On today’s Times Local News page, you’ll find some of the oldest photos in existence of the Marietta area. Thomas Dwight Biscoe’s photos are a remarkable look into another era in Marietta. Many taken in the 1880s, they show Marietta both familiar and distant, because of the things that are in the photos and the things that are not.
Biscoe was a professor at Marietta College and an amateur photographer who worked with glass plates. Using a giant camera, he would record daily life around Marietta. These photos have been preserved and are part of the special collections of Marietta College at the Legacy Library. The photos have been scanned and can be viewed on their website. The site contains over 200 photos of the Marietta area as well as several hundred photos he took on his travels. Eight of Marietta’s photos are posted today on the Local News page.
On the page, you’ll see a photo of Biscoe with his wide-angle camera. To say it was cumbersome to use is an understatement. I happen to own an Agfa from the late 1800s. Although I’ve never taken a picture with it, I can share a glimpse of what Biscoe and his contemporaries went through. The first thing you notice when you pick it up is its size. Mine is about the size of a four slice toaster. Made of leather, wood, brass and glass, it has weight. They were always used with a tripod to support the weight and keep it stable.
The cameras of the time did not have a viewfinder. On the back of the camera, where the film plate would later go, was a piece of frosted glass. The lens would project the image onto the glass – upside down – to allow the photographer to compose the image and focus the lens. He would then have removed the glass and replaced it with a film holder which contained the glass plate. The plate was covered with a solid blade which was removed once in the camera. The shutter was then released allowing the glass plate to be exposed. Some exposures were very long, making it difficult to stop any action in the photos. Many of Biscoe’s exposures lasted up to 60 seconds. The dark blade would then be replaced and the glass plate replaced.
The plate would then be treated in chemicals. The glass plate would be a negative of the photographed scene. A print can be made on paper by placing the glass plate on photosensitive paper and briefly exposing it to light in a process called contact printing. Conventional film would later replace glass plates. Biscoe’s photos are in both mediums, depending on when they were taken.
I chose the photos that are on the Local News page because they represent a good sample of what is available. You really want to see them online because of the incredible resolution of some photos. A photo of Harmar Hill, for example, lets you zoom in and possibly find your home on Fourth Street, a street that hadn’t yet had St. Mary’s Church, or the current Presbyterian Church, built on it. A photo on this page shows the construction of the Williamstown Bridge, other photos in the collection show an Ohio River without a bridge and the Muskingum River with bridges that were the first generation version of the bridges we see today.
Today people carry a camera with them in their pocket. The iPhone is probably the most used camera in the history of photography. What remains to be seen is how many of the photos taken today will be present in 2162, carefully stored for people to still enjoy.
Art Smith is the Times’ online manager. He can be contacted at [email protected]