“Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze.”
— Alfred Stieglitz, American photographer, 1864-1946
I frequently try to add a touch of erudition to these sometimes prosaic jottings about bicycling, journeys, writing and other trivia by affixing a germane quote at the top of a blog post.
That prompted an hour or two of research to try to figure out what Stieglitz meant. It was a wet, raw, dreary morning in Fort Worth — too nasty for any outdoor activity except the obligatory dog walk. So the research was a rainy-day pleasure.
The findings: In the 1880s, innovations in plate technology led to development of hand-held cameras, which made photography available to nearly everyone. Like bicycling, the snapping of candid photographs — unposed and unretouched — became the latest fad.
In 1888, George Eastman marketed his Kodak camera with the slogan: “You press the button,and we do the rest.”
Stieglitz apparently had trouble reconciling himself to these rapid changes in his chosen craft. Here’s the full quote, from an 1897 essay “The Hand Camera — Its Present Importance,” in The American Annual of Photography:
“Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze. Those seriously interested in its advancement do not look upon this state of affairs as a misfortune, but as a disguised blessing, inasmuch as photography had been classed as a sport by nearly all of those who deserted its ranks and fled to the present idol, the bicycle.
“The only persons who seem to look upon this turn of affairs as entirely unwelcome are those engaged in manufacturing and selling photographic goods.
“It was, undoubtedly, due to the hand camera that photography became so generally popular a few years ago. Every Tom, Dick and Harry could, without trouble, learn how to get something or other on a sensitive plate, and this is what the public wanted — no work and lots of fun. Thanks to the efforts of these persons hand camera and bad work became synonymous.
“The climax was reached when an enterprising firm flooded the market with a very ingenious hand camera and the announcement, ‘You press the button, and we do the rest.’
This was the beginning of the ‘photographing-by-the-yard’ era, and the ranks of enthusiastic Button Pressers were enlarged to enormous dimensions. The hand camera ruled supreme.
“Originally known under the odious name of ‘Detective,’ necessarily insinuating the owner to be somewhat of a sneak, the hand camera was in very bad repute with all the champions of the tripod. They looked upon the small instrument, innocent enough in itself, but terrible in the hands of the unknowing, as a mere toy, good for the purposes of the globe-trotter, who wished to jot down photographic notes as he passed along his journey, but in no way adapted to the wants of him whose aim it is to do serious work.
“But in the past year or two all this has been changed. There are many who claim that for just the most serious work the hand camera is not only excellently adapted, but that without it the pictorial photographer is sadly handicapped.”
Stieglitz came to embrace the portability of the hand camera and used it in the 1890s to shoot some of his best known photographs.
I wonder what he would have made of the digital images produced by today’s point-and-shoot cameras and their proliferation on such networking sites as Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere.
I’ve found that retirement affords one the time to engage in these pursuits of arcane knowledge.
In any case, here’s a selection of images made by today’s equivalent of the 1888 Kodachrome — a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS — of fellow participants in the cross-country bicycle trip, which began in San Diego on Sept. 20 and ended in St. Augustine, Fla., on Nov. 21, the Saturday before Thanksgiving.