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The world according to Steichen

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Photography in the United States was a popular hobby during the late 19th century, both the taking of photographs and making improvements in the mechanics and chemistry involved. A quick review of the Patent Gazette during the 1890s reveals dozens, if not hundreds, of inventions in each of those technical areas, patents held by corporations like Kodak but also by amateur photographers across the nation, in large cities and small.

A few of the people mentioned incidentally in this blog were amateur photographers. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, can be see in an 1890s photograph, sitting on the steps of his Oak Park, Forest Avenue home (with wife, children, mother and others) holding the actual bulb used to release the shutter. This wasn’t the world’s first “selfie” but long before it was done by a Kardashian.

Improvements in film and photographic technology have shown up in other highly unlikely situations during my research for this and other projects. Hannibal Goodwin was an Episcopal priest who served the House of Prayer, a Newark, New Jersey parish. Curiously — and in the sense of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon — Father Goodwin was joined there about 1875 by an assistant priest named B. F. Cooley; within seven years, Father Cooley relocated to Fargo, Dakota Territory and then (in an entirely fictional detour) a six-month sojourn at Agincourt, Iowa. Hannibal Goodwin’s name also comes up in a very different context in 1887: he filed a patent covering improvement in the manufacture of roll film, a patent not issued until 1898, by which time George Eastman had trumped his invention.

The complex web of history connects Hannibal Goodwin with another research interest of mine: architect William Halsey Wood. Wood was a long-time congregant at the House of Prayer, where he also served as choir director at a time when his path might also have crossed Father Cooley’s. The real Halsey Wood is woven into the Agincourt narrative in multiple ways: 1) he was the fictional architect of the 1889 Fennimore county courthouse (which was actually designed by me); 2) he designed a real house in East Orange (for client C. S. French), a design published in the Scientific American Architect’s & Builders Supplement which inspired an eighteen-year-old Anson Tennant to make a doll house for his youngest sister as a Christmas gift; and, finally, Wood was also the real architect of a church visited by the fictional Anson Tennant in 1912, which resulted in the manufacture of “William Halsey Wood Blox”, patented (fictionally) by Tennant shortly before he sailed to Europe on the Lusitania. [Have I lost you yet?] What you probably don’t know is that Halsey Wood’s father-in-law — Alexander Hemsley — was also a photographer who had photographed Wood’s new Newark home “Winmarleigh” for an 1897 article in The House Beautiful. Hemsley died in a freak industrial accident in 1904 as he worked on an improved formula for photographic flash powder — blowing himself to smithereens.

Really, I don’t make this stuff up. Well, O.K., some of it is fiction but you have to admit it’s fascinating.

[You might know I couldn’t avoid the “death by flash powder” story. It became the inspiration for the tale of an amateur Agincourt photographer whose death by chemical explosion might have been accidental — but it might also have been engineered by the photographer’s wife, who wanted a divorce but didn’t want to lose her “assets.”]

The point here — and you knew I’d eventually get to it — is photography as a means of recording (our times, ourselves) but also as a means of creative expression, an art form.

The Photo-Secession

Between 1902 and 1910 a photographic movement coalesced around the idea that the camera could be a tool for artistic expression. Its leaders included Edward Stieglitz and Edward Steichen [two photographers I habitually confuse] who also published Camera Work, a quarterly to promote its photographic point of view. The Photo-Secessionists operated a gallery in Manhattan, but they influenced photographers, amateur and professional, across America. And that influence could (would?) have been felt in communities the size of Agincourt.

I’m not a photographer. Self-deferentially, I often say “I don’t take photographs; I take pictures.” But one thing I’m pleased to note a decline in digital photography — I never liked those damned pixels anyway — and a purported renaissance in old-school darkroom methods, the very methods Photo-Secessionists used to pursue “Pictorialism, or techniques of manipulating negatives and prints so as to approximate the effects of drawings, etchings, and oil paintings.” Could someone in Agincourt have taken this photo-secession-esque photograph of Gnostic Grove?

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Did Agincourt have a photography club? Did its members exhibit their work for public appreciation? An how might one of those photographers have manipulated this image of the Chautauqua tent at the Fennimore County Fairgrounds?

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