About the Rheingold Historical Photograph Collection

  • THE NATURE OF THE COLLECTION

    This collection is different from other historical photo collections in a number of ways. First and foremost it consists almost solely of photos mounted on backers, also called boards or cardboard. This limits them to a time period, although it is a broad one, running from about 1860 to 1920, give or take some years.

    This type of photograph reflects the technology of the period. The picture as produced was on a very thin piece of photo paper, too thin to stand by itself. (This is in contact to the thicker type of paper we have today (and had going back to the early 1900s with the Kodak camera). Hence there was need of a cardboard backer to support and protect the photograph. All types of boards were used, in color, construction and design of the border.

    The photographs themselves were for the most part made just as images are printed today, except for the thickness of the paper. The gelatin-silver process is used. Some of the earlier ones in the collection used albumin (the white of the egg was used as a coating). Albumin and some other chemicals were the dominant technique from about 1855 to 1895 when the gelatin process was developed. More technical information is covered in some of the books in the bibliography below.

    This type of mounted photo followed the tintype photo (which followed the daguerreotype–on copper), and was concurrent with the cabinet card and the carte-de-visite, where the picture was printed right on the backer. Thus the predominant form which photos took from the 1860sto 1920s was the picture mounted on boards, which is the concentration of this collection.

    The reader interested in the technology involved in making the types of photos discussed above has a large number of resources, both written and on line (see “Articles/Links” page).

    A second distinctive factor in this collection is that the photos were purchased inexpensively. The great majority were purchased for $10 a piece (some less, very few more). This no doubt stressed quantity over quality, but buying in batches brought in some very interesting ones-as well as a lot of humdrum.

    The collection was started about 1995 and has continued to the present. Relatively few were purchased in shops; most were purchased by advertising for dealers, in antique magazines and the like. Some dealers assemble 100 or so images and send them in a big batch. We did not limit the ones we sought to those in any particular good condition, nor any subject. This is with the exception of portraits. After a few months of buying, most collectors will cry enough as far as formal portraits go. They are the most common, and most unrevealing. But even here there are many exceptions. For example, it is of great interest to see actors, military personnel, religious graduates, and babies. Also a formal studio portrait can be distinguished from a view of one person who is doing something, i.e., posing in front of a rock.

    A third distinction of the collection is a direct result of the first two. The images shown are often referred to as “vernacular” or “genre”–terms sometimes used condescendingly to refer to every day scenes. The term is used to exclude higher quality photos, generally meaning those taken by known photographers. One will not find Berenece Abbott and Atget here. The latter are composed, and often “arty”; the genre ones are usually straight forward: for example, the camera is set straight in front of the house; there is no framing with foliage.

    We do not object to the classification of the photos in this collection being labeled vernacular or genre. That is, after all, what Americans were photographing during this extended time period? (And, very recently, auction houses and dealers have begun to sell photos under these designation.) Those being photographed wanted pictures of themselves, of their house and horse, and of their activities–school, workplace, picnicking, out for a stroll. Indeed, one could make a study of what was important to people by the volume of the photos in various categories. For example, there are a gigantic number of views of the horse. Today, with the horse gone from the scene as a means of transportation, one would find few candid snaps of a horse.

    In the past ten years or so, an interest in these “snap shot” type of photos has arisen. Various trained critics and curators find great interest in them, from a human standpoint of what interested them, but also as “found art”–implying that accidentally the photographer took a picture which would be praised if done by a known photographer. One critic called this photographer an “accidental Atget.”Indeed, we have come full circle because some of the most collectible photographers today are ones who affected the amateur style, such as Lee Friedlander and Harry Callahan.

    Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times described venacular type of photos illustrated at a New York museum as follows: One of the billions of amateur photographs, source unknown, the picture is a talisman of evaporated memory that over the years probably made its way from the comer drugstore to the family album, where it was briefly cherished. Then, in the extraordinary way these things happen, it traveled from attic to Dumpster to flea market into the hands of some scavenging dealer-collector, whereupon it became an item on the art market until finally wending its way to the present location: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (619100, p. E25)

  • WHO MADE THESE PICTURES?

    Who made these photos may also be of interest to some readers. For the most part the photographer is anonymous, although some were made by professionals who have placed there name on the mount. For the earlier photos, including the albumins, the photographers were trained, to some degree, as the process was complex. Individual plates had to be prepared. Some of these are just local people who took up the task, and others are names known to historians, such as Sarony. Many of these local professionals gave themselves grandiose names and descriptions, such as “artist.”

    Study by historians has shown that there were itinerant photographers who came to small towns and announced their availability to take pictures. Especially in the early days when few people had cameras or technical ability, these photographers would take one time pictures for them of what they wanted to remember–their house, usually with the family strung out in front of it, or a family grouping. For example, an old ad by J. F. Jacoby of West Liberty, IA, stated that he was now taking “Instantaneous ‘Out-Door’ Photos” and was using “The ‘Daisy” Photo Car” to stop at any village within 50 miles of West Liberty.

    Sometimes photos were taken of a group with the intent to sell the picture to all of those appearing. Schools photos are in this category, and remain so to this day. Similar are travel pictures-those people getting on an electric bus to tour a city. When they got back, their photo was ready.

    As time moved along, the technology had developed so that true amateurs are taking the bulk of the photos. As one gets toward the end of the era of these mounted photos, one sees the same type of “snaps” that one takes today, even though much more work was involved, since they had to be developed, printed and mounted.

  • HOW THE PHOTOS WERE HANDLED AND STORED

    If one visits high quality collections of museums, one sees this type of photos stored in special boxes and trays in special temperature and humidity rooms. People wear white gloves when they handle them. This is no doubt desirable, but is it also expensive. The photos in this collection have probably been in people’s basements or attics for a century, and then may have been thrown out as rubbish. We store the pictures in boxes and trays, and try to keep the humidity and temperature within normal boundaries, but nothing beyond that.

  • HOW THESE PICTURES ARE IDENTIFIED AND CATEGORIZED

    If this collection of pictures, or any collection, were given to a thousand people who were asked to place them into categories, no two people would come up with the same topics and divisions. Thus the categorizations employed here are just our own. But at the same time a great deal of thought and experimentation has gone into the categorization here, and we hope that the presentation of these categories will assist other collectors.

    If all of the photos were digitized, or at least, given an identifying number, there would be another method of categorizing and storing a photo collection, a method used by professionals in a museum. This would be to take each image and characterize what one sees in it, using set terminology. For example, the family in front of their house with their horse and dog, with a woman in a wheelchair might be listed under every one of these terms. Then when one searched on database for these descriptors, as they are sometimes called, one would find this under any of those categories. One of the problems with this approach is if too many minutia are described, there are too many ”hits.” (Unless someone for some reason wants a horse and wheelchair in one picture.)

    The present sorting has 21 main categories. Some of these are obvious, such as School, Religious, or Horse. Other main assemblying topics, however, are more idiosyncratic, such as working; Outings; Groups. Some main categories have grown so large that they are broken in parts, e.g., Working.

    As the amount of individual photos in a particular category grows large (50 or more), we have sought to create some sort of further divisions. Many of the subdivisions arise logically when a large number are viewed at once. For example, over time the waterfall category became divided into big falls, little falls, and rapids. In some instances, there is virtually no rational way to divide up a large assemblage, but nonetheless we do it, on some sort of superficial way. There are thousands of pictures of school classes outside of their school. These are broken up, just for the sake of breaking them up, into age groups, whether the school appears to be urban or rural, what is the blackboard, and the like.

    A listed category in the collection may have but one picture in it. This occurs when the view is obviously categorizable, but is simply rare. Examples are baptism in a river, hot air balloon, or an autopsy.

    With pictures which fall into two categories (or subcategories), a guiding principle in sorting we use is to ask what the photographer (or the person who hired the photographer) had in mind. Was this primarily intended to be a photo of the family, with their home as a background, or was it a view of their home, where the family was just a sort of decoration? However, the principle of what the photographer intended has sometimes not been heeded when there is something in the picture which is rare or unusual. Here we would tend to place the photo in that special category of interest. Thus the wheelchair referred to in the family photo above would likely end up the wheelchair category. Other examples are an outhouse, an automobile, or a black student.

    Many times one cannot be sure of what is shown well enough to be sure of proper placement. An office view, for example, might be of a bank, newspaper, architect, sales, whatever. As a partial solution, we have sometime employed the dodge “looks like” -this or that (E.g. Looks like a lawyer’s office.)

    Another method of creating a topic and giving it a name is to pick up on a name which is on a photo. An excellent example is the “Saturday Night Club” subcategory in the Groups main category. We noted many, many photos coming in of a group of young folks in the comer of a room with a flash photo taken at night. Finally, on the back of one, that name was written on it. So the category name explains what was going on in the photo and presents an organizing theme.

    The more knowledge one has, the more that distinctions can be made and subcategories created. For example, if one does not know much about harvesting (as is true of us) one would tend to lump together what could readily be divided by a farmer, especially one who recalls farming around 1900. (What one need for each category actually is a 200 year old person who is not senile.) This would help not only in farming but in construction work, locomotives, or fraternal organizations. (Any assistance or advice would be welcome.)

    Experience and research also comes in handy in a number of other major categories. In the large group called Identifiable United States (and the rest of the world too), some scenes though unlabeled can readily identified, for example, Niagara Falls, or Mount Vernon. Another category: fairs and parades also would favor study, since one could determine which World’s Fair is shown, or in what city the parade is taking place.

    Very few of the photos have any information on the back of what is shown, or if it does it says something like “This is the house on Main St where your grandmother Lily grew up”. Of course at the time they were taken, everyone involved knew where it was, or what the event pictured was. On occasion, however, there is good information on the back, which enhances the value and meaningfulness of the picture, not to mention the filing. (Statement to current photographers: label your photo; you will not live forever. Tell us where, when, what.)

    A common reaction by people seeing this type of photo for the first time is to ask who the people are. They tum them over, hoping to find out the names and other information. Not finding this frustrates some viewers, to the point where, like an older relative commented, what good are these if you don’t know who they are. To us, the anonymity is a virtue: you just look at the picture for what it shows. The usual “who, what, when and where” are not particularly relevant. (Another realization which comes in time is that everyone in these pictures is dead.)

    Among the most interesting of views are those that are unclassifiable through ordinary terms. These are the mystery photos: what do they show and why were they taken. Obviously there is some sort of important event going on, but what? Here we have resorted to categories such as “Waiting for something” or “What are they doing?” or “odd behavior.”

    A few categories are of special interest to us, and we have these on walls. Lawyer’s offices and other legal scenes (due to professional interest); and tourism-Mt. Lowe’s tramway, battery operated tour buses in various cities, or posing by Balance Rock in Colorado.

    After all is said and done about categorization, if you study many of the photos you will notice details of tremendous interest which are not part of categorization. Many of the photos chosen for illustration on the site are of this type. If you enlarge them, you should see many interesting minutia.. Note the dress, or the position, or an object in the background!

  • SEEING THESE PHOTOS NOW COMPARED TO WHEN THEY WERE TAKEN

    When you look at one of the photos which are illustrated on this site, you can examine them in several ways. You can try to put yourself back into the day when they were taken and look through the eyes of the photographer-or if the photo was taken by a professional at the request of another (e.g., our house), what that person wanted. But the more likely way you will look at the photo if with today’s eyes-today’s state of mind. Indeed, had one looked at an old photo 50 years ago or 50 years from now, you would see it differently. What you notice and read into the view depends mostly on you, your age, your gender, your experience. As Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times observed, “A photograph is as much a looking glass as it is a window” (6/6/03, p. E29)

    When we have passed around some of these photos to a group of people, each of them will pick up on something different in the picture. They will weave their own stories about what is happening in the picture, and perhaps what happened before or after the snap. This you can do now.

  • ACCESSING THE PHOTOS; FURTHER RESEARCH
  • Feel free to download any of the photos on the site; we only ask that you credit the source, that is courtesy of “Rheingold Historical Photo Collection.” Also feel free to make inquiries as to what is in the collection that is not yet digitized.

    We welcome comment, suggestions, and other sources of information and research.

    Paul & Joyce Rheingold.