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  The research archive of Gary W. Ewer regarding the history of the daguerreotype

On this day (September 18) in the year 1891, the following article appeared as the sixth in a series in "The Photographic Times" (New York; pp. 466-7): - - - - - - - - - - - - - - THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DAGUERREOTYPE. AS SEEN BY A COUNTRY "OPERATOR." VI. My first purchased outfit consisted of one half-size camera, one pair ditto ditto coating boxes and one chair clip head rest, all second-hand. The camera was furnished with a Voigtlander lens, accompanied with the legend that it was the identical one from which the plaster casts mentioned in a former chapter were made. Whether this was true or not I had no documentary evidence to show. The professor, however, assured me he had no doubt of its authenticity. He also said he felt certain the lens was a good one, although its former possessor had been able to obtain nothing with it but blurred images. It had no central stops, and gave with the full opening a well-defined, luminous image, which was promising. In short, we found that by moving the lens forward a certain distance after focusing it, the image on the plate came out with the same sharpness as shown in the previous image on the ground glass. This, of course, proved that the chemical focus was behind the visible focus, and therefore the sensitive surface must be placed behind the position occupied by the ground glass when the visible image was sharp on the latter. This object was gained once for all, by setting the ground glass forward in the frame to the same distance from its normal position. Theoretically it will be claimed that this was incorrect, and that a different adjustment ought to be made for every different focal distance. However this may be, I never discovered the need of any readjustment, and say now, after having examined anew many old specimens made with that lens years and years ago, that I have never seen any more delightful optical work than was performed by it. I discovered that I could not obtain in any plane (so to speak) of the picture the extreme sharpness that some of my friends and competitors were able to produce, and I was sometimes almost afraid that this intensity of detail might tell in their favor to my disadvantage. But I also discovered a charm in pictures that were nowhere exasperatingly sharp and yet nowhere wanting in sufficient detail. But if my lens proved to be a blessing in disguise, for such in verity it was, it was the only piece of apparatus of much value, except as a makeshift. One of my coating boxes was cracked--that is, the jar. This I mended with cloth. As the experiment was a success, and as the way of doing it may suggest an expedient in some emergency, I will impart the secret. I took a strip of strong coarse sheeting as wide as the jar was high, and long enough to reach around it, and, as I knew how to cover a ball, proceeded to surround it on its four upright sides with a tight bandage, drawn together with as much tension as the cloth would permit. This was painted with several coats of boiled linseed oil and white lead, which dried like a bone, making the jar then stronger than ever before, and it lasted for years. Who that has ever in his life used one of those nondescript, curse- inciting engines, once known on earth as the chairclip head-rest, will ever forget it? Surely, any one who, having been led by circumstances into confidential relations with any machination of like power for evil, has escaped with nothing to repent of in consequence, is a fortunate individual. Think how many have fallen like one of my old friends whose name I withold. One fine day, being reduced to his last plate--not having time to prepare another, and having no assistant--another customer called--a very particular person who could spare only a few minutes for the sitting. It was an important case; reputation was concerned in its successful issue. On the other side the conditions were all favorable-- light good, no doubt about the time of exposure. My friend went forward confident of success. The sitting was made in dashing style; then a short suspense. After a little a voice was heard from the dark room. Listen! These were the very word: "D----N THE HEAD REST!" Considering the provocation, perhaps it may be hoped the recording angel treated it in some such manner as he did the oath of Uncle Toby. The most remarkable thing about these lively machines, and one that I never saw or heard satisfactorily explained, was its faculty of getting into sight. I will offer but one suggestion, which any one who does not think as reasonable as some other explanations of well known phenomena, may furnish a better one if he can--and that is, this machine was composed of wood and iron, two substances by nature antagonistic the one to the other. There were wooden rods which were expected to slide through iron tubes, and nothing was more common than for them to refuse to do so. Another time an iron screw was set to prevent a wooden spindle from turning or slipping down, especially when the prongs were immersed in the mazes of a nervous lady's back hair. Of a sudden, without the least warning, that particular screw upon which so much depends, gives way; another, intrusted with the duty of keeping the fabrication upright deserts its post, when a general catastrophe seems inevitable, and which nothing short of the wonderful presence of mind the operator prevents. Don't tell me there wasn't some old hard feeling between the wood and iron at the bottom of all this trouble. W. H Sherman. (To be continued.) (Previous installments appeared on Jan 20, March 13, April 17, May 15, and September 4 and were posted to DagNews in 1997 on the date of their original publication. The seventh installment will appear on October 23.) -------------------------------------------------------------- 09-18-97

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