Silver Shadows of the Past

It was so long ago that I still had a job reporting for the Charlotte Sun, which meant a regular paycheck (even if it was only a measly $9 per hour in 2003) and money in my pocket, free to burn if I wanted. I haven’t had that very often in my life, so it felt good, and I felt like indulging myself a bit.

I was in Port Charlotte, driving west on Edgewater Drive, a road that crosses US 41 to become Harborview Road (not to be confused with Harbor Drive, some miles further north). Harborview consists of a shopping center named Schoolyard Square and a bunch of run-down looking freestanding business, including the Sun. But the other side, Edgewater, holds some very nice, upper-middle class homes in addition to churches, and one of those homes happened to be holding a moving sale. So I pulled the truck over and went in.

A cursory inspection didn’t reveal any of the unusual or antique cameras I always hope to find at such sales, so I asked the lady who seemed to be running things if she had any.

“Cameras? No, we don’t take many pictures ourselves… you know, Christmas and 4th of July on the same roll? But we do have some old pictures,” she said, and pulled out these, in much the same condition as you see them now. “I don’t know where they came from, myself, but you can have them for, oh I don’t know, $12, if you want.”

I did, and I bought them all. Now, with some time on my hands, I have meticulously scanned and toned each one, to best restore the quality of the the original and redact the ravages of Grandfather Time.

The subjects in these photos, the people themselves, and the art of the photographers are on display, working as they had to with the cumbersome large-format cameras, plate films, slow lenses and limited light sources in the late 19th to early 20th Century. The pressures of war led to the development of new technologies: smaller, sharper cameras utilizing more sensitive films; coated lenses; Kodachrome and Agfachrome, the two original color films; and the electronic flash, developed by Harold E. “Doc” Edgerton at MIT. A flash Doc made for taking Army Air Force reconnaissance photos at low altitudes was so powerful, with a single discharge it could set fire to a sheet of newsprint held a yard away from the enormous flash tube!

Styles of photography changed, became more casual, and today? Today we have cameras built into our phones, and phones built into our cameras. Color is compulsory, B&W optional. Flash tubes are now smaller than the lenses that take the picture! Like sorcerers in some distorted dream, we send images flying through the ether, to land continents away, or be as wildly distorted as any vision in a nightmare. And it’s all so easy and automatic, we don’t even have to think about it!

Well, remember those days, because these days are built on them. The cell phone in your pocket has its camera because photography exploited the demand for what had once been obtainable only to nobility, the personal portrait. Here they are, and I would like to know: Of all the photo studios named here, have any survived into the 21st Century?

I wonder.