Category Archives: History of Ophthalmic Imaging

Solving the Puzzle of History

 

Our profession enjoys a long and rich history, one that has seen dramatic advancement in technology and techniques that aid in the documentation and diagnosis of eye disease. My personal interest in the history of ophthalmic photography stems from participation in multiple history symposia sponsored by the  American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Museum Committee. In 2011, I was quite honored to be invited to co-chair the symposium Imaging and the Eye, but I think I drew the short straw when we were assigning lecture topics. I was given the task of covering the origins of photography and ophthalmic photography – in a ten minute presentation!

It seemed like a daunting task to somehow cover all that history in such a short talk. But when I started to research the topic, a common theme began to emerge when I came across rivalries, controversies, mistakes, and inconsistencies in the historical accounts related to several important discoveries. Rather than try to force every important milestone or event into a timeline format, I decided to concentrate my lecture on a few important controversies and rivalries. This approach worked well for the symposium, but I ended up with far more material than I could hope to cover in several lectures. And I had barely scratched the surface.

The Pencil of Nature is the first collection of photograph works published in book form by Fox Talbot in 1844.  The photographs were printed separately and then mounted or “tipped in”. Talbot claimed that his photographic process preceded that of Daguerre’s in 1839. A digitized version of this book is available through Project Gutenberg.

During the research process, I found that reconstructing history is somewhat like completing a puzzle. Professional historians traditionally have had access to original source documents to support their historical research. Thanks to digital technology, many of these obscure resources are now publicly available through advanced search engines and extensive online collections of scanned historical journals and documents. New pieces of the historical puzzle often become apparent when you can access these primary documents. The accounts in this series benefit from the availability of newly digitized documents, many of which were originally published over 100 years ago.  The Internet Archives, Project Gutenberg, and Google Books provide access to digitized, publicly accessible books, periodicals, and journals that are now in the public domain by virtue of their age and expiration of copyright.

Advertisements in The Philadelphia Photographer from June, 1886. Jackman and Webster’s landmark article on the first successful fundus photograph is included in this issue of the photographic periodical. It can be accessed and downloaded from the Internet Archives.

Even with access to these amazing resources, there are still some missing pieces of the puzzle. The available literature sometimes contains conflicting information or apparent mistakes between different historical accounts. Some publications have also proven to be difficult to locate, either online or in print. These hard to find references were often published in the decades just prior to routine digital publication (1960’s & 70’s) and may not yet be eligible for inclusion in public domain collections.

Covers from vintage journals accessed through Google Books. The 1894 Transactions of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom includes a paper on fundus photography by one of the early pioneers, Lucien Howe. The American Journal of Ophthalmology from 1899 includes a description of Thorner’s reflex-free ophthalmoscope. Thorner and others soon adopted the same optical design to build improved fundus cameras.

In piecing this puzzle together, I found that it pays to read all referenced documents that other historians have cited rather than rely on a citation of a “fact” actually being accurate. Mistakes are sometimes made and then blindly repeated or misinterpreted in other accounts. For example, a non-existent reference title was accidentally published in multiple historical reviews. Listed as “Barr E.: Drs. Jackman & Webster, Philadelphia Photographer June 5, 1886”, it combined fragments of two separate references and was most likely an author’s note to search for them both. 1,2

After searching the online archives, I was able to confirm that the combined title doesn’t exist, yet multiple authors include it in their reference list.3,4  The authors may have also been confused because of a typographical error in multiple references. Elmer Barr was listed as author of an 1887 paper in the American Journal of Ophthalmology, as well as another article in the Scientific American Supplement from 1888.1,5  Both of these articles describe the successful capture of a human fundus photo with more recognizable features than previous investigators. The author’s real name was Elmer Starr, but the typographical error was repeated several times causing an early pioneer in fundus photography to fade into obscurity and lose his rightful place in history. Being able to detect these mistakes and correct the historical record of our profession has been fascinating.

Die Photographie des Augenhintergrundes by Friedrich Dimmer is an atlas of fundus photographs, published in 1907. It contains several amazing reflex-free photographs taken with a one-of-a-kind camera of Dimmer’s own design. This book represents a major milestone in ophthalmic photography. It was digitized by The Internet Archives in 2011 with funding from Open Knowledge Commons and Harvard Medical School.

In piecing these puzzles together, what stood out the most were the often bitter rivalries that seemed to overshadow many of the most important discoveries. Photography was born in the Victorian Era, a time of great discovery, invention, and advancement in science and medicine. The Victorian Era roughly coincided with the Belle Epoch in Continental Europe and the Gilded Age in the United States. It was during this period that Darwin, Babbage, Pasteur, Maxwell, Morse, Helmholtz, and many others made important advancements in science, medicine, and technology. As you will see in future installments of this series, it was also a time of fierce competition, rivalry, and controversy. The brilliant minds of the day often had egos to match their great intellect. The race to be listed as the “first” to discover a scientific breakthrough could become an obsession. Eponyms were popular, and just about every important new discovery was named for the person that first described it.

A classic example of this competition and controversy occurred in the feud over the discovery of anesthesia in the 1840’s when American dentist Horace Wells and his former apprentice William Morton both claimed to be the first to discover the use of inhaled anesthesia. Wells had successfully used anesthesia on several occasions, but was discredited after a famously failed public demonstration. Humiliated after this one failure, he became deeply depressed, began abusing chloroform, and eventually committed suicide. Morton didn’t fare much better. He remained obsessed with recognition throughout his life. He tried to patent ether under a different name, and eventually died penniless. The American Dental Association honored Wells posthumously in 1864 as the discoverer of modern anesthesia, and the American Medical Association recognized his achievement in 1870. Morton was similarly recognized later in life and again posthumously. Both were instrumental in this major medical advancement, but their egos prevented them from sharing in recognition of their achievement.

The next few episodes in this historical series explore similar relationships, rivalries, feuds, and debate surrounding several important milestones in the evolution of ophthalmic imaging. Fortunately the ending of each of these stories is slightly less morbid than the anesthesia saga:

The Priority Debate looks at the frantic race for recognition as the inventor of photography in 1839.

Stereo Photography examines the nineteenth century development of the stereoscope and competing theories on stereo vision that resulted in a bitter feud between Wheatstone and Brewster.

The First Human Fundus Photograph will explore several controversies and professional rivalries in the early days of fundus photography, including how Elmer Starr lost his place in history, as well as another rivalry that led to accusations of falsifying photographic results.

From there we will continue to explore the evolution of ophthalmic imaging by taking a look back at important individuals and events that shaped our field – and hopefully fill in a few more pieces of the historical puzzle that represents the legacy of our profession.

References:

  1. Barr E. On photographing the interior of the human eyeball. Amer J Ophth 1887; 4:181-183
  2. Jackman WT, Webster JD. On photographing the retina of the living eye. Philadelphia Photographer 1886;23:340-341
  3. Van Cader TC. History of ophthalmic photography. J Ophthalmic Photography 1978; 1:7-9
  4. Wong D. Textbook of Ophthalmic Photography. Inter-Optics Publications, New York, 1982
  5. Barr E. Photography of the human eye. Scientific American Supplement 1888; 650:10388

World Photo Day

August 19th is recognized as World Photo Day, an international celebration of photography. This date marks the anniversary of the public unveiling of the Daguerrotype by the French government in 1839. It is an important milestone in the history and evolution of photography.

The story surrounding the invention of photography is both compelling and controversial. Several individuals claimed to be the true inventor of photography. The series of competing announcements by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and several others became a frantic race filled with secrecy, surprise, jealousy, financial reward, political maneuvering, and legal action.

To this day it’s still not entirely clear who was first to invent photography or exactly when, but history ultimately crowned a winner. Although Talbot (and others) made several significant early contributions Daguerre is generally given credit as the inventor of photography and August 19, 1839 is often recognized as the day that photography was born. Whether or not this is accurate is open to debate, but it seems a good a day as any to celebrate the history and evolution of the photographic arts.

You can join the celebration of World Photo day by taking and sharing some photographs on August 19th. If you want to know more about the controversial history surrounding the  invention of photography, visit: Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy: The Origins of Photography and Ophthalmic Photography

Camera Heritage Museum

camera museum small1On a recent trip through Virginia, I stumbled across a gem of a museum tucked away in historic downtown Staunton, VA. I had been browsing brochures of local attractions on a stand in the lobby of my hotel and spotted a photo of a vintage view camera. The brochure was for the Camera Heritage Museum. The non-profit museum bills itself as the largest camera museum on the East Coast. It wasn’t far from my hotel, so I decided to visit, not knowing what to expect.

I walked into what obviously had once been a camera store jam-packed with cameras of all shapes, sizes and vintages. There was a gentleman sitting behind a counter in the back, busy doing some maintenance on a camera. He looked up briefly, said hello, and went back to his work while I browsed through the impressive collection. I saw everything from miniature spy cameras to large format portrait view cameras.

I recognized some cameras that I had used in my early days in photography including a Crown Graphic 4×5 press camera, a Graphic View (first monorail view camera design), several early polaroid cameras, a 16 mm Minox and many others.

After a few minutes of browsing, I asked the man behind the counter a few questions about some cameras that I recognized. When I showed genuine interest in the cameras on display, he stepped out and started describing the history, significance and stories related to many of the items on display. His name was David Schwartz, and he is the curator of the museum. He’s a wealth of information. As more people entered the museum, he recounted some of the same stories several times over, each time with the enthusiasm of someone that clearly loved cameras and the history of photography.

The collection includes vintage view cameras, military cameras, spy cameras, aerial cameras, stereo cameras, underwater cameras, Kodak Brownies, Hasselblads, Leicas, Voigtlanders, Nikons, and some truly unique cameras including a 40″ long baseball camera with lever activated focus stops preset for the distance to each of the bases on the diamond.

Folmer Graflex Baseball Camera

David and I talked about some of the stereo cameras on display and I told him that as a medical photographer I regularly take stereo photos of human retinas. He nodded and directed me to a case which held a collection of Topcon 35mm cameras including a body from a vintage Topcon fundus camera.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A Topcon 35mm camera back from a fundus camera is tucked in the back of this glass case.

When I explained a little bit more about fundus photography, he listened intently and I can imagine that he’ll include some of what I told him about this equipment in explanations to future museum visitors.

The venue for this museum is a little quirky, but it houses a serious collection of over 2000 cameras, photos and accessories. A unique feature is the fact that it is an open and accessible to the public, rather than a private collection. The museum also has an online presence. Their website contains a wealth of information on the history of photographic equipment, especially the online gallery of some of the many cameras in their collection. It’s a great resource for history buffs and vintage camera enthusiasts.

museum4

The museum can be found at the old Camera and Palette store at 1 West Beverley Street in Staunton, VA. If you are travelling through the area, it is definitely worth a visit. Better yet, if you have some old film cameras collecting dust in a closet you might want to consider contributing to the collection by donating them to the museum. They are always looking for cameras, photos and accessories with historic significance.

 

Talbot’s “Selfie” a Composite Image?

I’ve long been fascinated by this Calotype taken by William Henry Fox Talbot and Nicolaas Henneman. It appears in several biographies of Talbot as well as historical accounts of the early days of photography. Talbot was one of the early pioneers of photography and some historians argue that it was he, and not Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who should be credited as the true inventor of photography. Although that controversy may never be resolved, it is clear that Talbot was devastated by Daguerre’s recognition and celebrity. Talbot spent the next several years trying to balance the scales in his favor.

Soon after patenting the Calotype in 1841, Talbot invested in the Reading Establishment, a photographic studio and printing business started by his former valet Nicolaas Henneman in the town of Reading outside of London. The business operated from 1843-1846 and it was here that the photographic prints for Talbot’s Pencil of Nature were produced. This book, the first to be illustrated with photographic prints, represents an important milestone in the history of photography.

According to several descriptions of this well-known photograph, the scene depicts Talbot at work in the Reading Establishment. I’ve often wondered if this image wasn’t some sort of elaborate multiple exposure self-portrait that Fox Talbot and his assistant concocted. The individuals in the photo look quite similar in appearance. Could they be the same person? One could argue that Fox Talbot is both the photographer and subject, while the person standing both to the far left and inside the building look remarkably similar in appearance as well.

Is it possible they could have sequentially masked different parts of the scene during exposure to create a composite? Or perhaps they combined multiple paper negatives to achieve a final print. Talbot’s Calotype process resulted in paper negatives that were then contacted printed, while the Daguerrotype was a direct positive process that could not be reproduced. Talbot’s paper negative process would easily lend itself to composite printing.

Since no one from this photo is alive to dispute my theory, I choose to believe they somehow masked part of the scene and moved around during the exposure to place Talbot in multiple positions. I can imagine Talbot, still stinging from Daguerre’s fame and fortune, running from spot to spot to get into position between separate exposures muttering to himself, “Take that Daguerre, you can’t do this with your Daguerrotype…”

If, in fact, this image does depict multiple Talbots, it’s just as likely to have been compiled during printing. Combination printing evolved along with photography and goes back at least as far as the 1850’s. Oscar Rejlander and his friend Henry Peach Robinson both created well-known, but controversial, composite images using elaborate combination printing techniques. Rejlander in fact learned the craft of photography and printing from Henneman. Is it possible that Henneman and Talbot were already experimenting with combination printing when the image of the Reading Establishment was created?

talbot_reading_2-570

In doing a little more research, I discovered that this is indeed a composite image, but not exactly what I expected. Often displayed as a single image, it is in fact one half of the composite photograph shown here. According to captions, the left hand image depicts Talbot as photographer, while the right hand image shows Henneman at work.

Long before the days of digital imaging and photo editing software a number of photographers used multiple exposures and combination printing techniques to painstakingly create composite photographs or photomontages. Reijlander and Robinson were followed by Jerry Uelsmann and others.

color montage 570

With the digital photo editing tools available today, it is relatively simple to combine elements of different images in composite form. In ophthalmic imaging we use auto-montage tools to create composite images from two or more fundus photos. Although it opens endless creative possibilities, digital imaging takes some the fun and challenge out of traditional multi-exposure and combination printing techniques.

I recently created a composite selfie (of sorts) as an homage to the early pioneers of composite photography. Taken in the Felsenkeller brewery museum in Monschau, Germany, it depicts a room filled with a vast collection of beer bottles from around the world. To me, it’s reminiscent of Talbot’s photograph of the Reading Establishment.

IMG_0273b

Although the same individual appears three times in the image, it is not combined from multiple exposures or manipulated with Photoshop. The image is unaltered from the original camera file with the exception of resizing it for the web. It was created entirely in-camera, using the panoramic feature of an iPhone. During capture, panning was paused long enough for me to move into the next position before panning resumed. As I was moving from position to position, I thought again of the Talbot image and whether he had moved from spot to spot to pose as both photographer and subject. It would be pretty cool if he did.

Photography has come a long way since Talbot invented his process in 1839. I wonder what he would do with today’s photographic tools and processes.