Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 20, 2010

Focus on history

Exhibit traces evolution of film cameras from 1896 to 1976

by Georgia Wells

The evolution of American photography can be traced in Palo Alto these days, through an exhibition of vintage cameras and photographs that date back well into the 1800s.

Curator Beryl Self drew on the Museum of American Heritage's collection of nearly 500 cameras to create the "Picture This!" exhibit. By tracing the evolution of film cameras from 1896 to 1976, the display showcases camera technology, elements of darkroom and film processing, and alternative processing that predates traditional film.

Highlights include a camera obscura (a pinhole-camera photography technique with origins in the fourth century B.C.), several daguerreotypes and ambrotypes (the first commercial photographs), plate-glass prints and tintypes. The exhibit also includes visiting cards and larger collectible cabinet cards from the 1860s.

The Boy and Girl Scout cameras from the 1950s are particularly popular, because children are drawn to exhibits about their peers from long ago, museum executive director Gwenyth Claughton said.

"Little kids can't believe that the children of the past were ever like them," she said.

A photojournalism display about the "glory days" of glossy magazine journalism from the 1940s and 1950s highlights the importance of photography in bringing the world into people's living rooms. It includes photos from essays on the country's new immigrants and on the westward expansion. A 1905 Lewis Hine photo shows Italian newcomers at Ellis Island, while a 1936 Dorothea Lange photo depicts a Texas family moving west.

"Photo technology has gone from daguerreotypes, when people had to sit still for ages, to the instant digital cameras of today," Claughton said. "Nonetheless, in looking at these photos, I see that people haven't changed all that much."

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