A number of years ago, at an estate sale, probably (I can't remember exactly where or when, or even what), I came into possession of a leather-bound, gilt-edged album of what appeared to be late 19th Century albumen prints documenting the travels, I now conjecture, of an unnamed man, himself an evidently well-heeled amateur photographer. He seemed to be enjoying, perhaps accompanied by his family, an extended Grand Tour, by rail I assume, that stretched from Central America and Mexico through the western U.S., across Canada, then down to New York City and over to Chicago. Prints seem to have been purchased along the way from the studios of accomplished local photographers. While the street scenes and landscapes were fascinating, for me the most astonishing image is the one reproduced below.
On the heavy but discolored album page, below the photograph, hand-written in pencil, is the following legend: "Eclipse of the Sun, 1st January 1889. Taken at Cloverdale, California."
There was indeed a full, and fully visible, solar eclipse that day on the western edge of Sonoma County, and it was documented by many photographers and observatories in its path, not always successfully. As I have subsequently determined after some research, the photographer in this instance, one W. H. Lowden, was part of the Pacific Coast Amateur Photographic Association, which had traveled to Cloverdale and had to overcome such obstacles as a large cloud obscuring the sun almost up to the very instant of exposure and a farmer who had decided that day to burn a field in a valley below the perfect vantage point the group's advance scouts had chosen earlier. A member of the party was dispatched that morning, by horse, to convince the farmer to douse his fires, which he willingly did; the heavy smoke was dissipated by a cooperative breeze — just in the nick of time, apparently. The cloud drifted past of its own accord.
Here is Mr. Lowden's description of how he made his two exposures, from the files of the Lick Observatory, where a full report of the expedition was preserved:
"Taking an ordinary 11x14 camera, I enclosed it in a wooden box open at each end. This box was hinged at one end to a stout plank which rested (when in position) on two wooden trestles. Under the other end of the box, and between it and the plank, was placed a screw [a kind of jack] which, when operated, raised or lowered the end. At one side of this end was placed another screw which, when operated, moved the box in azimuth. On top of the box I mounted a telescope, carefully adjusted, so that when an image was seen in the centre of the cross wires, it was at the same time projected on the photographic plate of the camera, exactly in the centre.
"I used a rapid rectilinear lens, made by R. & J. Beck, of 24 inches equivalent focus. In this I used a 3-inch diaphragm, thus reducing the aperture to F/8. The plates were [coated with] a special emulsion prepared by Dr. S. C. Passavant, of San Francisco, and registered 12 on Warnecke's sensitometer. At the beginning of the first count by the assistant, which I learned was some 52 seconds before totality, I brought the Moon's image [and its shadow] into the centre of the cross wires in the telescope, and by aid of the screws, above mentioned, kept it there. The wires were placed in the form of an 'L," and enabled me to see the slightest movement much more readily than if the wires were crossed in the usual way. When 'time' was called for totality, I occupied the first 15 or 16 seconds in looking at the Corona with the naked eye, and again getting the image fairly centered. At 19 seconds after totality, my assistant, Mr. J. W. Stafford, removed the cap from the lens and at 60 [seconds] replaced it, thus giving an exposure of 41 seconds. During this time we kept the Moon's [shadow] image as steadily as possible in the centre of the wires of the telescope.
"After reversing the plate holder and allowing the camera to cease vibrating, the lens cap was [again] removed, at 76 seconds after totality, and replaced as 'time' was called at 104 seconds. This plate had, therefore, a 28 second exposure....The plates were of course very much over-exposed. I used the ordinary pyrogallic acid and carbonate of potash developer, modifying it, however, by using three times the usual quantity of water. A normal developer would have produced a thin foggy image, while restraining the action either by the use of bromide or by reducing the volume of potash would result in clogging up the inner Corona hopelessly. As development proceeded, I was compelled to add more water, the action being exceedingly rapid. The image on the 41 second plate made its appearance in 7 seconds, and was fully developed in 6 minutes. I did not observe any difference between this and the second plate worthy of note. [The emulsion was doubtless orthochromatic, allowing open-tray development by visual inspection under dim red safelight conditions.]
"An examination of the negatives shows the inner Corona a mass of light without detail, while the extreme ends are developed into the light of the sky. This would seem to prove that the limit of the photographic image had been reached in both cases, and while the eye may have been able to discern the contrast between the faint light of the Corona and the sky for a greater distance than the negatives show, the photographic value of these faint rays seem to have been no greater than that of the sky at the same point."
The negatives were used to make positive prints, which were available to the public. One of them made its way into the travel album.
Making pictures of an eclipse back then was an even trickier task than it is today. The photographer clearly approached this as a scientific experiment, exploring, in addition to a celestial wonder, the boundaries of the still-pubescent craft of photography. I, on the other hand, see a significant historical moment documented in a nearly 130-year old print whose aging beauty is only enhanced by its border of oxidating and blue-tinged silvering.
And earthbound though I may be, I do tend to see art most everywhere I look.
But it turns out that the year 1889 also holds great significance for me personally:
Mounted contact print found among my father's family effects.
The woman pictured on the porch above is my grandmother, the former Mary Jane "Jenny" Fitzroy, whom I know only from this photograph made in the very same year as the eclipse discussed above. Jenny was the second wife of my grandfather, John Henry Hughes, who was born in 1845 and as a teenager walked from Cos Cob, Connecticut, to lower Manhattan in New York to enlist as a drummer boy for the Union forces in the Civil War. Henry, as he was called, grew up to become a locally well-known builder-architect. He designed and constructed this house himself for his new bride in 1889, the year of their marriage, as one can see proudly displayed on the portico, above the front door. My father was born in this house on Orchard Street in 1892. As I would be 45 years later, in 1937. I would own this house still today if my father, beset by alcohol and the Depression, had not lost it shortly thereafter for non payment of years worth of long-overdue property taxes.
I've always thought that my grandfather took this photograph himself. Otherwise, logic tells me, he would have been in the picture with Jenny as well. Along with being a skilled craftsman, he was, according to family lore, an inveterate tinkerer and a sometime inventor. As I was growing up in our "new" and much smaller and more modest home not far from this one, I used to play with a contraption in our basement that my father said his father had conceived and built but never patented: an incubator for baby chicks that utilized for its heat source some clear glass cabonized-bamboo filamentbulbs of the sort that had been introduced by Thomas Edison in the 1880s. Indeed, it was said that while observing another, earlier eclipse, in 1878, that the idea for the electric light bulb first lit up Tom's fertile mind.
My grandfather's device, of only slightly later vintage, was made not out of wood, but hand-formed galvanized sheetmetal, and had perforated trays and a small venting chimney at the top. It survived into my childhood only because it was, in fact, metal. One particularly cold winter during World War II, coal became so scarce that all the wooden heirlooms that had come from the Orchard Street homestead when we moved, such as a beautiful cherry breakfront and two oaken rockers, had been chopped up and tossed by my father into the belching black furnace that heated our little bungalow. I remember his running up the cellar stairs, yelling that he'd just cut off the tip of his profusely bleeding thumb with his hatchet.
I never did find my grandfather's camera. I would eventually have to find one of my own. At which point, a corner of the cellar would become my darkroom.
Another Eclipse, Another Wedding:
July 20, 1963. Photographer unknown.
This faded, color-shifted print was taken by a stranger, a man with a 35mm camera and potato masher flashgun who had been asked by Evelyn's mother to photograph her daughter's wedding. New mother-in-law instructed the man to place us behind an elaborate, frilly, and of course overexposed cake, underneath a chandelier in her Fifth Avenue apartment that the cake was evidently intended to emulate in an upside down way. For her part, Evelyn, who worked in fashion retailing, had chosen to wear a tailored outfit that was anything but frilly, a stunning look completed by what she called a pill-box hat (more on that later!). The ceremony itself had happened earlier, in the lliving room, facing white-lace curtained window looking out on Central Park. The stranger with the camera arrived late, and missed our vows. Too bad. It was quite the momentous event. As the judge, a neighbor we had met near our East Village apartment on St. Marks Place who agreed to conduct the ceremony, began reciting the required incantations, a commotion seemed to erupt among the gathered friends and family standing behind us. My "best man" and Evelyn's "maid of honor," who had introduced us for a blind date a few months earlier, both rushed past us to peer intently out the window. They were followed by most everyone else, leaving the betrothed to wonder what the hell was going on. It was mid-day, but, unnaccountably, darkness seemed to be falling.
Seems we had scheduled our wedding to happen at precisely the moment of "totality" on July 20, 1963. That's the day another famous Solar Eclipse occurred, this time passing directly above Fifth Avenue in New York City. Evelyn and I had been so busy planning this joyous event that we had failed to keep up with the news. Hadn't watched television in days. Not only that, we almost didn't make it to our own wedding. That morning, as she got dressed, Evelyn suddenly exclaimed, "Where's my hat?" We searched everywhere. No hat. Her outfit could not be complete without that hat. "When did you last see it?" I asked. She described a small brown paper bag that she had kept it in, the very bag the saleswoman put it in when Evelyn bought it. We looked for the bag. No bag. After what seemed like hours, and skipping breakfast, I went downstairs and pounded on the Super's steel door. "Evelyn can't find her hat," I pleaded. "Maybe you could check the incinerator?"
"No way," he said. "But I'll open the door for you." He handed me a scorched steel rake as I climbed through the fireproof hatch. Fortunately, no trash had been burned that day (incinerators were still legal in New York back then!). So I raked through what seemed to be a ton of stinking garbage, as more kept falling noisily down the chute and hurtling toward my head. It seemed like hours, but it was probably closer to 45 minutes, when I found a small, crumpled, brown paper bag. Inside was the hat, miraculously no worse for wear. I crawled out, ran upstairs, showered, then we both got dressed for a wedding and uptown we went on the subway. Invited guests were already there when we arrived, breathless.
It was an auspicious beginning to a memorable day. Last month, we celebrated our 54th anniversary. Evelyn remains my best friend.
On November 9, 1965, as a workday was waning and daylight was beginning to fade, I was in the courtyard of a classic old church in Brooklyn photographing an outdoor sculpture exhibit. Evelyn and I had just moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan, having found a duplex in a brownstone for $125 a month, and I had taken the day off from a job I didn't much like as an associate editor of a trade magazine. I had recently purchased a fast f/1.9 85mm pre-set lens from Spiratone for my Miranda, and wanted to try it out in low light. I saw a man with a white cane using his free hand to "see" an almost life-size torso of a female nude. The lens gave me some distance, and threw the background nicely out of focus. I shot a few frames before the blind man moved on.
Shortly after 5 p.m. as rush-hour traffic was beginning and subways were filling with commuters, a power transformer tripped in Ontario, near Niagara Falls. Before long, like dominoes, other transformers tripped. The Power grid became overloaded and, to protect itself, started to shut down. Thus began the Great Blackout of 1965. Most of New York City went dark, and some areas stayed dark for as long as 13 hours. Since there was still some daylight, I walked the half-block back to our new apartment. Evelyn was in Manhattan, on her way home. I didn't know it, but she'd been in a subway station waiting for a train when everything went dark and the trains just stopped running. She finally made her way back up to the street and found a payphone that still worked. She said the streets in the City were mobbed, but everyone seemed polite and helpful. Regular citizens had begun directing traffic, and restaurants opened their doors to the public and were handing out refreshments. She told me where she was. I said stay right there, I'll come and get you. After a couple hours and with no light in sight save the occasional bobbing flashlight, I had found a young man with a car who was itching to take a drive through the maelstrom. It took a while, but he inched across the Brooklyn Bridge, and we finally found my wife and drove back home. Half a day later, the power had mostly returned. But 800,000 people had been stranded on stalled subway trains in New York City, and in the northeast region more than 30 million people across 80,000 square miles had been left without electricity during the ordeal.
When I first moved to New York, I had found a job working for a business magazine providing advice to corporate executives. Then I signed on to write for a graphic arts and design publication. Finally, from a co-worker, I heard that the editor of my favorite photography journal at the time, Camera 35, was leaving to become editor of Modern Photography. I called and applied for the job. Besides editing magazines I didn't really like, I'd been writing unfinished plays and photographing panhandlers on the Lower East Side, not to mention one blind art lover in Brooklyn. In fact, I'd just added an appropriately dark print of the sculpted woman being "seen" in a new light to my portfolio, and it was the first picture I showed. A few days after the interview, I received a telephone call from the editor of the company's principle publication, U.S. Camera. I was informed, politely, that I wasn't qualified. Of course, I knew I was, although I had yet to join his exclusive club. That night, I initiated a long conversation with an artist friend and Brooklyn neighbor who told me she knew that editor's boss: the legendary Tom Maloney, owner and publisher of U.S Camera Publishing. The next day, I received a phone call. "I'd like to know just who this fellow is that our former baby sitter says is so damned good," Tom Maloney said in an offhanded and good humored mumble that I would get to know well over the next few years. I returned to the magazine's offices and showed him my writing samples, and that print. Two weeks later, he was my boss, as well.
Tom gave me the freedom to bring new ideas and thinking to photo magazine publishing. Camera 35 represented my dream job (actually, the first of several I would hold over the years). The famous Blackout, the one that had informed my portfolio print of two men, a blind subject and his sighted observer, both chasing shadows on that singular day, had actually gone a long way toward changing the course of one of our lives — mine.
As Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "Everything That Rises Must Converge."
Weather permitting, a total solar eclipse will be visible across much of the continental United States on August 21st of this year. Check your local newspapers, or just Google it.
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