Through a Lens Brightly

An award-winning photojournalist, Patrick Downs is the magazine's photo editor

. . . It would appear to the casual observer that the nineteenth century has discovered and perfected the entire art-science (of photography). . . . Has the nineteenth left nothing for the twentieth to do? . . .

There is the possibility of the manufacture of a telescope with a photographic instrument so perfect that the surface of the moon--perhaps of the planets--may, by the aid of a perfectly structureless film yet to be invented, be photographed. You may say this is visionary . . . Ah! Who can delve one hundred years into the future to see what the twentieth century shall accomplish?


Almost 100 years after that passage appeared in a 1901 photographic bulletin, we look back in wonder at the how the omnipresent camera has changed, and has changed us. Aerospace may have put the Polar Lander on Mars, but cameras are what connected humanity to that triumph. From microscopic images of dust mites looking like "Jurassic Park" extras to stroboscopic photos of insect-snatching bats frozen mid-flight to Lennart Nilsson's riveting images of babies in utero, photography shows us previously hidden realms and moments. Would Mary Pickford or Luke Perry have become household names without the camera--the tool that did as much as any to define Southern California and to help it shape the world.

What started with George Eastman's Brownie boxes became digital cameras making millions of pixels (who knew what a pixel was 10 years ago?). And more than most cutting-edge technologies, this one has trickled down, enabling the Average Joe to have remembrances of things past, and knowledge of things unseen.

Like most progress, photo-technology has its glitches. We make things more complicated because we can. The evolution from the $1 Brownie with its dozen parts to the Nikon F5 with its thousands parallels the biplane becoming the Learjet. Along the way, ironies arose. Old cameras often had fuzzy lenses. New lenses are tack sharp, so some photographers slap on a filter or Vaseline to make the picture soft again. The photographer of old's glass plates were fragile things that broke at a sneeze--one slip of the hand, and a day's work in shards. Now, 100 images or more fit on a digital PC card. One slip of the hand, and a day's work gone.

Only curmudgeons complain.

The UC Riverside/California Museum of Photography's Bingham Collection (9,000 cameras and growing) supplied the 20th century cameras shown here. They range from the primitive box camera to the covert, the stereoscopic, and strange hybrids, including my favorite, the Ramera. A hundred years ago, could that visionary who imagined photographing the moon have predicted this oddball device that is half radio, half camera?

So, what's next for the camera? The future, as always, is a mystery.

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