Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mathew Brady’s Assistant (A Fictional History)

Alexander Gardner, a twenty-nine-year-old Scotsman from Glasgow, attended Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park in May, 1851. There he viewed an exhibit of photographs by the American photographer, Mathew Brady, and was inspired to apply his interest in chemistry to the relatively new science of photography.
     When Alexander returned home, he began to experiment with the collodion, or wet-plate, process of taking and developing photographs, which resulted in prints that were far superior in quality to those created using the more common daguerreotype process.
     Wanting to impress his wife, Margaret, with his newfound talent, Alexander set up his camera and tripod in the parlor of their home on a sunny Saturday afternoon for a family portrait. The shutter had not yet been invented, so exposure was controlled by removing and then replacing the lens cap. This made it impossible for Alexander to both take a photograph and be a subject in it at the same time. Thus, his first family photograph was of Margaret and their two children alone.
     It was bedtime before Alexander emerged from his improvised darkroom with a finished print of the family photograph in his hands. He hurried up the stairs to the bedroom to show it to Margaret, who was seated at her dressing table brushing her hair. She saw him in the mirror, turned to see the photograph, and gasped.
     “What is it, dear?” Alexander asked in alarm.
     “Well, I recognize the children, but who is that woman standing with them?”
     “Why, that’s you, of course.”
     “But it can’t be! I look nothing like that!” She turned back to the mirror and pointed at her reflection. “That is how I look! Your picture is completely wrong!”
     Thinking quickly, Alexander held the photograph in front of his chest and moved next to where Margaret was sitting. Catching her eye in the mirror, he asked, “Is this better?”
     Margaret shifted her focus to the reflection of the photograph and narrowed her eyes in concentration. “Yes. It is. Now it looks right.” She picked up her hairbrush and resumed brushing her hair. “I never want to see that awful picture again.”
     Deeply disappointed, Alexander lay awake in bed long into the night trying to think of a possible solution to this unexpected problem. His wife had never seen an image of herself that was not a reflection and so believed the reflection to be her true image. But the camera did not take reflections; it took only true images. As dawn began to lighten the edges of the window shades, he believed he had found an answer.
     Alexander went through his family’s Sunday morning routine with no hint of what he was planning. At breakfast, when the children asked about the previous day’s photograph, he met Margaret’s eyes and said, “It didn’t turn out well, so I destroyed it. We’ll try again later today, after lunch. I promise.” Margaret raised her eyebrows as if to ask what he could possibly have in mind but said nothing. They finished breakfast, dressed in their finest clothes, and walked to church.
     Later, while Margaret prepared lunch in the kitchen and the children played outside, Alexander quietly got up from reading his newspaper in the parlor, carried his camera and tripod up to the bedroom, and then returned to his reading.
     As they finished lunch, the children reminded their father about his promise to take another photograph. Alexander responded as if he had forgotten, “Yes, that’s right. I did promise, didn’t I?” He pushed away from the table and stood up. “Well, let’s go try our luck.”
     He led his family into the parlor. “Father, where is the camera?” the younger child asked.
     “I thought we would try something different,” he replied. “I moved it up to the bedroom.”
     The children giggled as he led them and Margaret up the stairs. In the bedroom, the camera and tripod stood facing Margaret’s dressing table. Her chair was positioned to the right facing the camera, across from a short stool, with the dressing table’s full-length mirror between the two seats. Alexander escorted Margaret to her chair and placed the younger child on her lap. He posed the older child on the stool and then walked to the back of the camera. He had prepared a wet plate earlier, so all he needed to do was to adjust the focus. As he looked through his viewfinder, he noticed the perplexed expressions on his family’s faces and smiled.
     “All right. Now, Margaret, you and I are going to switch places.” He walked over and plucked the child from her lap. Margaret stood up and walked uncertainly to the camera as Alexander sat and positioned the child on his lap.
     “That’s it, dear,” Alexander said. “But instead of standing behind the camera, step to the side of it. There! Do you see it?”
     Margaret looked at the scene before her and did indeed see it. Her image was reflected in the mirror as though she were standing with her family seated in front of her.
     Alexander directed her and the children, “Margaret, all you need to do is reach out with your right hand and remove the lens cap, count to ten, and then replace it. Children, you must remain absolutely still.”
     Margaret moved her hand toward the camera and noticed her reflected hand moving in the mirror. With her fingers touching the lens cap, her reflected hand appeared to be resting behind Alexander’s shoulder. She moved her left hand to position it so it looked like it was resting on her older child’s back. The effect was so real that she couldn’t help but smile. Her family smiled back to see her so delighted. Without moving, she removed the lens cap, counted to ten, and then replaced it. Alexander let out an animated sigh of relief, and the children laughed. Margaret laughed as well, with love for her clever husband.
     When it was developed and printed, the family gathered to inspect the new photograph. Margaret appeared to be exactly centered in the frame of her dressing table mirror, with her family seated before her. If one overlooked the fact that had she actually been standing there, there would have been a noticeable reflection of her back in the mirror, then the trick was a success, except for a very slight blurring of her arm behind Alexander’s shoulder.
     “It’s perfect, dear,” said Margaret. “I love it.”

Within five years, Alexander Gardner and his family had immigrated to the United States, where his expertise in using the collodion process to create large portraits, called Imperial photographs, was in great demand. Alexander contacted Mathew Brady in Washington, D.C., and was promptly hired as his assistant and gallery manager. When the Civil War began, Brady undertook to make a photographic record of it, and Alexander became Brady’s chief field photographer, taking many of the most famous battlefield photographs, including the controversial Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter. He also took the last photographs of President Abraham Lincoln, four days before his assassination, and photographed the conspirators after their arrest and at their execution.


Darcy said...

An excellent story. I would have liked to see the photos in question.

John Lichty said...

Thank you for your comment. Only the first and last paragraphs are historical. The rest of the story is fiction, so the photos of Alexander Gardner and his family do not exist. But the "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" photo does exist and may be found using Google Images.