Eye, Heart & Mind

 

Once upon a time, in a world fast receding but still visible in the rear-view mirror, digital cameras and telephones were two devices rather than one.  In even earlier decades, people who now seem dimmer than photographs poorly exposed or faded by time used cameras that weren’t digital at all. They required something called film that had to be loaded into the camera one precious roll at a time.  There were knobs to turn, holes to match with tiny, mechanical teeth and  viewfinders that required the presence of a human eye.  To say the least, using an old-fashioned camera  was very much a hands-on experience, demanding time and effort.

Coaxing images from photographic film was equally complex. It required hours in dark rooms whose unnatural conditions seemed to suggest the p0ssibility of suffocation. Lit by the glow of dim red lamps, shallow pans containing an array of chemical solutions marched across tables and counters. Their names described their processes perfectly: developer, stop bath, fixer. In the darkroom, bits of paper hung like batches of tiny, magical laundry dripping water and solutions while the pervasive tang of vinegar flavored the air.

Even earlier, long before Boy Scout troops and high school science classes experimented with photography as a way to learn chemistry and have a little fun on the side, there were other kinds of images: tintypes and platinum prints, Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes. We hardly think of those processes today. Accustomed to the beauty and ease of digital photography we make little effort to comprehend that earlier world or appreciate the vision and skill that separates a Steichen-in-training from Stan-the-dude-who-took-a-pic-with-his-iPhone-and-threw-it-up-on-Facebook.  Granted, there are fewer nascent Steichens to observe, but they do exist. Their work is found across a multitude of web-based photo sites and blogs and much of it is entirely stunning, showing keen eyes and keener imaginations.  But on a daily basis, there are far more Stans and Susans of every skill level abroad in the world, capturing, cataloging and conveying the wonders around them with abandon and glee. Sometimes, it seems as though the whole world is carrying a camera.

I’m glad for so much captured beauty, and I especially enjoy photographs of birds. Their variety, their color and their antics are delightful. It can be tempting to believe we’re the first humans to pay such close attention to their world, but we would flatter ourselves in the process. Lacking access to modern technology, earlier generations still were able to capture and share images with people equally willing to enjoy and celebrate the world’s rich diversity.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) died just as photography was beginning to develop. Today, the organization which bears his name is  associated primarily with conservation, but Audubon still stands as one of our greatest wildlife artists. Of course those dedicated to honoring and preserving his reputation might be forgiven for being prejudiced in his favor, but I’d be hard pressed to disagree with their assessment of his artistic vision and skills:

“In the days before photography, Audubon was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America (Alexander Wilson has that distinction), but for half a century he was the young country’s dominant wildlife artist. His seminal Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, quickly eclipsed Wilson’s work and is still a standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists, such as Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley, are measured.” 

 

 

While Audubon may have been the best, he was far from the only artist dedicated to accurate and aesthetically pleasing depictions of birds. Etchings and oil paintings were common, but chromolithographs also were plentiful, providing an inexpensive way for ordinary people to enjoy birds as art.

One of the most well-known examples, The Illustrated Book of Poultry, was published in 1890. Popularly known as Cassell’s Book of Poultry, it had text by Lewis Wright and illustrations by J.W. Ludlow.  Unlike Audubon, Ludlow specialized in domestic birds. He illustrated several books devoted to poultry and pigeons published by Cassell and others between 1867 and 1886, and reproductions of his work can be found in as many country kitchens as museums.

A multitude of other artists dealt in “fancy chicken pictures”, as my grandmother called them.  Harrison Weir, A.F.Lydon, Ernest Whipple, Louis Graham and Edwin Megargee are just a few of the artists whose works continue to delight. A friend in the Texas Hill Country has a few examples of Megargee’s art in his workshop,and a few matching birds running around outside.

Megargee’s work is especially interesting because of the role it played in developing dinnerware as art. Pictures on plates were quite the fashion in America in the early 1900s, and images of birds were common.  The work of Megargee and others was purchased by companies who produced decalcomania (decals, for short) for use by china manufacturers such as Homer Laughlin, Knowles Taylor Knowles, Smith-Phillips and a variety of smaller companies throughout the Ohio Valley and Eastern US.

The two largest providers of decalcomania were Palm Bros & Co. and Palm, Fechteler & Co. In 1894, individuals associated with these two firms purchased a controlling interest in the capital stock of American Decalcomania Company, and elected a majority of the directors of that company.  The business was moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, and that that point, the company motto apparently was, “Let the price fixing begin”.  (Those interested in the history and disposition of the case can find details in the Atlantic Reporter.)

In any event, the business flourished, and artists such as Megargee flourished because of it.  This Trellis shape plate by Homer Laughlin, produced in the 1930s,is an interesting combination of modern design and early 1900′s decoration.

Like chromolithography, decals allowed ordinary people to add beauty to their lives at a fraction of the cost of original art.  Hand-painted Haviland is exquisite and a lovely table can be set with Limoges or Meissen,  but around 1900 many of the American products began to bring smiles, too. While the blanks (the dinnerware pieces themselves) were mass produced, decorators often were free to combine decals, decorations and hand-painted trim as they chose.  The results often are delightful. 

 

 

 

Certainly the plates of the lithographer or the plates hanging on a collector’s wall never will be able to capture the sweep of a rising flock, the osprey’s dive, the intimacy of the nest or the necessary dinner of the predator in quite the same way as the best photography.  But from Audubon to Ludlow, from the artist to the craftsman to the most anonymous worker on the decorating line at the factory, the caution is clear. It is the eye, the heart and decisions of the mind which make art as much as technology.  If we enliven those three, the art will follow.

 

 

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Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 4:50 am  Comments (18)  
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  1. This is a fascinating tour through a mashup of subjects, from cell phones to chickens to ceramics. Your style reminds me of James Burke’s Connections.

    Question: don’t the decals wash off?

    I propose a brave new product line for the 21st century: unbreakable dinnerware embossed with the likeness of Chickenman!

    Bogon,

    I’d not heard of James Burke or his writings, but I just spent a lovely few minutes skimming though reviews. I’m anxious to read some of his work ~ it sounds quite appealing. His emphasis on “accidents” is surely related to one of my personal favorites, the law of unintended consequences.

    No, the decals are safe. They’re an underglaze decoration. If the glaze is thin or becomes damaged you may see flaking or scratches, but generally speaking they’re just fine. The gold trim or painted accents, on the other hand, are overglaze – one reason that the truly fussy never put gold or platinum-trimmed dinnerware in the dishwasher. I’m not so fussy with dinnerware, although I’m quite careful with art china. I have some pieces of the set my dad received when he bought mom’s wedding ring in 1938. We broke most of it over the years, but only in the last decade has there been gold wear. The decals are just fine.

    I giggled over Chickenman when I wrote this. He was a pretty danged fancy Chicken himself, and certainly deserves his own dinnerware!

    Thanks for being the first to stop by, and for introducing me to Burke!

    Linda

  2. Linda,

    I feel obliged to point out that I was introduced to James Burke through the medium of television. Connections and its two sequels were video series, the first of which aired in 1978 on the BBC. For a while Burke penned regular articles for Scientific American. I have never read his book.

    Obviously the kind of decalcomania you describe is very different from any decal in my experience. The decal must survive firing! The colors must remain (or become) true, the glaze must wet the decal, the coefficient of expansion of substrate, decal and glaze must match closely… I’m sure there are more technical problems to solve here than I can list from my armchair. I can certainly see why the guys who perfected this process might feel entitled to engage in a teeny bit of price fixing.

    Now I’m afraid I must go back and click on the links that I so blithely skipped over before. I was just trying to, uh, maintain the continuity of the narrative. Harrumph.

    Bogon,

    Television’s done a lot of introducing in its time – nothing wrong with that! (Well, there was that introduction to Howdy Doody, which caused my parents some consternation for a while, but….)

    When I began collecting china, I went from “oh, pretty” to “gosh, there’s a lot of history here” to “how in the world did they figure all this out?”
    The history of china company art directors and production managers is pretty much an untold story outside the realms of – well, chinafans. They’re just like railfans, truth be told. Always on the lookout for something unusual, willing to travel, given to gatherings with other fans, etc. There are a lot of “worlds” out there to explore!

    Linda

  3. Every time I come here, I learn something new. This was simply fascinating!

    I have to say that when it came to digital cameras, I was a late adapter. I loved the integrative, tactile experience of the full film procedure! Now the technology provides me with different benefits. And yet, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen photos of birds that dazzle me so much as seeing Audubon originals, which I had the pleasure of enjoying at a museum exhibit a couple of years ago. He is nearly photographic in his detail and yet the painterly elements dazzle me.

    As a collector of china, I really enjoy transferware but I wasn’t familiar with Megargee’s name or work. It’s beautiful!

    Once again, I must compliment you on providing the most thought provoking posts and wonderful links to accompany them!

    Jeanie,

    I love the world of china, and I’ve been afraid that if I started down that road, I wouldn’t be able to stop for a while! It is interesting, and there are lessons to be learned even in the world of collecting. I’m thinking about those even as I type!

    Apart from snapshots and such, I never did “photography” until I met digital. There were the classes at camp and school, but I never felt the emergence of the image was as magical as did some of my friends. What saddens me most is that nearly all of my photos from Liberia are nearly gone, faded away. No doubt improper development in the back alleys of Monrovia has something to do with that, along with different kinds of film and the passage of time ;-)

    Maybe I will get myself bestirred now to do something more with china. At least you’ll be interested!

    Linda

  4. For a very brief period at some point in my life, I worked in a photofinishing shop, looking into negative films, evaluated their quality by sight, and made the appropriate judgment by punching in the right button to print out every single photo, one frame at a time. Yes, that was a long time ago.

    I feel a bit sad that such kind of jobs have all but rendered obsolete. Technology has given everyone the chance to be an expert photographer, the same as they say, the Internet has given everyone the chance to be ‘an authority.’ What used to take great skills and talents in the past, like photography, has become easily accessible for everyone… you can edit your pic and manipulate it in whatever way you choose. It doesn’t take years of training or experience, just a little technical know-hows.

    Should I lament the past, or should I welcome the new possibilities? I really don’t know. But you’re right to remind us all, technology cannot replace the human eye, heart, and mind, from a deeper, transcendental sense… I hope not for a long while.

    Arti,

    Well, you know the truth about internet “authorities” as well as I do – you have to evaluate what you find on the net pretty carefully, because things aren’t always what they seem. And, just because you hit “publish”, it doesn’t mean your words are worth reading!

    Same with photography, I think. I spend time now and then looking at sites like flickr and weatherunderground. There are hundreds of thousands of digital photos there, but even so, it’s possible to pick out someone with an “eye”, an ability to “see” things others would miss. There may be a thousand photos of robins, but only one where the photographer has had the patience to wait for the perfect light, the tilt of the head, the straightforward look that spans the gap between avian and human and makes the bird “live’.

    Even the ones who love post-processing (me!) know that you can’t start with something miserable and make it sing with your filters. Most of the time in those instances, I notice the effects rather than the oriiginal!

    As for past, present or future – each has its value, particularly when seen with the right eye, heart and mind.

    Linda

  5. I love that photography is now so accessible (without digital photography I certainly couldn’t afford many pictures of my baby!) but also get frustrated by the clutter online. I know way too many people who take 100′s of shots, then instead of just posting the handful of good ones, post all of them!

    The paintings by Audubon are just beautiful. Birds are such great subjects for photography, painting, and dishware!
    I highly recommend checking out “PrairieHill” on flickr. She consistently gets amazing bird shots. I started checking her flickr because I know her personally,(the few pics she has on there of a baby are my son!) but have continued to frequent her photostream because it’s so full of great shots!

    Maman A Droit,

    Discrimination and discernment – two words that deserve a little more play! Not everything is worth a photo, and not every photo deserves a place in the public eye. This is part of the reason I’m absolutely opposed to what’s happening with our kids – everyone gets a trophy, everyone’s essay gets a ribbon, etc. It undermines the very idea of quality, and what is meant to confer value equally ends by rendering everything valueless.

    No matter what our society says,there is good art and bad art, good photography and really quite awful photography, and we need to learn to distinguish between the two! That doesn’t mean we don’t value and encourage the effort – but the results need to be judged by different standards.

    I’ll be sure to check out your friend’s link. Recommendations have built up my list of “must reads”, and I enjoy all them.

    Linda

  6. Some people pine for “the good old days” of manual and labor intensive art. Technology I think has brought art to the masses. Most of my life has been spent scraping by financially so hobbies like photography and such were not realistic.
    Digital camaras have opened up a whole new world of fun for me. Like decals on dinner plates it has brought art personalized to the common person.
    Inspired or tacky, it is meaningful to the owner.

    Audubon prints. There are some worth thousands and some like mine worth oh, not so much, except to me. Mass production and “modern” marvels brought affordable art to my home.

    Can’t wait for the next generation of super zooming point and shoot cameras! Art For Everyone!

    Nanette,

    You’re exactlly right about the economics of digital photography. I took very few photos when I had my film camera partly because of cost.

    But there’s something else that happened with me and which I suspect is more common than we know. Once I began taking digital photos, I became more interested in photography as a whole. I began leaning about the history of the medium, and about the famous photographers. More importantly, I began reading photographers’ writings, and began thinking about how to select a subject, how to frame it, etc.

    So – modern technology can be a gateway to a world that includes the best of the past, too. And it’s a fact that no matter whether we’re using a Brownie or a pocket-sized digital, it’s still the photographer who has the biggest role to play in the final result.

    And yep – that’s not an original Steichen on my wall, but the print of the Flatiron Building looks pretty darned good!

    Linda

  7. Technology has allowed us to be, if not ‘experts’, at least ‘practitioners’ of photography, art, and now, music. Become a composer without even knowing a single note.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/compose-your-own/?ref=opinion

    Where are we all heading? An effortless society, or maybe simply redefining art?

    Arti,

    Very interesting op-ed piece. By the time I finished reading it, I perfectly understood the feelings of the commenter who provided the analogy of paint-by-number. I’ve done paint by number myself, and while it was satisfying when I was a child to produce “pretty pictures” that my mother cooed over, there was nothing particularly artistic about it.

    I just was looking tonight at a book of photographs and text that took the author ten years to compile – partly because she had to travel a good bit, partly because the writing took time and partly because she had to stop her “artistic work” now and then to keep body and soul together. She used an old Hasselblad and another kind of camera whose name I’ve forgotten – the kind that you put plates into. I think it was the sort often used by Ansel Adams. At any rate, the project was extraordinarily time consuming, required enormous research and mostly exhausted her for a decade.

    Whatever our theories about such things, there’s no question that the quality of her book is exponentially better than most “stuff” on the market today. You can’t just throw something together and call it art. My opinion, of course ;-)

    Linda

  8. It pains me to see how some people use a camera these days. Freed from having to consider every shot having a price tag, they shoot with little though of composition, lighting, or subject matter. They lift a hand while walking along the street and press the button without even slowing down, as if it had no more meaning to them than wiping their nose.

    ian,

    I first noticed the phenomenon of “zombie photographers” at the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. As the athletes entered and circled the arena, it seemed as though everyone were simply holding a camera aloft and – clickclickclick. It seemed – so strange. At first I didn’t even realize they were taking photographs.

    Back in the day when photography meant nothing more to me than snapshots to help remember a familly vacation of special event, there still was some care taken – to be sure the sun was in the right place, to arrange people in pleasing ways, etc. It was rudimentary and not very artistic, of course. Even so, we cared what our photos looked like. Many camera phone clickers seem not to care at all what they capture.

    Linda

  9. Hi Linda,

    Another very entertaining story you have written for our enjoyment!

    Always learn something new here!

    Enjoy your weekend.

    Patti

    Patti,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. It tickles me to see you comment on this post, because you always take some of the best family photos. They’re never boring – you obviously put a lot of thought into them, and we all enjoy them so much!

    Hope your own weekend’s delightful and filled with creativity.

    Linda

  10. I first saw Burke’s Connections what, 25-30 years ago on television and then got his book. Absolutely fascinating. If you watch this YouTube clip from the intro on his first show you’ll be hooked. And you can watch other episodes and even buy the complete series on DVD. Well worth the money for when you have 200+ channels on the t.v. and there’s nothing to watch.

    Richard,

    You’re right. I was hooked. Great video. I’m ever more convinced of the reality of serendipity, synchronicity and the law of unintended consequences, not to mention the way that we can look back and see how change has occurred in our lives almost without notice.

    I found that my library has the DVD series. I believe I’ll check that out (in every sense of the word!) Thanks for the tip.

    How many days, now? I need to go check!

    Linda

  11. This clip shows how the blackout of the Northeast goes back 4,500 years earlier and it’s all caused by “Connections.”

    oldsalt,

    Just wonderful, and thought provoking. Thanks!

    Linda

    • Started out with a Brownie 110 film camera and graduated years later to a Pentax SLR with multiple lenses (ranged from 24mm to 300mm, with macro extensions, bellows attachments, filters, hoods, etc.) Even had my own darkroom and learned to develop colour film. Now all replaced with a digital point and shoot mini camera. Intend to get a DSLR sometime soon.

      Remember Connections from ’78; must try and find a download version on the internet for viewing again.
      Wonder what James Burke would do today with Gavin Menzies books 1421 and 1434?

      Rick

      • Rick,

        I’m not sure what Burke would do with Menzies, but this note from the acknowledgements might be a good starting place:

        “A brief outline of the more important maps, documents and other pieces of evidence I have used to form the conclusions presented in this book has been included in the Appendices, and the primary and secondary sources, I have used are cited in the Bibliography. However, this is a book for the general reader, not the academic; three-quarters of the evidence has had to be omitted for lack of space.

        Lovely.

        I did come across something entirely modern you might enjoy – this stopaction made with a Nokia N8 and a microscope that has quite a surprise at the end.

        Linda

  12. I love people who love birds.No, really. They have patience, they delight in what’s right there in front of them (or in the trees) It takes time and attention to detail and being able to get a thrill, fleeting or otherwise at recognizing the bird species and watching their (often territorial!) behaviors.

    And I am constantly surprised at how little I know about them but have learned some small bits of things from watching them at our feeder year round.

    So this entry was a treat for several reasons, not the least of which is that you think enough of birds to put it together. I love the artwork you pulled together here with the explanations and your writing threading it all together.

    oh,

    One of the things I learned on my trip to Louisiana is that everything you say about people who love birds applies a hundred-fold to people who take pictures of birds! Goodness, me, they are hard to photograph.You can’t just tell a bird to “Sit still!”

    One of the things that surprises me constantly is how much of a relationship we can have with birds. I had a clutch of mallards that would sit in my lap for their bread, and am watching my bluejay couple right now. If their breakfast isn’t out for them when they expect it, I hear about it.

    The best ever was the boat-tailed grackle who used to fly into my boat when I still was living aboard. It loved toast with butter, and would come in, wait for its bit and then fly out. Who knew?

    Linda

  13. Hi,clicked on to comment on your Comment about that Surprise Video which simply scared the heart out of me the other night.. You are right about that.. It did anything but surprise me.. for once I thought an ugly face would pop by and say a nasty message.

    You have a very nice Blog Site to yourself.. The one that I read- about Birds on plates and how your Grandma commented them to be Fancy Chicken Pictures is a very Interesting Read. You’re right good and have created a neat one yourself.. Makes me wonder how you have made all the designs that I so see now..

    Your knowledge and extensive research can be felt on the Blog. I am a newbie and have joined only recently. Its a beautiful world here.
    I wish someday, I too would make such nice blogs as yours..
    Please do visit my Blog too and do comment..

    Olivia,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, those WordPress folks did have some time on their hands, didn’t they? ;-)

    I’m glad you like my blog. I’ve learned a lot about how to do many things, and have it nearly the way I want. All I need to do now is spend a bit more time making sure everything is tidied up!

    I will stop by your site. Good luck with it – and have fun!

    Linda

  14. I have some faded pictures from Liberia too. 1993. I never saw Monrovia but have a book somewhere titled: “Monrovia, Mon Amour” with some good pictures. I was Wat/San for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Bong County. I promised I would come back when the war was over.
    Somewhere (maybe with that book) I have a photo of “Harmatan” landscape.

    Ken,

    The war was such a grief. I was there when the country was still stable (i.e., corrupt to the core but safe to travel through) and can only hope that the new relative stability can allow the horrors of that war to fade and a better life to take root.

    The Harmattans blowing the laterite around were partly responsible for the title of one of the better-known books on Liberia: “Red Dust on the Green Leaves”. I knew a bush pilot who swore he could identify the source of the winds by the dust on his plane. When they were active, the dust could be red, or pink, or yellowish. He claimed each color was related to a particular location. He’d been there for decades, so I’d give him some credence.
    It’s certainly an interesting theory!

    Linda

  15. The pictures produced by modern digital cameras accessible to the masses can never replace great photographic artists like Yousuf Karsh.
    You might be interested in toadhollowphoto.com who has mastered a technique of bracketing his photo images and digitally combining the best portions of each to render a final image where all detail, irregardless of natural light conditions, is represented in full clarity. It is almost surreal.

    Rick

    • Rick,

      It’s a lovely site, for sure. I’m amazed at what today’s photographers are able to do – and often left behind when they begin talking about their techniques. I clearly need to become far more techno-savvy – but like everyone, I fight the constraints of time.

      For now, I’ll just enjoy the work of those who have figured out the techniques!

      Linda


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