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.

100 Year Old Arctic Negatives

Sometimes I run across photography based stories that are just too interesting not to share. This is one of them.


Here is a story about a box discovered buried in Antarctica containing never before seen negatives from Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition that was stranded during a blizzard when their ship blew out to sea (they were ultimately rescued, but the negatives were left behind). Read about it here and get a closer look at some of the processed photographs here. More information about that expedition, known as the Ross Sea Party, can be had here.

The Kiss, By Alfred Eisenstaedt

It is V-J Day, August 14th, 1945, and as part of the celebration in Times Square, New York, a sailor kisses a woman dressed in white who he doesn’t know. The image was captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt and became an iconic photo on the cover of Life Magazine:

© Alfred Eisenstaedt

© Alfred Eisenstaedt

At first the two kissers were unknown and over the years there have been several people who have claimed to be the iconic couple… the end though, it is generally agreed upon that they are George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman (though this is still contested).

I came across an article I thought I would share that the sailor, George Mendonsa has passed away at age 95. The article is an interesting one, as is this one from Wikepedia that also talks about the other people who have claimed to be the couple in the photo.

The Story Behind The Photo: Charles Ebbets

Many people are familiar with this iconic 1932 photograph by Charles Ebbets of 11 ironworkers having lunch atop a steel beam 800 feet above New York City. I ran across a wonderful video relating the backstory of this image and images like it. And yes, there were some photographers that walked out on the steel beams......let's just say that as someone who has difficulty with heights I would not have been one of them!

It is a short five minute video that I really enjoyed and that I think is well worth watching!

Sir Elton John's Photography Collection

Who knew that Elton John was a collector of photography, and in a big way? Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to embed the five minute video, but this link will get you there, and it is well worth watching if you have an interest in either fine art photography or in learning more about Elton John!

While not quite as engaging as the link above, here is another brief look at Elton and his collection....this one I can embed into the post (remember, if receiving this post by email the video won't come along. Just go to the blog itself to view it)

What an amazing collection......what are you still doing here, go watch the video!

What Should Photographs Look Like?

I had the opportunity to visit the "Yours Truly: Privately Collected Photographs" exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh last weekend.  The exhibit was really an excellent way to see beautifully crafted photographs from a number of well known photographers such as Eisenstaedt, Frank, Winogrand and a host of others. Without question it is well worth a visit to the exhibit, though that is not what I want to write about today. Two things really struck me when viewing the photographs. The first was how much emotional impact they held.  Once I absorbed that, the second thing that I noticed was just how different these prints looked compared to what we consider to be excellent technical quality today. Or maybe I should rephrase that and say that I noticed how different the prints looked compared with what I expected to see as excellent technical quality.

With few exceptions, none of the photographs had the degree of sharpness or level of contrast that images I am used to seeing today have. But yet they carried far more emotional content than most of what I have seen in recent or contemporary photographs.

The photos simply were not as sharp as we often see in today's digital prints (and I am not talking about the over the top grunge look....just regular prints).  I am not sure if that is a 'limitation'  of film grain or related to the type of sharpening and tonal separation we can achieve in digital editing software.  Likewise with the image contrast, which may be related to the brightness of the paper the gelatin silver prints were on.

Please don't get me wrong, I am not criticizing the photographs nor in any way saying that the technical quality or aesthetics of todays prints are better.  In fact, I am really saying just the opposite.  Because there were apparently some 'limitations' compared to today, the emotional impact of the image has to carry it far beyond the technical aspects.

One Of My Favorite Images From The Exhibit

Unfortunately, I Have Forgotten Who The Photographer Was

And I wonder if the 'digital generation' has come to expect a certain type of visual and technical aesthetic that is simply different (no better or worse) from what has been the aesthetic or yardstick of quality in the past.  Do we have our own idea of 'what photographs should look like'?  How does one determine 'what a photograph should look like'?  Is the look of a photograph determined by the generation of viewers and their the look merely a fad?  Have we taught ourselves that images need razor sharpness and certain levels of contrast to attract our attention? Are we paying too much attention to the technical and not enough to the emotional impact of what we see?

I am not sure of the answers, but I do know that the exhibit got me to think about a lot of questions.  And, after all, if an art exhibit can make you start to think about these types of questions, then it must be an exhibit that is well worth taking your time to see!

The Carrie Furnace XVII

For background information about this project see my post entitled The Carrie Furnace Project. To hear the 1-2 minute audio content click on the link below the picture, which will open the audio content in a separate page.

This post's audio content describes how the iron making process was essentially unchanged from the Civil War up until the 1980s.

The Carrie Furnace Project

Copyright Howard Grill


The Carrie Furnace

The Carrie Furnace, located in Rankine, PA,  is a blast furnace that was used in iron production.  It was built in 1881, and from 1907 to 1978 was able to produce up to 1250 tons of iron daily.  The site, which at one time contained 7 separate blast furnaces, was bought by Andrew Carnegie in 1888 and was subsequently acquired by US Steel in 1901.  In 1988 it was purcahsed by the Park Corporation and both Park and US Steel were to remediate environmental concerns. In 2005, Allegheny County bought the entire site from Park and there are hopes to develop it into a national historic landmark.

The site is closed to the general public, and only furnaces 6 and 7 remain.   However, I was able to go on a tour of the facility and take some photos (hand held).  What remains is truly the 'stuff' of industrial abstract imagery.

For more historical information see here.

Carrie Furnace

Copyright Howard Grill

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.

The History Of Nature Photography

I have previously wriiten about Jeff Curto's two superb podcasts, The History Of Photography Podcast and Camera Position. I have been a bit behind in my listening, but in the car today had the chance to listen to the Febrauary 24th episode of Camera Position entitled The Camera In The Cathedral: Camera Position Goes Historical.

The reason I thought that this particular episode should be mentioned is that it is specifically about the history of nature photography. It contains a lot of insights that were quite new to me about the interaction between the technological developments in photography and how they influenced the way in which nature was depicted photographically. For example, it never dawned upon me that since the Daguerreotype was essentially a one exposure, one image technique (meaning that one was not able to make more than one image from each exposure; there was no ability to make copies of the images) nature images were not frequently made in the early years of photography. This is because nature photographs would typically need to be mass produced for others to see, while portraiture was generally considered to be an image to be given to a single person.

Whet your interest? This episode is really fascinating and contains many interesting insights. Check it out here.

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.

The Power Of The Still Frame

I think it is quite interesting that even in this high tech, rapidly moving society in which we live, still images, not movies or video, seem to come to mind when we think about historic events. At least that is the case for me. As examples what I am referring to, what images come to mind when you think about the following events?

The Kent State Shootings :

Photo By John Filo

The Vietnam War:

Photo By Eddie Adams

Photo By Nick Ut

Tiananmen Square:

Etc, etc, etc. I think it is fascinating that while most of the world would rather go to a movie than look at still images, when asked to recall major events I think people are still most affected by single photographs. Certainly there were film clips made of all these events, but that is not what sticks in our minds. The only exception I can think of offhand is the Kennedy assasination and the Magruder film. However, the reason for that may be the subsequent use of the film as forensic evidence and its use to try to suggest second assasins and the like.

The ability of the single frame to freeze time, convey emotion, and to stick with us is, to me, a truly amazing phenomenon and testimony to the potential power of a photograph. Despite being 'old' technology, the single image has not been displaced by movies or video. The true challenge is for each of us to discover how to harness the power that can be had in a single frame. And I suspect that method is going to be quite different for each of us. Nonetheless, it is clearly the goal to which we all aspire.