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Picturing West Virginia

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
July 1st, 2019

Blog post by Catherine Rakowski, Administrative Associate, WVRHC.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston physician, amateur photographer and father of SCOTUS Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., described photography as “the mirror with a memory.”  In 1859 he believed that there would “soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are.”

Holmes’s forethought was correct. At the West Virginia and Regional History Center, over a million “photographic records” are among the treasures in our holdings, ranging from the earliest photographic images, daguerreotypes, to the current born-digital images.

On West Virginia Day, June 20, 2019, the History Center opened a new exhibit in the Davis Family Galleries located on the 6th floor of the Wise Library.  The title of the exhibit is “Picturing West Virginia: Early Photography in the Mountain State.”

This weblog will focus on a few items from the exhibit. They happen to be some of my favorites:   

Tabletop stereoscope viewer

As you enter the first gallery, on your left you will see a beautiful, antique, ca. 1865 tabletop stereoscope viewer with a stereo card on the easel shelf (see image above). Folded under the platform is a large magnifying lens.  When the viewer is folded down and magnifying lens is raised, the stereo card is replaced on the easel with a single print for magnified viewing. The viewer is now converted to a graphoscope (see image below). The base has several notches to adjust the level of the viewers, and the easel holding the image can be moved vertically and horizontally.

Graphoscope, side view

The framed photo on the wall over the stereo card case is my great-great aunt, Virginia Deskins, ca. 1910, holding a stereo card viewer in one hand and several cards in the other. My grandmother would be a little upset with me if I didn’t mention Aunt Ginny’s photo as one of my favorites.

Photo of woman seated outside, holding a stereoscope viewer

Before you enter Gallery II, the framed photo on the left wall is a 1908 “selfie” of photographer, James Green.  Using a piece of yarn, he attached one end to the camera shutter and tied the other end to his toe to trigger the shutter.

Photo of man darning sock, with text "If wife would only come back"

The photo shows James trying to darn his socks while missing his wife Edith, who was recovering from the birth of their daughter. Edith was also James’s photography assistant.

As you walk in to Gallery II you will hear the gentle tunes from a Victorian cabinet card album. The original tunes are from a music box inserted in the album’s back cover. There is a video loop on the tablet above the case which displays several other albums. The loop plays the music and shows the photos on selected pages of the album which is also in the case. Photo albums became all the rage in the 1860s, holding photographic remeinders of family and friends to be enjoyed for generations.    

Photo album pages, showing a portrait of a woman and a seated portrait of a man

There are many other fascinating photos, cameras, and equipment related to early photography in the exhibit. Please come and enjoy browsing the entire collection. Several items on display including the tabletop stereo viewer are on loan through the generosity of photographer Ron Rittenhouse.

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