A look at the Smithsonian’s vast and seldom displayed collection of machines for making pictures
WASHINGTON, D.C., WAS A GREAT PLACE to be a photographer in the 19605. Stories like the civil rights marches and antiwar protests lured the top photographers to town. The Time/Life bureau was the center of the action, and I had the good fortune to be a young stringer there.
Photographers shared a common area at the bureau. Cameras, light meters, and strobes were strewn everywhere, and we were constantly fiddling with them; that’s what photographers do when they aren’t taking pictures. I remember Stan Wayman testing a new Leica reflex housing attached to a wind-up high-speed Bell & Howell camera. It was ahead of anything on the market at the time, and Stan used it to make prizewinning action sequences long before anyone else.
The next desk belonged to Francis Miller, who was assigned to cover President Johnson. With a little prompting he would demonstrate the devices he used to make photos when no one wanted them made. I remember one camera he hid in his shirt to sneak pictures during civil rights trials in Southern courtrooms. Francis showed us how he would stand up (to get the camera in position) and fake a coughing spell to cover the noise of the shutter. If his efforts were discovered, the locals would take him outside and beat the dickens out of him. Francis was always getting beaten up.
Photographers like pictures first, but next they love the tools that make them. When I was invited recently to visit the storage area in Suitland, Maryland, where the Smithsonian Institution keeps its camera collection. I jumped at the chance.
John Hiller, a research associate at the Photographic History Center, met me at the guard’s desk, and we cleared security. Since I was bringing in cameras and an assortment of lights, I wanted the guard to know that this particular selection of photographic history belonged to me. We made notes, signed books, and walked past Pod One to Pod Two, as sections of the facility are called, past a stuffed Indian rhino, two Chinese Buddhas, a horse-drawn caisson, and a carved ceremonial canoe, to a flight of tiny stairs leading to Level Two. At the top of the stairs, we encountered rows of cabinets that seemed to stretch away to infinity. More than 10,000 cameras, lenses, and patent models there—the great, the semigreat, and the not so great—have been catalogued and placed in boxes, awaiting the chance to be put on display at the National Museum of American History, in Washington. Their chances for making it to the mall are pretty slim; only a very small fraction of the collection is ever exhibited.
When Samuel F. B. Morse visited Paris to promote his telegraph, he met Louis Jacques Daguerre and learned how he made pictures on a sensitized silver-plated copper sheet. Morse returned with plans and components for what is believed to have been the first camera in the United States (above and opposite). I saw early motion-picture cameras, among them a Lumière cinematograph, which is both a camera and a projector. Beginning in 1895, Louis Lumière filmed brief 15- to 20-second clips of everyday French life: a train coming into a station, a wall falling down. Since no one had seen any kind of moving picture before, audiences watched these clips over and over, forward and backward. Lumière and his assistants traveled the world, filming exotic places and holding screenings on-site. At least two cabinets are filled with spy and detective cameras, with miniature components concealed in watches, canes, or cigarette packs. Perhaps the most famous of these is the camera Tom Howard used in 1928 to take the photograph of Ruth Snyder’s execution, the first electrocution of a woman at Sine Sing Prison in New York, for the New York Daily News . In other cabinets, flashpowder trays and flash guns fascinated me; at the start of my career, I made pictures with Sylvania Press 25 bulbs for the Dallas Morning News .
To photograph the cameras shown here, I set up a studio at the end of an aisle. I never got to handle any of them myself. John Hiller and colleague Michelle Ann Delany, wearing white gloves and exercising extreme care, would bring them and position them the way I wanted. For composition-and-lighting test pictures I used a Canon D 30 digital camera. I couldn’t help wondering what Samuel F. B. Morse would think of his 1839 apparatus being photographed with a camera that records an image and processes it through a computer, using no film at all.