On May 11 at the Marshall House, local photographers Jeffrey Apoian and Stephen Harris and a group of painters, photographers and visual arts lovers toured the exhibit of images by Lambertville photographer John A. Anderson (1829-1917). The images are from the Collection of the Mercer Museum Library of the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown.
First, we admired Anderson’s photo of Bridge Street from November 1898, then opened the front door of the Marshall House and looked across the street at the same view.
The girl adds a personal, emotional quality to the image, our group members agreed (one speculated, “I think she’s sad because she’s lonely”). She is sitting on the porch of 49 Bridge St. (now Callaway Henderson). To its right, Larison & Marjarum sold coal, wood and ice (the office is now Sneddon’s). That building’s sign to the upstairs is for Lone Star Lodge #16 of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order. With its prominent corbels at the roofline, and the ground floor designated for retail and the two upper stories for lodge meetings (now apartments), the building resembles the Masonic Building at 21 Bridge Street and the Odd Fellows Lodge at 26 Bridge Street.
Stephen Harris: Anderson’s photographs are such high-resolution and they were composed and executed so well, that they make “then and now” views of Lambertville very enjoyable. His shot of a shad haul on Lewis Island in 1898 is a terrific image, and even more meaningful to me because they are still bringing in shad in nets on that spot today.
The photographers explained that Anderson’s images remain so clear in part because he used glass-plate negatives. The Mercer Museum’s archive notes state, “Many of [Anderson’s] glass negative plates have pencil notes indicating the settings or exposures, and the plates still retain the intricate opaque techniques and artistic cropping of finished prints.”
Stephen Harris showed antique glass slides, about 2” square, that he was gifted. Glass slides were used widely in the late 1800’s and then phased out with the invention of film negatives and the Brownie camera. Jeffrey Apoian owns pre-sensitized glass plates with date stamps from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.
To create the exhibit, an LHS team visited the Mercer Museum Library and selected images. The library digitized the images mainly from the glass-plate negatives (a couple were scanned from old prints, and they are of noticeably lesser quality). LHS printed the images in varying sizes, including two panoramas that hold their resolution when enlarged, as seen in Anderson’s image from March 16, 1898, looking west along Bridge Street toward New Hope.
Jeffrey Apoian: The old cameras performed superbly with soft, ultraviolet light from overcast skies.
Our group noted there are in fact no sunny skies in any of the outdoor images in the exhibit. Furthermore, there are few pedestrians, suggesting that Anderson took many photos in the early mornings. Compositionally, many of his outdoor scenes include a road at one side that serves as a “leading line” that draws the viewer in.
Above images are (left to right): “Delaware from Foot of Goat Hill” from Oct. 21, 1891; “Union Street North from York” from May 20, 1898; and “York Street” from May 19, 1897.
Jeffrey Apoian wanted our group to experience photography of the past, so he set up his custom-made, chamfered-front camera–with a 1/4 plate and a vintage 8.5-inch brass lens of the era— that he uses for alternative processes. Most of us at first could not see anything, but then our vision adjusted, and we had delightful epiphanies as we recognized the image of the sitter in front of us, but upside-down in the manner of early cameras (and, incidentally, on our retinas before our brain flips and understands an image).
The activity reminded us of Anderson’s photo on the second floor of the exhibit, “Amateur Photography” from 1894, featuring his grandsons, John and Albert Jr.
We examined a group of Anderson’s portraits, in which the subjects, whether family and friends or strangers, are solemn and dignified. Anderson had an affinity for workers, perhaps because of his career at the railroad, and he often filmed them holding tools.
Stephen Harris: He clearly cared about his subjects, showing them in a very positive light, no matter their level or profession.
Anderson’s discipline in his compositions was evident to our group as we looked at a series of his portraits, which display photography’s “Rule of Thirds” and consistently feature subjects’ faces two-thirds from the bottom despite the subjects’ varying distances from the camera.
We regarded Anderson’s portrait of his daughter Hannah from February 15, 1893. Age 36 in this photo, Hannah Coryell Anderson wrote historical and cultural articles such as “General Washington at Coryell’s Ferry,” “Cintra,” and “A Plea for the Lost Fairy Garden.” She may have taken the portraits of her father, as well as other photographs during their travels together.
Jeffrey Apoian: From the shadows on the screen to the left of the piano, I think there was a light source, possibly gunpowder flash, at some elevation to the right.
The July 1909 photo, “Group on Front Porch, Misses Strecter,” shows the challenges of a long exposure: the man is blurry because he moved.
Jeffrey Apoian: You had to hold your pose for five-six seconds with cameras in those days.
We look closely at the woman at the right. In looking directly at the camera and smiling and showing her teeth, she is unlike the other subjects in the exhibit.
Stephen Harris: We all smile in portraits, but of course they didn’t back then. This woman looks friendly, approachable, confident—very “modern.”
Anderson made several thousand images of mushrooms and flowers—including species that are rare today. We admired “Cherokee Rose” which he photographed in 1907 in South Carolina, a representative botanical work for Anderson as he shot it indoors, having staged and lighted the subject, instead of in situ in an outdoor garden in natural light.
Annelies van Dommelen: He was taking their portrait!
Jeffrey Apoian: I think Anderson really had the photography bug—and I get it, because I have it too! He simply had to keep taking and developing photos. If it was winter or raining outside, it didn’t matter—he had to keep working and experimenting indoors.
As shown in “Oaks, Goat Hill” from 1907, Anderson spent hours in the woods “just seeing” in the manner of contemporary landscape painters.
Stephen Harris encourages a similar mindset that opens one up to enjoy the surroundings, to really “see” and take photos of truly memorable subjects in nature and in city settings. To practice this approach, consider taking Steve’s workshop, “Art of Seeing: A mindful approach to photography.”
Anderson’s travel photos include cyanotypes, recognizable for their Prussian blue, such as this image of Horseshoe Falls (Niagara Falls) from April 1892.
Cyanotypes use the UV rays from the sun and iron salt solutions rather than silver salt solutions of earlier, more expensive photographic processes like daguerreotype, which Anderson learned in 1846 when he was 17, and recalled in this article he wrote in 1915.
Jeffrey Apoian: Even after practicing some of these old processes for many years, I constantly find them to be elusive and quite fickle. Success can depend on the alkalinity of the water, the acidity paper, humidity on any given day, as well as the amount of ultraviolet light used to expose these mediums. What works on one day may very well not work the next, which can be can be frustrating—especially if you are used to shooting modern film or digital and it most likely always comes out as planned.
Stephen Harris: Film is having a resurgence, as is processing your own images. A partner and I are building a darkroom at the Prallsville Mills in Stockton, where members of the “Bucks County Darkroom Group” will have access to education, loaner cameras, gallery show opportunities, and more. Contact me for more information at https://www.rivertown-creative.com/photography.html#/
Jeffrey Apoian: I have found Mr. Anderson to be a “photographer’s photographer.” I can see from his work that he truly embraced every aspect of the medium of the day and not only used it to its full potential—he took it steps further whenever he could.
Stephen Harris: Anderson is a person I would have liked to have met, to have observed him creating such striking images of the places and people of his time. At least we have his photographs!
The LHS exhibit of John A. Anderson’s photographs, writings, and scrapbook will run till November 2023 at the James Marshall House Museum, open Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 pm.