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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reading List: The History of Photography As Seen Through the Spira Collection

Spira, S. F., Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr., and Jonathan B. Spira. The History of Photography As Seen Through the Spira Collection. Danville, NJ: Aperture, 2001. ISBN 978-0-89381-953-8.
If you perused the back pages of photographic magazines in the 1960s and 1970s, you'll almost certainly recall the pages of advertising from Spiratone, which offered a panoply of accessories and gadgets, many tremendously clever and useful, and some distinctly eccentric and bizarre, for popular cameras of the epoch. The creation of Fred Spira, a refugee from Nazi anschluss Austria who arrived in New York almost penniless, his ingenuity, work ethic, and sense for the needs of the burgeoning market of amateur photographers built what started as a one-man shop into a flourishing enterprise, creating standards such as the “T mount” lenses which persist to the present day. His company was a pioneer in importing high quality photographic gear from Japan and instrumental in changing the reputation of Japan from a purveyor of junk to a top end manufacturer.

Like so many businessmen who succeed to such an extent they redefine the industries in which they participate, Spira was passionate about the endeavour pursued by his customers: in his case photography. As his fortune grew, he began to amass a collection of memorabilia from the early days of photography, and this Spira Collection finally grew to more than 20,000 items, covering the entire history of photography from its precursors to the present day.

This magnificent coffee table book draws upon items from the Spira collection to trace the history of photography from the camera obscura in the 16th century to the dawn of digital photography in the 21st. While the pictures of items from the collection dominate the pages, there is abundant well-researched text sketching the development of photography, including the many blind alleys along the way to a consensus of how images should be made. You can see the fascinating process by which a design, which initially varies all over the map as individual inventors try different approaches, converges upon a standard based on customer consensus and market forces. There is probably a lesson for biological evolution somewhere in this. With inventions which appear, in retrospect, as simple as photography, it's intriguing to wonder how much earlier they might have been discovered: could a Greek artificer have stumbled on the trick and left us, in some undiscovered cache, an image of Pericles making the declamation recorded by Thucydides? Well, probably not—the simplest photographic process, the daguerreotype, requires a plate of copper, silver, and mercury sensitised with iodine. While the metals were all known in antiquity (along with glass production sufficient to make a crude lens or, failing that, a pinhole), elemental iodine was not isolated until 1811, just 28 years before Daguerre applied it to photography. But still, you never know….

This book is out of print, but used copies are generally available for less than the cover price at its publication in 2001.

Posted at June 10, 2010 00:38