BEFORE us, as we write, is a dog-eared, time-stained little volume. It is a catalogue of photographic goods for 1885 - just twenty-six years ago. We search in vain for particulars of hand cameras; there are none. However, in an obscure corner, as if as anxious to escape observation as the holder of the instrument was supposed to be, there lurks an announcement of a "patent detective camera." You could buy it either as a leather-covered box, or even tied with string in brown paper to look like an ordinary parcel, and the description assures us that "photographs could be taken without rousing the slightest suspicion." The writer never dreamt that within ten years every bearer of a leather-covered box or brown paper parcel of oblong shape would be taken for a camera fiend.
There were other detective cameras in those days. We have one pattern still in our possession, an enormous watch-shaped article, about 6 in. in diameter, with a tiny lens attached near the circumference, which was supposed to peep out through a coat button-hole. It takes six pictures in succession on a circular revolving plate. And there were more excellent pieces of apparatus, such as Messrs. Marion's Academy Camera - a sort of twin-lens camera before its time.
The name of "Detective Camera" was not a happy one, and discouraged most of us from patronising it; when the epidemic of Frenas and Kodaks began a few years later the serious photographer was even more disgusted. It was not merely that he who had borne the burden and heat of the day with a 10 x 8in. instrument was being rivalled by the casual tourist with a feather-weight film Kodak; nor even jealousy that the latter should reap, as it were, the harvest that others had sown. What troubled him was the desecration of his calling by an ignorant, thoughtless race. Up to, say, twenty years ago, long after the days of wet collodion, only those who were prepared to take great pains, and to exercise thought, were attracted to photography. A heavy camera, an expensive plate, a limited number of slides; developing solutions which had to be made up as required; manuals on the mysteries of the art few and far between; all this entailed hard work and intelligence. Hence each plate exposed was likely to imply thought and purpose. The hand camera put a premium on ignorance. The standard of work was lowered to the very depths; and the man who pointed a fixed-focus box-camera at space and sent it to be developed, or who developed it himself with a few tabloids, passed current as an accomplished photographer. After twenty years' experience of the unintelligent kind of hand-camera owner, we are still not quite hardened enough to view their doings without a squirm of horror.
At a well-known seaside resort we observed a young lady, with whom we were slightly acquainted, go into a chemist's shop and emerge shortly afterwards with a packet of Ilford red label plates - some of the very fastest in general use. Then she sat down on the nearest seat and calmly proceeded to unpack the plates and slip them one by one into the sheaths of her camera. For a moment we stood paralysed with dismay, but recovered after a while sufficiently to approach the scene and offer a few words of protest.
"Pardon me, Miss Brown, but these plates are ruined. They will not bear the slightest white light."
Miss Brown turned upon us with a smile of kindly pity, and replied:
"Oh! But this is quite a new kind of camera."
We retired abashed. And we have no doubt that she informed her friends afterwards that the particular kind of plates were no good at all.
All this by way of prelude. The hand camera is not to be despised because of the misuse that it receives from the uninstructed. What we wish to insist on is that there is no royal road to photography in the true sense of the word. Most people nowadays begin with a cheap hand camera. It is either a toy for the moment which they will cast aside, like other toys, or it will whet their appetite for better things. Good work can only be done by those who are willing to serve their apprenticeship in focussing and composition, and all the other details explained in earlier chapters of this book.