Photography through the years in Craven

Craven Herald: Dr Bill Mitchell Dr Bill Mitchell

Photography has undergone a digital revolution in the past few years. Dr Bill Mitchell looks at the changing face of photography and recalls some of Craven’s well-known photographers and the equipment they used I have just met a photographer who is six years old and carries a camera that is flat and not much bigger than the palm of his hand.

The lens is about the size of a bead. He clicked one of the controls. The subject appeared on a mini-screen within seconds.

I questioned the lad who said it wasn’t just a camera. He was handling an iPhone which was also a mobile telephone.

Into my memory flashed images of what photography was like when I was taking lots of pictures, developing and conserving film in liquids, under the glare of a red light. I printed and glazed the photographs, then – exhausted – I flopped on an easy chair with a cup of tea.

Fred Fruish used to take photos for the Craven Herald using a plate camera. In 1955, during my early days at The Dalesman, I was shown a photograph of Anthony Horner, a Settle photographer, who had set up his equipment near Stainforth Foss in the 1870s. He was kneeling beside a huge camera box. A contraption on a tripod was not a camera, as I first supposed, but – a darkroom. It was vital to develop plates within a short time of their exposure. The dark “room” was illuminated by light filtering through a little red window. Holes in the canvas had been made for the head and hands of the operator.

Eddie Horner, who ran the photo business at the time of my visits, remarked that daylight was the only form of illumination in the studio and an exposure of eight or ten seconds was common. So that the subject remained perfectly still, for long exposures a metal fork shaped like a letter U was used as a headrest. The ends were deleted from the sensitive plate.

The coming of electricity revolutionised the trade, speeding up all the processes. Years before, magnesium ribbon was burned in North Craven caves when studies of the limestone formations were needed. The Horners were pioneers of cave photography. Eddie had many tricky jobs and unusual requests. A lady who produced a print of her husband, who was glancing to one side, asked Eddie to copy it – and did he think he could make her hubby look forward.

Ken Jelley, who, with his wife Jean, took over the Horner business, kept some of the old tackle and kindly allowed me to film some of the equipment and his normal activity. I remember in particular one method he adopted for bringing a broad smile to the face of a small child.

He would pop a toy bear on his head, utter one or two words of expectancy – then simultaneously let the bear drop from his head. The result was a photograph of a joyful youngster.

The largest photograph he produced was almost wall-size. It showed the domed chapel of Giggleswick School at snowtime.

I kept a “magic lantern” – this being a projector for displaying photographs as slides. Some old types were fashioned of mahogany and brass, into which were slotted heavy, glass-mounted slides.

Before electricity was used for projecting pictures it was necessary to obtain cylinders of acetylene gas. The type of camera I used got smaller with the passing years – but was nowhere near as handy, in a literal sense, as a modern type.

Several thousand photographs I retained have been catalogued. They represent a past age in the life of the north-country, for I used to edit magazines relating to the Dales and also the Lake District.

I also gave lots of talks about the Dales. At Hellifield Methodist chapel, the projector failed after a few minutes. A voice from the adjacent kitchen sounded through a crowded hall: “Nothing’s broken. I’m just changing over the plugs so we can have cups of tea at half time.” At a Women’s Institute, the old lady who offered to change the slides did so at random. One slide bobbed up three times. When I gave an annual slide presentation to a packed audience of old folk in the Victoria Hall at Settle, various objects were borrowed from the spectators to set the projector-stand at a correct angle in relation to the massive screen.

My most startling photographic memory is of a quite recent occasion when a granddaughter was married. The rustle was not of springtime but of cameras in action. The total number of photographs taken by a professional photographer and guests was about 4,000. Whew! It’s a far cry from the times when people thought that a camera had magical properties to the situation today when cameras are light and convenient. We think less of having a photograph taken than – having a wash!

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