Friday, 22 August 2014

Snappers and Shutterbugs – Who Took Your Family Photos?

I have inherited 3 collections of family photographs.  The collections were assembled by Mary Fleming, nee Lamb (1812-1901), my maternal 3 x great-grand-aunt; Raymond Walter Coulson (1922-1997), a paternal 1st cousin twice removed; and Mabel Adams, nee Coulson (1910-1991), my paternal grandmother.

Mary’s is the oldest collection, which dates to between the late 1850s to the 1870s.  It consists of an album of pictures measuring about 9cm X 6cm mounted on card, a format called carte de visite.   Examples from this collection have been the subject of my Family Folklore Blog series on the identities of people portrayed, inspired by Diane Hewson’s post Genealogy CSI Style - Facial Recognition. These photos were all taken by professional photographers in formal studios at a time when photography was in its infancy. Cameras were little more than a light-tight box with a lens. Negative images were captured by a wet film of light sensitive chemicals (silver nitrate) that adhered to sheet of glass coated with collodion.  Glass negatives had to be processed immediately. Prints, the positive images, were made on albumen (egg white) coated paper sensitized to light with a solution of silver nitrate. The negative was placed in direct contact with the paper producing a print the same size as the negative, known as a contact print. This video demonstrates the processes:

Albumen prints characteristically gain a yellow cast with age. The degree of yellowing may be influenced by the quality of the chemical processing and conditions of storage. This example, taken by leading London photographer, Camille Silvy, is the least yellowed in Mary’s collection.
Silvy, Camille (photographer). 13 July 1862. Portrait of B & A Lambert taken at 38 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater W. Carte-de-visite album compiled by Mary Fleming, nee Lamb (1812-1901). Personal collection of Sue Adams.

Raymond’s collection includes the World War I photo collection he inherited from his father, photos that mark his progression through childhood, and an eclectic selection from unknown family and friends. His cousin Percy Peckett, the family snapper, took a substantial proportion of the collection. Photos taken while Raymond served in India in World War II went missing from the collection around the time his estate was settled in 1997. Only 1 roll of film can be attributed to Raymond himself.
Coulson, Raymond (photographer). 23 May 1959. Interior scene of 322 Aston Hall Road featuring a radio. Negative, contact print and annotated reverse of contact print.  Negative image size 59 mm x 84 mm.  Kodak Wallet containing 7 prints and 8 negatives. Photograph collection of Raymond Walter Coulson (1922-1997). Personal collection of Sue Adams.

Verichrome nearly 3 yrs
1/25th 12 secs
fr ladder by french window
3pm May 23rd 1959
at 322 Aston Hall Rd

The detailed annotation on the reverse is a treasure, as it reveals much about the equipment at Raymond’s disposal, and reminds me of the data now automatically collected by digital cameras. Verichrome was a type of roll film. The sensitivity film to light, called film speed, is now measured by the ISO standard. ‘Slow’ film is less sensitive, so it needs either a longer time exposed to light or more light allowed to enter through the lens through a larger aperture.  Verichrome equates to 125 ISO, which is slow by today’s standards. In Raymond’s annotation, the numbers “1/25th 12 secs” relate to the camera’s exposure settings. The manual exposure time, 12 seconds, is a long time to hold a camera still, so the note “fr [om] ladder by French window” suggests Raymond used a portable free-standing ladder as a makeshift tripod.  1/25th is a shutter speed, a pre-determined exposure time, which is still too long a time to hold a camera still. For any shutter speed 1/30th of a second or greater, use of a flash is recommended for hand held shooting.  My guess is that Raymond recorded both possible shutter settings.  As Raymond recorded no aperture setting, denoted by “f” numbers, I think his camera lens may have had only one size of hole that let the light into the camera, a fixed aperture. As I have the negative for this photo, I know the format of the film was 120 or 620, which was very commonly used in box cameras.

Mabel’s collection, the largest numbering over 1000 photographs, includes photos from the 1920s up to the early 1990s. The main family shutterbug was Mabel’s daughter, Barbara.

Adams, Barbara (photographer). ca. 1957-1960s. Self portrait. Photograph collection of Mabel Adams, nee Coulson (1910-1991). Personal collection of Sue Adams.

This ‘selfie’ reveals a camera that Barbara used.  I can tell that it is a Kodak Brownie Model 1 or one of the Kodak Brownie Flash models, by comparing it to examples at Kodak Box Brownie.  These camera models were produced from 1957 and took 620 roll film, so we can be confident that the photo was taken in or after that year and know the size of the negatives. The size of the images produced were 2 ¼ in x 3 ¼ in or 57 mm x 82 mm. This print image measures 80 mm x 117 mm, so it is an enlargement, likely of the whole image as it maintains the same aspect ratio. Other photos in the collection from the same batch, identified by the stamped no 23 on the reverse, were taken in the garden of the family home in Olton Road, Birmingham. Barbara took advantage of outdoor light and a mirror to achieve this thoughtful image. She later progressed to a single lens reflex (SLR), but has not made the transition to digital.

Mabel’s negatives are the tiny (13 mm x 17 mm) 110 cartridge format used in Pocket Instamatic cameras. Such small negatives are always enlarged to produce a usable print. Despite owing a simple point-and-shoot camera, Mabel often blamed it for the classic snapper’s errors: cut-off heads, out-of-focus and under exposed (too dark) or over exposed (too bright) images.

An Interview with a Family Shutterbug

My brother, Stephen, was the family shutterbug from my teenage years onwards.

This photo, published in the school magazine is very apt.
"The Snapper snapped". Candid Camera. Alberton High School magazine 1979. p. 11. [Photograph depicts Stephen Adams at Alberton High School, 35 Phantom Street, Randhart, Alberton, Transvaal, South Africa]

I asked him about the cameras he has owned.

What was your first camera and when did you get it?
My first camera was a Halina 200.  It was a birthday present in the year I went to Germiston High School before we moved to Raceview [1977]. It had no light meter so you had to guess exposure; and shutter speed, aperture and focus were all manual so you had to remember to pay attention to all three!

What camera were you using in 'The Snapper snapped'? Was your first SLR and when
did you get it?
I think the camera in the picture of me was a Praktica Super TL or just maybe Praktica Super TL-2 or  "TL-1". Dad bought the SLR when he went back to England for granddad's funeral [Thomas Adams, husband to Mabel, died 1979] so it was second-hand then.

This was my first SLR. I had a standard lens and a third-party zoom. The standard lens was the better of the two; the zoom had poor contrast and slowly fell apart. A manual SLR at least makes you pay attention to focus.
[This camera had a built-in light meter, making shutter speed and aperture setting easier.]

As an avid birdwatcher I vividly remember the theft of my first binoculars and Stephen’s camera. My bird watching notes pin the date down to 3 January 1985 and the location to the beach car park near at Imhoff Caravan Park. After confirming that the Praktica was stolen, Stephen described its replacement and a subsequent film camera:

I bought an Olympus OM30 after moving to Southampton.  I still have the OM30. I also have my last film camera, a Ricoh GR1. It is about as small as you can make a 35mm camera, something you could carry discretely and with a 28mm lens was great indoors.

When did you go digital?
I bought a Canon G3 just after my trip to Brazil, 2004. I have had several digital cameras, including a Panasonic Lumix LX3 and a waterproof camera, but I use my phone more, since I always have it with me.

Of course the instant feedback of digital makes it easier and inexpensive to learn. But I don't take good pictures because I'm not paying attention.

This has been quite a romp through photographic history with a fair bit of technical detail. Although almost everyone now takes digital photographs, it is possible to explore the limitations of older cameras.  If your camera has manual settings, try using the same settings as Raymond did. Turn off light meter facilities and auto focus and see what using Stephen’s first camera was like.

Ask your family snapper or shutterbug about their cameras. Even those disinterested I family history like to talk about their tech toys. You may turn up snippets of information useful to genealogy. Did you notice Stephen’s references to places and events, and the interaction between our memories?

The more I organise and catalogue the photo collections in my custody, the more I discover. Can you identify which photos were taken with the same film, the same type of camera, or by the same person? The collection level information is often overlooked, but can be very revealing.


  1. Fascinating, and informative

  2. Wow great information. I do good getting the photographs filed and not in a big box.

    1. My organisation is work in progress. The good thing is you don't have to be finished with sorting a collection to start getting interesting insights.

      Nowhere near enough research has been done on mid 20th century to early 21st century photography. Do you have formats I didn't mention? I would love to hear about them and figure out when they fit in to the development of photographic technology.

  3. My thoughts exactly, what a fascinating post!

  4. Very Interesting. I am very fortunate to have access to my grandmothers photo albums, which I have scanned and sorted.
    I am now more aware of ensuring that there are related people in my photos or lifestyle objects/activities etc.

  5. What a fabulous post! Sadly, our family didn't seem to have a "snapper." I've tried to correct that by taking photos whenever the family gathers. I like being the "snapper," then I'm never in the photo!

  6. Family shutterbugs are beyond jewels! how fortunate to have such a great variety following the growth of photography.

  7. How lucky you are to have such a wealth of family photographs. They bring family history alive as nothing else can.


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World Wide Genealogy Team