Today Google came out with a new app called PhotoScan that will scan your old photo collection. Like just everyone, I have stashes of shoeboxes inherited from parents full of pictures. Some were scanned in a scanner, back when I had one that was compatible with a computer. More recently, I’ve used scanning apps like Readdle’s Scanner Pro and Scanbot. These de-skew the photographs of the photos that your phone takes but the resolution’s is not always the best and there can be some glare from overhead lights, especially when you’re working with a glossy original pictures.
Google’s approach cleverly stitches together multiple photos. It uses a process much like their 360-degree photo app: you start with a overview photo. Once taken, you see four circles hovering to the sides of the picture. Move the camera to each and it takes more pictures. Once you’ve gone over all four circles, Google stitches these five photos together in such a way that there’s no perspective distortion.
What’s remarkable is the speed. I scanned 15 photos in while also making dinner for the kids. The dimensions of all looked good and the resolution looks about as good as the original. These are good results for something so easy.
This guy in Streetview is standing near the spot where the world’s first #selfie portrait was taken in 1839.
Robert Cornelius was one of the first people to try to reproduce Louis Daguerre’s photographic technique after news of the breakthrough reach Philadelphia. A chemist working at his family’s gas lighting company, Cornelius started experimenting with different chemical combinations until he found a way to reduce exposure times so that a person to sit still long enough for a portrait. In October 1839 he took a picture himself “in the yard back of his store and residence, (old) 176 Chestnut Street, above Seventh (now number 710), in Philadelphia,” according to an oral history published half a century later (PDF). Cornelius recounts:
It was our business to make a great variety of articles of plated metal. Very soon afterwards, I made in the factory a tin box, and bought from McAllister, 48 Chestnut Street, a lens about two inches in diameter, such as was used for opera purposes. With these instruments I made the first likeness of myself and another one of some of my children, in the open yard of my dwelling, sunlight bright upon us, and I am fully of the impression that I was the first to obtain a likeness of the human face.
Remarkably, in 2014, the Cornelius and Co. building is still there on Chestnut Street, though barely recognizable, with an extra floor on top and extensive façade changes. It’s a discount drug store. The back is the narrow alley named Ionic Street, home to dumpsters and people wanting to stay out of sight. The yard is to the right of these dumpsters. With #selfie such a popular hashtag, Cornelius’s picture has circulated on a lot of internet lists as the “world’s first selfie.” But it’s historical significance is far greater: it is the first photographic portrait of our species. I’m not typically one for hyperbole, but we humans started seeing ourselves differently after that portrait.
I originally assumed the building on the right of the alley stood where the yard had been but a satellites turns up a surprise: the yard is still there! Looking at the 710 property from above, the buildings facing Chestnut and Ionic are separate – with a large open space in between! There are two sections that look almost to be garden beds.
Yo Philly, how has 710 Chestnut Street not been snatched up and turned into a museum of photographic history? The first floor could focus on nineteenth century Philadelphia innovation, with the still-existent inner courtyard turned into a tourist destination? It would be like catnip. What self-respecting modern tourist wouldn’t walk the few blocks from Independence Hall to take their picture at the very site of the world’s first selfie? I know Philly typically doesn’t respect any history past 1776 but come on!
So we’ve been asked to write a “synchroblog” organized by Quaker Voluntary Service. It is a weekday and there are work deadlines looming for me (there are always deadlines looming) so my participation may be spotty but I’ll give it a shot.
The topic of this particular synchroblog is Friends and social media and in the invite we were asked to riff on comparisons with early Friends’s pamphleteering and the web as the new printing press. I’m spotty on the details of the various pamphlet wars of early Friends but the web-as-printing-press is a familiar theme.
I first mangled the metaphors of web as printing press nineteen years ago. That summer I started my first new media project to get pacifist writings online. The metaphors I used seem as funny now as they were awkward then, but give me a break: Mark Zuckerberg was a fifth grader hacking Ataris and even the word “weblog” was a couple of years away. I described my project as “web typesetting for the movement by the movement” and one of my selling points is that I had done the same work in the print world.
Fractured as my metaphors were, online media was more like publishing then that it is now. Putting an essay online required technical skills and comparatively high equipment costs. The consistent arc of consumer technology has been to make posting ever easier and cheaper and that has moved the bar of quality (raised or lowered depending on how you see it)
Back in the mid-1990s I remember joking snarkily with friends that we’d all someday have blogs devoted to pictures of our cats and kids – the humor in our barbs came from the ridiculousness that someone would go to the time and expense to build a site so ephemeral and non-serious. You’d have to take a picture, develop the film, digitally scan it in, touch it up with a prohibitively expensive image software, use an FTP program to upload it to a web server and then write raw HTML to make a web page of it. But the joke was on us. In 2014, if my 2yo daughter puts something goofy on her head, I pull out the always-with-me phone, snap a picture, add a funny caption and filter, tag it, and send it to a page which is effectively a photoblog of her life.
The ease of posting has spawned an internet culture that’s creatively bizarre and wonderful. With the changes the printing press metaphor has become less useful, or at least more constrained. There are Friends who’s intentionality and effort make them internet publishers (I myself work for Friends Journal). But most of our online activity is more like water cooler chitchat.
So the question I have is this: are there ways Friends should behave online. If we are to “let our lives preach,” as the much-quoted George Fox snippet says, what’s our online style? Do we have anything to learn from earlier times of pamphleteering? And what about the media we’re using, especially as we learn more about electronic surveillance and its widespread use both here at home and in totalitarian regimes?
I really should blog here more. I really should. I spend a lot of my time these days sharing other people’s ideas. Most recently, on Friends Journal you can see my interview with Jon Watts (co-conducted with Megan Kietzman-Nicklin). The three of us talked on and on for quite some time; it was only an inflexible train schedule that ended my participation.
The favorite part of talking with Jon is his enthusiasm and his talent for keeping his sights set on the long picture (my favorite question was asking why he started with a Quaker figure so obscure even I had to look him up). It’s easy to get caught up in the bustle of deadlines and to-do lists and to start to forget why we’re doing this work as professional Quakers. There is a reality behind the word counts. As Friends, we are sharing the good news of 350+ years of spiritual adventuring: observations, struggles, and imperfect-but-genuine attempts to follow Inward Light of the Gospels.
My nine year old son Theo is blogging as a class assignment. I think they’ve been supposed to be writing there for awhile but he’s really only gotten the bug in the last few weeks. It’s a full-on WordPress site, but with certain restrictions (most notably, posts only become public after the classroom teacher has had a chance to review and vet them). It’s certain ironic to see one of my kids blogging more than me!
Enough blogging for today. Time to put the rest of the awake kids to bed. I’m going to try to have more regular small posts so as to get back into the blogging habit. In the meantime, I’m always active on my Tumblr site (which shows up as the sidebar to the right). It’s the bucket for my internet curations – videos and links I find interesting, and my own pictures and miscellanea.
“What do you think of this?” It was probably the twentieth time my brother or I had asked this question in the last hour. Our mother had downsized to a one-bedroom apartment in an Alzheimer’s unit just six days earlier. Visiting her there she admitted she couldn’t even remember her old apartment. We were cleaning it out.
The object of the question this time was an antique teapot. White china with a blue design. It wasn’t in great shape. The top was cracked and missing that handle that lets you take the lid off without burning your fingers. It had a folksy charm, but as a teapot it was neither practical nor astonishingly attractive, and neither of us really wanted it. It was headed for the oversized trash bin outside her room.
I turned it over in my hands. There, on the bottom, was a strip of dried-out and cracked masking tape. On it, barely legible and in the kind of cursive script that is no longer taught, were the words “Recovered from ruins of fire 6/29/23 at 7. 1067 Hazard Rd.”
We scratched our heads. We didn’t know where Hazard Road might be (Google later revealed it’s in the blink-and-you-miss-it railroad stop of Hazard, Pennsylvania, a crossroads only technically within the boundary of our mother’s home town of Palmerton). The date would place the fire seven years before her birth.
We can only guess to fill in the details. A catastrophic fire must have taken out the family home. Imagine the grim solace of pulling out a family heirloom. Perhaps some grandparent had brought it carefully packed in a small suitcase on the journey to America. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it had no sentimental value and it had landed with our mother because no one else cared. We’ll never know. No amount of research could tell us more than that masking tape. Our mother wasn’t the only one losing her memory. We were too. We were losing the family memory of a generation that had lived, loved, and made it through a tragedy one mid-summer day.
I stood there and looked at the teapot once again. It had survived a fire ninety years ago. I would give it a reprieve from our snap judgement and the dump. Stripped of all meaning save three inches of masking tape, it now sits on a top shelf of my cupboard. It will rest there, gathering back the dust I just cleaned off, until some spring afternoon forty years from now, when one of my kids will turn to another. “What do you think of this?”
Update March 2017
Beyond all odds, there’s actually more information. Someone has put up obituaries from the Morning Call newspaper. It includes the May 1922 notice for Alvin H. Noll, my mother’s great grandfather.
Alvin H. Noll, a well known resident of Palmerton, died at his home, at that place, on Sunday morning, aged 66 years. He was a member of St. John’s church, Towamensing, and also a prominent member of Lodge, No. 440, I.O. of A., Bowmanstown. He is survived by two daughters, Mrs. Lewis Sauerwine, Slatington, and Mrs. Fred Parry, this city; three sons, Purietta Noll, Samuel Noll and Thomas Noll, Palmerton. Two sisters, Mrs. Mary Schultz, Lehighton; Miss Amanda Noll, Bowmanstown; two brothers, Aaron Noll, Bowmanstown, and William Noll, Lehighton. Ten grandchildren also survive. Funeral services will be held at the home of his son, Purietta (sic) Noll, 1067 Hazard Road, Palmerton, on Wednesday at 1.30 p.m., daylight saving time. Further services will be held in St. John’s church, Towamensing. Interment will be made in Towamensing cemetery.
And there it is: 1067 Hazard Road, home of my mother’s grandfather Puriette Franklin Noll one year before the fire. So I’ll add a picture of Puriette and his wife Elizabeth with my Mom eighter years after the fire, at what the photo says is their Columbia Avenue home. Wow!