Saturday, August 9, 2008

Reminiscences of an Active Life #7 -- August 9, 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 seventh part. He continues to discuss his and his son's careers as photographers.

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."

The mention of Rembrandt as an influence on creative lighting reminded that earlier filmmakers tried to sell creating lighting as "Rembrandt lighting."

John William Draper was an American scientist and historian who died in 1882.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Reminiscences of an Active Life.


From Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 25, Issue 8, August 1893

(Continued from page 146.)

5th. Career as a Photographer.The circumstances which induced my son, who was not a photographer, to take the lead in London and Paris in the new branch of making portraits by the aid of electric illumination, were as follows:

A London gentleman who wished to have his portrait in oil colors finished in the shortest possible time, but whose business did not allow him to occupy much time in sitting, was advised by my son to have a few photographic portraits taken, so as to make it possible to do some of the work in his absence. He at once applied to some photographic galleries, but was told that the daylight was so bad just then, that it was impossible to take pictures. My son, upon investigating this matter, was told by every photographer he visited, that the occurrence of frequent dark days in London was the cause of the loss of many thousands of pounds to the photographic profession. This made him conceive the idea of using electric illumination, which would at the same time furnish the advantages of giving the photographer full control of the light, which he could not have over the sun, and would make it possible to produce, by artistic management, effects not attainable by daylight, while at the same time the business could be conducted in the evening, when many people have a better chance to dress and sit for a few seconds to have their photographs taken, when on their way to the opera, dinner parties, etc.

My son communicated by letter his plan to me (in New York), and as I saw the great advantages to be gained, it resulted in an active correspondence. At the same time he tried to induce several photographers in London, one after the other, to adopt electric illumination, but not one of the many he visited would take the risk of what they considered a most hazardous undertaking, while some of them declared that they believed it to be utterly impossible, and predicted total failure.

Not discouraged, but, on the contrary, having his convictions of success strengthened by some experiments with large lenses, he concluded to establish an electro-photographic gallery in Regent street. For this purpose, he engaged a few experienced photographers as assistants, whose labor would consist only in the photographic manipulations required before and after the sitting, while my son was to confine himself to the management of the electric illumination, the posing, drapery, eto. His training as an artist gave him, in this regard, an advantage very rarely possessed by ordinary photographers, the great majority of whom have no idea of art.

I possessed, in a small degree, the same advantage, which became evident, when, fifty years ago, I attempted to make daguerreotype portraits. When my work was compared with that of the few professional photographers (who at that time supposed that it was absolutely necessary to place the sitter in the open air), its superiority was conspicuous. A traveling daguerreotypist visited the city of my residence, and made several portraits at the private houses of his patrons. He placed the sitters in the garden or rear yard of the house, which was often a narrow place between high walls, with no other illumination than that from the sky directly above. The result was that all his portraits had dark shadows under all projecting parts of the face, and were far inferior to my productions. This encouraged me to exhibit a number of my specimens in the leading bookstore, with the result that most of those who had patronized the traveling photographer requested me to take their pictures, offering to pay for them.

Thus far I had only made pictures of my friends gratuitously, out of pure interest in the new art; but in accepting the offers, I became at once a professional photographer, with considerable patronage. For this I was well prepared, having practiced with different methods of illumination, and soon had found that the best results were obtained if light was admitted directly from one side, through a large window, and when reflecting screens were placed at the other side to soften the dark shadows, which I had studied in some of Rembrandt's portraits, while I had even copied some of his etchings. Soon my reputation was established, especially among the ladies, who all looked much younger in my daguerreotypes. I must with gratefulness remember my old mother-in-law, who patiently sat for me when I made my experiments to find the proper way of illumination and study the effects of different painted backgrounds, such as landscapes, foliage, mountain views, etc., in which specialty I believe myself to have been a pioneer.

I must not omit to mention that my principal impulse to attempt portraits was obtained by the report that Prof. John W. Draper, of the University of New York, had succeeded in making them; it was especially for this reason that he was the first man I visited on my arrival in New York in 1849. When he found that I had studied his famous book on the chemical influence of the sun-light on plants, we became great friends. By his advice I hired two studios in the New York University building, where I resided and studied medicine until I was graduated in 1857 (see February number of the MANUFACTURER AND BUILDER).

He is one of the many eminent men whose loss by death I most sincerely regretted, and who always sent me a copy of his newly-published books, usually accompanied by a flattering letter.

(To be Continued).

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