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Camera in a Photograph

This piece was first published in The Journal of the Photographic Historical Society of New England, 2013
by Ruth Thomasian
It has been edited by the author for this Project SAVE blog.

When I started attending meetings of the Photographic Historical Society of New England—meetings were in Framingham, Massachusetts—in the early 1980s, members were almost entirely camera collectors and not image collectors like myself. It was all about technology, as if photographs had no relationship to cameras. Nonetheless, I became a member or the organization figuring I would learn a lot about cameras, and hoping I might create interest and appreciation for the camera’s product. I’m pleased to say these aims have become more of a reality.

To recognize this dual focus, I share two items from Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives that celebrate both cameras and images, and the photographers who made them. Of the many ways cameras can be found in photographs, some are obvious like a photographer taking a self-portrait with his 8”x10” view camera using a shutter release, or more subtly, a Victorian lady holding her Kodak camera in its very recognizable camera case, much as a woman today would hold her pocketbook.

Here are two photographs with cameras in them. One illustrates the practical/purposeful use of a camera. The other image challenges the viewer to check out all the details and discover the magic of a mirror reflecting the camera as well as the photographer. Project SAVE Archives has both of these images cross-referenced under “camera in the photograph.”

Ethel Topalian 6-00

Think of it! Posing for two photographers: one taking the picture and another taking a picture of the picture being taken! These US Army soldiers include Project SAVE’s photo donor’s father, enlistee Ohanes Topalian, marked by the “X” at the right, who served the United States in Cuba from 1898-1901 during the Spanish-American War. The names of the others and the unseen photographer are unknown, as is the place the photograph was taken.

The lovely pressed cardboard mount board has no information on front or back. With hats, hands, and guns in place and using the fabric of the army tent as a kind of backdrop, the photographer holds his glass plate negative* holder (see holder box on the ground) in the air ready to drop it into the view camera and expose the image to the film, as soon as he gets his subjects’ attention. But with two photographers in the subjects’ line of sight, the question is, on which one will the soldiers focus? Their eyes hold the answer!

And what of the photographers? Are they both members of the US Army, or perhaps one was hired by the media of the day? Why, in fact, is a photograph of a soldier behind the lens of a camera being taken? Is it a set-up shot for publicity purposes, or just a keepsake for the soldiers? And the soldiers do seem to have an air of amusement about them. And what would have been the price of this nicely mounted photograph? It wasn’t just a quick snapshot handed off in an envelope. And speaking for Private Topalian, he did not have a lot of money in his pocket. But he did get a photograph, and we have some never-to-be-answered questions!

Courtesy of Ethel Topalian, his daughter.

Diana Eggleston 8-07

Barber Zeroon Malkasian, Evanston, Illinois, poses with his daughter—Project SAVE’s photo donor— Diana after cutting her curls for the first time on April 22 (see the “day” calendar in the photo), 1941.

Did the barber ask a photographer friend, or perhaps customer, to record this milestone? Or did the photographer just happen by on that special day? Or, perhaps the photographer, businessman that he also was, proposed this photo: the men’s barber cutting his daughter’s hair! How could Zeroon refuse such an irresistible idea?

Seventy-five years later, Diana shared the photo with Project SAVE Archives but did not recall how the photo happened. She had never observed the photographer in the photo—his view camera on a tripod, his hand commanding the scene—reflected and immortalized in the mirror on the wall.

Courtesy of Diana Malkasian Eggleston.

* Reference is made by Douglas Collins on page 87 of his The Story of KODAK (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York City, 1990), about the almost exclusive use of glass plate negatives by photojournalists hired by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to cover the Spanish-American War. Even though Kodak hand-held cameras had been around since 1888, they were not considered for use by professional photographers.

About the Author

Ruth Thomasian is founder and president of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives in Watertown, Massachusetts. She is a life member of the Photographic Historical Society of New England, former co-editor of The Journal and was a PHSNE board member for some 25 years, during which time she served two terms as president. She would like to acknowledge and thank her Project SAVE Archives staff without whose assistance her work would not be possible.