Thursday, November 18, 2010

Say, "Fromage!"

As we pack for the trip to Pittsburgh for the annual Thanksgiving family reunion, one of the rituals I go through is the thorough inspection and preparation of my camera equipment. The battery packs must be charged, the 4GB memory card emptied and properly formatted, the flash and external power pack loaded with new batteries, and the wide-angle lens packed for those memorable after-the-Thanksgiving-dinner pictures, ha, ha.

Yes, I'm a photo junkie. I love photography, and I like to think I'm pretty good at it. But that's the joy of digital photography: you can take hundreds and hundreds of pictures, delete the ones that are yucky, and only show the great ones ... whereupon everyone will think you're the next Ansel Adams or Anne Geddes.

But all of us photographers ought to mark today on our calendars, for today is the anniversary of the birth in 1789 of Louis Daguerre - one of the early inventors of the art and science of photography.

Mr Daguerre started his career as a theater designer, creating stage illusions through the use of hand-painted translucent screens and elaborate lighting effects. In 1829, he learned about a new technology that made it possible to use light to capture an image on a metal plate, though the quality of the image was poor. Mr Daguerre experimented with ways to improve the process, and eventually came up with a combination of copper plate coated with silver salts that could be developed with the application of mercury vapor and table salt. He tested his process by making a series of images of the Louvre, Notre Dame, and other Paris landmarks. The process was cumbersome and time-consuming, with the camera needing about 15 minutes of steady exposure time to fix an image on the plate ... as a result, most of Daguerre's early pictures don't show any people. The only one of his early efforts that actually shows a person is a Parisian street scene that shows a man in the foreground who has stopped to shine his shoes; in addition to having nicely polished shoes, this unknown gentleman has the distinction of being the first human being ever caught on film ... you can see him in the lower left corner of the picture (click on it for a larger, easier-to-see image) ...

Louis Daguerre announced his invention in 1839, and the images he produced became known as daguerreotypes - quaint, gray-shaded images that today look hopelessly archaic, but which in the mid-1800's were the very cutting edge of ultramodern photo technology.

Somewhat later, my father made a career of professional advertising photography after graduating from art school, and can tell many wonderful stories of the trials and tribulations of finding impossible props, designing complex sets, and working with models both human and animal to get just the right shot - things that are much easier today, when we can take dozens of digital pictures quickly and create polished images with Photoshop and other software that often took him hours or days to get to the customer's satisfaction. He also served as an aerial combat photographer during World War II, flying harrowing missions over Europe while lying on the floor of a B-24 bomber to capture images of bomb damage. Dad lost his front teeth on one mission when the gunner in the top turret of the aircraft panicked and dropped out of the turret, landing on the back of Dad's head as he lay on the floor over his cameras. I suppose that qualifies as suffering for your art.

My photography, of course, is far simpler. I can, if I choose (and I usually do, being lazy), just set the camera switch to automatic and let a computer calculate all the exposure settings and shutter speeds. It's almost embarrassing to be able so easily to take wonderful photos that Louis Daguerre and my father worked so hard to craft. And there are other side effects as well - the nice tans that my grandchildren have are not the result of exposure to the sun, but to endless photographic flashes. They were probably at least a year old before they realized that there was a face on top of my neck, and not just a black box that emitted bright flashes.

We've come a long way from the days of Louis Daguerre and his cumbersome equipment, and from the days when Dad spent hours in darkrooms loading film cartridges and ruining his hands in baths of chemical developers and fixers as he coaxed images from the silver trapped in his film. I appreciate the work and artistry invested in the craft by men like Mr Daguerre and my father ...

... but I still like that automatic setting on my trusty Canon Digital Rebel.

Have a good day. Take lots of pictures. More thoughts coming.


P.S. - since we'll be in Pittsburgh and preoccupied with the family reunion and the Spoiling of the Grandchildren for the next few days, my posts may be late or spotty. Deal with it. The schedule will return to normal on Monday.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

Enjoy your trip..are you doing light up night? It is this weekend.

KathyA said...

At least they acquired their tans without exposure to harmful rays.

And having an Opa without a head may require some therapy. I'd watch for signs...

Have a wonderful reunion. Take lots of photos!

Mike said...

"application of mercury vapor and table salt"

Did his art work go mega-impressionist at the end?