19-Year-Old Student Uses Early Spy Camera to Take Candid Street Photos (Circa 1895)

We are gen­er­al­ly accus­tomed to think­ing of 19th cen­tu­ry pho­tog­ra­phy as quite sta­t­ic and rigid, and for much of its ear­ly his­to­ry, tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions ensured that it was. Por­trai­ture espe­cial­ly pre­sent­ed a chal­lenge to ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phers, since it involved sub­jects who want­ed, or need­ed, to move, while long expo­sure times called for max­i­mum still­ness. Thus, we have the stiff, unsmil­ing pos­es of peo­ple try­ing to make like trees and stay plant­ed in place.

One strik­ing excep­tion, from 1843, shows us a jovial group­ing of three men in the first known pic­ture of mer­ry-mak­ing at the pub. Though staged, and includ­ing one of the duo of pho­tog­ra­phers respon­si­ble for the por­trait, the image has all the vital­i­ty of an off-the-cuff snap­shot. We might be sur­prised to learn that it would only be a few decades lat­er, before the turn of the cen­tu­ry, when tru­ly can­did shots of peo­ple in action could be made with rel­a­tive ease.

Not only were many of these pho­tos can­did, but many were also secre­tive, the prod­uct of the C.P. Stirn Con­cealed Vest Spy Cam­era. The images here come from one such cam­era hid­den in the but­ton­hole of Carl Størmer, a Nor­we­gian math­e­mati­cian and physi­cist who was at the time a 19-year-old stu­dent at the Roy­al Fred­er­ick Uni­ver­si­ty. Størmer strolled the streets of Oslo, greet­ing passers­by and, unbe­knownst to them, tak­ing the por­traits you see here, which show us peo­ple from the peri­od in relaxed, active pos­es, going about their dai­ly lives, “often smil­ing,” writes This is Colos­sal, “and per­haps caught off guard from the young stu­dent angling for the shot.”

The Con­cealed Vest Cam­era was invent­ed by Robert D. Gray, notes Cam­er­a­pe­dia. In 1886, C.P. Stirn bought the rights to the device, and his broth­er Rudolf man­u­fac­tured them in Berlin. The cam­era came in two sizes, “one for mak­ing four 6cm wide round expo­sures… the oth­er with a small­er lens fun­nel, for mak­ing six 4cm wide round expo­sures.” Mar­ket­ed by Stirn & Lyon in New York, the cam­eras sold by the tens of thou­sands (as the ad above informs us).

Størmer’s own cam­era was the small­er ver­sion, as we learn from his com­ments to the St. Hal­l­vard Jour­nal in 1942: “I strolled down Carl Johan, found me a vic­tim, greet­ed, got a gen­tle smile and pulled. Six images at a time and then I went home to switch [the] plate.” The future sci­en­tist, soon to be known for his work on num­ber the­o­ry and his sta­tus as an author­i­ty on polar auro­ra, took around 500 such secret pho­tographs. (See 484 of them at the Nor­we­gian Folke­mu­se­um site.) He even man­aged to get a shot of Hen­rik Ibsen, just above.

The Stirn Vest Cam­era joins a num­ber of oth­er ear­ly clan­des­tine imag­ing devices, includ­ing a tele­scop­ic watch cam­era made in 1886 and book cam­era from 1888. Spy cam­eras were refined over the years, becom­ing essen­tial to espi­onage dur­ing two World Wars and the ensu­ing con­test for glob­al suprema­cy dur­ing the Cold War. But Størmer’s pho­to­graph­ic inter­ests became more ger­mane to his sci­en­tif­ic work. “Togeth­er with O.A. Krognes,” writes the Nor­we­gian North­ern Lights site Nordlys, he “built the first auro­ral cam­eras” and took “more than 40,000 pic­tures” of the phe­nom­e­na (learn more about such work here).

Størmer’s North­ern Lights pho­tos are much hard­er to find online than the charm­ing but­ton­hole cam­era por­traits from his stu­dent days. But just above, see an image from eBay pur­port­ing to show the sci­en­tist and pho­tog­ra­phy enthu­si­ast bun­dled up behind a cam­era, pho­tograph­ing the auro­ra.

via Bored Pan­da/This is Colos­sal

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Known Pho­to­graph of Peo­ple Shar­ing a Beer (1843)

See the First Pho­to­graph of a Human Being: A Pho­to Tak­en by Louis Daguerre (1838)

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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