The iPhone has had a major impact on personal photography. While it’s nowhere near as capable as my Fuji X-T1, it is both an exceptionally capable and flexible photographic implement, and the camera you always have with you. One of the very cool built-in features is the panorama function. On my way home from work today I was having fun playing with it, and testing out the low-light quality simultaneously.
As you can see, you achieve a panoramic image by swinging the camera from left to right (or in some cases top to bottom- This can also be reversed and swung the other way). You can do an up to 360-degree image. Because of the rotation of the camera, you get linear distortion.
When used carefully, This can make for some interesting images. The curves really highlight the shapes and the light in the scene. Used poorly, it can drag your eye (and hold it) in an ugly and/or uninteresting part of the image.
Another effect is if you have subjects moving through the scene, they can get stretched or compressed, depending on their speed of motion and direction, relative to the camera’s rotation. You can see that very clearly in this image.
Nighttime exposures present some challenges to image quality, especially when combined with the swinging of the camera to stitch together the exposure.
Sully Plantation is another historic homestead in the Washington DC suburbs. Today, sited across the road from the Udvar-Hazy Annex of the Air and Space Museum and the runways for Dulles International Airport, it is a tiny oasis of parkland in the middle of major development. This is one of the older properties I’ve been to, with the current house begun in 1793 and completed in 1799. It was built by Richard Bland Lee, Robert E. Lee’s uncle and the first Virginia representative to Congress. The property covered some 3,100 acres. It had been in the Lee family since the 1740s.
This is the kitchen at Sully. On the other side of the massive fireplace is the laundry. While it gives the appearance of bustling domesticity and comfort, it is still the site of slave labor that would have been conducted from before dawn to well after sundown seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. The comfort and ease of life of the Lee family and their guests would have been the product of this room.
It bears minding that this one-room cabin with no glass in the windows, no insulation in the floor, walls or ceiling, a single stone fireplace for warmth in winter, and a long walk to the well, would have been luxurious by the standards of the field slaves. They most likely lived in large barracks-style buildings at considerable remove from the Sully house, with less privacy and fewer conveniences. Contrast this with the big house, with glass pane windows, carpets, fireplaces in every room, imported mirrors to brighten the parlor when the sun went down, feather beds, and a kitchen outside of the house to keep cooking odors and the risk of fire away.
A view of Sully from the slave residence’s perspective. On the left you can see the stone dairy house – a structure with spring-fed pools to keep milk, butter, and other perishables cool year-round. Next is the smoke house where they would have smoked meats to preserve them, and then the laundry and kitchen, connected to the big house by a covered walkway. All this would have seemed like an alien world to the field slave, and still a strange place they worked in but did not belong to for the house slaves living in the cabin with this view.
I’ve subtitled this one “Fifty Feet is a Thousand Miles” – although that covered walkway from the kitchen to the house is a short distance, walking it with breakfast, lunch and dinner made for someone else’s consumption every day of your life must have produced some significant cognitive dissonance for the women who worked the kitchen.
I remember hearing from a friend whose wife was a docent at Sully that Mrs. Lee remained friends with and corresponded with her personal maid for the rest of her life, even after her maid was freed from slavery and she had returned to Philadelphia where she was from. These kinds of friendships, and they did happen, certainly complicate the narrative of slaveowners and the enslaved, but it is still no excuse or balm for the absolute moral failure that was slavery. The friendship of a woman and her maid is not compensation for the remaining hundred-plus men, women and children who worked twelve hours a day in heat and cold, rain and snow, planting, tending and harvesting crops all for the profit and comfort of someone else without compensation or even decent living conditions.
I realize there are no people in the staircase shot so it’s not technically people-watching, but it’s part of the same space, and in a way the absence of people can be about the interaction of people with a space in the same way that people in the frame can be. All photos were taken with my Contax G2 and the 90mm and 21mm lenses. Film used was Kodak Ektar 100.
Here is a previously undocumented photograph of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. The second-most infamous prisoner-of-war camp in the Confederacy (after Andersonville), it housed Union officers and had an appallingly high mortality rate. For more information on the prison and its history, check: Libby Prison.
This view is most probably post-war, as most of the photos of the building even in 1865 show the whitewash on the lower levels as intact, and the Libby Prison sign in place hanging over the downhill sidewalk from the upper street facade.
After the fall of Richmond to Union forces, the prison was used to house Confederate officer prisoners of war, this time with greatly improved physical conditions to include windows with panes in them. Later, it became a museum, and was even dismantled and re-assembled in Chicago, but when it failed as a tourist attraction, the materials of the building were sold off as souvenirs.
As you can see the image was exposed to fire at some point, with scorching around the edges. I’m guessing the age to be between 1870-1880.
Here is a photo from the National Archives that shows the prison in 1865.
On the trip, we stayed at The Inn at Meander Plantation – an 18th century Virginia plantation house converted into a Bed & Breakfast inn. Their claim to fame in addition to the beautiful home is the food in their kitchen – they have outstanding dinner service (which you do not have to be a guest at the inn to partake of) consisting of locally grown produce and meats, using traditional regional recipes, paired with Virginia wines.
Dinner and breakfast are served in the manor house dining room. The current kitchen is housed in the ell behind the main house, and the original kitchen has been converted into a two-story suite. The original slave quarters are also converted into two guest rooms.
We had the two rooms in the former slave quarters. Now very cozy and charming, you could tell that these rooms were far more primitive inside than the main house rooms, but also by extension that these were luxurious in comparison to the general housing for slaves. These must have been the rooms for the families of the slaves who worked in the house, not only because of the quality of the construction but the proximity to the main house and kitchen (only a few yards removed from the kitchen building). The cooks would probably have lived in the room above the kitchen, and the maids/house-servants in this house.
Meander Plantation is very pet-friendly and dogs are allowed in the outbuilding guest rooms and suites. Mom and dad have this little mixed-breed terrier-esque dog named Tess who they bring with them whenever they travel, so we got the two adjoining rooms in the slave cottage to accommodate the dog. The plantation has a big golden retriever who is very friendly, and Tess would go play on the lawn with the Golden.
I know- this was a terribly long time to wait to do something with these images – Thanksgiving was November of last year. No excuses will be offered. My parents and I have a tradition of going somewhere within a reasonable driving distance of home every year over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, usually anchored around visiting house museums. It started a couple years ago going to the Hagley Museum outside Wilmington, Delaware, and the Barnes Collection. Another year we went to see The Oatlands plantation outside Leesburg, Virginia. This trip we went to Charlottesville, Virginia to see Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, and Montpelier, James Madison’s home. We stayed a few miles away in a plantation home turned inn, Meander Plantation.
Home of James Madison, the fourth President of the United States. He drafted the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) from Montpelier. Like so many southern gentleman plantation owners, he was better at spending money than making it or managing his estate, so when he died, his wife was left with massive debts that she could little afford to pay, so she ended up having to sell off the lands and eventually the house as well. In the 20th century, Marion Scott Dupont owned the house, which had grown to quite a large edifice with 55 rooms. She bequeathed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon her death in 1983. In 2003, an effort was begun to return the house to the 22 rooms of James Madison’s time – the restoration was completed in 2008. Today, due to the trials and tribulations of time, the house is largely comprised of empty rooms, with the odd bit of furniture here and there as Madison’s original belongings were sold off and scattered to the four winds nearly two centuries ago. The remaining 2600 acres of the original estate are today devoted to an equestrian center, gardens and agricultural research.
You may be wondering why I’ve not included any images of the full front of the house. They take tour groups through in 10-15 minute intervals, and there were always groups of tourists on the front porch, and/or baby carriages and wheelchairs parked out front that were most un-photogenic.
After touring the house, you can visit the gardens that Marion Scott Dupont installed.
The gardens at that time of year present mostly boxwood hedges that aren’t terribly interesting without getting an aerial view. So you’ll have to suffice with the garden lion for now.
The return path to the visitor center:
The Duponts had a private rail line that came to Montpelier as Marion Scott Dupont’s father, William Dupont, worked in Washington DC and wanted to have easy access to work and home. The rail station still stands and is now a civil rights museum. Across the street is a well-preserved Esso station from the 1920s.
I found my first Alexander Gardner CDV! I’m very excited. It’s a really cool image of a large group of what could be a family, four couples, or just eight random friends. None are identified. I’ve been hunting for a Gardner CDV for a while now, as they don’t seem to be all that common, unlike the Brady CDVs which show up frequently. I was intrigued by the group dynamic – is this a family? Some of the men appear related, but one doesn’t fit. The couples, if in fact they are four married couples, are not arranged in any particular pairings. Could they just be a group of (extremely well-dressed) friends who dropped by the studio? And what’s with the odd composition showing the group bunched to the side, and the head clamp sitting in the corner by its lonesome? Very odd. It makes the image rather self-reflexive, calling attention to the fact that it is a photograph, not a painting, by reminding us of the process of taking a wet-plate image. Is it perhaps a sign of virtuosity, suggesting that the head clamp was not required? Or was it just sloppy workmanship and by the time they realized they forgot to put the head clamp out of the way, it was too late, and the sitters said, “well, that’s ok we’ll take it anyway”?
Another recent acquisition is a quarter-plate daguerreotype I found in an antiques mall outside Charlottesville, Virginia. This was a fortunate find – not only is the image larger in size than you normally see, but the image quality and preservation is overall quite good (the original seals are intact), and the case, though worn, is complete and still maintains the original hinge and clasps. The image is probably from a Charlottesville area estate, but no identifying information was provided with it. I did remove the packet from the case and discovered the names of the subjects scratched into the paper lining – I’ll have to grind a pencil lead on some sandpaper to make some carbon dust and try to get the characters filled in so I can read the inscription and identify the sitters. I’ll post a photo of it when I have figured out what it says.
Apologies for the color of the image – this was my first time scanning a daguerreotype, and the image itself came out more blue-green than it is in reality. I was concerned about over-correcting and turning the mats some garish shade of yellow that they’re not, so I left it alone this time. This was another intriguing composition – almost all the dags I’ve seen and bought before have some kind of background and/or props for the sitters. This looks like the couple is against a black backdrop, almost as if they’re floating in space. And the large dead space at the top of the frame is interesting too, from a compositional standpoint.