Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shadows in the Distance

This post has no fossils, but it does have stereoviews, Middlebury, Vermont, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.

[Note:  Stereoviews are paired photographs that can offer a three-dimensional view of a image.  They have been discussed previously in this blog at this link.]

I recently acquired a 19th century stereoview of Middlebury, Vermont, and, as a consequence, I found myself reliving an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, that wonderful TV series from the early 1960s.  I still revel in the show’s gentle comedic repartee and have never tired of the talented cast who surrounded the lanky, self-deprecating star whose skill at physical humor has been seldom surpassed.  The episode that entrapped me, as I studied my Middlebury stereoview, is a classic titled The Great Petrie Fortune.  First airing on Oct 27, 1965, it is episode 6 of season 5.  (On Amazon Prime, it's listed incorrectly, I think, as episode 6 of that season.)

In this episode, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) inherits a roll-top desk from his Great Uncle Hezekiah.  In a short movie filmed before his death, centenarian Hezekiah (Dick Van Dyke) tells Rob that the desk contains a fortune but it is wrapped up in a riddle.  He proceeds to dance a wheezy, fumbling soft shoe while singing a verse of Me and My Shadow.  He finally collapses on the desk.

Rob and wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) thoroughly explore the desk, revealing a trove of eccentric, mildly funny contents, along with a framed picture of Uncle Hezey as a baby, but no fortune.  In time, the Petries conclude these various, trivial objects were things Hezekiah was sentimentally attached to (for whatever reason) and so had value to the old man.  But they’re wrong.  As Rob more closely examines the baby picture, describing to Laura what he sees (a man standing on a flight of stairs while holding the baby, and, in the background, another man standing alone), he realizes it mirrors the verse from Me and My Shadow.  It’s the shadow, the man at the edge of this photograph taken in 1863 at Hezekiah’s birthplace, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that sends Rob into mild hysterics.  He peers at the edge of the frame, then frantically removes the picture:
Rob:  Honey, look at the other guy standing all alone on the stair and feeling blue . . . with a stove pipe hat and a beard.
Laura:  Rob that looks like . . . .
Rob:  The real Raymond Massey!!
I still laugh, though, perhaps, this is a punch line that only works for generations that are slowly aging out of the picture.  Raymond Massey (1896-1983) memorably portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the movies.  Rob has inherited a Mathew Brady photograph of Lincoln (sheepishly, I'll admit that the way Rob manhandles the photograph in this scene now causes me to wince).

And then there’s the Middlebury stereoview (the earlier post cited at the outset describes how to view this stereoview to see the three dimensional effect).

Here’s just the right image.

On the reverse side is the stamp of the photographer O.C. Barnes of Middlebury and the handwritten words, “Main St., Middlebury, Vt.”

Here's how I tell the story.  One winter morning, sometime in the 1870s, photographer Oscar Barnes positioned his equipment at the top of Main Street in Middlebury, Vermont.  He stood opposite the Congregational Church at the northeast end of the street, and looked southwest, down Main into the village.  Snow covered the road and frosted the branches of the trees.  (Admittedly, it might have been early spring, it was Vermont, after all.  Morning?  An informed guess based on what I think are shadows he captured in the photographs he took that day.)

Earlier that morning, I see Barnes (in my mind’s eye only) guiding a horse-drawn carriage, with a darkroom built onto it, to the top of Main Street.  But, no, perhaps that’s too rich for a photographer who advertised in the Middlebury Register that his shop was located “in the poorest old building you’ll find on Main St.,” where “the ceiling is low and the floor far from level.”  So, perhaps he’d trudged through the snow, hauling his equipment himself, and then pitched a tent to serve as his darkroom.  (Appropriately enough, the building housing his shop was called “Poverty Hall.”  Later in the decade, his ads included the line:  “Farm produce taken in exchange.”  Barnes was a regular advertiser in the Register; the first ad cited here ran several times in 1873, including the March 25th issue.  The second is from April 18, 1879; it ran in a number of issues.  Digitized copies of the Register can be found at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America:  Historic American Newspapers.)

No matter how he did it, he had to get a darkroom to the snowy site; the “wet collodion” process that he and other photographers used at the time demanded it.  In the darkroom, Barnes took glass plates coated with a viscous collodion mixture and bathed them in a silver nitrate solution, making them sensitive to light.  He then slipped a wet plate into a light-proof holder and, at that point, he left the darkroom and hurried to his camera.  The plate had to be exposed while still wet.  He slid the holder with the plate into the camera, which he had to have previously focused for the picture.  He then carefully exposed the plate, relying on his experience to tell him how long to leave the camera lens uncovered.  After that, he resealed the light-proof holder, removed the holder with its precious cargo, and dashed back into the darkroom to develop the exposed plate.

On this particular morning, Barnes created two images because he would be printing stereoviews of the scene.  I hope he had a stereoscopic camera and could make the images concurrently.  Otherwise, he had to go through this process twice, the second time with the camera moved two to three inches to the right or left.  The photographer with a shop in Poverty Hall might well have had to resort to the latter method.

As demanding as the wet collodion process could be under ideal conditions (say, in the confines of one’s shop), clearly going into the field compounded the difficulties, but, to top it all for this particular session at the head of Main Street, Barnes had to deal with cold temperatures which could wreak havoc on the procedure.

And, still, despite the challenges of a nascent photographic technology and the weather, Barnes created a work of art.

In these photographs, he captured the stillness that so often accompanies a snowfall, the softening of the edges and the integration of the whole.  There is harmony here, the village sits gently in nature.  The framing is fascinating.  There is a tunnel effect as the center is framed partly with the snowy branches of the trees on the left in the immediate foreground that reach over the viewer, as well as with the several trees deeper into the picture on opposite sides of the street.  The lamp post on the left imparts a balance to the framing and is, perhaps, the single most important element giving the stereoview its three dimensional effect.

In time, though, I came to find his composition puzzling, mysterious even.  Where is the viewer's eye supposed to come to rest?  What was Barnes really focusing on?  The clutch of buildings in the center of the lower third of the photograph?  Perhaps.  But my attention inevitably was drawn to the shadowy profiles of buildings in the far background, buildings on a hill to the southwest overlooking the village.

Here's a closeup in grayscale.

And that same closeup with the shadowy buildings marked.

I studied those distant buildings and suddenly recognized them – the real Raymond Massey!!

I was looking at Old Stone Row, the buildings that constituted the initial, principal core of Middlebury College – Painter Hall (on the right, built in 1815), Old Chapel (center, 1836), and Starr Hall (left, 1860, burned in 1864, and rebuilt in 1865).    As an alumnus of Middlebury College, I hate to admit how long it took me to realize what I was looking at.

They are shown here in a drawing from 1860.

(This image was downloaded from the Digital Collection at Middlebury on the Middlebury College website and is included here with the permission.  Its resource identifier is

I'd like to think that Barnes, with a wink, deliberately hid his true focus.  Regardless, he certainly added an unexpected dimension for me.  And I suppose it only appropriate that, as I close this post (March 12, 2014), Middlebury, Vermont, is slated to be walloped with a massive, late winter snowstorm.


In addition to various print resources which explain the wet collodion process in detail, there are a couple of excellent short videos on the web that delineate what photographers like O.C. Barnes went through to take their photographs.  I particularly like the video from the Getty Museum titled The Wet Collodion Process.  Also very informative is one from the George Eastman House titled Untold Stories:  The Collodion Process.

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