Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Smile for the Camera: 1860s photography with Zana Bell

Of course, in the 1860s, people didn’t smile for the camera. They couldn’t. They had to remain torturously still for minutes at a time. A smile would turn into a grimace. So when we look at a photograph of a long dead great-great-great-grandmother, we mustn’t make the mistake of assuming her stern expression proof of a grim disposition. She was probably just dying to scratch her nose or worrying about the bread burning in the oven…
One of the pleasures of writing historicals is all the delicious research required. It’s a time to indulge in whims and curiosities. I have always adored nineteenth century photographs, especially of street scenes. You know the sort – where someone has moved so you see either a blur or, sometimes, only their feet.  It is a perfect metaphor, I believe, for our own fleeting lives.
So, when writing Fools Gold, I couldn’t resist making the heroine, Lady Guinevere, a photographer. There were a few women in the 1860s who were taking photographs, often influenced by husbands or male family members who were interested in the emerging art. Margaret Cameron was 48 years old when one of her daughters gave her a camera. It was love at first sight.
 "From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour."
She was obsessive and drove family and friends crazy by wanting them to pose for the very long, absolutely still minutes early photography required. Fortunately, they did comply and she left a lovely body of work behind her  - having astutely copyrighted each image!  She mixed in artistic circles so we have her to thank for photographic images of leading lights like Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Ellen Terry and Robert Browning.
Here’s a virtual gallery featuring some of her works.
Did you notice the woman at the end of the second row with her hair loose, staring straight down the lens of the camera? She is Julia Prinsep Stephen, Cameron’s niece and she wrote Cameron’s biography. Julia went on to become Virginia Woolf’s mother. I fancy I see a resemblance. What do you think?
I rather fell for Margaret so made her mentor to Guinevere though she does not appear in the novel as such.  
I talked to enthusiasts who still do collodian photography and also spent a lot of time on Youtube getting my head around the photographic processes. While doing so, I came across Ian Ruhter who built the world’s largest wet-plate camera in a van to take photographs of the Yosemite National Park. He failed the first time round but stuck with it and here’s the link to his second, successful attempt.
Wet plate photography in the 1860s was difficult and dangerous. Some photographers blew themselves up with the volatile chemicals.  The margins on time were exacting. Not too long, not too short on the exposure. Develop the image before the plate dries out and then fix it at exactly the right moment.  There were many failures but ah- the joy of the image that succeeded! Passion drove many of those photographers  - just as it does today.
Photography was Guinevere’s passion and it became her way to see the world – and meet Quinn O’Donnell in the process!
We all love taking photographs and fortunately today we have instant gratification. Yet the magic never disappears. Why is that, do you think?

Fool’s Gold by Zana Bell
Love – is it worth its weight in gold?
It’s 1866 and the gold rush is on. Left to fend for herself in the wilds of New Zealand’s west coast, Lady Guinevere Stanhope is determined to do whatever it takes to rescue her ancestral home and restore her father’s good name.
Forced out of his native Ireland, Quinn O’Donnell dreams of striking gold. His fiercely held prejudices make him loath to help any English person, let alone a lady as haughty and obstinate as Guinevere. But when a flash flood hits, Quinn is compelled to rescue her, and their paths become entwined in this uncharted new world.
Though a most inconvenient attraction forms between them, both remain determined to pursue their dreams, whatever the cost.
Will they realise in time that all that glitters is not gold?

One of our favourite quotes from the book!
‘He had felt her quickening pulse during their kisses, had felt the flare of her passion. She was a creature of impulse and would certainly follow her desires, a lady not used to being denied. But these were dangerous games, all the more dangerous because now she owned his heart.’

Zana Bell describes herself as a big fan of Georgette Heyer and combines the elements of light-hearted romance with travel and adventure. She grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe and studied English Literature at the University of   Cape Town. After travelling for several years doing a wide range of jobs, she immigrated to New Zealand where she now lives with her family and cats in a small harbourside community.
Zana has previously published with Harlequin, Mira and a young adult book with Scholastic. She has won two Single Titles Reviewers Choice awards for her historical romances. Zana’s debut novel with Choc Lit, Close to the Wind, was published in October 2013.

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  1. Fascinating stuff! And you're right, even in this age of the digital image, there's nothing quite like the photo frame on top of the shelf with the family portraits in it. Is photography something to do with giving permanance to the fleeting things in life, do you think?

  2. Interesting subject and I'm looking forward to reading your book soon! Digital photography is amazing but it doesn't have the same effect as a print - similar to ebooks and print in my mind.

  3. Yes, I think that is a big part of it. I also read recently that when people are skyping, research shows they tend to watch themselves rather than the other person and it's thought it's not vanity as such, just a fascination to see how others see us!

  4. You can't beat a 'hard' copy of a photo - it doesn't matter how many I have on my PC, I prefer to be able to see them on show, or in an album - though one of the new ideas I do prefer, is the new book style albums.

    Am looking forward to reading Fools Gold, Zana - the Irish hero has pushed it up my TBR pile. :)

  5. Good point, Angel. I wonder if this new generation will get a thrill out of actual books like we do or whether they'll just embrace the virtual world. Listened to a fascinating man talking about Google maps the other day - predicting the disappearance of ordinance maps much to the dismay of his audience.

  6. Ah Isabella, your own Irish books tug at my own heart.

    And sorry, Angela. Just spotted the typo.... though Angel may suit you well :)

  7. Really enjoyed reading this post – so interesting – and I love the sounds of Fool’s Gold too. Thanks for sharing the information on your research!

  8. I've been researching photography myself recently. I love old photos - and when you do get the odd one of Victorians smiling, it makes them seem so much more human.

  9. And thank you, Clare, for dropping by.

    Kirsty - we share similar interests, I see. Yes, the smile is a way of drawing us in, isn't it.

  10. Such a fascinating post, I became quite absorbed. Am looking forward to reading Fool's Gold, Zana, and wish you zillions of sales!

  11. Like Kirsty, I love old photographs and at the moment I am going through my own family's albums. It's interesting to see how various features and smiles and frowns get passed down the generations!

  12. Glad you enjoyed the post, Margaret K and thank you for your good wishes.

    Margaret J. I am so envious. I don't have many old family photos - the drawback of being the offspring of emigrants who believed in travelling light. Do you see family resemblances? It must be exciting and strange to see your nose ghosting on someone else's face.

  13. Thanks for dropping by, Beverley. Your must spend a lot of your research looking at drawings and paintings for your fab novels.

  14. I really admire anyone who can take a photograph which doesn't manage to enhance the subject's nose, shorten the neck, hunch the back and show the subject from the least flattering angle. I'm still working on it!

    I love the sound of the book, Zana, and am looking forward to reading it.

  15. Late to the party! I think I was scarred for life by my gran displaying every school photo ever taken of all of her grandchildren; there were far too many teeth and eyes in her living room for comfort, so I don't have many out myself, but I shall enjoy reading about your female photographer, Guinevere.

  16. Fascinating research, Zana. My DD is studying photography at school and loves history too. This post covers both :-)

  17. Lol Liz. I'm never sure if I'm worse as the photographer or subject.

    Chris, great image of your geandmother's room.

  18. Laura, what fun your husband must be having. Is he interested in early photography? I did love the enthusiasts I spoke to.