July 30, 2015
Deadwood Photographer Keeps 19th Century Process Alive
By JACI CONRAD
Black Hills Pioneer
Deadwood, SD (AP) A sort of prehistoric photographer, his is a dying art keeping the distinct look of photography alive. A rare treat and chance to see photographic history come to life, David Rambow showcased his tripod -- and traveling-darkroom-based shooting tools by presenting ``An 1870s Frontier Photographer Visits Deadwood’’ during Deadwood’s Stagecoach Days, giving a sneak peek behind the lens of America’s earliest paparazzi.
``There were 10,000 photographers at the start of the Civil War, using this process, with traveling dark rooms like this one,’’ Rambow said. ``(From) 1861 to 1881, this was the way to do it.’’
Rambow, from Pipestone, Minnesota, is among a handful of people in the United States who regularly use the authentic wet plate photographic technique to produce art ambrotypes and tintypes using original chemical formulas, authentic cameras, and equipment used in the 1860s to 1880s, the Black Hills Pioneer (http://bit.ly/1flLq1q ) reported.
A time-consuming process with an exposure time of around 20 seconds and an entire turn-around time of between five and 10 minutes from exposure to development, wet plate photography makes today’s cell-phone-generated selfies seem instantaneous.
``Wet plate means it has to be wet to be light sensitive and viable as film,’’ Rambow said. ``And you have to make one plate for each photograph. It was a very slow, deliberate process. Back then, there was no such thing as candid or motion photography.’’
But the precise, pristine process doesn’t faze Rambow whatsoever. In fact, for him, it is the subject of much musing.
A 19th century photographer taking his own photo
``That’s what I love about this, is you have to slow down, you have to really think about what you’re doing and your subjects have to slow down too,’’ Rambow said, explaining that in some old photographs using this technique, you can actually see the steel tripod at the feet and behind the neck, used to stabilize subjects so their photos wouldn’t blur.
Rambow regularly demonstrates the making of film using glass or metal plates, then exposes and process photographs on-site using this nearly lost photographic technique. His wet plate photography work has even made it to the big screen, with on-screen examples of tintype photography being developed for the movies ``True Grit,’’ ``Cowboys and Aliens,’’ ``Sweetwater,’’ and ``A Million Ways to Die in the West.’’
Rambow said that when early photographers using this technique came to Deadwood, they were an accidental lot of historians.
``A lot of them were itinerant, just looking for money,’’ Rambow said. ``They weren’t trying to keep history, but despite themselves, they did, just trying to make a living, forever enshrining battles, places and people . we’re so indebted to these early photographers who went out, against all odds, and got the job done.’’
Rambow said the earliest cameras could cost several months’ worth of wages.
``A camera and dark room of this sort could cost $50 to $60 dollars the time, so when you’re making $10 to $13 a month, that’s quite an investment,’’ he added.
Then, Rambow invited the audience into his studio - a tent in Deadwood, explaining that setting out to have a photograph taken at that time was a very serious, somber, expensive matter.
``This was a solemn occasion, if you were getting this done in Victorian times, not a frivolous one. You don’t want to smile in pictures because you want to look composed, very distinguished.’’
Now for the rules of the tent or studio.
``First of all, I would tell you about colors,’’ Rambow said. ``A subject being photographed and wearing red lipstick is rough. Anything in the color red taken with this camera looks black because this camera doesn’t recognize red. Looking at old photographs, you see many women wearing black, but they actually may have been wearing red, orange or yellow and it turns out black. I would also tell women not to wear red lipstick, because if you do, you’re going to look like a clown.’’
``No movement is allowed at all,’’ Rambow said. ``ASA film speed of this type of photography is about 2. Not 200, but 2. It’s very, very slow. Outdoors, on a day like today with no shining sun . exposure time could be up to 20 seconds. So you have to sit completely still, no moving for 20 seconds. You can blink and you can breathe, but that’s about it. In the 1870s and 1880s, this was an important occasion. You wanted this photo to be remembered for something, whether a birth, death, marriage. You’re there because you want to take instructions from the photographer.’’
Other rules of the day, men seated, ladies standing.
``Often times women had these wonderful dresses and jewels they wanted to showcase and you stood because you wanted those to hang right,’’ Rambow said. ``Men were seated simply because this is a very good, solid look. A lot of time the only form of closeness they might show is a woman with a hand on his shoulder. Remember, this is a very solemn thing.’’
The toughest and most hated photographic subjects of the day?
``Most charged extra for children and dogs,’’ Rambow pointed out.
Replacing the expensive and deadly daguerreotype process which debuted in the 183os, wet plate photography peaked in the 1870s and began to wane in roughly 1884 when the dry plate process came out.
The collodion wet plate process, a very inconvenient form of photography which required the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about 15 minutes, necessitating a portable darkroom for use in the field, was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer.
``It was a composition of nitrocellulose ether and grain alcohol, so it was not only lethal, but it was also like a bomb if you get it close to open flames,’’ Rambow said. ``You coat the plate and ether puts you to sleep. Photographers were told to use it in the open, so they wouldn’t pass out.
The development process involved coating the plate with silver nitrate and waiting two minutes in a portable darkroom, covered with a rubber coated canvas. The darkroom had a small, safe red tinted window that the photographer could open and close, coining the term ``safe light’’ for ruby red.
``Silver nitrate turns black when exposed to light. Also anything organic - a hair, dust, a drop of sweat from your brow - if anything hits this plate, you’re sunk,’’ Rambow continued. ``You hold the developer of that and flow it across the plate, move it around until you’re seeing the latent image . 30 to 40 seconds and then wash in one of two pans of fresh water. The manuals I use say to use only the best rain water. I use tap water . but it’s two baths after the developer to wash off the image - this process takes copious amounts of water. After the developer is washed off, you finish the image by taking another try and pouring fixer over it, which turns the negative over to final image.’’
Rambow pointed out a couple of cautionary measures he routinely practices.
``If I have a cut on my finger, I don’t develop that day,’’ he explained. ``The fixer is made of potassium cyanide and water . if you have a cut on your hand, you can go what is called, `cyanodic,’ meaning oxygen can’t connect to your blood and you die.’’
``Don’t ever do this,’’ Rambow said, putting his finger to his eye and rubbing it, ``if you have silver nitrate on your hands. If it got on your cornea, it could blind you.’’
Glass plate negatives were used to produce everything from landscape photographs to portraiture to small calling cards. Little tin type plates were also produced, costing around 25 cents each, which the calling cards had a price tag of around 25 to 50 cents per dozen. Small portraits in hinged cases ran around $2 or $3.
And the mark of a primo photographer of the period?
``A good wet plate photographer always had black hands,’’ Rambow said. ``When they went out to the sunlight, their hands would turn black. It was the mark of a working man. You can’t wash it off. It has to wear off.’’
Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com
Four Early Colonial Leaders’ Remains Found At Jamestown
By BRETT ZONGKER
Washington (AP) Archaeologists have uncovered human remains of four of the earliest leaders of the English colony that would become America, buried for more than 400 years near the altar of what was America’s first Protestant church in Jamestown, Virginia.
The four burial sites were uncovered in the earthen floor of what’s left of Jamestown’s historic Anglican church from 1608, a team of scientists and historians announced Tuesday. The site is the same church where Pocahontas famously married Englishman John Rolfe, leading to peace between the Powhatan Indians and colonists at the first permanent English settlement in America.
Beyond the human remains, archaeologists also found artifacts buried with the colonial leaders—including a mysterious Catholic container for holy relics found in the Protestant church.
The graves at Jamestown (c) Smithsonian
The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeology team revealed its discovery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The museum is helping to study and identify those buried in the church. The burials were first uncovered in November 2013, but the scientific team wanted to trace and identify its findings with some certainty before announcing the discovery.
Archaeologists have been studying the site since 1994 when the original James Fort—long thought to be lost and submerged in the James River—was rediscovered.
The team identified the remains of the Rev. Robert Hunt, Jamestown’s first Anglican minister who was known as a peacemaker between rival colonial leaders; Capt. Gabriel Archer, a nemesis of one-time colony leader John Smith; Sir Ferdinando Wainman, likely the first knight buried in America; and Capt. William West, who died in a fight with the Powhatan Indians. The three other men likely died after brief illnesses. They were buried between 1608 and 1610.
``What we have discovered here in the earliest English church in America are four of the first leaders of America,’’ said historian James Horn who is president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. ``There’s nothing like it anywhere else in this country.’’
While the individuals buried at Jamestown were not royalty, they were considered pivotal figures in the early colony. Horn compared the find to the 2012 discovery of the lost grave of King Richard III in England.
Two years ago, the Jamestown team also found evidence of survival cannibalism in the colony.
Perhaps just as interesting as the newly discovered human remains are some of the artifacts buried with the bodies. Burial items were rare in English culture at the time, archaeologists said.
In the remnants of Archer’s coffin, archaeologists found a captain’s leading staff as a symbol of Archer’s military status. Historical records indicate Archer helped lead some of the earliest expeditions to Jamestown. He died at the age of 34 during a six-month period known as the ``starving time’’ when many perished due to disease, starvation and battles with Indians.
Mysteriously, a small silver box resting atop Archer’s coffin turns out likely to be a Catholic reliquary containing bone fragments and a container for holy water.
The excavation site in 2011 (c) Smithsonian
Archer’s parents were Catholic in Protestant England, which became illegal. So the discovery raises the question of whether Archer was perhaps part of a secret Catholic cell—or even a Catholic spy on behalf of the Spanish.
Catholic relics have been found in the Jamestown archaeological site before, but the placement of this box seems particularly symbolic, the historians said. They used CT scans to see inside the sealed box without damaging it—gaining a view that wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago.
An alternative theory holds that the religious piece was simply repurposed for the Anglican church as a holdover from Catholic tradition as England waffled between Catholic and Protestant rule. Historians said more research must be done.
``It was a real kind of ah-ha moment for a lot of us,’’ said William Kelso, Jamestown’s director of archaeology. ``It was oh, religion was a big deal here, and that’s often overlooked. Everyone thinks that people came to Jamestown to find gold and go home and live happily ever after.’’
But the Church of England had a strong role in the creation of an English America with the Protestant church acting as a bulwark against the Spanish and Catholic colonies to the south, Horn said.
In West’s burial plot, archaeologists found remnants of the military leader’s silver-edged sash in a block of soil. The silk material was too delicate to remove from the dirt, so archaeologists removed an entire block of dirt for preservation.
The artifacts will go on display within weeks at Historic Jamestowne. The site also plans to memorialize the men and will keep their bones in an accessible place for preservation and future study.
The team is more than 90 percent certain of the colonists’ identities, Kelso said. Still they will work to complete more testing and potentially DNA analysis. One sample is in a DNA laboratory now at Harvard to determine whether any genetic information has been preserved.
The archaeology team said the discovery is like a riddle they must figure out over time. Records from the time period are limited.
``The things that we look at and can read from the bones are simply details that you’re not going to find in the history books,’’ said Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian. ``These are men that you might not know their name. But these are men that were critical to who we are in terms of America today.’’
Historic Jamestowne: http://historicjamestowne.org/