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From Daguerreotype to Digital in Four Generations

Sarah Maclean Macleod : Daguerrotype or Tintype

The above picture is a digital reproduction of a tintype or daguerreotype portrait of Sarah Marion McLean, my husband’s great great grandmother, taken (most probably) around the time of her marriage in 1849 in Flodden, Quebec. I scanned the metal photograph to computer over 10 years ago.

The pic above is composite montage of Sarah’s 4 times great granddaughter, Nora, my granddaughter born 2019, stored on my cellphone. The collage consists of photos snapped from moment of her birth until her 1st birthday. These pics are but a fraction of the pictures existing of Mademoiselle Nora, now 4 years old, on various cellphones belonging to family.

I have in my possession only two other photos of Nora’s 4x great granny, Sarah, one where she stands beside her seated husband (Isle of Lewisman John Mcleod ) looking very pregnant. Another cardboard studio photo of her is from her final year. At the back of the photograph someone wrote in her name and dates. Sarah Marion McLean McLeod 1825-1912. She may actually be dead in the photo.

Unfortunately, I have misplaced the metallic originals, so I can’t test whether they are daguerreotypes or tintypes. (Tintypes are slightly magnetic.) They must be in a box somewhere in the garage with the other ‘important’ family photos I am missing. I mean, it has to be, right? I would never have thrown out such precious mementos.

The Macleods emigrated to Quebec in 1838, before so many others in their clan were pushed out in the infamous ‘clearances.’ Sarah Maclean from Coll arrived in Quebec a little later, after her parents and two brothers died back home. She had a sister in the province. Sarah, who was born at the height of the Industrial Revolution, led a long life in southern Quebec before passing away just as the motor car was making life in the Eastern Townships much more exciting. Too bad. Apparently, she loved to travel about.

Sarah is oft mentioned in family letters I have on hand from the 1908-1913 period. The family is feuding over her care in old age. Apparently, she speaks only ‘the Gaelic.’

A few years ago, I digitally enhanced her portrait. There was a white ‘hole’ in her forehead. I scanned the dag/tintype into the computer (afraid that any residue from harsh chemicals on the photo might be harmful to me) and filled in the hole using Photoshop.

Later on I embellished the photo of this Scottish ancestor whose face has passed down through the generations.

So, in the almost 200 years between the births of Sarah and Nora, the photographic world has gone from solid metal daguerreotype to a multiverse of ephemeral digital media – with the act of taking photographs becoming progressively easier.

Photographers in the Victorian Age were well-heeled trailblazers and techno-enthusiasts in possession of a great deal of very expensive -and very cumbersome – equipment. Today taking pictures is, no, exaggeration, mere child’s play. Nora is already pretty adept with a cellphone. I imagine in a very few years she’ll be taking candid photos of me as I crawl out of bed and creating instant animations with my dishevelled image and posting them online. Well, she already is.

Nora is already taking candid photos of her grandmother.

Sarah Marion McLean McLeod saw great advances in photography within her very own lifetime.

Although I have only three photographs of Sarah, I have many more of her daughter, Margaret McLeod Nicholson, my husband’s great grandmother 1853-1942 , perhaps 15 in total, and even more, around 75, of her granddaughter Marion Nicholson Blair, my husband’s grandmother, 1887-1947.

Margaret Macleod Nicholson, Sarah’s daughter. 1912. “I have the new pictures. I do not think they make me very good-looking.” (Letter)
Advert for Kodak, aimed at women, without the technical jargon in camera ads aimed at men.
Photo of Margaret, her daughters Edith and Flo and a neighbour taking tea on the lawn circa 1912. Colourized by me. Taken by Marion as she is in another pic from the same day.

According to her 1906 diary, Marion Nicholson (my husband’s grandmother) who was a teacher liked ‘to fool around taking Kodaks’ during her summer vacations. The Nicholson likely purchased their camera at Sutherland’s drug store in their home town of Richmond.

This was clipped because of the final potato entry, I imagine.
1910 Ad from the Delineator Women’s Magazine.
The Nicholson family photo album with the ‘tea on the lawn’ in upper right corner with Marion on the ground in her white dress. The album is full of pics of unnamed people,too. Alas!
Marion, detail from pic above.
My fave photo from album: Sailing in Hudson, Quebec.
Trip to Potton Springs. I love this pic. It looks like a still from an old movie. Where’s Lillian Gish?
Collage of Sarah’s female descendants up until the 1970s. That’s the ‘death’ photo of Sarah top left.

And the family photographs just keep on coming throughout the 20th century. There was that first decade, the era of shirtwaists and silly-looking BIG hats; then the roaring twenties with Sarah’s descendants in home-made flapper dresses sporting crude bobs; then the 30s with the Nicholson women wearing tonnes of movie star makeup to emulate their favourite big screen thespians; then the 40’s with the women in suits with big shoulders or, yes, even military garb; the 50’s ladies in A-line floral sun dresses sporting wing-tipped sunglasses; the 60’s gals reclining in frilly one piece bathing suits at the cottage, all puffing on cigarettes.

Nora will likely have thousands and thousands of photos taken of her in her lifetime. Still, I wonder, will any of these photographs be accessible to HER four times great granddaughter? Or will they have vanished over the years into the Cloud? I have already lost many many valued pics and videos when my ‘ancient” Note 2 suddenly expired.

Should I, as the family genealogist, be printing out all of the best photos on glossy paper with a colour printer with permanent ink, putting them into a giant album – a real album – for these future generations? (Always making sure to put names and birth dates to the pictures.)

(This would be an extremely costly proposition considering the price of colour ink.)

Or, do I merely create an enormous virtual album and put it on a key and into the safety deposit box and hope against hope that it won’t be casually tossed out one day – and that the info on the key will remain accessible?

Maybe all that will be left of the bazillions of photos of Nora, my granddaughter, will be on novelty items like coffee cups and calendars given to me each Christmas.

Or perhaps her image will exist only on this blog post, ready to be extracted from the ether in 2300 by some self-styled cyber-archaeologist.

I’m no fortune teller but I can hazard a good guess…but, first, I have to find that box of precious old photos down in the garage.

Possibly my favorite pic from the Nicholson collection. Waiting for the bus in Richmond, circa 1908. Edith Nicholson standing at front with young cousin Stanley Hill in front of her. Flora seated at left. Could be a scene from the Music Man. What is that decoration on Edith’s hat?

Years ago I wrote an essay for the Globe and Mail on the same topic. It was very well received and often reprinted. Gone with the WIndows.

Cutting and Pasting

My father Donald Sutherland certainly wasn’t an artist, he was a numbers guy. I was recently reading an article about downsizing all the things collected in pursuit of one’s family history. It suggested actually throwing some things out and giving other things to family members. This really struck home as I had once again unearthed a large brown envelope containing my father’s artwork. These were not drawings that showed his view of the world but mostly coloured paper shapes cut out by the teacher when he was in kindergarten and grade one. He had done the glueing. My grandmother saved them all.

I had looked through them before and was going to throw them out but just couldn’t. I didn’t think they had much connection to my father but they were in an envelope from Frank W. Horner Inc., where he worked and written in his hand “ Donald, School Hand Work.” They were from an era before children’s artworks were displayed on refrigerators. These papers were brought home from school and safely put away. He obviously found them at some point and decided to keep them.

Why didn’t I just chuck them? My siblings would have if they had seen them first, or so I thought.

He did not create much with his hands. He did a little carpentry in school and a telephone table he made stood in our hall. His mantra was a place for everything and everything in its place. He continued to make a few useful items. I have a little box, a record stand, and a speaker stand that he made. The woodbox and washtub stand are at the cottage. My brother-in-law thought my father’s most creative work was the wasp’s nest he had cut out of a tree and hung over the fireplace.

Dad spent more time thinking than doing. I have some letters he wrote but mostly what he got down on paper wasn’t exactly what he wanted to say. He would rewrite and rewrite and never finish so some letters never got mailed.

He was interested in photography as his father had been but more for the technical aspect. Dad was very particular when setting up to take family portraits. The lighting, the exposure and the composition had to be perfect, which was hard with four squirming children. After the long set up he would be annoyed with our “fish face” expressions.

Black and white pictures were developed in our basement. It was his quiet time. He would sometime let a child in with him to watch the images develop. In his meticulous way, he would keep notes of the apertures and exposures. With the advent of colour film, he tried developing his own pictures but didn’t have the time to create perfect colour images. Each time he started a session he felt he was starting at the beginning and was never happy with the results, so he stopped. He did use slide film and these pictures were are organized in boxes and catalogued.

In the pile of papers, there was a pumpkin, a turkey and other fall pictures. I took them to our cottage for Thanksgiving table decorations. We all looked at them, talked about Dad and then I thought we would throw them out, but no! There was a chorus of, “Daddy did them, they have to be kept, they are folk art and almost 100 years old.” So, as no one else volunteered to take them, I brought them home, put them back in the envelope and they are back in the file.

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