As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the things on my Gettysburg vacation wish list was to drag my family to one of those photography studios where they’d dress us up in Civil War costume and take a shadowy, grim-faced photograph to add to my existing collection of two faux historical family pictures (I didn’t show you the one of me and my older son at age two which we took the year after Herr Doktor as a Union sergeant with his infant son in a white dress). I figured we’d stop in at the studio recommended by the lady who owned the historical clothing shop and get our photo done within an hour or perhaps just make an appointment if her brother was booked up—then move on to the wax museum before dinner.
And so I led my guys up the stairs to Rob Gibson’s studio at 65 Steinwehr Avenue with only the most modest expectations, even though the brochure for the place offered this teaser for my history-loving fantasies: “Visit R.J. Gibson’s Studio, a magical place where Time Travel is possible…and The Past comes Alive.” Little did I know this promise would indeed be kept and we were about to enjoy one of the most memorable parts of our trip.
It was getting close to two in the afternoon when we trooped into the studio, a rustic looking series of rooms with tintype-style photos covering the walls. Ron and his wife Dee were just finishing up lunch after a busy morning, but they immediately welcomed us and offered to explain their services: we could get an authentic wet-plate tintype for about $80; an image done in glass, another 19th century process, for the same amount (except they break easily); or a digital photo only, which costs about $30. The price might seem high, but it’s is a bit misleading, because you get much more than just a photo at Rob’s studio. Each of the explanations (except the digital photo) involved a lesson in the process and the equipment. For example, for the wet-plate Rob uses an actual camera from the Civil War era and you can watch the plate being developed. He also showed us lots of samples that all looked spookily authentic. In fact, Rob told us that he’d seen some of his work being sold on e-bay as original 19th-century photographs and he had to change his materials to prevent further false claims.
We immediately decided on the tintype, although we’d settled for digital with our earlier family photos. We also got a tour of the wall gallery, which included a photograph of Ken Burns (above), Ted Turner and many of the actors from the wonderful movie Gettysburg. It turns out Rob played an aide to cavalry General Buford in the film and he had a photo album of fascinating candids from the filming. There were also framed magazine articles about his work and at one point Rob gestured to a frame and said, “They’ve even written about me in Japan, but I can’t read it.” “I might be able to,” I said, and he pulled down the article for me, clearly impressed.
In the meantime, we began discussing the costumes we all wanted to wear. We decided the guys would all go into the military—Herr Doktor would be a Union major, my older son as a private in the cavalry, and my little guy as a “powder monkey,” one of the 9-10 year-old boys who served on battleships because they were small enough to stand upright in the lower decks. While the men changed into their clothes with Rob’s help, I tried to make sense of the article from the Japanese photography magazine. I could see why the people who ran the local Japanese restaurants claimed they couldn’t translate it for him. Most of the article was extremely technical and probably just a repetition of the processes Rob had explained to them anyway. But I did manage to decode a few sentences, such as “Rob Gibson’s work has a mysterious depth that is impossible to capture with modern techniques. It is fascinating and you can’t tell it apart from a 19th-century photograph.”
The first family member to emerge transformed was my older son who strode out in his Union uniform including boots and a long sword. His jacket was the same one Rob wore in Gettysburg which somehow made me feel closer to the battle itself in a strange way. My son immediately assumed a rather belligerent look (he was in all the plays in school) and I felt a twinge, as if the realities of that time—having to send my son off to war—were suddenly a little too near. The next soldier was the powder monkey, his pale skin looking very white against the dark blue wool. He carried a real knife in the belt slung around his waist and Rob had warned him not to play with it because it could “cut his hand off.” Cautious by nature, my son readily complied with the warning and still looked a bit frightened to be wearing the sheathed weapon. Last but not least came Major Herr Doktor, a brilliant red sash against his blue coat, sword in hand. Officers in the Union Army seldom dressed up as flashy as the Confederates, but for this commemorative occasion, an exception would be made.
The pace of the experience was rather leisurely and I had plenty of time to snap pictures of the boys saluting and looking fierce and martial. Rob then explained that during the Civil War, the common salute involved turning the palm outwards to face the salutee in the old British-style, so I snapped a few more “authentic” salutes. Rob also demonstrated a full cavalry sword salute, which he’d mastered when he was doing reenacting events. The wealth of information Rob and Dee provided was just marvelous for a history buff like me—and the boys seemed to be equally fascinated.
In the meantime, Dee and I conferred on my costume. Apparently many tourists want to wear ballgowns for the photos, a very Farbie thing to do, so she was impressed when I immediately requested a plain day dress. She suggested I just wear a padded petticoat instead of a grand hoop because of my smaller size, and suggested the proper brooch and accessories. Interestingly enough, by the time all the guys were dressed, Dee had to take their little dog outside, so it was Rob who went into the dressing room with me to do the honors! And sure, a historical reenactor initiating a willing woman into the intricacies of period dress would make a good erotic story, too, except I didn’t remove one bit of clothing for him except my wristwatch. You can’t tell (hopefully), but the petticoat and dress were secured by ties in the back, so underneath my fancy costume I’m still wearing jeans, walking shoes and my own shirt, the collar of which is peeping out over the top of the dress. Add on a snood, a hat, and a velvet belt and I’d become an irreproachable 19th century matron.
Dressed and ready, we all walked somewhat awkwardly in our boots and hoops to the sky-lit studio itself. Rob coated the tin plate with some kind of chemical and placed it in the camera. Then he arranged us as a group, first in a way that required the boys to have neck rests hidden behind them, then in the pose you see above where they leaned against the column. He then explained that the plate would be exposed for thirteen seconds and we could blink and breath but not otherwise move or we’d look fuzzy. Men should look serious, while a woman could smile slightly. So I curved my lips a bit and tried to stand tall and straight as if I were a well-bred lady in a corset rather than the slouch that I am!
Rob gave the signal and we stood stock still for one of the longest 13-second stretches of my life. I could feel my chest rise and fall with each breath, feel each blink like an unnecessary indulgence, sense my guys around me slowing their own breathing and counting silently. One, two, three…thirteen. Later we learned that the “ghost pictures” hanging in the gallery, with a hazy figure hovering behind a seated solid person, exploited this long exposure by having the “ghost” leave mid-way through the process!
After the official photo, Rob’s assistant snapped some casual pictures of us in our finery and then we got to watch the developing process as Rob dipped the plate in the chemical bath. Before our eyes the clouds on the plate dispersed and our image appeared as if we were stepping out of the mists of the past.
I have to say that although the whole experience was totally wonderful, my reaction to the photograph itself is hard to describe. I treasure it, yet it makes me feel uneasy. My younger son’s and my blue eyes show up white in the picture, making us look wolfish. The abundance of Union uniforms give the image a shadowy quality as if it really were an old, faded photograph. And, as the Japanese article mentioned, the process captured our faces with a depth and clarity that made them seem unfamiliar. My husband’s face looks careworn, as if he were a seasoned veteran of a terrible war. My older son’s cockiness reminds me of the ways boyish bravado has been exploited by armies throughout the centuries. And my little one looks so precociously serious, as the prematurely worldly boy soldiers must have been at the time. Myself I don’t really recognize—I look starched and proper, but haunted. There is a definite creepy quality to the picture, as if we’d been transformed into at our own great-grandparents. Of course, I like creepy. Creepy, slightly disturbing images and feelings inspire most of my stories in fact! And I have to say this beats your usual touristy “old tyme” photo where I’d be dressed in a polyester bar girl’s outfit and my guys would be gun-slinging cowboys, all bathed in Photoshop sepia tones.
Just for the record, I say I look like my own great-grandmother, but here is an actual photo of my great-grandmother Hufnagel, taken on her wedding day, October 16, 1888, in nearby Hanover, Pennsylvania. I don’t look much like her at all, do I? Except for the hand resting on my husband's shoulder....
In any case, I highly recommend a trip to the past via Rob Gibson’s Gettysburg Studio. For a little over a hundred dollars (including a nice frame) we all learned so much about the 19th century in mind and body. And as the brochure promises, we now possess an heirloom souvenir from this vacation to pass on down—and up--the generations. Looking over his website, I see that Rob describes himself as a man who’s found his passion in 19th century photography. I totally felt that passion and dedication in everything he did, and it definitely translated into a magical experience for his clients as well.
So here’s to the magic of passion in all our creative endeavors!
Join me next time for a jewel bedecked dinner, 19th century style.