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History in the Hills: A picture of the past

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words and to any historian, that old adage rings true. I am always excited when I stumble upon a photograph from the past that I am not familiar with. I find myself wondering what life was like for the sitter, if it is a portrait, or what it could be like to be on the street where a photograph was made, for example.

Today I think we take for granted the ability to pull out our smart phones and snap a picture in a matter of seconds. My phone is filled with thousands of pictures of my beautiful family, events, antiques and vacations. Somehow though, more often than not, those pictures tend to stay on the phone. Rarely do I print them or make copies.

In the not-too-distant past, cameras actually used film. Emphasis added for our younger readers. I remember there was a limit to how many pictures one could take, a far cry from the thousands our new phones can hold. At the end of the roll, you had to get the film developed, a rather straightforward operation that took a few days. When you picked up your photographs, there were the actual negatives included so one could make duplicates if needed. And there was even a time when the pictures were in black and white. Despite questions from our children, we did actually live life in color, not in black and white as our photographs portray.

Looking back through the lens of our local early history, pun intended, we have a few pioneers of early photography in our region. It is worth noting, though, that the first commercially available process of photography was pioneered by French inventor Louis Daguerre in 1839. His invention of the product known as the Daguerreotype was extremely popular in the mid-19th century. The process to make these photographs was involved. Images were on a silver surface that was prone to tarnish. In any case, it wasn’t long until the process made its way west to the Ohio Valley.

Around 1811, Methodist preacher the Rev. Archibald Hawkins immigrated to Steubenville from Baltimore and built a home on South Third Street. Around that same time, a son was born called Ezekiel. According to Joseph Doyle in his 1910 history of Steubenville and Jefferson County, young Ezekiel “gave indications of precocity as an artist. He learned the trade of house and sign painting, but also took up landscape painting and portraiture, in both of which he did excellent work.” In 1829, the family moved to Wheeling and Ezekiel embarked on creating silhouettes of prominent citizens. Some artists created these works of art using a rudimentary camera of sorts that projected the image, or shadow of the sitter upon a canvas which was then outlined.

At some point around 1840, Ezekiel became acquainted with Samuel Morse, who was an inventor of the telegraph and a quite skilled artist in his own right. Morse wrote to Ezekiel and told him of the wonderful invention of the Daguerreotype method of making photographs. According to Doyle, “Mr. Hawkins procured a camera from Mr. Morse or made a Daguerreotype camera of the one he already possessed. He was the first person to take these pictures west of the Allegheny Mountains.” The process to take these photographs was somewhat daunting. A sitter had to remain absolutely still for upward of 15 minutes with one’s face in the sun. Eyes were to remain closed. Later he purchased better equipment which allowed sitters to have their eyes open and have their pictures made indoors.

Ezekiel moved to Cincinnati in 1843, and it was there that he photographed Henry Clay. Doyle mentions that Hawkins was the first person to make these photographs in that city. With all the advancements of the Daguerreotype, there were marked disadvantages. Long exposure times made it almost impossible to take photographs of children. It was around 1847 that Hawkins along with a few partners discovered what was later known as the Ambrotype photography method. Doyle credits Hawkins with the invention of this method although official credit is given to Englishman Fredrick Scott Archer. Hawkins continued his love for photography but passed away in 1862.

Around that time, another generation of photographers were ready to take the lead using this relatively new technology. In 1851, Davison Filson came to Steubenville and conducted a book and periodical store in town until 1863 when the process of photography struck his fancy. Filson became an expert in the craft and from his studio located at 319 Market St., he took the likeness of many prominent citizens. One of Filson’s greatest accomplishments was the creation of “1,200 portraits of former citizens of Steubenville and Jefferson County.”

This large collection of photographs is published in Doyle’s history and is indexed. This work makes up the who’s who of Steubenville’s early elite. Filson died in 1899.

The Filsons had four children. One of them, Sarah, created a scrapbook of “Old Citizens of Steubenville Ohio” which is part of the online collection of the “Museum of Vernacular Photography.” The scrapbook is a collection of images of Steubenville residents from the 1860s onwards. I am sure she borrowed copies of photos taken by her father in his studio. No doubt some of these are the same as those included in Filson’s montage of early citizens.

Filson’s son Charles became interested in the photography trade and in 1883 became a partner in the firm of his father. Charles also was a gifted artist in his own right and illustrated widely. He was responsible for the illustrations and some photographs that were included in the 1897 Centennial Souvenir of Steubenville and Jefferson County. The Filson studio remained active into the 20th century but by 1920, Charles and his wife, Stella, often traveled to San Diego, where they ultimately moved in their later years.

Truly a photograph is worth a thousand words. In this technological age of smart phones and computers, I hope we can find the time to print some of our thousands of pictures and keep them for prosperity. Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards and negatives have stood the test of time, provided they are well cared for, since the mid-19th century. Our new forms of digital content, while convenient, may not be adequate enough to preserve our photos into the future. And that may disappoint future historians. In the meantime, with the next picture you snap, think of our early pioneers of photography who helped bring pictures to our valley.

(Zuros is the executive director of Historic Fort Steuben.)

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