Processing “Historic” Photographs

The first photograph in history was taken in 1826 or 1827. Obviously, there was no “time stamp” embedded into the image to help us be more specific. A dozen years passed before the first photograph to include a person was made, and that was largely an accident. About a year later, in 1839, the first intentional portrait (which happened to be a “selfie”) was made.

The first war photo was shot in 1847, during the Mexican-American war. Matthew Brady became famous during America’s civil war for the thousands of images he took during that conflict. Brady followed on the earlier wartime work of Roger Fenton, a British photographer who captured images of the Crimean War.

So why the history lesson? I simply wanted to remind us that photography did not exist during America’s revolutionary war. That fact has become significant for me in a very specific way over the past year.

Last year I began to volunteer at Historic Brattonsville, a “living history” museum in York County, South Carolina. One of the major events at the site each year is the reenactment of the Battle of Huck’s Defeat. (See my posts on the 2018 and 2019 events.) I then added another even to my calendar this year, shooting at the reenactment of the Battle of Charlotte at Historic Latta Plantation. I enjoy shooting these events, and am planning on shooting others as I can.

After I put my camera back in the bag at the end of the day, I still have the work of selecting, and editing, the pictures that I have taken. Yes, every image is processed in one way or another. (I’ll leave the full answer to the “do you photoshop your pictures?” question for another day.)

My camera is a tool. In many ways, it is a blunt object. It is designed to capture data. Nothing more. It divides the scene into millions of tiny specks and records the specific color and brightness of each of those specks. (Admittedly, this is a huge over simplification, but bear with me for the moment). Its task is to dutifully record all of the visual data that it can possibly collect. As a result, my camera “sees” differently than you and I.

When we humans look at a scene, our eyes ignore things that our brain deems to be unimportant. We have a greater perception of depth and texture than my camera does. We react differently to distinct colors and shapes, while my camera writes them all down the same way.

So, part of my task as a photographer – and as an artist – is to help those who view my photos “see” what I “saw” in the moment. And, to some degree, to “feel” what I felt. Sometimes, that’s pretty straightforward. Take a look at these two images. Here’s what came out of my camera:

It’s a “meh” picture. At least in that form. It is – to use the professional photography type term – flat. It is exactly what my camera saw. So I applied a few things that would undo what my camera had done to “flatten out” the image.

Adding a little contrast was enough to give some texture and depth to the photo. It also seems to sharpen up the eyes of the first soldier, making me wonder what his thoughts are as he prepares to face the battle.

This is a pretty light processing treatment on a so-so photograph. But it was all that was required. It is not “artistic” in any sense of the word. This picture, in my view, is more “journalistic” in that it is an accurate representation of the scene, with no artistic liberties taken.

But it also looks like a photograph taken in 2018. And that is my problem.

I am making images of men and women who have gone to great lengths (and no small expense!) to recreate the look of those who lived two and a half centuries ago. The more time I spend around these reenactors, the more I see and appreciate their passion for what they do.

So, on some level, I want my photography to reflect that, too. As a result, I have begun to process these images differently. That isn’t to say that I process them all in the same way. But I am creating a few different “looks” that are beginning to form consistent patterns in my historic reenactment images.

The first has been described by some as “painterly”. I think I know what they mean. The colors are muted, but not removed. Additional contrast brings attention to particular details, while still creating the sense that something is “missing.” It is a photograph, clearly, but it isn’t the crystal clear version of reality that we are used to seeing. Here’s an example. Notice the difference in the following photographs, taken moments apart, of the same subject.

British Officer – In a simple journalistic style.

And then this:

British Officer – with “artistic license”

The second image works better for me. It isn’t processed like an 18th century photograph – because they didn’t exist – but it still communicates that something is different.

There are a number of examples of this kind of processing in my previous post about the Latta event.

The second approach is completely inaccurate from a historical perspective, but has been received fairly well. In these instances I am creating images that look as though they were shot in the mid-19th century. They are black and white, grainy, noisy and defaced by the textures that would have been evident in early photo processing. When we see them, our brain says “old”.

Perhaps one day I will make the investment of time and money required to learn wet plate photography. That’s the same technology that Matthew Brady used to make those thousands of Civil War photographs. The idea of making images of Civil War reenactors in that way sounds very appealing to me. But that day is probably a long way off.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to use my very 21st-century tool to capture those who are trying to recapture history.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Great read, as always.

    1. Thanks, Jerry.

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