FORGOTTEN TRAILS: Family photos a window into past technology

Published 12:58 am Wednesday, July 4, 2007

By Staff
Most of us have a lot of photographs sitting in a box somewhere. But, do you know the names of the people in the photographs? We take a lot of photos, but most of us never keep up with the subjects of the photos.
Several months ago the Escambia County Historical Society had a guest speaker who spoke on the subject of photographs and their preservation. I was unable to attend that meeting, so when I heard she was coming back to speak again, I made my plans to be there. A large group of Escambia County Historical Society members and visitors gathered at the Thomas McMillan Museum at Jefferson Davis Community College on June 26 to hear the guest speaker, Frances Robb.
Robb is with the Alabama Humanities Foundation and brought some of the photograph collection of Eugene Allen Smith, who served as state geologist for many years. During those years, as he traveled around Alabama studying and mapping, he also took photographs of the rural areas where he did his work.
Smith got his first camera in 1885 and began taking photographs of the places he told about in his notes of economic geology. The photographs are being cataloged along with descriptions and little antidotes that are filled with local stories. Some of those photographs are on display at the museum and will remain there until late July. For those who are interested in old photographs, it is an excellent way to see what can be done to restore what would otherwise be lost.
Robb described the photographs and told the history of them, pointing out some tricks of the photography trade to bring them to life.
It was most interesting to see what she has done with some of the photos. Computer programs are available that will allow one to clear up a very faded photo. Using the contrast and brightness will make remarkable changes. I have a photo of my husband's ancestor, Henry Wallace Brewer, that someone had torn into two pieces and made little dots all down the lapels of his suit. I carefully placed it on the scanner, bringing both pieces as close together as I could. After it was scanned, I had a very small line across where the tear was, but with a little manipulation I was able to smooth it out. As for the dots on the lapels, they were very easy to remove.
I arrived early at the meeting in June. I had a reason to want to be able to talk with her.
About 25 years ago, I was given two photos, which were of my great-great grandparents. My great-great grandfather died in the Civil War, so if my information was correct, the photos would have been made no later than 1864. They were both small, about 2 x 3 inches. They are made with a metal backing and could be either a Daguerreotype or tintype. The process for producing photos during the time frame was just a little bit different.
Robb was very excited, as I was, about the photos. She told me that the one of my great-great grandfather was made either in the late 1850s but would have not been made later than 1861, when the war began. The other one was made some time later, maybe in the late 1860s or early 1870s.
Her theory is that the earlier one was copied from the original; maybe after the family learned of his death, and it could have been at that time the one of my great-great grandmother was made. Maybe copies were made for each child in the family.
I was so glad to finally have gotten some information on the photos.

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