From folding cameras to Brownies, antique cameras have been displayed for my viewing since my birth. My grandfather’s house introduced me to the history of the camera as well as early photographs of my family’s American heritage.
My grandfather along with his father, like many other Rochesterian men, worked for the Eastman Kodak Company. Throughout my grandfather’s time working at Kodak and exploring his photographic hobby, he collected an array of classic cameras. Each room in his house has several cameras resting on dressers, antique china cabinets, wooden tripods, and any other flat surface providing a home for a piece of his vintage collection. Antiquated photographs as well as stereographs can be seen accompanying the cameras that took them.
While walking through George Eastman House’s new exhibition, Between the States: Photographs of the American Civil War, nostalgia overcame me. Hanging a right after entering the exhibit doors and coming around the first wall brings you “front and center” with two authentic cameras used to shoot American Civil War photography. Just as in my grandfather’s house, I was brought face to face with pieces of photographic history.
One of the cameras in the exhibit, along with another on loan to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., were used by the studio of Mathew Brady, the prolific Civil War photographer. They are the only two known Brady cameras in existence today. These, along with the Lewis wet-plate camera also on view in the Eastman House exhibition, are held exclusively in George Eastman House archives.
Brady’s stereo camera was acquired by George Eastman House from Graflex Inc. and was found in Auburn, N.Y., amidst a collection of Brady’s glass plates. This camera was used to produce a pair of 4½ x 4½-inch images. The images would be separated, cropped and mounted together side by side. Looking at the two images through a stereographic viewer would produce a seemingly three-dimensional image.
Grandpa also has a couple of stereographs lying around his house. I remember my amazement looking through a pair of stereograph glasses resembling 19th-century bifocals and viewing the two images combined to make one with depth and length. You can sense this awe two feet away from the two cameras as George Eastman House has provided a Brady stereotype and a beautiful viewer constructed by a student of the graduate program.
Also gracing the glass case in the Between the States exhibition is a Lewis wet-plate camera. The Polaroid Corporation gifted this aged artifact to Eastman House. The camera, manufactured by Henry James Lewis, was conventional of Civil War photographic equipment. It also produced two images, although these were 3¼ x 4½-inch. This wet-plate camera closely resembles the daguerreotype camera, which Lewis’s father and brother had previously produced. This camera provides a perfect representation of the size and style of camera that had to be lugged around on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.
This exhibition is important to Rochester and the history of American photography. I was fortunate to have my grandfather introduce me to historic cameras at an early age. We, as citizens of Rochester, are innately enriched with photographic history. We hold here, in our own backyard, images of a war that has shaped our nation to this very day. This is evident in the accompanying exhibit Still Here: Contemporary Artists and the Civil War.
The opportunity to view the apparatus by which these images were captured is exclusive to Rochester and George Eastman House, where you can experience the amazement and power these cameras display.
Dan Witkowski is an intern at George Eastman House, with the Department of Communications and Visitor Engagement. He is a senior at St. John Fisher College studying American Studies and photography.