Ghosts in photos?
One tends to attribute nostalgic feelings to the birth of old portrait photos: a photographer is standing behind a plate camera fixed to a stand, covering himself and the device with a black veil and then exposes. Actually, a photo made by artisan skilfulness has an extra value and a certain charm. For example, the already faded and yellowed albumin portraits typical in the second half of the 19th century. The albumin paper applied with collodion process was the most widespread basic material in the photography of the period. Negatives were taken on collodionized glass plates, then they were put on albumin paper in positive picture form, and positives were backed on matboards. In Hungary, almost all photographers employed the technique and they could make elaborated photos with it during a relatively short time, and the negatives were multipliable as well.
Nevertheless, there were processes that demanded a longer time, thus models had to sit and look into the objective with unblinking face for a long time. Circumstantiality was caused by the long exposure time: the period during which light exposes the photosensitive plate in the camera. The earliest surviving photograph, Nièpce’s photo View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827) was taken during 8 hours by a very early heliogravure process. There is no living person in the photo, which is probably not by coincidence. Even a daguerreotype and a talbotype required a 15-minute exposure time.
During the long exposure time, models – especially children – often stirred or turned their heads. The faulty photos or photos with ghost-like figures originated from this. A split second was enough to make a blooper, no matter what technique they used. Ghost-like images were made with the trick of superimposition as well. Mishaps were often taken as the proof of supernatural forces or a spiritualist apparition, but intentional hoaxes also occurred.
Photo manipulation as art
Photo manipulation is considered as a separate branch of art and was born by mixing photography techniques and post-production. Its practicians employ different manipulation tools like exposure time changing, superimposition, photomontage – which is a mounting technique without computer programs – patching several pictures cut out from different places. Mounting was a beloved tool of the surrealism primarily, but sometimes it occurred in realistic postcards from the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.
The coloured looks better
Today it is obvious that you can see the colours of reality in photos, though black and white photos spread until the 1980s. The first coloured photo was taken in 1861, and in 1904 the fathers of motion picture the Lumière brothers developed the so-called autochrome coloured photography process, using a glass plate. It was employed until the 1930s, but its production was laborious and paper pictures could not be made with it. If there was a demand for coloured paper photos, they used to colour black and white photos simply. Besides manual painting, they employed the photochromic method for posterior colouring. A typographic process copies the black and white negative by assigning colours to different areas of luminance in the picture. This technique just approached the colours of reality, but these photographs were thought to be sensational in the last decades of the 19th century, as well as they are today.
On the other hand, we have not mentioned the complications of film development yet. There are many things that can ruin the result: the darkroom is not dark enough; dust flies on the drying negatives, and so on. In our picture selection, there are examples for the errors of film development as well. Overall, these failed photos bring people of past centuries closer to us and make the sixth branch of art photography even more human.
We would like to thank Anna Viola Szabó, photo-historian museologist of Déri Museum, for reviewing and correcting the text.
Translated by Zita Aknai