I had a new portrait taken this week. I like the photos I’ve been using, but they are ten years old and I felt like a liar when I looked at them. So, now you can see the truth.
The whole experience got me thinking about cameras and photographs. With photo apps on cell phones our age is awash in pictures. What we eat, where we travel, who we meet, our pets, our children, our messy kitchens — all show up in a photo and posted to social media for all the world to see.
It was not always so. Many indigenous people, including those in Canada, believed that if someone took your picture, he stole your soul. I use that bit of lore In my book Her One and Only.
I’ve been studying photography and cameras for my work-in-progress since the heroine is a photographer in the late nineteenth century. I grew up with the notion that “the camera never lies.” Nowadays we know the camera lies all the time. Photoshop has put editing tools in the hands of everyone who owns a computer, but I’ve learned that from the beginning, the camera “lied.” Hannah Maynard, a famous photographer in Victoria, B.C. created many odd effects by cutting up her photos, rearranging them and then photographing the results. Thus she was able to create a picture of herself having tea with herself in the guise of five guests. She also created what she called “gems.” These were faces of children cut out and rearranged so that they formed fantastical shapes, like a fountain or a house plant .
While Hannah Maynard was experimenting with photographic effects in Victoria, George Eastman was experimenting with the technology of cameras in New York. By 1885 he had developed a box camera loaded with enough film for 100 photos. Previously, images were captured on glass plates making photography cumbersome and awkward. Eastman’s “Kodak” camera used thin celluloid film and a fast shutter speed allowing the user to hold the camera in her hand rather than setting it on a tripod. Photography as a hobby burgeoned. Women especially were caught up in the new vogue.
Once the one hundred photos were taken the whole camera was shipped back to New York where the Kodak company unpacked the film, developed it, reloaded the camera for 100 more pictures and returned the whole lot to the customer. In our day of instant everything, it’s hard to believe such a cumbersome process was considered the height of convenience!