Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: Mobile Studios

As long as photography remained chained to any sort of wet plate process, photographers found themselves encumbered by massive hardships in order to “take the show on the road”. However, as transportation networks grew, architectural technology advanced, and people began exploring the world more, there was increasing demand for images of new lands and architectural feats.

Three types of travel photography began to emerge: amateur (where people took photos solely for their personal memories), official (where government entities hired photographers to document sites that had official meanings, and commercial (where professional photographers created images solely for the purposes of resale and profit).

Despite there being some advancements in smaller, handheld field cameras, many professionals had yet to adopt them for their travels. This was because exposures were still fairly long. The light sensitivities (ISO) of chemicals and papers still hadn’t advanced to where they were in the early 20th century. These smaller cameras weren’t as sturdy either.  They were often affected by wind when set up outdoors.

Dr. John Nicol, a Scottish photographer, wrote in the British Journal of Photography in 1887 about his experience photographing in the field: “I reached the railway station with a  cab load consisting of the following items: A 9 inch by 11 inch, brass bound camera weighing 21 pounds. A watertight glass bath in wooden case holding over 90 ounces of silver nitrate solution weighing 12 pounds. A plate box with a dozen 9 inch by 11 inch glass plates weighing almost as many pounds. A box, 24 inches by 18 inches by 12 inches into which were packed lenses, chemicals, and all the hundred and one articles (scale, measures, funnels, trays, fixer, and a pail for water) necessary for a hard day’s work weighing something like 28 pounds. The advent of folding tripods had not come (circa 1857) and so I had perforce to encumber myself with one that when closed looked like an Alpine-stock over 5 feet in length. It weighed about 5 pounds. Lastly there was the tent, that made a most convenient darkroom, about 40 inches by 40 inches and 6.5 feet high, with ample table accommodation; the whole packed into a leather case and weighed over 40 pounds…we did not care to walk far.”

I’m tired even just typing that quote! That’s nearly 125 pounds of gear photographers had to haul about. It’s easy to see why they usually got less than a dozen frames on a good day. I think about my current wedding pack (somewhere around 40 pounds) and how I come back with thousands of exposures in a day. I can’t help but so clearly see how far photography has come.

In addition to the physical burden of the weight, there were other logistical issues about where a photograph could be made. If you were the photographer and didn’t haul in your own water (even MORE weight, ugh!) you had to make sure you pitched the travel tent close to a water source, limiting where you could shoot. If you did haul your own water, you had to ensure your vantage point was close to an area that you could put the tent, because once you coated your plate in the darkroom, er, I mean “dark tent,” it rapidly lost sensitivity as it dried. You wouldn’t want to have the tent and the camera more than a quick sprint apart from each other. There goes exposing on any sort of terrain other than stable, flat ground!

I’m glad photography has advanced from these hardships. That’s not to say that there aren’t wildlife, travel, adventure, sports and other photographers out there who go through amazing feats, spending hours in swamps or climbing perilous mountains for just the right shot, but the difference is they have the flexibility to choose tough vantge points! We’re no longer forced into an extremely laborious process like our predecessors of the 1800’s. The next time I pack my gear for a photo hike in the mountains I’m going to remember how lucky we all are today!

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