The World of Photography According to Townsend T Stith


In March of 1903 Sears Roebuck & Company published a wonderful book titled ‘The Photographic Instruction Book’ by Townsend T Stith. The subtitle of this book required lifting with one’s knees – ‘A Systematic Course and Illustrated Hand-Book on the Modern Practices of Photography in All Its Various Branches for Amateur and Professional’. Now keep in mind this was 1903, when the term ‘New Media’ – if it had been coined back then – would have referred to the transition from wet plates to film.

Stith was a good writer who clearly understood both the mechanics and prevailing rules of photographic esthetics of the day. And what’s interesting is how the rules of shooting have both endured and changed during the century that has passed since this book was originally published. So that said, let’s take a look at Tip # 1, which concerns choosing the best camera for your needs, a topic that remains fresh to this day.

Tip #1 - The Apparatus Required

'Cameras adapted for the amateur use are divided into two classes: Hand cameras and viewing cameras. These classes are again subdivided into many styles and varieties of instruments. Before it is practicable to enter intelligently into a practical photographic training the amateur should provide himself with the necessary apparatus and he should, therefore, select one or the other of these two classes of instruments. This selection of an instrument should invariably be determined by the character of the work which the embryo photographer has in contemplation, i. e., whether his object is to provide himself with agreeable diversion and recreation or with a scientific art which may be employed as a profession to insure permanent occupation and revenue.

 Upon the selection of the first instrument much depends, and while advising the novice in this respect certain considerations should be borne in mind as tending to his ultimate success and these are his personality, tastes, environment and financial ability. Yet one rule can safely be laid down. If the camera is to be used by the traveler or by anyone not having access to a dark room, a film camera should be used. An exclusively plate camera is suitable for gallery work and viewing.'
'For the amateur's use it is well to have an instrument that will use film as well as plates.'

Interchange the words ‘Hand cameras and viewing cameras’ with ‘DSLRs and point-and-shoot (or bridge) cameras’ in the first paragraph and you are suddenly fast-forwarded to the 21st Century. Ditto the second paragraph – Do you only plan on playing in Sunday morning pick-up games or are you in this to put food on the table?

 The third paragraph is perhaps most telling, in which Mr. Stith informs the reader that regardless of what camera he or she ultimately chooses ‘certain considerations should be borne in mind as tending to his ultimate success and these are his personality, tastes, environment and financial ability’. In other words, even the best camera money can buy doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’re going to be successful as a photographer. Even back in 1903 it was understood that creativity came from within and depended on how you related to the world around you.
As for the question of ‘film versus wet plates’, I’ll leave this choice up to you. Personally, I prefer digital because getting film through airport security unscathed is dicey, and my wet plates fare poorly when scrunched into the overhead bins no matter how well I pack them.
Stay tuned for more tips in upcoming additions of ‘Photo Tips from Townsend’.

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I would liked to have met Mr. Townsend T. Stith

His Name is Townsend D. Stith. I have a copy of his book in PDF it is still a good read.

I always heard it was Townsend Q. Stith!  ;)

Gentlemen, thank you for your interest, but you are all incorrect.  Simply put, my grandfather had an editor who suffered from nearsightedness and dyslexia, a rather unfortunate combination.  Frankly, I am most upset about the mis-spelling of my family's last name, rather than the middle initial.
As for great-uncle Q-ball, he will be a topic of discussion for another time...
Townsend B. Smith III