Thursday, July 9, 2009

Early Photography Meets 20th-Century Sleuthing

By:John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
When I started working for The Farmers’ Museum and The New York State Historical Association less than 10 months ago, I knew that several projects would be coming my way and that over time I’d find more on my own. One of those projects involved a “mystery” box that had been tentatively identified as being a case for a camera. Simple enough, I thought. Then my curiosity got the better of me and as I looked at this box, I noticed little dimples and hinges in strategic locations. I already had figured out that the case probably opened somehow and an old box camera probably fit into it; never did I realize what I would find when I pushed this button and swung the hinges down.
This camera instantly became one of my favorite pieces in the NYSHA collection, not only for its sheer beauty and simplicity, but for what I learned as I researched the maker, model, and shutter. What I found was that this camera was built by the Rochester Optical Company around 1886 and that the shutter mechanism that is now attached was not the original shutter. The new owner must have had a fair bit of knowledge of photography because they married an Athlete Shutter made by the Prosch Manufacturing Company, a top-of-the-line model in its day, to the camera, allowing it to take clearer and sharper images.

For me, this camera represents not only precious craftsmanship that is rarely seen today, but something that someone in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used to preserve their memories, much like the photographers have done at the Fenimore Art Museum’s American Photography: Recent Acquisitions. NYSHA not only collects historic photographs, but contemporary ones as well, which brings the number of photographs in our collection to nearly 150,000 including a large collection from the photographers Washington G. Smith and Arthur Telfer. Technology has come a long way since this camera and Smith-Telfer’s time, but you have to admit, there’s just something about an object like this that makes you stop, slow down, and admire a somewhat simpler time.

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