Herman Spooner’s Glass Plate Photographs of Greenery
CAM Connects readers may recognize the work of Herman W. Spooner (1870-1941) from past issues and as a member of the Cape Ann Camera Club. While he photographed a variety of subjects throughout the region, with spring's arrival we wanted to share some of his photographs from our collection of gardens, flowers, and greenery. Each of these images was taken on glass plates c. 1900 and the 1930s and are primarily of garden settings with ornamental flowers like irises, chrysanthemums, and lilies, as well as wildflowers such as the Magnolia virginiana “glauca” for which Magnolia is named.
Also known as the “sweetbay magnolia” or “swamp magnolia”, the Magnolia virginiana “glauca” blooms in July and is native to Essex county. Flowers of Essex County refers to it as a “small magnolia” which was first brought to attention by Manasseh Cutler during the 1700’s and whose habitat is swamps in Gloucester and towards Essex. How to Know the Wild Flowers calls this a “laurel magnolia” and describes it as a shrub that grows from four to twenty feet high in swamps along the coast of Cape Ann southward and has beautiful, fragrant blossoms which bloom from June until August. It gives this caution: “[t]he large flowers are sure to attract the attention of those ruthless destroyers who seem bent upon the final extermination of our most pleasing and characteristic plants.” More than one hundred years later this caution rings true - Sweetbay Magnolias are currently considered an endangered species in Massachusetts.
Many of these glass plates have notes from Spooner written on them. On some plates from the 1930s he has written “Corliss Brothers,” possibly referring to the Corliss Brothers Garden Center and Nursery in Ipswich which has been in business since 1905. On others, he has written the date, location and/or the names of flowers in the photograph. Some are photographs of Gloucester residents’ gardens.
The glass plates dated c. 1900 are black and white and made using the wet plate collodion process, some having been hand tinted with oil or watercolor paints. These are commonly known as lantern slides. Those from the 1930s appear to have been made using an additive color screen process called Autochrome, which is one of the first successful color photographic processes. Photographs made using this process tend to have a soft, subdued appearance and usually have a glass cover to protect the emulsion, which is the light-sensitive layer on which the image forms. Photographs made with the Autochrome process are sometimes confused with latnern slides, but the evidence left behind from each process differs and can be a useful clue in distinguishing the two types. Both types are fragile and prone to cracking, but the majority of these in the CAM Photo Archives are in good condition.
Autochromes are composed of a glass support, a layer of varnish, a layer of dyed potato starch grains, another layer of varnish, a layer of panchromatic emulsion, and an optional final varnish applied by the photographer after processing. The potato starch grains are dyed red, green, and blue and are dusted onto a tacky varnish and flattened. The intervening space between the potato starch grains is filled in with black carbon powder. When autochromes are viewed with a light behind them, it is possible to see a random mosaic pattern of red, green, blue, and black created by the potato starch grains and carbon. Typically autochromes have a protective glass cover and are bound together with black tape, which is the case with our Herman Spooner glass plates. Since these images are direct positive images, meaning no negatives were made when creating them, each of these glass plates is a unique and one-of-a-kind photograph.
Spooner continued to photograph a wide range of subject matter, but these charming glass plate photographs of gardens and plants hold a special place in the Museum’s collection.
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