15: Stereographic Photograph
by Eliza W. Withington
Bibliography · Essay
How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs
by Eliza W. Withington, 1876
© Peter E. Palmquist
Withington hailed from a tiny town called Ione City in rural Amador County. Not only did she make a business of taking landscape photographs, but she wrote an article concerning her techniques entitled "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs." In 1876, the year her article appeared, traveling photography required a backbreaking amount of cumbersome equipment, especially because glass-plate negatives had to be sensitized and processed in the field (the wet-collodion process). Even her camera was a considerable handful by comparison to today's point-and-shoot 35mm photography.
Withington's account is one of our most detailed descriptions of a California field photographer during the 1870s. She was fifty-one years old when she wrote her article in 1876; she died the following year from unknown causes.
How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs
by Eliza W. Withington, 1876
FRIEND Mosaics: I have read friend Wilson's invitation "that we write thee a short letter." What can I write about? Others so much better informed scientifically, and more experienced practically, have and will write in those departments of photography in which it would be absurd for me to say aught. When the savants and producers in photography talk, I can but listen. Yet, I would pay thee my respects. Suppose that I tell thee how a woman makes landscape photographs?
Here in the valley, for four months, the temperature is very high, too high for comfort or good photographic work, for several of the midday hours of those months the thermometer coquets with the Centennial number, often getting the better of it from ten to twenty degrees in the shade. When those days come I begin to finish up and dismiss local work, clean 5 x 8 plates, select and arrange my chemicals in compact little packages or small bottles (as the exigency of the case requires), and put by in some convenient place ready for packing when the time draws nigh, in which I may hie me to the mountains.
We have some of the prettiest little lakes, the loveliest valleys, the most picturesque and stupendous mountains, peaks, etc., of the Sierra Nevada range in our county, and what was a few years ago, but was divided off, and now is named Alpine County.
In these counties is the old Emigrant or Carson road, and the people have gratefully immortalized the old pioneer, Kit Carson, by giving his cognomen to some of the grandest wildest, most peculiar peaks, spurs, etc. Here we have Carson River, Carson Creek, Carson Canon, Carson Spur, Carson Peak, Carson Valley, Carson City, and Carson Road, and the richest gold and silver mines in the world, excepting, perhaps, one or two, until ours are more fully developed. Now I think of it, I never have heard of a Carson Mine; that must be looked to, and have that so no more.
Well, friend Mosaics Wilson will say, "This is not photography!" Perhaps not; but it is in the suburbs, and, in future years, must be densely photographic.
This year when I started there was a family party of six of us. We camped out just where night overtook us, or the fishing was good. After passing Pine Grove, Antelope Springs, Ham's Station, Tragedy Springs, Silver Lake, Carson Spur, First Summit, Kirkwood's, Twin Lakes, Second Summit, Red Lake into Hope Valley (all familiar landmarks to pioneers and overland emigrants), I said good-by to my friends, and travelled as I could, by stage, private conveyance, or fruit-wagons.
On such trips I take enough negative bath to fill the tub twice, or more, a pound and a half of collodion, and about eighty plates.
I have a box just long enough to let my Newell bath-tub fit in one side by having notches cut in the ends to let the ears of the Newell bath-tub rest on, the tub then reaches within half an inch of the bottom of the box, in the bottom of which is a thick layer of cotton-batting to absorb any leakages and break the jolts on contents of box, and some awful ones they get; but I never have had a bottle broken when travelling, but it is death to porcelain dishes. After two trials, I use only iron and wooden developing and fixing trays. My box is about three times as wide as the bath-tub; in the two-thirds space I pack a two-quart bottle of negative bath, a pound bottle of collodion, a pound bottle of developer (double strength), a pound bottle of fixing bath, a collodion pouring bottle, one of negative varnish, a small vial each of ammonia, nitric and acetic acid, alcoholic pyrogallic intensifier, bichloride of mercury and alcohol, a small package each of iron and hyposulphite of soda, a small fluid or Lucene oil-lamp, and a box of parlor matches. After all are packed, I turn over the top two rubber funnels, one for filtering the silver-bath, the other for filtering more developer, and all is incased in a strong cloth sack with a carpet bottom and a shirrstring in the top; when drawn close around the inverted funnels and tied, all is snug and secure. The box has wooden slats on the sides to lift by, by taking hold of sack and all.
My negative box holds thirty-two 5 x 8 plates, which are albumenized. I prepare about fifty more, and pack by laying out a thick, large sheet of white wrapping-paper. First lay on it a plate incased in a thin blotting- paper twice its size, so there is no danger of its getting misplaced by slipping out, or otherwise, having written on the underside "albumen side," and continue to lay plates albumen side down, and tissue or blotting-paper between. When the number wished is completed they are rolled snugly in the wrapping-paper, and a towel around the whole, then the package fits nicely into my little wooden tray, 6 x 9 inside, for hypo-bath, which again is placed in a common sheet-iron baking-pan of small size, which is used, if necessary, to develop over, and when thoroughly washed out, the negative, after fixing, can be placed in it in an inch or so of water, to let the animated subjects "see how" I and Jane, and Jack, Susan, Katie, and Bob do look. "Ah, how black I am!" "Why, I thought that we would be ever so much larger than that!" not one out of twenty ever looking at the beautiful scenery.
Where were we? The plates are in the tray, the tray in the iron pan, and now the whole are placed on top of the negative box, which, too, has a strong cloth casing, same as the chemical box. The plateholder, with a piece of red blotting paper in it for back of sensitized plates, is wrapped in the focussing cloth, and my handtowel around that, and placed at the side of the negative box. If the box is full of plates, and not room for the camel's-hair duster and dipper, they are rolled in tissue paper (of which there is always a supply among the plates in the box), and tucked under the cord that fastens the plate wrappings. When all are in place draw the shirrstring, and tie snug.
The sacks are never removed from the boxes during a trip, being wide enough, that when the shirr is straightened out, the top of sack can be turned down when unpacking and working, and all ready when the boxes are repacked to draw up and tie, and there is plenty of room at the side to tuck in useful things, as this, for instance: there are times when it is too cumbersome to get out the tent and pitch it, etc., and I improvised one by taking a dark, thick dress skirt, that was well fringed by bushes and rocks, sewing two thicknesses of black calico of its width to the bottom, then, when I knew of a view that we were to pass, I would sensitize a plate and by wrapping a wet towel around the plate, and over that the focussing cloth, I have carried it three hours. When the exposure has been made, I throw the skirt over the camera, and pin the band close to the camera box. If the sun is bright, and too much light enters, I throw over all a heavy travelling shawl, and with water, lamp, and developer, I slip under cover, develop the view, wash and replace in plateholder until a more convenient time for fixing and varnishing. Even the stage will sometimes stop so long. The water vessel is a common six-quart watering pot, the sprinkler removed, and the spout supplied with a cork.
I have a good tent (own invention), more properly dark closet, for landscape work when necessary, but I do not often need it; a bed room or clothes closet can so easily be converted into a dark closet, and are safer from accidents from wind or dust. I do wish to, but will defer for the present inflicting on you a description of it, as my letter is growing too lengthy. My patrons always know when I am coming, and often take me in their own conveyance to their residences, or where views are to be photographed. At such times I never carry a dark closet, as they always think no place too good, and against all protestations and fears on my part of accidents from spilled water or chemicals, I have several times been forced to use a parlor, Brussels carpet and all, for chemical room.
The camera, the pet, consists of a pair of Morrison lenses, a Philadelphia box and tripod; on short distances I usually carry these, having the legs doubled up and tied, but, if riding far, and I do not want to use it, I take out the screw, invert the lenses, i.e., turn them into the box, turn up the bed-frame, and wrap up in the skirt-tent and pack away.
Last but not least in usefulness is a strong black-linen cane-handled parasol. If not absolutely necessary for a cane, and more necessary for a shade, I so use it; and then it is at hand if a view must be taken when the sun is too far in front, to shade the lenses with, or to break the wind from the camera; and for climbing mountains or sliding into ravines a true and safe alpenstock.
With this kit I travelled some hundreds of miles last summer, seeking health and negatives of our mountain scenery, mines, quartz mills, etc. For four months before starting I had scarcely spoken above a whisper; after eight weeks, I returned home, speaking as well as ever. See what we can do if we try! Would that more valetudinarians could thus find health and recreation...
The spirit hath moved me to write this, I know not why. It is my earnest wish that it may help some beginner situated as I commenced landscaping, without one of the craft to speak with, and had to look alone to books for suggestions, in which Mosaics and the Philadelphia Photographer were my best counsellors.
100 Years of California Photography by Women
All text compiled by Peter E. Palmquist
Shadowcatchers: A Directory of Women In California Photography Before1901
Arcata, California: Peter Palmquist, 1990.