Tag Archives: photography

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 the early days of fundus photography including several controversies and professional rivalries, including how Elmer Starr lost his place in history.

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 profession – and hopefully fill in a few more pieces of the historical puzzle.

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

Adjusting the Eyepiece Reticle

One of the most fundamental yet difficult tasks for beginning photographers is proper adjustment of the focusing reticle of the traditional fundus camera. It is an essential element for capturing consistently sharp retinal photographs. The focusing reticle is the pattern of etched black lines, usually a cross-hair pattern, seen through the fundus camera eyepiece. The reticle is part of an aerial image focusing system like that used in microscopes.  An aerial image system is brighter than one that uses a ground glass screen like an SLR camera. In fundus photography the aerial image  is important. We need as bright a view as possible to keep the viewing illumination low enough for the patient to tolerate while still being able to see well enough to align and focus the instrument. Yet because the image is focused in “space” rather than on a ground glass, the reticle must match the same plane of focus as the fundus image.

fundus camera

The principle behind this adjustment seems simple enough, but there are some challenges associated with it. Setting the reticle adjusts for simple spherical refractive errors in the observer’s eye when their accommodation is relaxed at distance. You can think of this process as calibration of the optical system prior to focusing the fundus camera. The focus of your eye needs to be set at the same aerial focal plane as the camera. Simply put, both the crosshairs and the fundus need to be in focus at the same time. Set the reticle first and then adjust the focus of the camera.

reticle series2

In order to properly focus the fundus camera on a consistent basis, the photographer should relax their accommodation at distance to avoid accommoda­tive shift during photography. The reticle is then adjusted by turning the eyepiece until the cross hairs are sharp. The barrel of the eyepiece is marked in diopters of correction.  Since we are in the eyecare business, many of us know what our refractive error is, and you may be tempted to use that number as your reticle setting. Unfortunately, the diopter numbers may not be accurately marked on the eyepiece and can vary by manufacturer or instrument. So they can’t be relied on when switching from instrument to instrument. The reticle must be set correctly for each instrument.

eyepiece

You also can’t just set the calibration once and be done. A disadvantage to the aerial image is that your eye may change focus due to accommodation. Keeping the cross hair sharp requires constant awareness since your accommodation can change throughout the day due to fatigue or stress. Young photographers may struggle with keeping the eyepiece set properly because they typically have a greater ability to accommodate to near.  Early in my career, I often noticed that my eyepiece setting would change as the day went on. It would also change during the week, Mondays were different than Fridays and accommodation also changed with stress levels. Pay constant attention to the cross hairs and adjust the reticle if your accommodation drifts.

If you normally wear glasses or contact lenses, it is usually best to wear them while taking fundus photos rather than rely on the camera eyepiece to correct for your refractive error, especially if you have any astigmatism in your dominant (shooting) eye.

A popular and commonly taught technique for setting the eyepiece reticle involves adjust­ing the crosshairs at least three successive times, noting the diopter setting each time, and then using the average of these num­bers. This technique sounds like a good idea, but it can actually promote unnecessary accommodation and inaccurate settings. Each time the photographer looks at the num­bers marked on the eyepiece, they accommodate to near, then imme­diately try to relax at distance before looking through the viewfinder again. Repeating these steps multiple times induces accommodative “gymnastics” and subsequent fatigue that can lead to improper settings when accom­modation inevitably drifts during a photographic session.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For this technique to work properly, someone other than the photographer should note and record the settings, so the photographer can keep accommodation relaxed at distance the entire time.

A better strategy is to ignore the eyepiece numbers altogether, but pay constant attention to the crosshairs and image of the retina. As long as the crosshairs and the aerial image of the fundus both appear sharp at capture, the focus will be correct in a system that is properly calibrated for parfocality.

For more on the basics of using the fundus camera visit the Fundus Photography page.

 

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.