Tuesday, January 8, 2013

WWI and Russian Revolution photos found

 In response to the interest that was expressed about the WWI images from France, which I recently found in a camera bought at an antique store, I decided to write up a story of how I found a much larger collection from the same time period taken in Russia, China and Japan.
• • •

  In 2005 I was asked to come by a Northern California home to help translate and identify some mystery images.  I love old photos, so I was eager to help.  All I knew when I was on my way up there was that they were from Russia and really old.

  When I arrived at the house in Northern California I saw in front of me a number of very old wooden storage boxes and one more much larger black carrying case.  The owner told me that inside were pictures taken by her grandfather.  She opened one of the boxes and pulled out a glass slide about 3x4in. I must admit I did not know the term 'Magic Lantern Slide' back then and did not immediately realize what I'm looking at.  But there were hundreds of images from snow-covered villages, train tracks, bullet-riddled buildings, soldiers in trenches, soldiers by houses, soldiers on trains....  Lots of soldiers.  There were also lots of pictures from China and Japan mixed in among them.  The slides were also exquisitely colored by hand and the colors have been preserved wonderfully.   I finally tore myself away from the images to ask what I was looking at.
This is what I got as the answer.  Also included in this tale is s lot of information that I was able to research since that meeting:

  The name of the photographer was John Wells Rahill, a pastor who graduated from Yale University in 1906.  He had a strong interest in Russian history and culture.  His topic of study at Yale, as mentioned in a small article about his graduation, was "Contribution of Christianity to Socialism".  As it so happens John was also an avid photographer and used a Kodak Jr. #1 roll film camera.
   In the winter of 1917 John heard about the first Russian revolution and was determined to go to that far-off land and experience the changes for himself.  In the summer of 1917 John joined the American branch of the YMCA, in particular the War Works Division.  During the first World War YMCA was vary active behind the scenes helping the armies of both sides in that terrible conflict by providing things like rest and relaxation activities, overseeing troop repatriation and other logistics.
   On the service card, which I was able to locate at the YMCA Kautz Family archives in Minneapolis, the date of his departure for Russia is stated as October 7th 1917 - the very same day of the big final push in the Communist Revolution.  He was sent to work with the troops of the Western Front of Russia.  He set up a facility the YMCA called 'Soldiers House' in the back of the front lines in a village (now a small town) of Valk.  Today the town carries the name Valga and lies split in half by the border of Estonia and Latvia.  There he was given an old school building inside of which he arranged for a reading room, game room, kitchen and other facilities to help the soldiers during their time away from the fighting.
  John spent only a few months working in Valk when the turmoil of the revolution and the conflict with the new government has forced the removal of most of YMCA staff from Russia.  It is known that due to heavy fighting in Europe it was deemed that the safest route for their evacuation was determined as being via Trans-Siberian and then through China and Japan.  John returned to the United States in the spring of 1918.
  All along during his fascinating trip he took plenty of photographs with his trusty Kodak.  Upon his return John had the best of his images converted into Magic Lantern Slides because he was interested in sharing his experience and the plight of the Russian people with the world.  As it so happens he also visited Moscow and there purchased more than 50 slides there from a professional studio.  He even had the idea of finding the same buildings that were featured in those slides and re-photographing them himself.  He also bought some professional slides in Japan and again went to the same places and made his own exposures there.
 Upon his return John began a long career as a pastor and was known to give lectures on the work of the YMCA during the First World War.  It appears that those who worked in Russia were soon blacklisted and labeled as 'socialist sympathizers'.  So by the middle of 1920s John packed his collection of over 500 glass slides along with the black and white proof prints, lecture cards and the slide projector into a metal chest in the basement of his house.  And so the first part of the life of this incredible collection came to an end.

  It was not until the passing of his daughter that the contents of that chest were found by his granddaughter.  After I saw those images in 2005 I became very intrigued by them and wanted to see them preserved well and presented to the world.  Six years passed and in 2011 I purchased the slides.  Here you can see the short video about the collection, which I made after doing some preservation work.
 • • • 
  My goal now is to go back to Russia in 2017 and travel along the path taken by John to re-photograph the same locations 100 years after him and make a new set of Magic Lantern slides to be preserved for posterity.  I am open to funding proposals.

  Some readers may ask why would I want to make lantern slides, so I feel compelled to explain my reasoning.  I have a deep love toward analog photography and historic authenticity of images as artifacts.  When properly exectuted, gelatin silver images printed on glass plates are extremely stable and that is evidenced by the remarkable condition of this 100 year old collection.  I believe that with good care they will be viewable in another tow hundred years.  I am also inspired by the compelling beauty of a projected Magic Lantern slide.  A very special bonding experience is shared by the viewers during such a show and I would like to perpetuate this tradition.  I am not at all opposed to eventually scanning and making both sets available for world-wide viewing.  I would just like to make a Magic Lantern slides from the re-photographing trip to compliment the craftsmanship, history and tradition of the original set.

  Here are but a few of over 600 images from collection:

 Rahill and three Russian boys in a small village.

 Interior of the Soldiers House that Rahill set up in Valk.

Soldiers on Omsk train station platform.

Soldiers with gas masks by bunker.

 Ruined building in Moscow.

YMCA members entertaining train station crowd.

One of the slides purchased by Rahill in Moscow from Baranov studio.

 Funeral Procession in Peking, China.

Japanese fishing village and inhabitants.

 Please send a direct email to thephotopalace@gmail.com and I will be happy to discuss publishing the collection in a book, giving Magic Lantern Slide shows featuring some of these images, or any other requests you may have. I could also make you a beautiful print for your home or office.

  Our educational programs and research are supported by contributions from readers like you.  Please consider a donation of any amount and click the button below.

Anton Orlov

email:  thephotopalace@gmail.com 

At the request of scholars who are interested in this topic and for the purposes of furthering the research in this area and promotion of this collection I am adding JPEG files with all the lecture card texts.   Feel free to download these and get a better idea of what is contained in this collection.

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Thank you.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wet Plate Collodion artist Allan Barnes interview

On Saturday January 5th it was my pleasure to visit Allan Barnes - photographer residing in Los Angeles.   Allan has taught photography at multiple institutions and has led many private workshops.  Currently he is a part time instructor at the New York Film Academy and offers private tutorials.  His work can be found on his Tumblr and Flickr account and to find out more about his private teaching practice you could refer to his own Blog.

It just so happened that during my visit I was able to observe him as he was doing a follow-up class with two students and I got a taste of his teaching style, which was very no-nonsense and to the point.  His students were delighted and vowed to come back for more practice time at a later date (wet plate collodion is a complicated processes and is not something one can get comfortable with in one or two days). 

 Allan aiding his students in the portrait session.

Allan's student and their models.

After the daylight was gone, the backdrop was removed from the garden and his students departed we sat down for an interview:
Q.  What process do you work with?
A.  I work with wet plate collodion, which includes both tintypes and ambrotypes.  Ambrotypes are glass-based images where glass plates are soaked in silver nitrate with collodion is binding the silver to the plate.  Tintypes are not made on tin, but on aluminum sheets and it’s essentially the same process.  Tintypes are a little bit easier because the material we use, called trophy plates, is sheets of aluminum with a baked-on black enamel and it is commonly used in engraving and therefore more readily available.

Q.  When and how did you first get involved in photography?
A.  I became haunted with black and white images at the age of ten.  I was in a literature class thumbing through a book that was illustrated with black and white images.  There I saw a series of pictures made by Duane Michaels.  He is still alive today and is probably in his 80s now, but he was really popular in the 1960s and 70s and he did these little stories – little sequential series of pictures.  It was a cross between still photography and film where he used images to tell short five second novels, which I thought was brilliant.  It as then that I decided that I had to learn how to make black and white photographs.  It took me until I was 17, in my last year of high school, to learn that.  Then I really got serious about it in college and started working in the college paper.  During the first year or two I did a lot of landscapes, but due to the influence of working in the paper I decided to become a photojournalist.  That’s where I was for about a decade and the last time I took a picture for a publication was probably 2005.

Q.  What attracted you to the tintype process?
A.  It’s very slow, very deliberate, very messy and very smelly.  It’s very physical – you’re always moving around, and the reason I think I liked photography in the first place was because it involved a lot of moving around and not just sitting in a chair in front of a desk.  When you’re in the darkroom you are moving around and as a journalist you are constantly going different places and taking pictures of different people.  That too was a very fascinating career, but very difficult to get a good job in.  I did get into photojournalism as the newspapers were starting to close, so it was a really bad time to get into the field, but I still wanted to do it.  In the 90s I started working with Polaroids and doing a lot of work for myself on the side.  Around 1996 I also had a job that lasted about a year working for a magazine and the publisher was a very brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning photographer named MannyCrisostomo who used to work at the Detroit Free Press.  He pushed me to experiment and I started working with larger formats again, using Polaroid type 55 film, doing Polaroid transfers.  However by 2002 it became obvious that Polaroid was in deep trouble and was not going to survive.  At about that time I moved out to Los Angeles from Detroit and that was pretty much the end of my photojournalistic career and I had to reinvent myself.  Around that period I have seen some alternative process images and wet plate work being done by contemporary artists.  I saw  original daguerreotype of the burning Twin Towers on 911 by Jerry Spagnoli on display in New York and was really haunted by it and became interested in making daguerreotypes.  I also saw a series of wet plate images by Robert Maxwell – a series of portrait of actors and actresses, models and kids and his work drew me toward wet plate as well.  I was at this fork in the road as I was attracted to both technologies, but when I found out that you had to burn mercury to develop daguerreotypes I decided to go with wet plate collodion.

Q.  What equipment do you use?
A.  I use a reproduction half plate bellows camera made by Ray Mogenweck. His company is called Star Camera Company. I use two backs at a time so I can make two plates every ten minutes...The lens is a no-brand Petzval most likely from the 1860s or 1870s. 
Photographer and his camera.

The man-cave darkroom.

Q.  How did you learn the process, did you teach yourself?
A.  No, I admire anyone who can do something like this on their own and there certainly are videos and other information on the web, but I am the kind of learner that I need to see someone face to face doing it and be able to ask questions.  In 2005 I went to a two-day workshop at the International Center of Photography and got a taste of the process with Joni Sternbach.  She did say that the workshop was pretty much an introduction and if I really wanted to get serious I should go and spend a few days in upstate New York with John Coffer and I did that the following summer.  That’s when I became really hooked and decided to get all the gear and go at it.

Q.  How do you think digital imaging has changed the field of photography?
A.  Well, it’s almost like what the introduction of the Brownie camera by George Eastman in the 1880s – it made it photography much easier and much more accessible by taking a lot of the mystery out of it.  Prior to George Eastman most photographers were professionals and you had to have a lot of money to buy the equipment and get set up and the Brownie brought photography to the masses.  Before digital the company that hired a photographer had to have a lot of trust in the photographer and the fact that he/she knows what they are doing because you couldn’t review the images on the spot.  Prior to digital photography was more valued as a trade and a profession.

Q.  What do you think is the place of film and analog photography today?
A.  I actually rarely use film, though I have recently been thinking of doing some 8x10 because knowing how to do an 8x10 ambrotype I think going back to film will be a lot easier.  However I feel like technology is a banquet and all the technologies are good.  I personally like doing wet plates though, but I don’t shy away from digital as well and recently was in a mobile arts photography show where all the images were taken with phones.  It’s all about making an image and telling a story.

Q.  Do you think there is a benefit to new photographers in learning analog processes?
A.  Yes.  It makes you slower and more deliberate.  For example – I do a lot of my work on plates and so when I use a digital camera now I’m very careful and I’ll do only 3-4 frames and that’ll be it.  I know when I got the shot and there is no need to spend 200 frames and hope that I got something.  So I think film makes you more a more careful shooter.  I teach and I feel that digital has made people more careless – they don’t even want to use a meter because they think that if the exposure is off they can just see it on the screen and correct it.  Digital can be a good learning tool as well, but the fact that you have an unlimited amount of frames makes people less attentive I think.  Other than that I have nothing against it.

Q.  Who were some of your biggest influences?
A.  Besides Duane Michaels I think I owe a lot to my great grandfather - a photographer in a little town in Ontario, Canada.  It was a very small place, so one had to have a lot of trades in order to provide for his 8 children.  So my great grandfather was a photographer, funeral director, cabinet-maker, watch repairman.  
Today there are a lot of people whose work I admire.  The first person that comes to mind is Paolo Roversi, who is an Italian photographer and does very timeless large format images.  At the same time I do come from a photojournalists background and I like the work of people like SebastianSalgado, Eugene Richards and Taryn SimonHowever, while I think it’s important to see the work that’s being currently produced, one does have to be careful not to spend too much time staring at other peoples work.

Q.  Where do you see analog photography in 25 years?
A.  It will be an alternative process just like cyanotypes are now.  I’m a little curious as to where wet plate is going to be because more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon, which is fine – it’s slow photography vs. fast photography.  Just like slow food vs. fast food – some people are fine with eating at McDonalds while others prefer a unique meal made with care and so they will go to an artisan restaurant.  I think a lot of people spend their days in front of the computer, so the idea that when you are not at your job looking at a screen you are going to come home and do more of the same while making pictures is what drives a lot of people to these older processes.  Whether it is film, wet plate, salt prints or other messy hands-on techniques people will be looking to that to put some excitement in their lives.  What’s really nice is that you can mix digital with the old technology and made digital negatives to use with you Van Dyke or platinum prints and I think that’s great too.

Exit time.

Anton Orlov

Friday, January 4, 2013

French WWI images found still in camera

Here's something you don't see every day, so I think it deserves a post.

  The other day I was alerted by my friend Rob McElroy about the existence of an antique store that recently purchased a large photography estate.  Among other things Rob collects antique books on photography and asked me to investigate if I can spot some books there similar to the ones that have already been put on eBay by the store.  

  I drove up 100 miles to the store and found an incredibly cluttered little shop filled with furniture and other trinkets stacked on top of each other at least three levels high.  The back room, however contained the photo gear and it was a delight to see.  In fact, I'm not done there just yet and am going back on Saturday on my way to interview a wet-plate photographer in LA area (look for that interview in the next post).  There are dozens of wooden cameras from late 1800s, hundreds of lenses and shutters of all makes and kinds and thousands of parts and supplemental to cameras of any sort (sadly, most of them probably hopelessly and forever disconnected from their original counterparts).  I dug around for about 8 hours and am probably still yet to see all that there is.  

  One of the cameras that caught my attention right away was a French stereoscopic camera called Jumelle Bellieni.  I knew that I had to have it for my collection even though it was missing the focus-synchronizing bar and dark slide.  Here is a link to some pictures of one that is in better shape than mine.  It's a pretty neat-looking piece of equipment and, even if I never take a single picture with it, it will look very nice in the camera museum I'm hoping to open up in my old age.  Thankfully the price I was quoted was reasonable and still leaves me with a bit of diesel funds for the upcoming second journey aboard The Photo Palace Bus. 

  When I got home I was anxious to figure out everything about the inner workings of this camera.  First order of business was to clean it.  Everything in the collection that was acquired by that store is covered with a thick layer of dust and grime and it took quite a few Armorall wipes to get the leather to gain a presentable look.  Then came the Carl Zeiss lenses - I carefully took them apart and wiped them to the  best of my ability.  I can't say they are in great shape, but at least I got the majority of fog off of them.  I started to run out of things to clean on the outside of the camera, which naturally made me wonder what it looks like on the inside.  After a good while of looking for the back release I realized that there is none present entire back can be slid to one side.  The plate pressure springs jumped out at me like a couple of live and angry rabbits (the Monty Python And The Holy Grail kind).  Naturally I thought something was awry as I am not yet used to camera parts charging in attack mode.  Luckily I soon realized that I was out of the danger zone and that the two parts acted as they should have been expected to.  Here is where things got incredibly interesting.

  Inside each film chamber I found a stack of neat little glass plate holders (12 total).  While 4 of them were empty the rest contained the original thin plates of glass.  The last thing that I ever expected to find though were negative images on those plates!  Each of them seem like they were fully developed!  The glass is clear (I am not sure if dry glass plates had antihalation backing on them and am in touch with an expert to try to find that out) in the dark areas and fully exposed and dark in the light areas.  I am completely baffled by this find, but the images were so intriguing that I decided to scan them.  

  While viewing the images in their negative form it was difficult to say for sure what was on each of them, but after scanning them it became clear that they dated back to the First World War and were taken somewhere in France.  There were 8 images and they say that a picture is worth a thousand words.  I will spare you from reading another 8000 words - here they are, quite possibly seen for the very first time since their capture.

 House in a river after bombardment

Three soldiers and remains of an airplane

Two soldiers, one holding up a sizable bomb

 A town showing signs of war

Two soldiers and countryside in the distance

A soldier by ruined train tracks and houses

A stereoscopic image of an old house.
This was the only image done in stereo pair.
Large light leak is unfortunate as it would have been fun to print this pair 
and view it my old stereoscope.

  I absolutely love finding images that likely have never been seen by anyone in the world.  
  Hope you enjoyed looking at them as well.  If you would like to have some prints of these 100 year old photographs for your wall or collection I would be happy to make real gelatin silver darkroom prints for your collection for a very reasonable cost.  Web-reproduction rights are granted on case-by-case basis, it is my hope that you will consult with me about publishing my find.

  Here is a another chance for me to express my personal preference for analog photography.  Let's say you took some pictures with your latest greatest digital camera (perhaps you actually were  present during 911 and got some incredible documentary captures).  Let's suppose that you forget to take the memory card out of the camera and lose that camera or forget about it up on top of some shelve.  Time goes by and, alas, you pass away having lived a long and productive life.  That camera is sold to an antique store 100 years later (if it doesn't end up in a landfill - people seem to value old things less and less nowadays and the incredible numbers in which digital cameras are being produced today make me wonder if anyone will even give a camera from the early 21st century a second look by then).  What do you think are the chances that whoever buys your camera will be able to see the incredible images from your memory card?  Will they have devices that can take a Micro SD or a Sony Stick in the 22nd century?  What if your camera spends 20 years sitting on top of a magnet - will that scramble the images beyond recovery? 

  If you find this post intriguing I recommend taking a look at the blog entry with images from the First World War period taken in Russia.

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Thank You,
Anton Orlov