Five Fun Facts about Early Photography

I’ve invited Erica Vetsch to guest post today. She’s my friend, agency mate, history buff, and the author of A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas, the first historical in Barbour Publishing’s new Destination Romances line. Her story is great, as you can tell from my review later in this post, but rather than talk about it, I’ve invited her to share some of the fun facts she learned about early photography while writing A Bride’s Portrait.

Here’s Erica. . .

When researching A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas, I discovered lots that I didn’t know about early photography. Thank you to Keli for letting me tell you all some of those things. It’s been hard to limit it to just five, but these are some of the ones I found most interesting.

1. Sour expressions. I often wondered why the folks in the 1840-60’s looked so sour all the time. Nobody smiled. They all looked as rigid as washboards. I discovered that due to the amount of time it took to expose the picture, the subject couldn’t move or smile or blink or the portrait would come out blurry. This was especially true of early daguerreotypes where the exposure time could take up to twenty minutes! As new technology became available, such as wet-plate and the even more versatile dry-plate techniques, the subjects could relax a bit more.

Photo showing a sober expression

2. Braces. Due to the length of exposure time, some photographers employed the use of neck braces to clamp the subject’s head and neck into place. OUCH! Sometimes you can see a hand bracing a child’s head or holding them still, though the photographers tried to keep those out of the picture.

3. Photos of the dead. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of interest in photographing corpses. The famous dead were photographed, such as the Clantons and McLaurys who died in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but even those who weren’t celebrities got their pictures taken after death. Perhaps one of the saddest things I came across was this: Parents often had their babies who had died photographed. This was their only way of preserving a memory of the child. Sometimes the photographers would touch up the portrait to make it appear as if the baby had its eyes open. Often the baby is being held by the mother, or is posed with siblings, and you can read the sorrow in their expressions, especially their eyes.

Photo taken with deceased baby

4. Risk of poisoning. The chemicals used in development, such as mercury, silver nitrate, lye, etc. were very dangerous, and often photographers would become victims of chemical poisoning which would cause them to need to take a sabbatical. Over a long period of time, metals could build up in the photographer’s system and lead to madness or even death. It wasn’t a career for the faint of heart. A photographer took care of his props, his studio, his equipment, the developing, the retouches, the marketing, sales, and distribution. All while trying not to poison himself.

5. Risk of explosion. Not only were the development chemicals dangerous, but the flash powder ingredients used were even more so. Potassium chloride and aluminum were mixed and touched off to provide artificial lighting for photographs.

Flash powder tray on tripod

Potassium and aluminum are still used today to make fireworks, though they’ve found more stable forms of the chemicals to use now. Many photographic studios burned down as a result of improperly mixed and stored chemicals. A photographer could ignite the flash powder prematurely by simple static, or even by spilling a little and stepping on it inadvertently. Early photographers experimented with sulfur-based flash powder, but in addition to the horrible stink, it was even more volatile than Potassium chloride and aluminum powder and was abandoned.

There were so many other fascinating things I learned about photography from a variety of sources, but one of my favorites was Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital. I was running into so many blank walls in my research, and I was getting frustrated. Then one day I went to a bookstore in downtown Rochester where I almost never go. And there on the clearance table was this book, an absolute goldmine of information on both the history and the procedures of early photography.

• • •

Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and avid museum patron.

• • •

A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas

Adeline Reid, once the sweetheart of a notorious train robber, is determined to keep her shady past a secret and her heart protected. Her newfound focus on her work has gained her two things—a successful portrait studio in Dodge City, Kansas, and a life free of romance.

Unfortunately, Addie’s inquisitiveness brings trouble back into her life when she unwittingly holds a clue that can expose a killer’s identity.

Will she find herself looking down the end of a gun barrel, or will a handsome deputy nab the murderer before the shooting starts?

Having risen above his dirt-poor childhood, Miles Carr is living the dream of his life—working as a deputy to his hero, Bat Masterson. But when the investigation of a shopkeeper’s murder leads him to the aloof Adeline Reid’s portrait studio, his focus becomes skewed. Can Miles keep his mind on the case with a pretty photographer in his sights?

• • •

My Review

A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas by Erica Vetsch is delightful—doubly delightful in fact. Not only does the reader enjoy the tale of spunky photographer Adeline Reid and hunky deputy Miles Carr, but that of a second deputy and his shopkeeper’s assistant sweetheart as well. Vetsch has crafted engaging characters I liked from the start. Addie’s strength is admirable, but it was her sheltered heart that drew me in. Miles is bold on the job, but he harbors doubts about his new-found faith that give him an endearing, vulnerable side. Vetsch brings Dodge City to life with her vivid imagery and does an excellent job with historical detail, weaving it in seamlessly. There’s plenty of action and mystery to keep a reader flipping pages to find out whodunnit. And the touches of humor are a real treat. If you enjoy an Old West romance with plenty of heart—and a healthy dose of heart-pounding action—this is a story you won’t want to miss.

• • •

Win a copy of A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas

To enter the drawing, just leave a comment by midnight Thursday, November 3rd.

On Friday, November 4th, I’ll list the winner’s name here and in a comment.

Congratulations to “the writ and the wrote,” winner of the drawing.

No purchase necessary.
Offer void where prohibited.
Odds of winning vary due to number of entrants.
Prizes will be mailed to U.S. or Canadian addresses only.

About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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36 Responses to Five Fun Facts about Early Photography

  1. Wonderfully interesting facts about early photographs. Photographers definitely had to learn art and craft to produce the kind of results they did with the tools they had in hand.

    I’m struggling to create credible results with my point-and-shoot digital. My daughter and son-in-law are quite talented in this area and make affectionately humorous remarks about my out-of-focus offerings in my blog.

    But I persist.

    I don’t write historical romance (more romantic suspense) but I’ve created a history for my Brands Crossing Series that goes back to the Texas Revolution against Mexico in the 1840s so I have great respect writers who deal with historical issues and love reading their books. I look forward to reading yours.

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Hi, Sharon, I’m photographically challenged myself. I’ll take a picture, and my husband will ask if I had such-and-such a setting right on the camera. I give him a shrug and a blank look, because I don’t know what most of the settings on my camera are for. 🙂

      I love the historical backstory you’ve given for your RS.

  2. Donna Pyle says:

    Wow, Erica! I absolutely LOVED reading that fascinating history about early photography. No wonder they looked sour! 20 minute poses with neck braces would do it to anybody. That’s interesting they wanted to pose with their deceased babies. I can only imagine the trauma of 20 minute poses in those situations. And thanks, Keli, for your great review of Erica’s new book! Can’t wait to dig in.

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Hi, Donna,

      I think I’d be a little cranky if I had my neck clamped in a vise for 20 minutes and couldn’t move my facial muscles.

      The photos I found of deceased children were just heartbreaking. 😦

  3. Anne says:

    Very nice little blog today. I really liked the historical focus and information.

  4. That baby pic is heartbreaking. 😦 There is a company who does that though today for families who have children who have died or are terminal somehow.
    Very interesting info. I didn’t know why people always looked so stiff and rigid.

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Hi, Jessica,

      I’ve heard of those companies. I have a friend who has a terminally ill child, and a photographer came to their house and took lots of pictures for them, as a family, and of Luke alone, so they would have precious pictures later. I really appreciate this ministry, because often the families are strapped with medical expenses and the like, and professional portraits are outside the budget.

  5. Susan Mason says:

    Hi Erica & Keli,

    What an interesting post!

    Erica, isn’t that amazing how the exact book you needed came into your hands at the right moment? I love little tidbits like that!

    Your book sounds wonderful. Who would’ve thought photography was so difficult?

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Hi, Sue,

      I was so thankful to find that book. I know God led me to it, because I was at my wit’s end wanting details I couldn’t find. And the bookstore I was in…I rarely go there. It’s in the heart of downtown, and there is a B&N much more accessible at the mall.

  6. the writ and the wrote says:

    What an interesting post. Throwing my name in the hat for the giveaway. Thank you!

  7. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    Wow, the story sounds great and interesting. I still amazes me how much research those of you who write historicals always do. I don’t enjoy doing the research myself, but I do enjoy reading about it. That photography information was very interesting–thanks for sharing!

  8. Erica Vetsch says:

    Hi, Cindy,

    I think it must be a personality flaw or bent. I ADORE research and have a hard time stopping so I can get to the writing.

  9. Diane Ashley says:

    Hi Erica, Wow! Humor, suspense, mystery and history – sounds like a great combination. Of course I would expect no less from a NYT Bestselling Author! I plan to read this book, but it may be a while (my TBR pile is as high as Mt. McKinley), so you don’t need to put me in the drawing. I loved reading all the information about photography and that sounds like a great book. Once you find the right sources, everything is easier, isn’t it? What’s your next project?

  10. Erica Vetsch says:

    Hi, Diane! I’m working on a story set during WW1. It’s about a Harvey Girl at the El Garces hotel and a man who has a secret reason for not enlisting. Lots of fun research.

  11. Loree Huebner says:

    I loved this post, Erica. Hubby and I collect old photographs, tintypes, and carte de vistes – Civil War era..

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Hi, Loree,

      I head straight to the portrait basket when I go into an antique shop. I found one box of old photographs in a shop and cracked up. They had labeled the box “Instant Relatives.”

  12. This was a great post Erica, and I am sure only a small part of your touching story. I grew up with a photo-nut who had a homemade darkroom in our Brooklyn apartment, my daughter caught the bug, but she goes digital and PhotoShop for a different effect, and I have based a mystery series on the art of photography … The Third Eye Trilogy. A dear friend lost her husband, a reknown photojournalist and photo art photographer. His work is still used in major photography programs and his work still sells. The tragedy of developing black & white (since 20th Century photographers sent out their cromes to a special lab) is that the chemicals leach and cause many problems. The highest risk of those who do their own developing was hotchins lymphoma (I don’t think I spelled that correctly) but in any case, the irony was that the one thing he loved beyond reason, was the cause of his early death (mid-fifties)…
    Thank you so much for this wonderful nostalgic “vision” of the art 🙂

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Oh, that is so sad! It reminds me of Madame Curie, whose research into radioactivity led to her death.

      We owe a lot to those who have gone on before, don’t we?

  13. Interesting info, Erica! When I read your book, I could tell you’d done your research and I remember thinking how much I’d love to know more. So glad you did this post! 🙂

    Keli, Since I’ve had the pleasure of reading Erica’s book, you can exclude my name from the drawing to give others a chance to win. Thanks for hosting!

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Posts like these give me a chance to talk about some of this fascinating research that I couldn’t fit into the book. 🙂

  14. I LOVE interesting posts like this! I knew photography from the past was difficult and long, but didn’t know about the dangers or about the photographing of the dead–especially those little babies.

    Congrats on your book, Erica!

  15. Erica Vetsch says:

    Hi, Cheryl Linn,

    Those babies broke my heart. And all the warnings we have nowadays about mercury poisoning…in one account I read, a man used to give his kids a couple drops of mercury in a bucket to let them roll it around and play with it. EEK!

  16. don’t enter me, keli. i’ve already read erica’s amazing book and will be posting my own review of it next week! one of my favorite things about her book was learning about the early photography business. i was saddened by the thought of taking pictures of deceased babies. i’ve known people who do that in today’s time, though, as well. how hard that must be.

    at any rate….it was such a lovely story that i had to comment any way. LOVED it erica! and can’t wait to read the next one in the line….KELI!! 🙂

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Jeannie! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, and I’m sitting on dead ready to read Keli’s book too! 🙂

  17. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    The picture with the baby made me cry….what a sad losss, children are supposed to die after their parents, and it is a terrible thought to know that this wee one has passed away so soon.

    Now I know why people looked so sore and fed-up on ancient pictures…

    Erica, your name sounds german or austrian or swiss. Do you have ancestors from one of these countries? And another question – where can I order your book from abroad? I live in Germany.

    What a fascinating post and topic, thank you for that , Keli and Erica! 🙂

  18. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    Thank you Erica, I just ordered your book from Amazon 🙂 And I did some advertising for it to all my friends on Facebook .. 🙂

  19. Neck braces, WOW, now I am so happy I was born in this era.

    It’s fun to follow you around the blog world, Erica!!

  20. Gillian says:

    I’m too late for the drawing, but wow, what a wonderful post–love that research, even when it’s sad–, and waving hi! to a fellow Kansan from SE Kansas! 🙂 Can’t wait to read your book.

    • Erica Vetsch says:

      Yay! A fellow Jayhawk! Thanks for coming by, and I hope you enjoy A Bride’s Portrait. 🙂

  21. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks to everyone who stopped by and to those who left comments for Erica. I’ve held the drawing for the copy of A Bride’s Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas, and the winner according to is Eileen Astels. Congratulations, Eileen! I’ll be in touch.

  22. Keli Gwyn says:

    Eileen let me know she already has the book and asked me to chose another winner, so I have . The new winner is “the writ and the wrote.” Congratulations! I’ll be in touch,

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