Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Remembering The Dead (Discovering Dry Plate Photography)

In my work travels, I recently met someone who gave me an interesting gift. Several years back he had been driving down a back road in Virginia and came across an old, abandoned farmhouse. He stopped and peeked in to see if anyone was using the place (you can’t be too careful about what you run across that looks abandoned these days), and saw only cobwebs. He went in and found an interesting box:

Seeds Dry Plates - The Company Was Founded In 1883

Seeds Dry Plates - The Company Was Founded In 1883

Dry plate photography was developed after the wet collodion process. With dry plates, glass plates that had been factory coated with a photographic emulsion were boxed after the emulsion dried. They could be stored and loaded into cameras as needed and developed at any time after exposure. The process was therefore far more convenient than the wet collodion process, where glass plates had to be hand coated with a wet, light sensitive emulsion just before exposure and then developed almost immediately thereafter. The dry plate process was first introduced in 1871, and, in particular, the Seed Dry Plate Company was founded in 1883 and purchased by Eastman Kodak in 1902. That would date this box as well over 100 years old.

My friend opened the box and found exposed dry plates inside, which appear as a negative image! Recognizing that the farmhouse was obviously abandoned and that if he left the plates they would likely be lost forever, he took the box. After a few weeks of our working together, he found out about my interest in photography and one day brought the box in and gave it to me as a gift.

The dry plates themselves (of which there were 8 or 9) were not in particularly good shape, probably because that had been exposed to the elements for decades. This an example of one of the dry plates that was better preserved, with an apparent negative image:

Glass Dry Plate

Glass Dry Plate

I chose some that looked promising, put them on my flatbed scanner and scanned them. I then brought them into Photoshop, inverted the negative black and white image, added a bit of contrast and sharpened them. In some instances, I was able to produce a pretty reasonable image of people who are presumably no longer among the living. For example, this was the reult of scanning the dry plate pictured above:

girl from dry plate.jpg

And for a closer, zoomed in look at the young girl:


And another couple of examples. The many black dots are areas where the emulsion has degraded and worn off. I have to say that it is at the same time exciting and yet somewhat eerie to see people ‘reaching out from the dead’.

Family Dry Plate.jpg

To me, this next image appears to be the same two women pictured above:


And yet another:


And this final image does appear a little ‘ghostly’.


Perhaps this serves to bring back, in some small way, the memory of these people. Should any reader know who these folks are (I know the odds are one in a million, but stranger things have happened) do please let me know.

Quick Quotes: Arnold Newman

"Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world."

Arnold Newman

I am always looking for quotes about photography and truth. This one says it with no holds barred.

Newman is one of the greatest portrait photographers of our time. One of his most noted portraits is that of Alfred Krupp, a German industrialist who had been a Nazi and used slave labor during WWII. Newman was taking Krupp's portrait for Newsweek and took the opportunity to use photography to make Krupp look like the devil, and Newsweek did publish the portrait!

Here, from his New York Times obituary in 2006:

"................Perhaps the most famous was a sinister picture of the German industrialist Alfried Krupp, taken for Newsweek in 1963. Krupp, long-faced and bushy-browed, is made to look like Mephistopheles incarnate: smirking, his fingers clasped as he confronts the viewer against the background of a assembly line in the Ruhr. In the color version his face has a greenish cast.

The impression it leaves was no accident: Mr. Newman knew that Krupp had used slave labor in his factories during the Nazi reign and that he had been imprisoned after World War II for his central role in Hitler's war machine.

"When he saw the photos, he said he would have me declared persona non grata in Germany," Mr. Newman said of Krupp......."

© Arnold Newman

© Arnold Newman


And the story in Newman's own words, during an interview:

If you happen to subscribe to the blog by email, the video and its link will not come over....visit the main blog at to watch the two minute story.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Who?????  Say it slowly now....Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, who lived from 1863 to 1944. Sergei was apparently supported by Tsar Nicholas II to photograph Russia from 1909-1912.  He used a very sophisticated camera to take three rapid, sequential black and white photographs, one using a red, one using a green, and one using a blue filter.  He was then able to combine the images and display them with filtered lanterns to yield a final color this starting to sound like Photoshop channels, or what???  The more things change, the more they stay the same. The images are quite amazing, particularly given the era they come from.  Here are two images and a link to the original story that displays 34 of the photographs.  Of note, The Library of Congress purchased the glass plates in 1948, and there are hundreds of them to see.

Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, Russia

Image by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Image by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

Image by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

One of the fun parts about this was how I found out about the story.  Isn't it a pleasure when your children grow to the point that they understand and respect your interests, even though it may not be their 'cup of tea'?  Well, my son in college came across it while surfing the internet during a study break and sent me a link to it because he knew I would find it interesting.  He was right and I thought I would share it on the blog!

Trusting Photographs

One of my blog posts that I most enjoyed writing was entitled “Photography And Truth”, which can be read here and here. These posts ultimately turned into an essay that was published on Uwe Steinmuller’s Digital Outback Photography website. In the essay, I mentioned that I was surprised that there was an expectation on the part of many, if not most, viewers that fine art photography should depict ‘the truth’. In reality, there are decisions made by the photographer including focal length, in camera cropping, and shooting in RAW format (to name a few) that explain why most photographs are ‘untruthful’ to at least some degree.. However, there are journalistic standards that move a photograph more (but not necessarily totally) towards depicting the world as it truly is.

As the digital age progresses, there continues to be advancements in technology which allow for photographic 'doctoring' using methods that are increasingly subtle and difficult to detect. Interestingly, however, the concept of photographic manipulation is not a new one. In fact, such manipulations have been used since the earliest days of the medium.

One of the most famous photographic portraits of Abraham Lincoln was actually a composite image of Lincoln's head atop John Calhoun's body (ironic, given that Calhoun was a staunch supporter of slavery), done to give the president a more 'heroic' appearance.

John Calhoun


Abraham Lincoln


A New Version Of Abraham Lincoln

An image of Millard Tydings talking to Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party at the time, played a role in his 1950 election defeat. The photograph is widely believed to be a fake composite.

Millard Tydings And Earl Browder....
Felt To Be A Fake Composite

Similarly, a composite image of Senator John Kerry and Jane Fonda was surely not helpful to Kerry's political career.

Photos Of Kerry And Fonda Used In A Fake Composite

I find the use of 'doctored' photographs for political and sensationalistic purposes throughout history a fascinating topic and ran across two very interesting and informative papers dealing with the subject. Both were written by Dr. Hany Farid of Dartmouth University. The first paper, entitled "Digital Doctoring: Can We Trust Photographs" can be read here. The paper discusses these photos, as well as others, and also describes (using layman's language) various new methods of detecting fraudulent photographs. The article is in pdf format and can be downloaded. It makes for a fast, but very interesting, read on the subject.

The second paper, entitled "Photo Tampering Throughout History", has several pages of examples of altered photographs, including many modern day images.

Both papers are definitely worth taking the time to read!

Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier"

Sure, the issue as to whether Robert Capa's famous photograph "Falling Soldier" was staged or not is an old one. But that doesn't make the controversy any less interesting.

Copyright Robert Capa / MagnumPhotos

Jose' Manuel Susperregui has some new information and theories that suggest the image was staged. We may never know the answer, but it certainly makes for interesting reading.

Here is the latest from the August 18, 2009 New York Times.

A Piece Of History

I suspect most people that have a passion for photography have at least a passing interest in the history of the medium and are probably aware of the different types of processes that have been used over time. Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, tintypes, carte-de-viste and many more. But have you ever seen any of these??? I never had.

I decided that it was worth my while (and a very small amount of cash) to own a small piece of history and experience some of these imaging processes for myself. So I took a trip over to e-Bay to see what was available. For about 20 bucks I bought 6 lovely tintypes (uncased), some with hand tinting, and 5 cabinet cards with the photographers name and location on the card as well as a few with the subjects handwritten name. They came in very nice shape and have a very interesting and unique appearance to them. It really is fascinating to hold these artifacts and see what photography looked like in its early years. It is also a bit eerie to see these subjects, now long deceased, staring at you from back in time.

These are not items that are eagerly sought after by high end collectors and this is reflected in their price. But I am very glad that I made these few purchases and plan to bid on a few examples of other historical photographic processes.

If the history of photography interests you, why not pick up a few samples from a bygone era for dirt cheap and take a trip back in time. It really is fascinating!

Capture The Moment

Back in March, I wrote a blog post entitled "The Power Of The Still Frame". In that piece, I talked about the emotional impact of an individual photograph and its ability to freeze time, convey a message, and make a lasting impression. As part of that post, I included four photographs as examples of what I was referring to. Oddly enough, this past weekend I was able to view three out of these four images. Not only that, I was able to view every Pulitzer Prize winning photograph from 1942 (the year of the award's inception) to the present. "How?", you ask. By attending a magnificent exhibit at The Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, PA entitled "Capture The Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs". The exhibit is a traveling one, so it may well also be coming to a city somewhere near you.

Imagine seeing wall size photographs that take you through history along with information about each and every image. I am not talking about technical information, but, rather, a description of what was going on, a description of the photographers feelings, a description of how the photo came to be......mostly in the photographers own words. I don't believe there could be a better way to understand and connect with each image. And, like it or not, you will connect, and it's not all pleasant. In fact, most of it is unpleasant, to say the least. Remember, these are journaistic images.

Executions, accidents, will be reminded of just how terribly violent a species we can be. You will be brought back to events from your youth and, once rechallenged with these events, think about their meaning again and again. Prepare to have your emotions dragged around. You can't walk through the exhibit without getting tearful several times. It is perhaps futile for me to try to describe the feeling of viewing photo after photo of the events that have shaped our culture, our history and our lives. Multiple reviews in newspapers and on-line will undoubtedly do this better than I possibly could.

Besides the intense experience of viewing the photos and trying to digest it all, there was another message that came through to me from a purely photographic viewpoint.......and by stating it I by no means want to detract from the emotional experience of the exhibit. It is just that everyone attending will understand the emotion, but perhaps not everyone attending will think about this: many of the images are less than technically perfect. Some lack perfect focus, some have suboptimal depth of field, some would have been better presented with longer focal lengths so that the subject would not have to be circled to draw your attention.......but they all captured more than just a mere moment or event; in a fraction of a second they captured the very essence of events that have defined who we were, who we are, and where we seem to be heading.

If you live in Western Pennsylvania, or if the exhibit comes to a city near wherever you might be, you really owe it to yourself to take the time to have a look.

Bill Jay Revisited, Part II

As promised, here is Part II of the Bill Jay interview video. See here for Part I. See here for more on Bill Jay. The video does seem to take 1-2 minutes to load, but since no one has complained in the comments section, I assume there have been no problems with it and that it was worth a look. I enjoyed it anyway.

Bill Jay Revisited, Part I

About a month ago, I wrote a blog entry about photographer, writer and photographic educator Bill Jay, which can be read here. If you haven't had a look, it is worth a read simply because of the link to his extensive writings on photography, which he has kindly made available on his website.

I happen to run across an interview with Bill Jay in two parts and thought it was quite interesting and well worth sharing. I am posting Part I now and will post Part II next.

This is the first time I have posted a YouTube video interview. The embedded link seems to work on my computer. If it doesn't work on the posted blog please let me know in the comments section so that I can try to fix whatever went wrong.

The History Of Photography

Who was it that said something along the lines of "in order to know where you are going you need to know where you have been"? And so it is with photography. The history of the medium is fascinating and filled with major technological advances, drama, personal disputes, and changes in the way we view our world. All this within what is a relatively very short period of time. If we take photography seriously, I think it behooves us to know something of the medium's history.

There are certainly a number of excellent photographic history books available. However, I am going to make a non-text recommendation that I personally found to be an exceptionally enjoyable way to learn. Jeff Curto is a Professor of Photography at The College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, who podcasts the lectures from his History of Photography course. He is a compelling, entertaining, and engrossing teacher whose podcasts are truly a gift. They are exceptional and I recommend them highly.

The home page for these podcasts is here, and the series can be subscribed to through any podcast client, such as iTunes.