, the studio portrait would be the only image they ever sat for in their lives. Karp said studio photographers used a variety of devices such as head clamps to keep the objects still, and family portraits often have the adults in good focus, but the fidgety children are blurry.

A collection of vintage cameras.Patrick L. Sullivan

Cameras and materials continued to get smaller and easier to use. Karp showed the crowd the type of bellows camera that took a 4- by 5-inch negative beloved of press photographers in the early to mid-20th century, a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera that took a 2 ¼ inch square negative, and a couple of Polaroids, which delivered almost instant results.

Karp said today “billions of photographs are taken digitally — but where are they?”

Photos tend to be stored on devices, in the cloud, on external storage devices — but not in photo albums, with the negatives carefully tucked away in case someone wanted an extra print.

Karp finished up by fetching the contact print frame from the window. With a conjurer’s flourish, he revealed a perfectly decent image from the 8 by 10 negative and special paper.

He quoted author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Karp stuck around to answer questions as the reception for the historical photos kicked off with refreshments and music appropriate to the early 20th century.

On Saturday, March 23, at 3:30 p.m. at the library, Michele Majer will lead a fashion talk on early 20th century fashion as seen in the exhibition’s photographs. The main exhibit will be on display through May 3.

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