Saturday, July 5, 2008

Reminiscences of an Active Life #6 -- July 5, 2008

Doctor Peter Henri Van Der Weyde was born in Nymegen, Holland in 1813. He went on to live a remarkable life of achievement in the sciences and the arts. He died in America in 1895.

While serving as editor of Manufacturer and Builder Magazine, he wrote many articles, including the ones which gave this blog its name. In 1893 and 1894, he published a 23-part (!) memoir in the same periodical.

Here is the sixth part. He continues to discuss his career as a photographer.

His son Henry Van Der Weyde served in the Union Army during the Civil War and later emigrated to England, where he worked as a photographer. I have not located a photograph by PH, but the image this month was taken by Henry. It is from Tennis By John Moyer Heathcote et. al: "C. Saunders volleying the service from the pent-house."

Roger (or Rogier) Van Der Weyde was a Fifteenth Century Flemish painter.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Reminiscences of an Active Life.


From Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 25, Issue 6, June 1893

(Continued from page 123.)

(5th. Career as a Photographer. -- As stated before, I began to follow Daguerre’s advice, and made only pictures of outdoor objects. The first subject was a chimney top, visible across the street from a top-story window. This was very much admired, especially because it exhibited a peculiarity never before seen in art productions, namely, that every brick was represented, with details which required a magnifying glass to verify them; defects in the bricks, for instance, only visible by help of an opera glass, were found in the small picture when a magnifying lens was applied.

I went a step further, and attempted to make a picture of an object only visible by a telescope; this was a church spire at the horizon of an extensive fiat landscape seen from a window in the attic story. At first nothing of it was visible on the Daguerrean plate, not even by the strongest lens; but by narrowing the diaphragm which I used in front of the lens, and prolonging the time of exposure in proportion that the light reaching the plate was thus reduced, I succeeded in making an impression of the invisible spire, very distinctly recognized by the aid of a small magnifying lens. This also was another feat admired by my friends.

This, and similar experiments, set me speculating in regard to the future services which photography might render to astronomy, if at night it might not be possible to photograph invisible stars by long exposure to a camera attached to the heliostat, of which I had studied the illustrated description in Gravesande’s ”Elemens de Physique,” published in Leyden in 1744, plate 83, pp. 127-136, having its clock-work motion so regulated as to follow the movements of the stars, and so make a very long exposure possible -- say several hours.

When speaking about this to some friends, they said I was a visionary; but when I mentioned the subject to an old astronomer, he answered that if I lived long enough I might see this done. (Warning – Large pun ahead – JT) I thank my stars that I have reached the age to see such experiments of photographing constellations carried on as a regular practice in first-class observatories.

Notwithstanding the public in general had not the least idea of what photography promised to all whose mind was prepared to conceive the diversity of its applications, it is scarcely possible to realize the general surprise and delight produced by the new art, which at first had many doubters, who could not believe in what seemed to them almost miraculous results, until at last they were convinced by seeing an operation which at present (only fifty years later) has become so common that daguerreotypes are made by the nickel-in-the-slot process, and this often in some dark corner with the aid of electric light. This is another illustration of the material service which the sciences and arts can render to one another.

The nickel-in-the-slot process has perhaps reached its most extensive application in Coney Island, in regard to which locality we in New York are in doubt if we should be proud, or, on the contrary, should be ashamed. One thing is certain, that those who there practice this art for a living, ought to be ashamed of the pictures they produce, as well as those who indulge in that luxury and who exhibit them to their friends.

This reminds me very naturally of a few other localities where photographs are made by help of electric light. However, while Coney Island is low in the estimation of lovers of science, art and refined culture, the other localities stand high -- stand at the top of the pyramid with which we may compare the sum total of science and art. These localities are Paris and London.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that my oldest son, Henry Van der Weyde, was the first to introduce in London, and also in Paris, the use of the electric light for making photographic portraits. As he never studied photography, it may be of interest to many to know how he succeeded in outstripping the photographers of those two cities.

From early boyhood he exhibited a strong predilection for drawing, at which I was not at all surprised, as it is a family trait*, of which I was possessed myself; and so I did with him as my father did with me -- namely, helped and encouraged him, giving him at an early age a good teacher, and sending him later to a drawing class, where he studied statuary and living models. He became soon very expert in painting miniature portraits, for which he easily found profitable employment in New York among the leading photographers, until the civil war broke out, when he joined the Seventh Regiment, N. G. S. N. Y., to leave for the protection of Washington, and later served in other regiments to the end of the war, when he returned with the rank of Brevet-Major, and, unlike others, he returned at once to his former occupation; as in the meantime I had moved to Philadelphia, having been appointed to a professorship in Girard College, he found an engagement with Gutekunst, the leading photographer there.

* The old master Roger Van der Weyde is one of the ancestors of the family.

(To be Continued).

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