Leaving the nest

Black and white image of a marigold with nine flowers, one of them closed, in front of a grey background.
Richard Tepe, 1916. Gelatin negative on glass. Inv. no. TEP-2669.

Collection Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam / Public Domain.

Did you know that January 1st is more than New Year’s Day; a day for sleeping in after a New Year’s party, eating left-over “oliebollen” from the night before and visiting family to wish your loved ones the best for the coming year? New Year’s Day also marks Public Domain Day; the day when copyrights expire on texts, artworks and the like, of which the maker passed away 71 years ago. These “products” thus become public domain, which means that anyone anywhere can use the materials in whatever way they like. You could use a world-famous text by an even more famous author as part of a play you are creating as an amateur playwright or print it on your wall at home in jumbo-sized lettering if you like. The Rijksmuseum, for example, encourages people to download the high-resolution image of their favourite artwork from the museum’s collection website, most of which is freely available, and have it printed on a duvet set.[1]

So this January 1st marks another “load” of wonderful material moving into the public domain. So too is the photographic archive of Dutch nature photographer Richard Tepe, which is in the collection of the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. Together with his colleague P.L. Steenhuizen, Tepe was one of the pioneers of nature photography in The Netherlands. The earliest images from his oeuvre are from around the 1900s. Around this time, attention arose to the presence and disappearance of plant- and animal species in The Netherlands. Tepe, as a photo-pioneer, took it upon himself to register these (disappearing) species on the photographic glass plate. When he started out, he mostly photographed birds, which was quite the undertaking with his sluggish glass plate cameras in combination with the skittish subjects.[2]

In some forty years, from around 1900 to 1940, Richard Tepe amassed an archive of more than three thousand photographic glass plate images. After his death in 1952, these plates were cared for by the Koninklijke Nederlandse Natuurhistorische Vereniging. Some thirty years later they were sold at an auction and eventually ended up in the depots of the Nederlands Fotoarchief, which later merged into the current Nederlands Fotomuseum.[3] The plates have since been repacked into acid-free archival paper four-flaps and fitting boxes, and are kept under ideal climatological circumstances for the materials in order to preserve them for as long as possible.[4] Information about each plate has also been logged in the collection database. One of the most charming parts of this archive is the notes Tepe himself kept about his plates, which provide valuable information about the subject matter and the date the image was procured, but also about some more technical aspects such as the plate type and developer used.

In 1898 Richard Tepe was the first Dutch photographer to photograph a bird’s nest.[5] This was a huge milestone in Dutch nature photography because a scene like this had never before been recorded on a photographic plate.[6] This pioneering image and its 3000+ “siblings” have now been tipped out of the nest and can spread their wings in the public domain.


[1] Rijksmuseum zet werken online | De Volkskrant

[2] Fotografen (nederlandsfotomuseum.nl)

[3] Depth of Field | Scherptediepte <!– Richard Tepe : depthoffield –> (universiteitleiden.nl)

[4] Mind you, we still don’t know how long these early examples of photography will “last”. The medium is still too young for us to know exactly how long it takes for the photosensitive emulsions and their base materials to deteriorate beyond repair, or vanish completely. Of course, we, being photo historians and photo restorers, have experience with specimens which were badly cared for and therefore deteriorated way quicker. But we still don’t know for sure how long well-preserved specimens will last under ideal circumstances for preservation, or if these circumstances that we so minutely provide and monitor are even ideal at all!

[5] Collecties | Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam

[6] Harrevelt, Loes van. Jacht met de camera. Nederlands Fotomuseum, 2016.

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Public domain

In this black and white image, we see the young André Ratté Junior, proudly posing with the photographer's tabby cat in front of a neutral, grey background.
Richard Tepe, 1924. Gelatin negative on glass. Inv. no. TEP-1505.

Collection Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam / Public Domain.

The Public Domain has a magical power over me: I’m not only a fan but a Believer, wishing I had a job that revolves around it.

An ex of mine liked to refer to me as a communist—and when it comes to the public domain [PD], it is not even that far-fetched. I believe that people, regardless of their economical status, should have obstacle-free access to certain things, amongst them information, art and, naturally, the love children of these two: documentary projects of all kinds. Without getting into the deep and muddy waters of blaming the art world’s elitism, let’s see why I obsess with “stuff” that is out there for all of us.

According to Wikipedia, “[the PD] consists of all the creative work to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply [as T]hose rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable”.[1] Now, I have never been good at deciphering legal lingo[2], but this sounds pretty good to me. Simplifying it to its core: whatever becomes part of the PD is up for grabs. Respectfully, mind you. But still up for grabs. You might just enjoy the content of it passively, research it thoroughly, decorate your home with it or even decide to reuse it for your own creative process; your options are practically endless.

Amongst other institutions, museums have been working hard to add parts of their collections to the PD. The Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam has recently included nature photographer Richard Tepe’s (1864–1952) work in the ever-growing legacy, and I couldn’t be happier. Look at this adorable picture of André Ratté junior and Tepe’s cat, Poeti. A most endearing image, a perfect example of the humanising power of photography—no matter whether the sitter is indeed a human or not. Poeti and her personality are in there without a doubt, posing somewhat resigned yet proud in André’s embrace.

There are so many beautiful initiatives out there and all that one needs is an internet connection[3] to open up a practically limitless universe of possibilities. The PD is a rabbit hole paradise, the good kind. Go get lost in it.

Just a few of my favourites:

EuropeanaDiscover Europe’s digital cultural heritage.

Fortepana copyright-free and community-based photo archive with over 100,000 photographs available for anyone to browse and download in high-resolution, free of charge.

The Internet ArchiveLike a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, people with print disabilities, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain, last accessed: 14th June 2022

[2] Even if I were good at it, I find copyright law especially confusing.

[3] I’m not ignoring the role of museums, libraries and archives, but the internet is the real game changer here.

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Tintypes in the age of its technological reproducibility 

Unknown photographers. Ferrotypes (tintypes). Collection of Cobie Hijma. (front)

About five years ago, I started buying vintage photographs. The idea was to build myself a reference collection of different photographic and photomechanical techniques, but it quickly became a guilty pleasure that I could spend of all of my money on (but probably shouldn’t). The two tintypes I chose for this blogpost I bought from an American seller. These objects are unique prints, for no negative was used to make them, as the technique allows for a direct (positive) image.

The title of this blog post refers to an essay written during the Nazi regime (1933-1945) by German philosopher, cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). The essay, titled The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (1936), had a great influence on scholars and philosophers in the cultural field and is still a mandatory read in many curricula of media studies. In this essay, Benjamin states that the aura of a work of art, “its unique existence in a particular place” (103), is diminished by its reproducibility. Benjamin argues that every work of art was reproduced in one way or another in the 19th century, but also that film and photography, both emerging in the 19th century, are in itself technologically reproducing media. The artworks created by means of these media, therefore, lack aura, because, as Benjamin writes, “[f]rom a photographic plate, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.”[1]

Benjamin surely has a point that photography[2] as a medium relies more on technology than for example painting does. This reliance on an apparatus to create a product (artwork) also changes the relationship between the artist and his work: the artist is no longer in full control, he has to make do with the possibilities the camera gives him to influence the way it captures the image. However, I do not agree with Benjamin that a photograph can never be an “authentic” print.[3] Indeed, one of the medium’s biggest perks is the reproducibility of the photographic image, but the medium was not invented with that goal in mind, nor is every photographic technique aimed at reproduction.

P. Denison Lapham and Alice A.Y. Cranston, relatives of George D. Lapham
The tintype, or ferrotype, was one of the first (more) widely used photographic techniques. Its heyday was around the 1860s-70s, being cheaper and easier to produce than its contemporaries the daguerreotype and the ambrotype.[4] Similar to these two techniques, the tintype image is captured directly onto a plate that was put into the camera. Looking P. Denison Lapham and Alice A.Y. Cranston in the eyes, you can see that the quality of the tintype image, even bruised and scratched specimens like these, is astonishing. The level of detail in the blacks is amazing, something that cannot easily be achieved without digital manipulation nowadays.

Something that should be a flaw, but that I actually really love seeing, is the damaged edge of the image layer, especially on the bottom of the picture of the boy. A tintype is composed of three layers: a thin sheet of metal, covered by a layer of black lacquer or enamel which in its turn is covered by the photographic emulsion. All the parts of the image that are black in reality, P. Denison Lapham’s jacket, his shoes and his trousers, are in fact translucent because the image layer is actually a collodion negative. The black lacquer layer behind it “fills” these parts of the image with black colour, making the image positive.[5]

Since the tintype is a direct imprint of light on a plate and not produced by means of a negative, it is a unique object. Even though the industry surrounding photography has always aimed at dependable materials and making it easy for the consumer to get consistent results with these materials, the tintype proves to me that there is room for aura in the early days of photography. These two tintypes were taken at the end of the 19th century, I suspect around 1880-1883 judging by the dates mentioned on the back of one of them and the age of the boy in the photograph. Looking at these children really does give you the feeling that you are looking into the past. These plates are over a century old and have been in the presence of the young boy and the young girl who are depicted on them. It has painstakingly been exposed (it is not easy to get youngsters like these to sit still for about 30 seconds), developed, fixed and even hand-coloured. If images such as these, one of a kind, having been in 19th century America, do not give you the feeling that you are looking at a “unique existence in a particular place”, then I don’t know what will.

Two monochrome portraits of young children, around 5-7 years old. One is a full-length studio portrait of a boy, sitting on a sofa. His hair is parted on the left. He wears a dark coat with a white shirt underneath, black trousers and leather boots. His right leg is tucked across underneath his left leg. The other is a full-length studio portrait of a girl, sitting on a kind of wooden fence. She wears a light-coloured hat on her dark hair, a white dress and black boots. Her hands are folded together, her legs slightly apart.

[1] Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. 1936. p. 106.

[2] And film of course but, for obvious reasons, I will only discuss Benjamin’s essay in relation to photography from now on.

[3] Benjamin, p. 106.

[4] Jan van Dijk. Handboek herkennen fotografische en fotomechanische procedés, Leiden (2011), pp. 97-98.

[5] Ibid, pp. 96-97.

There is another side to every story. And it’s just one click away!

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