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The Impact of the Camera on Wheels: The Moving Gaze in the Modern Subject

Sara Dominici


01 okt. 2020 • 15 min

Writing in 1885 on the practice of combining photography and cycling for leisure purposes, George Vincent, a contributor to the British periodical Amateur Photographer, said the following:

Hobbies, like men and women, seldom do well apart; and the recent marriage of the tricycle with the camera is in my opinion ‘a good match.’ Undoubtedly they were ‘made for each other,’ the one being the necessary counterpart to the other. What common sense therefore has joined together, let no man put asunder! Young ones we wish you luck!Vincent, S.G. ‘The Tricycle and the Camera’, Amateur Photographer, 4 September 1885, 344.

This marriage had been made possible by the development and mass production of new camera and cycle technologies, which began in the 1870s and included dry plates, thanks to which photographers no longer needed to attend to glass plates immediately before and after exposure, and tricycles and quadricycles, three- and four-wheeled machines safer and more practical than the high-wheeler favoured for racing events. Vincent’s enthusiasm was widely shared by his fellow amateur photographers. ‘The two pursuits go most admirably together; in fact, neither is complete without the other’, wrote a photographer in 1884.Salmon, S.H.R. ‘Correspondence. The Tricycle and Photography’, Photographic News, 18 April 1884, 252. ‘Photography and cycling—particularly tricycling—are, and must always be, most intimate associates,’ another commented the following year.Anon. ‘Our Views’, Amateur Photographer, 20 March 1885, 378.
Figure 1 Sara Dominici

Figure 1. Carte-de-visite, E. Denney & Co. Studio, England, early 1880s © Lorne Shields, private collection

What this combination entailed, however, was no small feat: camera equipment was still heavy and fragile (depending on the size and number of glass plates used, it could’ve weighed between 5 and 25 kilograms), and the cycling machines were rather bulky and laborious. Figure 1, which shows a tricycle with a camera mounted just underneath the saddle between the two big wheels, offers an illustration of such a precarious arrangement. The roll holder carrying negative paper patented by George Eastman had entered the market in 1884, followed in 1885 by the ‘safety’ bicycle, a machine with two same-size wheels similar to today’s bicycles. Nonetheless, until the second half of the 1890s, the majority of upper- and middle-class photographers, the only group who could realistically afford both technologies, continued to prefer glass plates over film because of their clear definition and sensitiveness, fundamental to a class that sought to demonstrate artistic value as a marker of respectability. Consequently, they continued to ride tricycles and quadricycles to transport this material.

Figure 2 Sara Dominici

Figure 2. Front cover of the Amateur Photographer bounded volume for 1885. Advertised in (1885). Amateur Photographer. (11 December), 610 © British Library Board

As contemporary accounts reveal, a key reason photographers were undeterred by these difficulties was that the self-propelled vehicle afforded the freedom to travel where and when one liked, and thus to find more subjects to photograph. The front cover of Amateur Photographer’s bounded 1885 volume (Figure 2), which shows a couple riding a tandem quadricycle by a shore and a camera mounted on a tripod in the foreground (the suggestion being that this is the camera the couple secures to the back wheel), is indeed about visual and mobile independence: a location off the main tourist sites and a camera positioned to capture what’s found therein. The photographs of a man standing next to a sociable quadricycle on an unidentified country road (Figure 3) and that of a woman sitting on the same model in what appears to be a rural hamlet (Figure 4) were perhaps taken to demonstrate that they had reached a location unfrequented by the masses.

This engagement with technology, however, did more than simply expand one’s field of action. Most importantly, it impacted on how people experienced the landscape they rode through and, consequently, how they thought of themselves and their visual experiences. At this time, body-machine interactions were central in the public discourse. In the context of widespread industrialisation, for example, technology was seen by some as hindering the human body (e.g., William Morris’s view that it ‘reduce[d] the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled’),Morris, W. 1885. Useful Work v Useless Toil. 37. London, UK: Socialist League. while others saw it as extending the body’s capabilities (e.g., Henry Ford’s comparison of the worker’s body to the assembly line).Ford, H. 1923. My Life and Work. New York: Doubleday. For its part, cycling was considered by those who practised it to be a splendid extension of the body. In this sense, we could think of these early camera and cycle combinations as a prosthetic technology experienced by its users as an augmentation their bodily capabilities and sensory faculties, especially their sight. This was because, by virtue of a new experience of speed, cycling not only allowed people to see more things but also to see them differently. A typical description of this new sense of empowerment and what it meant for photographic practices was published in 1885 by Photographic News, another major British photographic periodical:

We know of no greater pleasure than a spin along the country roads on a bicycle. The bracing air, the easy exercise given to all parts of the human frame, the delight of the eye with the surrounding scenery, give new life to a man … As the rider spins along, his eye catches some little bit of scenery, some quiet nook with bubbling water, or some exquisite vista stretching in the distance, that he would gladly fix in some more permanent form than upon the tablets of memory.Anon. ‘Photography for Wheelmen’, Photographic News, 16 October 1885, 659.

The text starts by highlighting the positive impact that cycling, widely regarded as a truly modern technology, was deemed to have on the human body. In its fusion with the machine, the capabilities of the body are extended—it is ‘give[n] new life’—or, to put it differently, becomes modern. The author then describes the new experience of how this modern subject looks at the world. Operating from a mobile position, the ‘eye catches’ a rapidly changing environment; it perceives the landscape not as a stable view to be contemplated but as a collection of different ‘bits’ that viewers assemble in recollecting their own individual experiences of looking at the world. This was the moving gaze of technologically empowered individuals who’d developed a new sense of self and place and, accordingly, felt in control of their own visual experiences. Many contemporary accounts similarly describe this new way of seeing the world. For example, almost ten years later, Milton Hayden said the landscape ‘seems to open out before one’s eyes like a magnificent, ever-changing panorama’, and this makes one want to ‘“bag” the numerous little “bits” of sylvan scenery which surround him on every side.’Milton Hayden, C. 1894. ‘The Camera on Castors’,Photographic News, 3 August 1894, 483–486.

This had a profound influence on photographers’ expectations, fostering a desire to use the camera to engage with such a proliferation of individual perspectives. As both examples indicate, however, existing cameras were considered unsuited to the requirements of this moving gaze. While by the 1890s glass plates were fast enough to capture moving subjects, the sense of freedom, independence and spontaneity—including of visual experiences—that photographers had come to appreciate while cycling dissipated with each step of the fiddling set-up and capture of just one exposure. As Cyclops (a pseudonym) wrote as late as 1899, ‘[a]s the pace is often pretty fast, one does not want to carry weight, and when the time necessary to select the view, unpack, and set up the camera and expose, then to take down and repack on cycle.’Cyclops. ’A Photographer’s Companion’, Photographic News, 27 January 1899, 58. Consequently, cycling photographers joined outdoor photographers in asking manufacturers for compact, portable and accessible cameras. Their requests, however, were also seen as crucially motivated by a desire to use the camera in a way considered to be suited to the gaze of a modern and fast-moving individual.

Figure 5 Sara Dominici

Figure 5. Advertisement published in (1884). Amateur Photographer. (12 December), 160 © British Library Board

Figure 6 Sara Dominici

Figure 6. Advertisement published in (1891). The American Cyclist. (July), 165 © John Weiss, private collection

Camera manufacturers’ early attempts at meeting cyclists’ demands can thus be read as a way of adapting the technology to the requirements of a modern subjectivity. This was the case, for example, with the Birmingham-based firm J. Lancaster & Son, a major camera maker in this period that in 1884 presented itself as ‘[t]he largest makers of photographic apparatuses in the world, for tourists, bicyclists, tricyclists’.[Advertisement]. Amateur Photographer, 14 November 1884, 96.The apparatus promoted specifically for cyclists, the Instantograph (Figure 5), came with a lens and stand or a cycle clip ‘in place of stand’. Its promoted benefit was that it allowed photographers to get rid of the cumbersome tripod and instead use the wheel as a support, as shown in the same ad. Unsurprisingly, many photographers complained about how this constricted one’s freedom because one was limited to work from the road and at the height of the wheel. This image of a camera on a wheel, however, also crystalises the unresolved desire to pass the speed of cycling and associated benefits of autonomy and spontaneity to photography, something that would come to define the compact cameras of later years.

Figure 6, an ad produced by George Eastman in 1891 to promote the Kodak camera (possibly the Kodak B Daylight Box, launched that year) illustrates some of the possibilities enabled by compact cameras and the reasons why cameras like that, as opposed to previous types, were considered suitable for the moving gaze of a modern subject. Combining the high-wheeler and the Kodak was an interesting choice because the safety-bicycle era was by now well underway. The high-wheeler, which people would have associated with the fast machines used for racing in the 1870s and early 1880s, might have been used to highlight some of the features of the Kodak: it was as fast as a high-wheeler and so easy to use you could take photographs while pedalling, which is what the photographer in the illustration seems to be doing. The speed of the bicycle merges, in this image, with the speed of the camera. In his interaction with technologies, the physical abilities of the photographer are augmented. He can move quickly, and he can capture what he sees without having to stop: in this example, he masters the tools as he masters his environment. In doing so, he can capture his own experience of the world and those ‘bits’ that many cyclists were writing about.

Figure 7 Sara Dominici

Figure 7. Advertisement published in (1906). Amateur Photographer. (29 May), xxiii © British Library Board

By the turn of the century, cameras and bicycles were almost ubiquitous in Britain, and taking photographs during a cycling holiday became the norm. For the generation of photographers and cyclists who came of age in this period, the intertwined speeds of cycling and seeing defined their experience of modernity. As Scribe (a pseudonym) enthused in 1903, recollecting a bicycle descent from the top of the Grimsel Pass in the Swiss Alps:

[A]s we flew down the steep road, ‘every now and then,’ to borrow from Mark Twain, ‘some ermined monarch of the Alps swung magnificently into view for a moment, then drifted past an intervening spur.’ But whereas Mark Twain saw these things from a slow-moving carriage, we had kaleidoscopic changes of beautiful landscape, owing to the great pace at which we were travelling. With him the handle of the panorama turned slowly; we had it highly geared; his was the pace of Venice, ours that of New York.A.J.C. ‘Through Switzerland Awheel’, Polytechnic Cycling Club Gazette, June 1903, 4–5.

The author’s speed-based analogy clearly captures the shift in the visual culture of this period. The way of seeing enabled by the horse-drawn carriage, which the protagonists of Mark Twain’s A Tramp AbroadTwain, M. 1880. A Tramp Abroad. London: Chatto & Windus. used to traverse the Alps, is associated with the panorama. Such a large, slow-moving circular painting sought to simulate one’s presence in the landscape so that this could be appropriated visually, thus relying on the view of looking as a means to knowledge. For Scribe, this belonged to the past (‘Venice’). Conversely, cycling made him feel at the cutting edge of human experience, an active and self-aware participant in modernity (‘New York’). His visual experiences are accordingly associated with the kaleidoscope, the tube containing mirrors and coloured pieces of glass that represent a fractured and idiosyncratic way of seeing modernity, one in which knowledge depends entirely on the single observer.

The cameras now commercially available and that cyclists like Scribe would’ve used (while only incidentally mentioning them in their tour accounts) were small, light and compact. The Idento camera, for example, produced by the company Adams & Co., catered to this market (Figure 7). As the man in the ad says, ‘that ruin reminds me that I have my ‘Idento’ here, I had quite forgotten it.’ Photography had become an assumed tool that could be swiftly summoned to record anything that attracted one’s attention. Vincent, who, as seen at the beginning of this article, ended his ode to photography and cycling with ‘Young ones we wish you luck!’, would have been pleased; what his generation had longed for had finally been realised. In the present-day media environment, replete with anxieties over technology’s influence on our experience of the ‘real’, where new prosthetic tools from smartphone cameras to selfie sticks are shaping how we move through and see the world, the experiences of these early pioneers can perhaps help us reimagine contemporary body-machine interactions as empowering and inspirational. For us, as for photographers in the late nineteenth century, what’s at stake is our own sense of self, as how we choose to use technology impacts who we are.

Dr. Sara Dominici is a writer, scholar and the course leader for the Master’s of Art and Visual Culture programme at the University of Westminster (London, UK). Her research interests include photographic history and theory; the historiography of photography; the relationship between cultural technologies, media and modernity; and the interplay between mobility and visuality from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.

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