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A Special Exhibition

Spring, 1997

The Museum has a small but fine collection of cameras, early photo graphic lenses, accessories and darkroom equipment. In all there are about eight hundred items covering a hundred and fifty years of photographic history, from a lens of the late 1830s to an example of the failed Nimslo ‘three-dimensional’ camera of the early 1980s. Highlights from the collection will be on display in the Museum over the summer in a special exhibition ‘Cameras: the Technology of Photographic Imaging’.

Amongst the highlights will be equipment that once belonged to well known personalities, such as the three astronomical cameras for photo graphing the moon made for the astronomer Warren de la Rue in the late 1850s, the wet collodion photography outfit of Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), and the archaeological camera made in 1910 for Lawrence of Arabia (described in the next article).

There are also several cameras in the collection that represent the main technical milestones in the history of photography. Included among them, as pictured above, are (clockwise from the centre): a very early landscape lens, c.1839, similar to the lens supplied to Daguerre by the optical instrument maker Charles Chevalier; an all-metal miniature camera (here shown stored on its mahogany box support) for taking pictures on small glass photographic plates, c.1885; a collapsible wooden camera, c.1855, with a plano-convex singlet lens by G. Knight & Sons of Foster Lane, London; a rare Sutton panoramic camera with its characteristic bulbous water-lens (a very unusual feature), c.1861; a folding camera, c.1900, by Newman & Guardia; and lastly, a binocular stereo camera of c.1910 with roll-film holder.

The earliest devices to be included in the exhibition will be the solar microscope and camera obscura. Both were first used by artists and draughtsmen as aids to drawing before being put to use in early photographic experiments. Fox Talbot, the English pioneer of photography, used the solar microscope for some early attempts at ‘photogenic drawing’, while Daguerre’s camera was based on the sliding-box portable camera obscura but with an improved lens of large enough aperture to allow ‘the light to do the drawing’ through its action on silver-based chemicals.

Early cameras were cumbersome affairs which could only be used stationary and required the services of a professional to be operated effectively. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century it became popular among the middle and upper classes to have a photographic portrait taken – something that was almost certainly much cheaper than sitting for a portrait in oils – for which people would go to a photographic studio. Cameras also became an important tool in science. For the first time it became possible to analyse rapid motions, such as a horse galloping, a bird on the wing or the flight of a bullet.

Up to around the 1890s photography remained relatively expensive as a pastime, although by then the general public had become accustomed to seeing photographic images. In 1889 Eastman introduced the first transparent celluloid-based film and the age of the cheap mass-produced portable camera, such as the Eastman Kodak ‘Brownie’ (named after a character in a popular children’s book), had arrived.

The exhibition will open in the Museum on the 20th May and will run until the 13th September.