NEB&W Guide to the Development of Photography

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Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents


This section does not relate directly to modeling as much as it relates very much to how we perceive the world. And how we perceive the world is how we model it.

Around 1970, the club members became aware of Jim Shaughnessy's two books, The Delaware & Hudson and The Rutland Road. As a result, we were interested in modeling elements of these two, but what we were actually modeling was Shaughnessy's view of the two. For instance, he took a number of photos of North Bennington, VT, as this is the closest part of Vermont to Shaughnessy's home in Troy. As a result, modeling this scene became all important. He went into the history of both roads more than most train books, so Proctor's overpass that diverted the 1927 flood waters down the right-of-way was also an important element.

Since that time, more resources have become available, but with so many of the scenes in this area altered or totally flattened since steam days, it has been the photos that we model more than the actual element. In the same vein, we have lots of photos of the blast furnace complex under construction c. 1922, and none c. 1950. So we are modeling the scene as we see in the '22 photos.


Originally, "camera" meant "vaulted room", from the Greek "kamara" meaning "vault" or "arch" which also led to "chimney". From the French, this came to us as "chamber", and "in camera" is legal Latin term meaning "privately, in the judge's chambers". In the 17th century, improved glass technology led to better lenses. A lens was found to project an image to the wall inside a dark room, which was called "camera obscura" meaning dark room. A closed box with a ground glass screen also produced the same effect.

At first, there wasn't a separate view-finder. The photographer had a ground glass screen on which he composed his pictures, then slide the glass plate coated with the light sensitive chemicals either into front of this screen or maybe first slide out the viewing screen and then slide in the "film". (This was in effect a manual "single lens reflex" camera.) The point is that the screen could only be seen if the ambient light was masked, so a black cloth was draped over the back of the camera and over the photographer.


It was improved glass-making towards the end of the Middle Ages, particularly, making clear glass, that eventually allowed the development of glass lens, for eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes. I am guessing but I bet the whole concept of perspective came out of the use of the first "cameras", the lens in a darkened room. Obviously artists knew that objects in the distance are smaller, but the idea of the horizon line and vanishing points, etc. came only in the Renaissance. (Leonardo Da Vinci

For centuries, artists have struggled to paint the most realistic picture they could. With the advent of photography in Victorian times, photos were at once more realistic and much simpler. After this, the first schools of "modern art" begin to develop, freed to try to express feelings rather than reality.

(While there is much abstract art that I don't fancy, I find it interesting that traditionalists that decry the whole notion don't realize that music was never anything but abstract, despite such things as taxi horns in George Gerswin's An American In Paris. Once computer-retouched photos become common, the same thing may happen to modeling.)

A photo of a fast-moving train will blur if the film speed is too slow. This creates speed lines. Before photography, I don't think that cartoonists, for instance, would use speed lines to depict movement.

Glass Plates

At first cameras required the photographer to mix up the chemicals on the spot and spread a "film" of them on a glass plate, quickly take the picture before they dried out, and then develop them right away. This was known as the "wet plate process". Photography involved hauling around an entire darkroom, chemicals, and fragile glass plates. It was amazing that any photos were taken outside of studios. The slow speed of the film required standing still for over a minute, resulting in subjects freezing their expressions for that long. The result was a generation of stern expressions seen in family albums.

George Eastman experimented on his mother's stove night after night. In 1879, he devised chemicals that could be used dry, the "dry" plate process. He could sell pre-prepared plates. Eastman devised the name "Kodak" as a purely arbitrary name, and because he liked the harsh sound of "k". In 1884, he had perfected using paper rather than glass, which could be wound on a roller.

Eastman introduced the Kodak camera, with a 100 shots on each roll. The camera was loaded at the factory, and when the film was exposed, the consumer returned the camera to Kodak, who developed the roll and returned the camera with a new roll of film loaded. (The film was too light sensitive to be loaded by the consumer under all but ideal conditions.) The slogan was "You press the button, we do the rest."

Eastman plowed his profits back into research. Kodak made the first commercially produced celluloid film, which allowed light to shine through and project the image just like the earlier glass slides used in "magic lantern shows". The celluloid film was flexible, and like paper, could be rolled. Kodak went on to work with Edison in making motion pictures.

The D&H Collection at the New York State Library is mainly photos, taken between 1914 and 1938. The earliest photos in this collection were still being taken on glass plates, with 4x5 film being used for the Valuation photos around WWI. The plates are still saved, despite the occasional break. The celluloid film negatives were found to either turn gooey or to explode and catch fire, so the archivists had prints made of all these, and had the negatives destroyed.


In Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Sulky Girl (1933):

"The photographer raised the shades on the windows, set up the tripod, adjusted and focused the big camera, poured some flashlight powder into a flashgun.

" 'Why don't you use electric bulbs?' asked Perry Mason. 'I understand they do better work, and they don't get a room all filled with smoke.'

'Try telling that to the eagle-eyed bird that audits the expense account,' said the photographer, 'and it's your office. I don't care about the smoke.' "

Color Photography

In the September 1895, Popular Science announced successful color photos:

"Various objects in their natural colors were reproduced with fidelity on photographic transparencies. This was accomplished using a glass plate with finely ruled colored inks, made of gum and gelatin, on a gelatin coated plate. The plate to be exposed is placed in contact with this color screen and exposed only to light that has passed through the screen. It is then developed in the usual fashion. Next, the color screen is placed against the negative and an accurate reproduction of the original is produced. The process is so simple and inexpensive that it will probably come rapidly into general use."

While color film still has a gel-based surface, with a series of emulsion layers, color photography did not come into general use until many decades later.

Technicolor movies date back to the 1920's. In both cases (still photography and movies), color was long in becoming the norm. In 1950, color film had an ASA rating of 25, very slow film. Today's film is ASA 100 to 1,000, with 200 the most common. Color photos from 1950 are rare, but by 1955, much more common, at least for railfan photography. That steam locos were black with dramatic white and black billowing smoke, while diesel's appeal was mostly in colorful paint schemes probably helped the shift.

My father worked as a commercial photographer. His job was to take B&W photos and color them. He had a method of brushing an area and lightening it, then applying the appropriate color. He was still doing this through the 1950's. This is how ALL color photos were reproduced during that period in any magazine, including Life, National Geographic, and even the hobby magazines. Therefore, researches have to realize that not all printed color photos give proof of anything other than what the colorist favored.

Night Photography

In the '50's, movie cameras were small and light enough to allow on-site locations, instead of creating outdoor vistas on movie sets. For instance, the classic Hitchcock movies were shot on location, changing the overall look of a movie. But film was still too slow to do night shoots. So instead, they shot a scene in mid-day, but seriously underexposed it. What is so striking on these, if you look for it, is how intense the "moon's" shadows are.

Model Figures

Model cameras are not available separately. Some of the Merten and Preiser figure sets include a person with a camera, but these are small cameras. Of course, there was the small box camera available back then, so small in scale that you couldn't tell the difference between a modern camera and a period one.


  • 84 Clark Gable & Press
  • 85 Rita Hayworth & Press
  • 87 Humphey Bogart & Press
  • 88 Betty Grable & Press
    All of these cast-metal sets include the same period photographer, I believe. (I don't think they are available any more.)