How Was Photography Employed In The Growth Of Transit And Migration To The American West?

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During the mid-nineteenth century, American commentators pronounced that new technological innovations in transportation and communications represented nothing less than the “anything of space and time.” On steamships and railroads, travelers could at present cantankerous vast distances in days rather than weeks. With the telegraph, Americans could communicate across the continent with astounding speed. Though rarely mentioned in the same breath, the new medium of photography similarly transformed American life: it brought the distant near. With photographs, Americans could become familiar with far-off places. Because photography allowed a glimpse of the by in new and utterly novel ways, information technology altered the perception of familiar places and things. Of a sudden, one could motion away from home but preserve a photograph of a birthplace, study the likeness of a dead relative, or encounter what a parent had looked like every bit a child. Photography let Americans feel a more immediate connection to people and places removed by geographical distance and fourth dimension.

Photography came to the The states in the autumn of 1839, when word arrived from France of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’due south marvelous invention, past which nature herself seemed to inscribe her own image on a sensitized canvass of silverish-plated copper. Men of science embraced the new engineering science and quickly improved upon the procedure, reducing exposure time then that the camera could capture non simply immobile buildings, merely portraits of human subjects. And indeed, more than 95 per centum of American daguerreotypes—the prevailing form of photography in this land from 1839 until the late 1850s—were portraits. Since the daguerreotype process did not involve a negative, each daguerreotype was a unique image (much like an instant camera or Polaroid motion picture). The daguerreotype’s singularity, coupled with its small size and distinctive surface glare, made it inherently sick-suited to become a medium of mass communication or a tool for the documentation of places and events. But it served beautifully as a new, more democratic course of portraiture. In 1853, at the peak of the daguerreotype’due south popularity, Americans produced some three million daguerreotypes. Photographic portraits had become commonplace objects of heart-class life.

Photographic technologies evolved rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, each new advance allowing photography to be put to new uses. In 1856, the development of a method for making tintypes, unique images on cheap metal plates, brought down the price of photographs and resulted in a sturdy sort of prototype that could exist shipped through the post. More significantly, the increasing use of the “wet-plate” negative process in the belatedly 1850s gave photographers a manner to make drinking glass negatives from which they could print a theoretically unlimited number of positive prints on paper. This process made it more than profitable for photographers to venture far from home to brand a photographic epitome. From a unmarried negative of Yosemite or a Ceremonious War battlefield, a cameraman could brand a groovy many prints to sell to the general public. Nonetheless, the wet-plate negative process remained slow and wearisome, requiring photographers to sensitize their glass plates immediately before exposure. Not until the emergence of a dry-plate technology in the early 1880s did large numbers of apprentice photographers enter the field. With the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888, photography became a truly popular pastime. Lured by the slogan, “You push the button and nosotros’ll practice the balance,” consumers flocked to George Eastman’s camera with the flexible roll of film.

Photography captured many of the signal scenes of American life beginning in 1840, such as the Gold Blitz, the explosive growth of San Francisco, the construction of the transcontinental railroads, the plantations of the antebellum South, and the bloody battlefields of the Civil State of war. Photographers documented the growth of the E’s great urban centers and the exploration of the Rocky Mountain West, and recorded the faces of presidents and soldiers, actors and immigrants. Merely photographs did non simply capture neutral records of these people, places, and things; they helped inscribe them with meaning. Often distributed in albums or in sets with descriptive titles or explanatory captions, photographs could weave complicated narratives about their subjects. The photographs of the West published by the federal surveying teams in the 1860s and 1870s, for example, helped contend for the beneficence of westward expansion. The Civil War photographs in Alexander Gardner’due south
Photographic Sketch Book
reiterated the righteousness of the Marriage crusade. The many portraits of western Indians published in the 1870s and 1880s subtly endorsed the idea of a vanishing race.

Near historians (and the textbooks they write) use photographs primarily as
illustrations, to reiterate ideas developed from the analysis of literary testify. Merely nosotros ought to be mindful of photographs not but as
images, but as primary source
in and of themselves. To practise justice to nineteenth-century photographs and explore their rich potential as historical sources, we need to enquire questions well-nigh the photographers, well-nigh the photographs as physical objects, and about the ways in which we run into them across the divide of historical time.

Photographs, like literary documents, are not to be taken at confront value. Despite their seeming realism, they are actually constructions of the human imagination, made by individuals with particular cultural or economic ambitions. Like a memoir or a letter of the alphabet, a photograph may depict events, just it does so through the lens of the recorder’s own experience. No photograph tin fully convey the complication of a single unfolding result or the feel of being in a particular place. It necessarily reflects the photographer’s choices nigh what to photograph and when. Why, we must inquire, did a photographer make a particular image, and for whom? Who paid for the film? How did the available engineering science shape or limit what the photographer could produce? Equally observers with particular political, social, and moral perspectives, photographers inevitably assess and judge what they run into. Their work is no more to be embraced uncritically than the work of letter of the alphabet writers, memoirists, or journalists.

The concrete form of the prototype, as much every bit its content, tin exist useful to historians, conveying information about the moving-picture show’s probable audience and intended uses. The digitized versions of photographs that float effectually the Internet today mute the distinctive features of the originals. Only but as a personal letter differs in important ways from other literary documents such as paper articles or government papers, so too do unlike kinds of photographs. A 1-of-a-kind daguerreotype portrait likely stayed in the family unit that paid for information technology. A stereographic view of Yellowstone would have been widely reproduced and sold for a modest cost. A palatial album of Civil State of war views would have been produced in small numbers, marketed at considerable cost, and seen by relatively few.

Information technology is useful to think of photographs as primary source documents that we can encounter
history and
history. To consider the photograph
history, nosotros must ask nearly the circumstances of its making, the lensman’s intent, the public function of the motion picture, and the ways in which gimmicky audiences understood it. Reinserted into the world of its product, the photograph becomes more than the visual record of a material fact. It becomes a tool for understanding larger issues well-nigh patronage, civic boosterism, and national values. To consider the photograph
history, however, without the ties that once bound it to a item historical moment, we need to requite attention to the picture’s fate across time. We can learn something by asking why one moving-picture show got relegated to the attic while another appeared as a mag illustration, why one anthology got preserved in an annal while another got broken apart and sold. And we must always exist aware of how our ain experiences brand information technology impossible for usa to empathize nineteenth-century photographs precisely as their original viewers did. For one thing, we know what comes next. To put the signal in a modern context, we might debate that it is impossible to run into a 1995 photo of the New York City skyline precisely as a viewer did so, considering we cannot erase from our memory the knowledge that those twin towers will meet a tragic end.

Photographs spark the historic imagination. They give us a powerful manner to visualize the past, with all of its startling similarities and unexpected differences, and they inevitably spark our human being empathy. To gaze into the optics of a sitter who sat before a camera 150 years ago is to recognize the man bonds that connect the states to our predecessors. That empathy for the past lies at the heart of every historical inquiry.

Martha A. Sandweiss

is professor of history at Princeton University and the author of
Passing Strange: A Golden Age Tale of Love and Deception across the Color Line
(2009) and
Print the Fable: Photography and the American Westward


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