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Thursday 6.16.05: American Farm Children [revised 4.15.13]

I'm back to my ebay auctions after taking off the month of May for filmmaking and vacation.

Into my bottomless box of mysteries... yesterday I pulled out 2 boxes of 4 x 5 inch glass plate negatives. 23 in all. They are the most mysterious because you can't see what you have without some effort. When I held a few to the light I saw they were worth some serious attention.

I took pictures of all 23 on my light box, then inverted them in Photoshop to get a good look.

The most engaging shots are the farm children: informal shots of a toddler feeding chickens, a little boy with his own miniature hoe, a boy in his own tiny hay wagon pulled by a wooden horse, kids piled into a wooden wheelbarrow. Then there is a shot of Niagara Falls, an Iron Steamboat Company steamer and a couple clamming at the seashore. So I suspect they were taken in New York State.

Toddler feeding chickens #2, c. 1900They make me wonder. The photos seem more akin to snapshots than to the formal portraits seen on tintypes and early landscape photography. They make me pull out the books. Cameras that used glass negatives were still bulky contraptions, but the invention and mass production of "dry plates" by George Eastman suddenly made photography a whole lot easier.

By the mid-1880s an exciting burst of creativity was producing a vast variety of hand cameras... They were much smaller and lighter than the unwieldy wet plate cameras that they replaced... Before the introduction of dry plates, the paraphernalia and preparations necessary when a photograph was taken made the intention of the photographer only too obvious. The new hand held dry plate cameras could be used easily and simply without all the fuss and bother that had accompanied the earlier photographic processes, and they became known as "detective" cameras... ["Collecting Old Cameras," by Cyril Permutt, p.88]

When were these particular pictures taken? The Seed Dry Plate was invented by Miles Ainscoe Seed. Mr. Seed incorporated his business in 1883 and sold it to Eastman Kodak in 1902, so the photos were likely taken during that period. [reference: ]

So who was this photographer?

Was he a professional photographer who took these on a visit back to the family farm? Or was he an itinerant photographer who could only afford to haul around a play horse instead of a pony? Or was he a farm guy who happened to own a camera? -- an early adopter, an amateur who saw the beauty around him but wasn't boxed in by the idea of "studio portraits." Maybe he was an early 20th-century guy using up the last of his heavy glass plates before investing in his first Kodak Brownie, with roll film.

Or maybe it wasn't a guy at all. Maybe these photos are so striking because they were taken with a woman's eye.

I'm afraid the answer is lost in the mist of time.

If you can't see the slideshow below, look on Flickr.

farm boy with small hoe, c. 1900

For more tales from our restless closets, visit my auction theme page.