Sunday, July 27, 2014

Industry and Exploration: Travel and War in the Mid-19th Century

This winter I started posting about photography and how it relates to understanding/portraying history, because this is a topic I find particularly interesting. My first post was an introduction to 19th century photographic processes and the ways in which they were used. Today I'm continuing that theme, but we're adding some new inventions to the mix!

At the same time the daguerreotype was probably the most popular form of photographic development, a different process was also making its way onto the scene. Invented by Frederick Scott Archer, the "wet-collodion" process in the late 1840s. Known as wet-plate photography, the wet-collodion process produced a clear, noiseless image with a much shorter required exposure time than any of the currently popular processes. Wet-plate images could also be copied an infinite number of times from a single negative. This made producing images for publication a possibility, and the shorter exposure time made wet-collodion the best option for candids and outdoor shots. 

"Head of the Harbor," Balaclava, Russia c.1855 by Roger Fenton
 The downside of the wet-collodion process was that it required the image to be developed almost immediately (i.e., while the exposure plate was still wet), or the integrity of the image would be greatly compromised. As a result, in order to shoot wet-plate photographs, photographers needed to travel with a portable dark room.

photographer with his hand-made development tent for wet-collodion processing, c.1850s, via The JDL site
Still, wet-plate photography helped to start the "golden age of travel photography" [1] in the second half of the 19th century. These images gave everyday people, who could not afford to travel across the globe, a window into distant corners of the world.

Pompeii, via the Princeton archives
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, c.1870s via Pomona archives
from the travels of J. Buxton, location unknown, via the Fleming Museum of Art
tomb near Shanghai, c.1869-98, via The Daily Mail
Faster, reproducible images were also perfect for another purpose: capturing the realities of war. Roger Fenton, who traveled to Russia in the 1850s, used wet-collodion processing and a specially-designed mobile darkroom to photograph the Crimean War. His images are a mix of fascinating and exotic uniforms, the generic chores of camp life, and the grim, stark realities of battle casualties. For the first time, people at home in England saw glimpses of battle, in shockingly realistic candid photographs from the field.

Injured zouave, Crimea, 1855
These images of battles and peoples in distant places were certainly new and stark and fascinating, but they had a sort of space guaranteed by the utter otherness of their subjects. In contrast, the photographs taken during the American Civil War were both honest in their portrayal of battle, but also brutal in their closeness.

Before the war, Mathew Brady had a photography studio in New York, and in the late 1850s was working with his partner Alexander Gardner to specialize in life-size portraits using enlargement techniques that were a cutting edge area of wet-plate photography. "Brady saw himself as a pictorial historian," and so when war broke out on home soil, Brady undertook to document it.

Engineer camp, 8th NY State Militia, c.1860-65 via the National Archives
Brady took--and exhibited at his gallery--graphic images of the war's front lines. As the war grew, so did Brady's coverage: at times he had up to 20 photographers in the field. The production of clear images, taken quickly with "the never-failing tube," that were reproducible for dissemination among the American public was a direct result of Brady's use of the wet-collodion process.

Chaplain conducting mass for the 69th New York State Militia encamped at Fort Corcoran, DC, 1861
casualties from the Battle of Antietam
Camp Northumberland, c.1860-65

[1] Global Views, 19th century travel photography in the Princeton Archives
[2] Lewinski, Jorge (1986). The Camera At War: War Photography for 1848 to the Present Day

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Commemorating A Centennial

This past weekend, The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers held a World War I ball to commemorate the centennial of the start of the first world war. It was a truly lovely evening, with wonderful people who were enthusiastic dancers (the floor was never empty!), rousing music, and yummy refreshments. The ball also provided a great opportunity to make some changes to the dress I made for a 1914 performance earlier this spring.

When I first threw the dress together, I ended up getting some bits wrong--namely, the brocade draping on the bust and the waist seam. I meant for the whole side bodice to be covered in green, but ended up cutting too far over and exposing a lot of the white, and then stitching the waist too high so that the dress ended up being quite the contortionist act to get on and off. This is what happens when you sew at 4am, I suppose...

But the lucky thing about draping is that I didn't actually cut the bodice piece as I was sewing it down--I just folded the extra corner underneath. Which meant that once I ripped out all the stitches, there was enough of the piece to extend around the bodice to where I'd originally wanted the draping to go. I also re-did the opening on the waist so that it no longer requires dislocating both shoulders to change. There are still some little changes I want to make (like tacking on the bronze waistband), but for the most part this is now done in a way I'm happy with. Hooray!

examining the roses
the re-draped over bodice

 I wanted to try something new with my hair, so I drew inspiration from some of the 1914 cone-shaped styles.

wedding hairstyles, 1914
la coiffure francaise, 1914
a write-up of dance dresses, 1914
 I achieved the look mainly with my own hair, but I padded out the crown with a couple of rats to give it a more distinct cone shape. The decoration was some gold lace from the stash.

It was such a lovely evening that I didn't take many pictures because I was too busy dancing...but here are a few!

animal dances were all the rage in the 1910s, but I don't think the "penguin" was one of them...

I couldn't resist including the fabulous frozen fruit/ice cube!

a "paul jones" mixer, where partners are changed throughout the dance at the sound of a whistle

Monday, July 14, 2014

Inner Monologue: Dressed for Dinner

I don't talk about the modern(ish) clothes I wear day to day, because that's not really what this blog is for. But recently my family took our first trip together in several years to visit my grandparents in Florida. As part of the adventure, we also went on a 4-day cruise. Well, it happens that nautical-themed clothing is a summer staple of mine, and possibly my favorite part of my modern summer wardrobe. (I would say my overall modern wardrobe, but my batman and other superhero items might take the sailor suits on.)

When my mom told me what the plan was, I told her I would have a sailor outfit for every day on the boat.

I'm pretty sure this challenge provided some entertainment to my family, who were super helpful and took pictures of all of my outfits. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't great (I don't think I recommend taking a cruise during a tropical storm-turning-hurricane), so these are mostly interior shots. But my self-imposed nautical challenge was too silly and fun not to share!

Day 1
embarking! sailor blouse, denim sailor shorts, striped jacket, and straw cloche

casual dinner: button-down sailor dress c.1980s (shoulder pads removed)
Day 2

formal dinner: white sailor dress, pearls, and red patent pumps
Day 3
we tried to go swimming, but it poured! denim sailor shorts and anchor-printed crop top over my bathing suit

on the (hurricane windy) deck after casual dinner in a navy and white belted dress
 Day 4

I didn't get an outfit picture! But we did take a picture with out waiter team in the dinner room, so you can at least see the bodice of this sailor dress

I hope you enjoyed this snapshot into my slightly silly modern closet. If you have questions about the origin of any of these pieces, feel free to ask!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A New Cotton Bodice for Summer

Ok, confession time: I lied. I said I didn't have enough time to make a new ballgown bodice for my cotton 1860s dress, and that I wasn't going to do it.

...but then I did. The truth is, when I was writing my post about day and evening bodices I started to feel kind of sad about not having the bodice or being able to wear my cotton dress (it also happened to be really hot, and the thought of sweating into my silk was unappealing). So I put down my laptop and dragged out the fabric!

The bodice isn't perfect--it was made in a hurry, after all--but in general I'm pretty happy with it. I was especially happy to have something cool to wear to dance in! Hooray! As a bonus, I found some purple tassel trim in my stash when I dug out the leftover fabric from last summer. So I even had trim!

the dress in action (thanks Quinn for thinking to steal my camera!)

at the war memorial in the building, thus the serious face...while it was technically for 20th century wars, I think the line "liberty and union now and forever" works for Civil War remembrances too
There ended up being four girls in cotton ballgowns! Three of us were in alternate evening bodices for the day dresses we made last summer, while the fourth made an alternate evening bodice to match the underskirt of a different outfit. So everyone was in convertible cotton, and that was pretty neat.

four girls in cotton
We'll be wearing the day bodice version of these dresses again at George's Island again in a few weeks. If you're in the Boston area, please come and say hello! You may even be asked to jump in on some of the dancing.


Sometimes taking serious, pretty pictures is difficult. It takes a lot of arranging...

much fussing
...and sometimes we're just silly.

zombie girls!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Speed Graphic by Graphlex and my DSLR Mod

I knew I wanted to live up to my role of war correspondent for the WWII Weekend in Reading, but I also didn't want to carry around a modern camera all weekend. My compromise was to use period camera, but modify it to house my modern camera.

my speed graphic with a DSLR inside--please pardon the blurry cell phone pick! My camera was occupied...
I settled on the Speed Graphic, a large-format camera manufactured by Graphlex in Rochester, NY. The Speed Graphic was originally designed specifically for press photographers in the early 20th century, and were produced into the 1970s. The Anniversary Speed Graphic was released during the 1940s, and was the most popular press camera model used during WWII (although there were several others in use). Given its iconic nature, it was a perfect camera for me to carry at the event.

Karen Hermeston, a Canadian combat camerawoman, shooting with an Anniversary Speed Graphic
The Speed Graphics were large format cameras; in particular the anniversary model (which from now on is what I mean when I say "speed graphic") was a 4x5 format. This means that the images were a larger size and the film was individual sheets (rather than a roll), which requires a lot of between-shots work, but gives a ton of control.

anatomy of an Anniversary Speed Graphic
As a camera for shooting action, the Speed Graphic had pretty good range: 24 shutter speeds up to 1/1000. (1/1000 is a fast shutter speed, and the faster the speed the less blurry objects in motion will look.) And while being a mostly-metal camera, it's not unmanageable in terms of weight (although it's still heavy!).  In fact, I shot in about that range with my modern camera at the event.

Photographer Toni Frissell, who volunteered as a photographer for the American Red Cross holding a Speed Graphic
The main body of the Speed Graphic is mostly bellows, with a metal track to roll the bellows in our out. The lens sits in the lens card (about a 4 inch square) at the front of the bellows, and there is an attachment at the top of the camera to see your shot. On one side of the outer body is a handle (super useful!), and the other has a flash mount. This model of Speed Graphic came with one of two backs: either a "Graphlex" or "Graphic"; mine has a "Graphic" back, which has a spring-loaded film area.

the Graphic back, opened
I shoot with a Canon "Rebel" T3i DSLR (commonly referred to as "the baby"), which is the camera I wanted to use for the Reading WWII weekend. In order to disguise it as an Anniversary Speed Graphic, I had some configuring to do.

"the baby"
I mentioned that the Speed Graphic is mostly bellow--this means that while the body looks roomy, it's actually filled with the bellows support framework and 4 metal bars for the back of the film area at the very back. So rather than being able to just slide my DSLR right on into the Speed Graphic body, I had to fit it to the back with the lens sticking through the bellows, and half the body hanging out the back. This meant I couldn't reattach the back flat to the camera body.

With the back removed
After the film backing is cut away
 [Disclaimer: almost everything I did to my Speed Graphic is reversible, but not everything. That's why I made sure to start with a no longer working camera.]

In order to hold the camera in place (without damaging anything), I used velcro strips wound through the interior bars of the Speed Graphic. That way I could remove my DSLR whenever I wanted/needed to, but it would be secure and held firmly in place while inside. To protect the body of my Canon, I layered cotton quilt batting inside the Speed Graphic (which is the fuzzy white stuff in the pictures).
Testing the view while inside the Speed Graphic

Padded and strapped in
Of course, this meant that I still had most of my DLSR body hanging out the back of Speed Graphic, and the whole thing looked pretty ugly.
Holding up the original camera back to where it needed to sit--there's a big DSLR-shaped gap
To fill this gap, I decided to build an extension to the Speed Graphic body. In the end, this made the setup about 5 inches longer than the original camera...but from far away (or even fairly close) it wasn't super noticeable, and I decided that was good enough. I built the extension out of foam board (think science fair presentations) and hot glue, with two openings in the top and bottom to weave the velcro straps through. This meant that everything was attached together, and pretty solid without damaging the DSLR. I also left a small gap in the frame to thread the cord for my remote shutter (which is how I actually took pictures).

the frame
I covered the frame in textured black scrapbooking paper before sponging it with mod poge glossy sealer. This allowed me to mimic the texture of the actual Speed Graphic body so the two looked slightly more cohesive. I attached the original back to this frame extension, and voila! I sneaky Speed Graphic "home" for my DSLR!
the finished contraption, with the DSLR viewfinder and screen through the opened Graphic back
The one majorly inaccurate piece was that I actually shot by looking through the opened camera back, rather than through the actual Speed Graphic viewfinder. It was the best compromise I could come up with...oh well.
My inaccurate shooting form
Putting the monster together was a little tricky, because while I strapped everything into place I needed to periodically check what was visible through the DSLR so that I could make sure the lens wasn't obstructed. (Actually, I didn't figure the process out until the second day of the event, which is why I most of my pictures from the first day didn't quite come out.) The extension also had a tendency to slide around while I was out and about, allowing the batting to poke through. Still, it was a key part of my impression for the weekend, and I had a blast shooting with it! While I want to make some adjustments, this is definitely a prop that will be coming out again.

BONUS! Someone sent me this image, found on Flikr, of me holding the baby in its Speed Graphic shell. Image from Richard Borutta