Photo Friday: (Don’t) Smile for the Camera!

A flash-bulb image at the City Gospel Mission in Des Moines, Iowa -- an inner-city mission started by evangelist J.R. Zook (fifth from left) and his wife, Anna (on right, in gray dress with covering) in the early twentieth century. (Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Today’s Photo Friday installment shows a rather amusing image from the City Gospel Mission in Des Moines, Iowa — an evangelistic enterprise among working-class Iowans launched in the early twentieth century by J.R. Zook and his wife, Anna.

I don’t have much of historical substance to say about today’s image — I mostly just find it amusing. In particular, I’m tickled by the reaction of the children in the right-hand corner of the photo. It’s obvious that they’re responding to the flash-lamp attached to camera snapping the picture. (For those in the picture, it probably looked something like this.) Admittedly, the activation of a flash-lamp can be a frightening occurrence,  especially in a small space and especially for those not accustomed to the loud, almost explosive cacophony of shattering glass and bright light.

In some ways, this image captures the photographic culture of early twentieth century America. Photography in this era was becoming increasingly inexpensive; Zook himself probably arranged for this photograph to be taken, possibly (though I can’t prove this) for publicity purposes. But though photography had greatly evolved since its origins in the mid-nineteenth century, it was still a heavy, clunky, and sometimes-laborious process. Photography was much more complicated and required significantly more planning than today’s point-and-shoot photographic culture; photographers had to lug around heavy equipment, somewhat-dangerous chemicals, and materials to create mini-explosions (as with the flash-lamp). And, in addition to the complications facing the photographer, taking the image could be just as difficult for the photo-sitters — as the reactions of the children in this photo suggest.

Wow — I guess I did have something to say about today’s image! (Sorry it wasn’t Brethren in Christ-specific.) Hope you all enjoy this image as much as I do.

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