The Historical Society of Moorestown’s members kept Gary D. Saretzky in “continuous focus” this April 4th. He delivered a “RAW” lecture on the Garden State’s first photographers. Mr. Saretzky opted to “focus” his comments on those who lived in Burlington County in the nineteenth century. The audience listened with rapt attention, making no “noise.” The New Jersey Council for the Humanities sponsored this event. The Moorestown Library hosted.
According to his website, Mr. Saretzsky describes himself as an: “Achivist * Photographer * Educator.” He first took an interest in photography in 1972. Five years later, he accepted a position teaching photography at Mercer County College. Mr. Saretzky also exhibits his own photographic work. In recent years, he’s concentrated his work on blues musicians.
Mr. Saretzky currently serves as the Chief Archivist of Monmouth County. He’s also a professional photographer. He melded these two interests and became a historian of photography; a topic upon which he frequently lectures. I attended one titled “19th Century New Jersey Photographers: Burlington County.”
The speaker knew his subject matter. He began his remarks with the very advent of photography. He talked about how a French photographer, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, developed the first photographs in 1839. The resulting product, the “daguerreotype”, bore his name. Seth Boyden, Sr. made the first such photos in New Jersey during the same year.
The following decades saw many innovations in the photographic process. The man who invented the Dixon Pencil contributed to advancements in the photographic field as well. Joseph Dixon helped develop the Collodion Process. It led to glass plate negatives, ambrotypes and tintypes.
The cartes-de-visite photograph became popular in the 1850s. These photos were printed on paper as opposed to the copper plates of the daguerreotypes. They were also more common. During the 1860s, the abundance of carte-de-viste photo albums led to the standardization of photo sizes.
Photographers who took cartes-de-visite photos placed their names on the backs of them. During the daguerreotype era, most didn’t identify themselves on their work. For that reason, many early picture takers remain unknown.
Photography was not a popular profession through the late 19th century. Mr. Saretzky reported that in 1870 only 149 photographers lived in New Jersey. In 1900 approximately 700 people worked in the field. 22 per cent of these were German immigrants.
A photographer needed 7,000 customers in order to earn a living. To supplement their incomes, many found employment in a range of other fields. Many worked as jewelers or performed watch repairs. Mount Holly’s Benjamin F. Lee served as Sheriff of Burlington County for a time. New Egypt resident Edward Blake pursued a career path on the other side of the law. As a result of that endeavor, he received a ten year sentence for counterfeiting. The speaker didn’t say whether or not authorities allowed Mr. Blake to take his own mugshot.
Between 1842 and 1900 about 100 active photographers resided in Burlington County. Riverton’s Bertha M. Lothrup was one of the earliest users of flash photography. Mount Holly’s Peter Walker added coloring to a photo the speaker displayed. He did so in order to match the print on the back. Another Mount Holly denizen, James R. Applegate claimed to be the biggest producer of tintypes in the United States. He also developed photo improvements, patented a new type of merry-go-round featuring mirrors and built a pier in Atlantic City.
At the conclusion of his prepared remarks, the speaker took questions from the audience. Someone asked the one most people inquire about: “Why did so few people smile in old photographs?” While nobody has ever provided a definitive answer, the speaker shared a few theories.
In most portrait paintings, the subject didn’t smile. People adopted the same posture during the early days of photography. They did so in order to appear serious and dignified.
The standards of 19th century dentistry weren’t the same as those of the modern era. Most people either had bad teeth or no teeth.
The final potential explanation came from the photographic process. Exposures could take several minutes. It was difficult to hold a smile for that period of time.
When the lecture reached its “resolution” the “time lapse” during this event made me “shutter.” During my “post processing” of his speech, the “depth of field” Mr. Saretzky covered amazed me. While I reflected on the speech’s “afterimage” I couldn’t think of any “blown highlights”, either. What a “positive” event.