Because I've always felt a wonder at old photographs not easy to explain. Maybe I don't need to explain; maybe you'll recognize what I mean. I mean the sense of wonder, staring at the strange clothes and vanished backgrounds, at knowing that what you're seeing was once real. That light really did reflect into a lens from these lost faces and objects. That these people were really there once, smiling into a camera. You could have walked into the scene then, touched those people, and spoken to them. You could actually have gone into that strange outmoded old building and seen what now you never can - what was just inside the door.

The wonder is even stronger with old stereoscopic views - the almost, but not quite, identical pair of photographs mounted side by side on stiff cardboard, that, looked at through the viewer, give a miraculous effect of depth. It's never been a mystery to me why the whole country was once crazy about them. Because the good ones, the really clear sharp photographs, are so real: Insert a view, slide it into focus, and the old scene leaps out at you, astonishingly three-dimensional. And then, for me, the awe becomes intense. Because now you really see the arrested moment, so actual it seems that if you watch intently, the life caught here must continue. That the raised horse's hoof so startlingly distinct in the foreground must move down to the solidness of pavement below it again; those carriage wheels revolve, the girl walk closer, the man move on out of the scene. The feeling that the tantalizing reality of the vanished moment might somehow be seized - that if you watch long enough you might detect that first nearly imperceptible movement - is the answer to the question Kate has asked me more than once: "How can you sit there so long--you hardly move! - staring endlessly at the very same picture?"

13 December, 2010

Lands End, Cornwall in 1875

Click to enlarge
The scan above is taken from a CDV (carte de visite) by Francis Frith, showing Lands End in Cornwall, UK. Written in pen on the back of the photo is the date 25th August 1875. I particularly like the soft focus effect of the sea which was presumably caused by a long exposure. This is an effect which I have seen recreated in several modern photographs, and it is much more tricky to achieve today.
More early photographs of Lands End can be viewed on the Francis Frith website by clicking here.

Read more about Francis Frith on Wikipedia here.

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