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.