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The Photographs of James Green and the Democratization of Photography

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
June 24th, 2014

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.


The digital revolution has transformed the economics of photography, allowing almost anyone with a cell phone access to an inexpensive and convenient method to create photographs.  It’s consequently difficult to imagine a time when photography was an expensive and cumbersome process, usually requiring the attention of full time professionals.

In the early days, from around 1851-1880, the technology of “wet collodion” required the photographer to expose and develop pictures within ten minutes before the light sensitive collodion solution would dry up.  This therefore required photographers to prepare their own negatives before each picture, and to haul darkrooms around with them by wagon if they were to take pictures on sites other than their studios.  A video prepared by the Getty Museum documents just how cumbersome this process really was.  In those days, photography wasn’t the province of the casual hobbyist!  Indeed, Robert Taft, in “Photography and the American Scene: A Social History,” remarked that “to be an amateur in wet plate days required a fondness for the art verging on fanaticism.”

The introduction of the dry plate negative in 1879 changed all of this, opening photography to amateurs in ever greater numbers.  Since this technology allowed for negatives to be developed at any time after exposure, it became possible to industrialize the manufacture of negatives, freeing photographers from having to prepare their own plates, and also freeing them of much darkroom work.  Posterity has been the beneficiary of this development, on evidence of the many fine collections created by amateurs now in the custody of libraries and museums.  For example, one such collection receiving media attention in recent years consists of the over 2500 photographs by school teacher Leo Beachy of Garrett County, Maryland.  On a more modest scale are the over 500 photographs by James Edwin Green at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

James Green grew up in Foxburg, Pennsylvania on the Allegheny River, working in the oil fields of Bradford, Pennsylvania as a teenager until he left for Pleasants County, West Virginia, drawn by the oil boom of 1898.  He later worked in a saw mill.  In the midst of earning a living, James took photographs.  On evidence of the collection, photography seems to be a consistent and enjoyable occupation in his life, especially in the period 1900-1918.  Subjects include the James Edwin Green family; Foxburg, Pennsylvania; St. Marys, West Virginia (WV); the Taylor Farm, St. Marys, WV; agriculture; railroads; oil derricks; Grand Army of the Republic (Civil War veterans) reunions; and other subjects.

Our glass plate scanning project is now bringing to life the Green collection, another benefit of the economy and convenience of digital technology.  The photos in this collection will be included in our online catalog, West Virginia History OnView, sometime in the near future.  Exemplars from the Green collection follow.



James Edwin Green at Henry Camp oilfield, Pleasants County.  According to the donor, J.E. Green was alone at this time, since his wife, Edith Taylor Green was away having a baby.  He is using a string, for darning socks, to trigger the shutter.



Oil struck by the Tait and Patterson Company in Pleasants County.


When back in Foxburg, Pennsylvania, James Green took a series of photographs documenting the city.  The systematic way in which he photographed the city attests to his attachment to the home of his family, and to his passionate and cultivated interest in the medium of photography.  A sampling of these photos follows.


3460_lunch room

The poster in the window of this lunch room in Foxburg, advertising the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, dates the photograph to sometime after 1907, when the Circus was first formed.


3460_ice cream parlor

Ice Cream Parlor, Foxburg, PA.


3460_drug store

Drug Store, Foxburg, PA.


Eastman Box and Two Plates

The technology that made this collection possible – the original dry plate negative box, which contained the Foxburg series of glass plates, along with two of the original plates.


The historical record has been much enriched by the efforts of amateur photographers.  Liberated by the technological evolution of their medium, they were enabled to chronicle their lives and the times they lived in.  Their work now informs the visual record of our past.  The West Virginia and Regional History Center is pleased and privileged to facilitate access to that past through collections like that created by the photographer James Edwin Green.

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