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By Kari Nixon on

Using our collections: Part 3

Visiting researcher Kari Nixon writes about her work with photography journals and other material from our Kodak Collection.

Every month visitors get the chance to select and view materials from our collection that are not on display in the museum. During June we welcomed many different visitors to Insight, and one was Kari Nixon, Assistant Professor of English at Whitworth University. Kari kindly agreed to write a blog post about her use of the photography journals in our library and photographs from the Kodak Collection.


I visited the National Science and Media Museum recently to do preparatory research for a book project; it deals with how developing camera and lens technologies impacted the way Victorian novelists made increasing use of certain ’visual’ techniques in their descriptive imagery, such as the bird’s-eye-view perspective. I’m really excited about this project, and my visit to the museum was incredibly helpful.

For instance, I found this gem of a quote in which camera aficionados poke fun at novelists who incorrectly incorporate camera technology into their stories. Here, specifically Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle are ridiculed for their inaccurate understanding of photography.

Typed passage headed 'A Literary Note'. Reads: 'A course of the catalogue would not be a bad thing for those novelists who occasionally refer to "automatic" lenses, or mix up the camera bellows with the time-bulb, when introducing photography into their plot. Or they might get the catalogue writer to revise their proofs, repaying him by permitting a subtle reference to the fact that it was one of his firm's handy pocket-cameras which snapshotted the murder in Chapter XIX. These things are occasionally done, I believe, but not in photography. Or, to venture higher still, we might even see a mighty collaboration such as is here hinted at: SCIENTIFIC FICTION. One of the sensations of the Spring publishing season will undoubtedly be the appearance of "The Isocyanins: A Tragedy in Yellow K." The author of "The Light That Failed" and "Soldiers Three" has on this occasion joined forces with the author of "The Photography of Coloured Objects," and the new work is the product of the dual pen. When we have such a combination, nothing but a first-rate tragedy can result.'
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1892, p. 300
Typed passage headed 'Phiction for Photographers'. Reads: 'It is in the spring that a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of romance, and this explains how it is that with lengthening days, and with the voice of the turtle heard again in the land, I get a letter from a correspondent asking me for some light literature suitable for photographers. Well, this is the best I can do. A start should be made with Conan Doyle's "Round the Red Lamp," and then we could proceed to "The Shadow of a Grime," spelt "crime" in the original version. Others that might be suitable include "When it was Dark"; "The Light That Failed" (these two are, apparently, by different authors); "A Tragedy in Grey"; "The Night Side of London"; "Taken at a Venture"; "The Shutters of Silence"; "Exposure of Mormonism"; and "Through Troubled Waters." The last has a special affinity for the bookshelves of Leeds and district.'
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1892, p. 300

However, I’m always struck, when in an archive, by the sheer wealth of information that isn’t quite right for any of my extant projects, but that I’d love to share with others. In many cases, the story and culture behind such artefacts is begging to be told, and I’m often tinged with something akin to guilt when I find that I haven’t the time or the space to tell it. I’d like to use this blog post to share some of the amazing things I found during my visit that might not make it into my own projects, with the hope that I encourage others to take a closer look.

Photograph showing a female photographer, undated, Kodak Collection
Photograph showing a female photographer, undated, Kodak Collection © Science Museum Group collection

Perhaps one of my favorite finds was an entire folder of late Victorian/early Edwardian-era photographs of women taking photographs. You read that right: photos of women actively taking photos in the picture they’re in. How’s that for meta? I absolutely love this set for its stunning juxtaposition of stuffy Victorian apparel set against the gumption indicated by the very act of being a female photographer in the late 19th century.

Photographic know-how came with a steep learning curve at the time, involving training about lighting, lenses, chemical processes, and the like—all things that have completely fallen off our radars in the era of iPhone photo-bursts and Instagram filters. And although photography wasn’t exactly a risqué hobby for women at this time, female photographers represented all that was unsettlingly new, modern, and progressive at the turn of the century (Amy Levy incorporates these anxieties about female photographers into her late-century novel The Romance of a Shop).

Photograph showing a female photographer, undated, Kodak Collection © Science Museum Group collection

The sheer technical training necessary for an enthusiast to learn photography has always suggested, to me, a woman who liked a challenge. It just coyly hints of a woman testing the limits of her era—eager to get her hands dirty with tools and chemicals in a society that encouraged female gentility and repose. So, when I see these impressive images of women climbing onto stair railings just to get the right angle for their shots, or posing for a photo with their camera on their arm instead of a man, I can’t help but be inspired.

Portrait of a female photographer, undated, Kodak Collection
Photograph showing a female photographer, undated, Kodak Collection © Science Museum Group collection

Another great find in the archives this trip was the ‘Dear Abby’-style tech support guides to photography in The Amateur Photographer’s Annual. In an early issue from 1891, the magazine editors claim to have started the publication because of a desire to catalogue and publicise ‘the constant questions asked by workers in photography, and the admirable answers given to them’.

The early editions of this magazine consist almost entirely of technical questions submitted to the editors by the magazine’s readers, published verbatim and followed by advice written in reply. This unassuming little technical magazine hides some amazingly human moments, such as an indignant husband writing in to warn others about a voyeur photographer who followed his wife around on the beach.

The image below that of his complaint illustrates the sort of ‘detective camera’ the writer complains about.

Typed passage headed 'The Use or Abuse of the Hand-Camera'. Reads: 'Sir, will you allow me through your pages, although not a photographer, to protest against the abuse of "detective" cameras, a striking instance of which has just been brought to my notice. My wife and family are staying at the seaside, and one day last week they were persistently annoyed by some fellow, I think I should not be far wrong in calling him a cad, who would insist on hovering round the private tent set up on a retired part of the beach for bathing purposes. One of my little girls happened to see him, and, having told her elder sisters, the latter had to remain in the tent for some time, and finally have up their morning bathe rather than be photographed unawares. On being spoken to by my wife, this 'gentleman' laughed, and retorted that he supposed the beach was public property, and he was at liberty to stroll up and down if he liked. Unfortunately, I was in town and did not hear of the occurrence till Saturday, and although we have carefully looked out for him, we have been unable to see him again, or I should probably have given him a bit of my mind, if not something stronger. I think, sir, that you will agree with me that amateur photographers should not put their craft to such vile purposes. Yours truly, 'Paterfamilias', London.'
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1892, p. vii
Printed advertisement for the 'Hat Detective Camera', a small camera concealed inside a bowler hat
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1892, p. vii

Advice-seekers also developed creative pseudonyms for themselves rather than signing their own name, similar to general advice columns that we know today.

Each issue is indexed carefully, and the index alone is enough to incite intrigue. Why is there an entry for ‘death pot’?, I wondered when going through this first issue. As it turns out, one reader was asking about the best ways to kill and pin insects for microscopic photography.

Typed passage headed 'Death pot'. Question reads: 'Should be glad to hear the best method of destroying life of insects, etc, for microscopical purposes?' Answer reads: 'Large moths or butterflies are easily killed by pinching the thorax between finger and thumb, or place some cotton wool dipped in chloroform in the bottom of a pickle bottle, and cork down tightly.'
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1891, p.144

Another reader asks how best to attach a camera to a bicycle (another new and exciting device)—an early iteration of the GoPro, apparently.

Typed request for advice on attaching a camera to a bicycle from "CTC". Answer reads: '"CTC" will find Matthews' carrier very suitable for his purpose. It can be obtained at any respectable cycle dealer's. Any short folding tripod will do strapped to the handle bar or backbone. I should think a cycle clip will not answer, as you would always have to lean the machine against something.'
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1891, p.145

A woman, calling herself ‘White Lily’, writes to ask what the best sort of camera is ‘for a lady’. She acknowledges that though ‘she has never taken a photograph’, she wants a serious instrument, ‘not a toy’.

Typed request reads: 'What is the best camera and lens for a lady, who is quite a beginner, and has never taken a photograph? A fairly portabel apparatus wanted, not a toy, but one that will do good work, principally for outdoor work, landscapes, houses, etc, one with which yachts etc (while moving) coukld be photographed preferred. Price about 3 or 4 guineas, half-plate preferred. Also name of a fairly good inexpensive tripod. -White Lily.' Answer reads: 'White Lily will find Smith's camera very portable and really handy and, fitted with one of Wray's R.R. lenses, would suit her purpose perfectly. Lancaster's Instantograph is a very good camera for the money. His price for it, complete with lens and tripod stand, is 4 guineas, or it can be got at the Army and Navy Stores for rather under. It has also an instantaeous shutter. The size I have mentioned is half-plate.'
National Science and Media Museum Library, Amateur Photographer’s Annual, 1891, p.3–4

Her note reminded me instantly of the bold and, moreover, proud-looking young women photographed with their cameras. The popular availability of technical advice magazines like The Amateur Photographer’s Annual allowed these women to learn a specialized craft. In doing so, these women demonstrated that they were capable of using sophisticated tools—‘not toys’—and that they themselves were hardly the decorative objects Victorian society would have them be.

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