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 Post subject: The stipulated price
PostPosted: Wed Feb 23, 2011 2:54 am 
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From: Bulletin of Photography Vol 13, 1913
A Reminiscence of the Wet
Collodion Days


It was a dull November morning I set out to fulfill a promise, made the night before to make a photograph of a man who had died and had already been in the coffin several days. This class of work was at all times of an unpleasant character, and in this case particularly so.

A young man who was apprenticed to me for two years was the only help I had. No gelatin dry plates existed then, in 1875, so the dark tent, with all its equipment of silver bath, dipper, clean plates, iron developer, cyanide fixing solution, etc., was prepared and was carried to the residence where the photograph was to be made.

Upon arrival I was shown the room and allotted a space in the hallway where the dark tent could be fitted up. When I requested that the room in which the body lay be left entirely in my charge, then and then only could I secure the best results. I left my assistant to collodionizc the plate and to sensitize it in the nitrate of silver bath, while I endeavored to obtain the best possible view of the body, my aim being to secure a head and bust portrait and vignette the coffin and its furnishings out.

The collodion plate being sensitized, and the dark slide having been placed near at hand for use, some help was required to lower an end of the coffin so that one end might rest upon the trestle at the head, where it could rest at an angle of about 45 degrees.

The camera was adjusted upon the tripod and the full aperture of the lens used to obtain the focus, a portrait lens being employed in order to give a considerable amount of illumination. In focusing the image, it was found that the head and face were too much out of focus and too small, compared with the part nearest the lens. Then, to correct this condition, it was found necessary to lift the coffin at one end, and it was right here that the trouble came. The assistant and myself had arranged the coffin at an angle of about 60 degrees, and while I was arranging the focus with my head under a black velvet cloth, and the assistant was standing beside the coffin, all of a sudden the corpse began to slide down upon his knees, at the same time a coarse, loud gurgling grunt came from the mouth. Well, do you know, my assistant ran around the room; he seized the handle of the door and found it locked, which I had done previously and placed the key in my pocket.

Never before nor since have I seen hair stand on end, but it did so on this occasion. With the grunting of the corpse, the scared condition of my assistant, and the corpse already nearly down to the floor on his knees, prompt action on my part had to be taken, or the corpse would have fallen completely out of the coffin, and laid on the floor. In my haste, to add to the trouble, my right foot caught against one leg of the tripod, and over went the camera, against the side of the corpse and tumbling into the coffin. With the agony caused by the terror of my assistant, who presented by this time an excellent imitation of a real ghost, the fallen corpse, the camera and my tripod right in the way, I have no need to assure you that my hands were full. At the same time, the thought ol my sensitized plate becoming dry, just gave me enough to do to set the matter right. We succeeded in getting the corpse into the coffin again, and by my assistant's aid, who was on his knees to hold the corpse in position for a minute, the exposure was made, which, upon development, as it had to be done at once in the portable tent, turned out to be a very good negative. We adjusted the coffin on the two trestles again, carefully rearranging the interior furnishings, then packed everything up, assuring the mourners that an excellent negative had been secured. We then made our departure.

When descending the steps my assistant said, "Mr. Ballmer, never ask me to accompany you again whenever a dead person is to be photographed. I will never go. In fact, I would rather give up the position than ever attempt again to photograph or aid in photographing a dead person."

Matters did not end here. When the prints were finished and called for by the mother, the prints were exceptionally good when all things were considered, the difficulties encountered, etc., in making photographs of deceased persons. Upon sight of the photograph, the mother began to cry, and, in a most grieved voice, said, with tears streaming down her face, "Is this my son?" and said that she would never have recognized him by the picture. After a lot of persuasion the agreed price was paid, but in such a begrudging manner that I made up my mind never again to touch such a piece of work, nor have I from that day to this. My previous experience has taught me that whenever portraits of dead persons were brought for copying, that it was always necessary to be paid for them at the time of ordering and then they would be called for promptly on the day promised; if otherwise, I found that in nearly every instance, the portrait and copies remained with me. Time appears to possess that transmuting power of converting grief into joy. I know of no instance where this is so perfectly realized as in the case of a photograph of a deceased person being left with the photographer. The whole transaction may be regarded as a dead loss unless a stipulated price is paid at the time the order is given.


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