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The Fanboy Loses the Girl: A Humorous Story About Love and Photography from 1891

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Young women using a Kodak box camera at the Chicago World's Fair circa 1893.

Full text of “Sketchy Experiences” from the January 3, 1891 issue of Wilson’s Photographic Magazine

As it turns out, camera fanboys go way back in history. In this episode of the fine art photography podcast, I’ll read a bit of humor about love and photography from the 1891 issue of Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, a New York based photography magazine that was published from 1889 – 1914.

Full transcript from episode 40 of the Fine Art Photography Podcast

In this episode of the fine art photography podcast, I’ll read a bit of humor about love and photography from the 1891 issue of Wilson’s Photographic Magazine.

Hey everybody, Keith Dotson here, and I’m fascinated by what I find in antique photography magazines. If you dig deep enough on the internet, you can read the original published writings of luminaries like Herschel and Fox-Talbot in the British Journal of Photography. You can get an idea of what the prevailing trends, passions, and concerns were at a given time in photo history.

I recently discovered Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, which was published in New York from 1889 to 1914, and then on to 1923 under a different title. The publisher was a photographer and author named Edward L. Wilson.

Wilson’s Photographic Magazine was significant because it was read by a burgeoning talent named Edward S. Curtis, who in a few years began his travels to photograph the remaining Native American tribes in the last vestiges of the old West as it had been tamed. He became one of America’s first rockstar photographers.

In reading through this magazine, I see a tension between pictorialists, who wanted photography to be seen as an art equal to painting, and those who thought the fuzzy focus trend had gone too far. Pictorialists preferred soft focus imagery and matte surface, textured papers for printing. In some ways, their work was a backlash to the glossy surface of albumen prints, which had been very widely used for a few decades, but were seen by many as too glossy and garish. I published a podcast all about albumen prints in November 2020 if you want to know more about that process.

Photo journals of this era captured the excitement of photography, which was becoming a popular past time. Kodak was producing consumer-level cameras that made it easy to make snapshots. They were advertising them in print for tourists, especially encouraging them to carry a camera to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the advertising worked. That World’s Fair experienced a new phenomenon, something called the “Kodak Fiend” — often young women making portraits of friends all across the fairgrounds.

Take A Kodak With you to the World's Fair. Vintage Kodak ad circa 1893. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries.
Take A Kodak With you to the World’s Fair. Vintage Kodak ad circa 1893. Courtesy of Duke University Libraries.

They were using a box camera that was basically a black rectangle with a lens in one end, measuring about 6 inches by 7 inches by ten inches. A Montauk camera — which figures prominently in the following lifestyle humor piece — was a similar camera made by a different company. The story mentions a place called Nahant — that’s a toney beach town on what used to be an island off the coast of massachusetts before they built a causeway out to it. You can see the Boston Skyline from the shore.

I’ve read that Edward S. Curtis, the artist who photographed America’s Native tribes, rejected these smaller consumer cameras and opted instead for a bigger, bulkier, more difficult, large format camera that still used dry-plate glass negatives. He wanted the sharpness and detail only possible from the larger format.

One more thing — the story mentions the “McKinley bill” — The McKinley Tariff was passed in 1890, in a period of protectionism similar to what we have experienced recently in this country. It placed duties up to 50% on imports, with the intention of protecting American industry. The result was a steep increase on prices for the American consumer, harsh reactions from trading partners overseas, and a voter backlash against the pro-tariff Republican party, which received a resounding thumping in the next election.

OK, here we go — the full text from a column called “Sketchy Experiences” in the January 3, 1891 edition of Wilson’s Photographic Magazine.


SKETCHY EXPERIENCES.

By a New Contributor.

I find a little piece of intelligence in the December number of the Boston Law and Gospel which is calculated to give consolation to all who have a kindly leaning toward the fitness of things. It runs thus:

Last summer, at Nahant, a young lady appeared at one of the fashionable hotels with a “Montauk” hand-camera swung over her shoulder. In a few days after (all accident, of course) her betrothed lover appeared with a ” Kodak” under his arm, nearest to his heart. They quarrelled, and he broke the engagement. He could not marry anyone who would use a Montauk, made in a city of uncertain population and the headquarters for N.P.A. paper. Now the jury awards her $1000 in a breach of promise suit.

The fair damsel, of course, did perfectly right in holding on to her Montauk. She would have splashed her courage of convic tion (one of the greatest charms of her sex) all into a saturated solution had she done otherwise. What a painful lack of true grit she would have shown also. Of course, it is not always easily seen why one person holds so tenaciously to one kind of a camera, while his next best friend as persistently clings to another. But if the young lady preferred the Montauk, she was heartily to be commended for sacrificing everything for it. I have known one’s favorite camera cause him to do the most strange things imaginable. I have been there my own-self. But is not that correct — is it not right? In the case in question, the lover was unquestionably in the wrong. Inbreaking his engagement with her because she was manly enough to lift up her voice in favor of the Montauk when it was her choice, he proved that he was considerable of a donkey. A swain who conducts a courtship — as he evidently did — to the motto :

“I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I the Kodak not much more,

writes himself down in large distinct light and shade as an animal of the sort I have named, and leaves all our camera clubs in doubt as to his integrity. Why, such a man would steal a roll-holder out of a dead soldier’s pocket on the field of battle.

Any attempt to introduce the camera into love and courtship ought to be sternly frowned down upon by us all. Our politics, our religion, and our photography we are all individually and alone accountable for, and should be allowed to choose unbiased for ourselves. Some people think photography is too much discussed in society now, anyway. Particularly are the people of Asheville still of this mind. Once every year the nation is thoroughly torn up from ocean to ocean by the Convention and exhibition of the P. A. of A., and in the months between, some of us hear of nothing else. Perhaps we should not object to this in our photographic societies. But let the photographic line be drawn somewhere. Let it be drawn at courtship, if you will. It is desirable (and at the new year beginning is a good time to begin) that the young American should be taught that he must enter the drawing-room of the hotel parlor, where the idol of his soul is awaiting him, whispering to himself,” He who enters here leaves photography behind “If the donkey of whom (or of which?) the Law and Gospel tells had not been injured to the focus of $1000, others of his kind in whom photography is so strong — and camera prejudice so mighty — might feel encouraged to imitate his wretched example. As a consequence, the dry-plate maker and the apparatus producer will suffer.

There was a time when young lovers used to spend their time in singing duets, playing croquet, reading Lalla Rookh, getting up amateur theatricals, discussing Browning, swinging on the front gate, and in similar light-hearted employments, because the detective camera did not assail them on all sides. Happily, by agreement this annoyance has ceased in some quarters. Shall lovers now begin to take such a profound mutual interest in cameras that if one of them cheers for one, the other will proceed to break the engagement if that one is not the one he is focussing? It may be said that the girl in question began the row by cheering for her Montauk. But that’s nonsense. The man — that is to say, the donkey — was at fault for taking the cheers seriously. What he ought to have done, and would have done if he had been another sort of a created being, was to cheer her for cheering, without, of course, modifying his own camera convictions. If he had pursued that tolerant, generous-hearted policy, it is more than likely that the girl would have been so infatuated with his chivalrous nobility of character that she would have renounced the Montauk on the spot and have embraced the Kodak.

As it is, the two are separated. The young donkey has given up photography “on account of the McKinley bill,” and the travelling salesmen of several stock-dealers are after the young lady, pestering her to invest her $1000 heart-money in printing-frames inlaid with mother-o’-pearl, and in a burnisher made of aluminum!


That’s the end of that.

Thanks for listening everybody. I’ll be back with a podcast about Edward S. Curtis very soon.


Kodak ad graphic courtesy of Duke University Libraries

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Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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