Southsea: Three Days in Search of Effects

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Southsea: Three Days in Search of Effects is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The British Journal of Photography on 22 june 1883, in a series of articles titled Where to go with the Camera.

Southsea: Three Days in Search of Effects

The British Journal of Photography
(22 june 1883, p. 359) ©
The British Journal of Photography
(22 june 1883, p. 360) ©
The British Journal of Photography
(22 june 1883, p. 361) ©

Of all seasons of the year commend me to Easter as the time best adapted for a pleasant and instructive little photographic tour. The air is cold enough to brace the sinews and make the pedestrian stride lustily forth without numbing the hand in which he holds his portable leather case. There is a sun above him bright enough to produce a moral effect without scorching his face and moistening his brow. Spring is rising up all round. The birds are singing and the hedgerows blossoming. There are changing effects of light and cloud, sunshine and rain. To wind up, everything is en fete and there are studies of life to be secured as interesting as anything in nature. Taking it all in all, the vagrant searcher after the beautiful could hardly choose a better time for his peregrinations.

So thought my two friends, "The Man of Science" and "The Lunatic" (any nearer clue to their identity might be invidious, especially in view of some of their future proceedings). As March dragged its slow length along many a heated discussion was held as to the place to be done and how to do it, in which the rival merits of Brighton, Eastbourne and other watering-places were eagerly discussed. The question might never have been settled had an invitation not arrived from a provincial friend of photographic propensities whom we shall name "The Doctor," in which he proposed that his house at Southsea should be made headquarters of the party, and that they should choose the banks of the Solent as the scene of their operations. The proposal was too tempting to be refused, and the night train upon Good Friday found our two photographers clutching desperately to their somewhat bulky apparatus, and struggling with a dense crowd of bony-elbowed excursionists who were bound for the same direction. "Not angels, but angles," "The Lunatic" remarked in an outburst of sanity, as he stowed his gear on the rack and rolled his eve upon his fellow-travellers in a homicidal fashion.

Southsea is a geographical expression which it might puzzle a good many people to define. That it is a watering-place within an attainable distance Of London is generally known, but its exact sirs' is vaguely' appreciated save by those who have had the pleasure of visiting it; and this vagueness is intensified when the inquirer demands his railway ticket and finds that none are issued to any place of the name. As a matter of fact Southsea is an offshoot of Portsmouth, and has not been honoured by an independent station, although in point of size it is second only to Brighton, and when taken in conjunction with Portsmouth very much surpasses it. There is something piquant and interesting in this union between a grim old fortified town, grey with age and full of historical reminiscences, and a brand new fashionable watering-place, resplendent with piers, parades and hotels. Apart from sentiment, it promises a variety to the vagrant photographer which can hardly be matched by any single town of my acquaintance.

Before going further let me run over briefly the "kit" chosen by my visitors, for I may acknowledge my identity with "The Doctor," though I prefer the soubriquet as giving this little sketch a less egotistical sound. In "The Man of Science" our little party boasted the presence of one of the leading dry-plate workers of the day, and the holder of the name which is familiar wherever The British Journal of Photography circulates — a tolerably wide range. His preparations were naturally more pretentious than those of his companions. He used a Rouch's camera fitted for 12 x 10 plates, though 10 x 8 were used for instantaneous work. The lens was a Ross's rapid symmetrical of sixteen inches focus, provided with an instantaneous shutter of the ordinary drop form, but having the peculiarity that it was so arranged as to drop from three different heights in such a way as to give exposures of varying lengths. The shutter intended to give a comparatively long exposure dropped only a quarter of an inch before opening, so as to have little momentum. The medium exposure was effected by a drop of about two inches. The most rapid had a drop of four inches, the latter giving one-twelfth of a second exposure. During our tour the shortest exposure was always used, the lens being worked sometimes at 1/16 - that is sixteen of the uniform standard of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, or occasionally even at thirty-two of the same. In every case the exposures were ample.

"The Lunatic" — whose lunacy, by the way, never manifested itself until late in the evening, when he would dance weird dances exhibit a desire to shake hands with every able-bodied citizen that he met — was content with more portable "kit." He used a half-plate camera of Lancasters make, and also it quarter-plate camera. His lens was a single view, with a diaphragm of 1/32, or sixty four of the uniform standard. used rapid hand exposures as far as possible, and these were found in most cases to be rather over- than under-exposed. Curiously enough, though yachts were taken many times during the tour when in rapid motion crossing the field near the camera, they all came out sharp. This shows the absurdity of the idea commonly held that an exposure as short as one-eightieth or one-hundredth part of a second is necessary to get ships in motion. In this case the exposures were probably never shorter than from one-quarter to one-sixth of a second, to attain which requires a skilful manipulation of the lens cap. Among the successes achieved by this member of the party may be mentioned a group in the open air taken with a hand exposure at 1/16.

Southsea was reached at midnight, where two or three genial and hospitable friends awaited the arrival of the travellers, who insisted upon what "The Man of Science" described as an "extended trial of the wet process," and it was not until fairly on the Common with the next morning's breeze playing merrily across it that some symptoms of vitality began to show themselves in the party.

My own apparatus had little to distinguish it beyond its weather-beaten appearance, arising from the fact of its owner having walked to and fro in the world like a well-known historical character whose intentions were less laudable. I have already had the honour of describing it in the Journal. I may remark, however, that I have recently adopted a changing-box in place of dark slides, and find the arrangement very satisfactory. I do not trouble to cover the whole of my apparatus with a focussing-cloth, but manipulate my camera and changing-box without the smallest fear in bright sunlight. In fact, I may say here that, in my opinion, very unnecessary precautions are taken generally. I find that, though both my friends discarded the use of the focussing-cloth entirely after the mere operation of focussing was per-formed, and handled their dark slides in the light, none of their negatives were ever fogged except in the cases of evident over-exposure.

The morning was a bright and cheerful one, with just enough of cloud piled up in the horizon to make an effective seascape, in which each of the party immediately indulged. The broad Solent, with its three circular forts, its fleets of yachts, and its sullen-looking men-of-war, all backed up by the long slopes of the Isle of Wight, made as pretty a picture as an artist's eye could desire. Our next attempt was on the Ryde steamer, which came ploughing along in the fair-way about a couple of hundred yards from the shore, the decks black with excursionists, and the foam flying from the paddles. Owing to her sudden appearance, "The Lunatic," with his quick hands and small camera, was the only one who succeeded in securing her satisfactorily. Wandering along the beach we had hoped to catch a few effects from yachts in motion; but we were temporarily disappointed as the rising wind prevented most of them from leaving their anchorage. In spite of this drawback our morning was by no means a barren one, as a brave array of plates would testify. A group of tricyclists, a knot of Highlanders ("South Sea Islanders," as "The Lunatic" facetiously remarked), and several groups of friends lent a variety to a succession of views of the Solent and Spithead. The spectacle of "The Man of Science" endeavouring to take a fractious infant — possibly with the view of conciliating and including its fair holder — was enough to reconcile us to any disappointment, more especially when his attempt to look fascinating threw the unfortunate child into a rigid and cataleptic state, from which it emerged blue but still screaming. By the way, while alluding to the wind I must give a word of praise to the exceedingly light and handy alpenstock stand of Mr. George Smith, which was used by "The Man of Science." It is so marvellously light that no one can credit its steadiness under a 12 x 10 camera, even when a heavy wind was blowing, unless they have tested it. We were all impressed by it as a marvel of handiness and strength.

As the elements were still unfavourable in the afternoon we confined ourselves to indoor work and to developing the plates of the morning, the results of which were for the most part extremely satisfactory. I may mention here that all the pictures were made by Burton's precipitation process, in which I believe more than ever. In the case of my companions, "The Man of Science" had made the emulsion, and each coated his own plates. They were extraordinarily rapid — considerably more so than mine.

After conciliating l'he Doctor's" housekeeper by expending a couple of plates on the perpetuation of her charms, and another in taking a charming little group of Blenheim spaniels, an expedition was made to the house of a genial Southsea solicitor, outdoor work being still precluded by the state of the weather. Here a few more groups were taken, and a small musical party was instituted by our hospitable entertainer, which lent variety to the proceedings.

After a Sunday spent quietly, all hands were ready and eager for work on Monday morning. The weather was beautifully fine, with hardly a cloud on the sky, and just breeze enough to be pleasant. Snatching a hurried breakfast we made our way down to the beach, which was black with holiday makers, and where there were many interesting studies to be secured were it not for the nobler game we had in view. "The Doctor" could not resist the temptation of taking one unfortunate individual, who had bound himself securely with a rope and was piteously appealing to the surrounding crowd for a "little encouragement," on receipt of which it was understood that he would emerge from his bonds. His appeal seemed to be feebly responded to by an apathetic public, though, as "The Lunatic" remarked, a handsome sum would have been promptly raised for the purpose of keeping him in confinement for the remainder of his natural existence. Our original intention had been to keep to the beach and take our chance of yachts standing in near enough to make a good picture. Through the good offices of our legal friend, however, we obtained an introduction to Mr. Newnham, the principal letter of sailing boats, who showed us the greatest courtesy and attention. This gentleman actually ordered several of his yachts to manoeuvre off the end of a small jetty upon which our cameras were placed, and, although there was a great demand for them at the time, employed them for more than an hour in cruising about in obedience to our requests. Under these circumstances it was little wonder that we obtained some interesting plates, and that the object of our expedition was amply fulfilled.

Our method of taking these yachts in motion was by focussing for the distance, moving the camera to follow the motion of the yacht, and "firing away" at the moment judged to be the right one — not an easy thing to calculate, as I can testify from numerous failures. This procedure is only possible in the case of the comparatively short focus lens. In the case of the long-focus (sixteen inches) one it is not possible to focus for the distance, as, if such were done, the yacht enough to fill any large portion of the plate would be completely out of focus. An element of guess work is thus introduced.

It is wonderful how possible it is in the nervousness of the moment, when you imagine the camera to be so adjusted that the yacht will occupy the centre of the plate, to miss the object completely. Never shall I forget the rage and dismay which disfigured the intellectual face of our "Man of Science" when he scanned the detail coming up on his pet plate, intended to represent the meeting of two clippers going swiftly upon opposite tracks. As he gazed blankly at the single line of horizon which appeared on the picture, unbroken by the semblance of a sail, he rippled forth a series of theological terms — or, rather, in consideration of his profession, we will charitably suppose them to be engineering ones. His was not an isolated case, however, for there was not one of us but had some similar mishap. Only those who have experienced it can realise how easily the accident may occur.

Through Mr. Newnham's kindness we expounded a dozen or more plates, each to excellent advantage, and, having wound up by taking the proprietor himself and a group of all the big leather boots with men in them who congregate about boat-houses, we felt that our morning's work had been a successful one. After luncheon we made the nearer acquaintance of one of Mr. Newnham's craft, and, throwing photography and all that appertains thereto to the dogs, indulged in a glorious sail down the Solent. With a fine press of canvas and a breeze which heeled the little yacht over until her gunwale was almost flush with the water, nothing could be imagined better calculated to clear the lungs of a couple of carbonised Londoners. The only bitter drop in our cup of happiness was the presence of a cynical and saturnine boat-man, who insisted upon demonstrating the exact amount of wind which would capsize the boat, which, according to his calculations was just the least puff more than we had at present. Having made this clear to us he stood by with a gloomy yet triumphant expression upon his countenance, and invented lies about the distance which he could swim in case of emergency. Beyond the croaking of this "old man of the sea," however, our trip was a most enjoyable one. Running down to Spithead we cruised round the three forts erected by Lord Palmerston — two of which are iron-clad, and have fresh coatings of metal added on to meet every increase of armour upon any foreign man-of-war. These forts command the only channel by which Portsmouth can be approached, and, being supported by others on the shore, render the place impregnable upon the sea side. Passing the forts we ran out as far as the light-ship, where the isolated keepers seemed delighted to see us and threw us out their letters, ingeniously sandwiched in between biscuits so as to convert them into convenient missiles. Night was falling, and a purple haze lying over the Isle of Wight, in gorgeous contrast with the deep scarlet bands left by the setting sun, before we found ourselves once more upon Southsea beach. There, bidding adieu to the melancholy mariner, we made our way back to headquarters in a ravenous condition, which considerably astonished "The Doctor's" house-keeper.

As our evening was largely spent in developing I may make a few remarks upon that topic in connection with instantaneous work. The subject usually adopted for this is commonly one from which it is somewhat difficult to get a negative giving sufficient contrast. It is true that the highest lights (in our case, for instance, the sails of the yachts) reflect much light; but, on the other hand, even those parts which are to be represented by transparent or almost transparent glass in the negative reflect much also. There is, therefore, no very great range between the highest lights and what takes the place of shadows. It is necessary to compensate for this fact by a suitable developer. One well adapted for the subject of our plates consisted of two or three grains of pyro., one and a-half grains of bromide, and three minims of strong ammonia to the ounce.

While I am on this subject I should like to say a few words on the advisability of using the alum bath, even when the plates have no tendency to frilling. A little hydrochloric acid should be mixed, but not so much as should be used for negatives that have been fixed, as the clearing and decolourising action of the acid appears to be much more powerful on plates that are unfixed than on fixed ones. It is necessary to thoroughly wash the plates after going through the alum bath, or a white powder (presumably sulphur) is deposited by the hypo.

Little work could be done upon the Tuesday, as the London contingent desired to get home by the afternoon, and most of their effects were already packed. A last stroll was taken about the town, however, under the guidance of Mr. Barnden, the well-known superintendent of the Gresham Insurance Society. This gentleman's kind attention and the assiduity with which he held sheets, carried cameras, and infused good humour into everyone was one of the most agreeable incidents of our tour. Several plates were taken in this final expedition, in connection with one of which a curious photographic incident occurred. A small group had been arranged upon the seashore which "The Lunatic" was about to take, when a bright idea seized upon "The Man of Science," and, removing his camera to some little distance, he proceeded to take both photographer and group. "The Doctor," not to be outdone, retired forty or fifty yards, and succeeded in obtaining a picture which included both his companions. The effect was, as may be imagined, somewhat quaint and original.

All things must have an end, and the best of friends must part. The midday train bore away "The Lunatic" and "The Man of Science," with all their goods and chattels, including from forty to fifty excellent plates. From first to last the little trip had been a success, and, imperfect as this account of it is, I trust have said enough to show that our only difficulty was an embarras des richesses. Could we have extended it over a week we should still have found much of photographic interest. I think that the last words of my friends were heartily meant when they assured me that their very next holiday would find them in Southsea once again. I trust that on that occasion we may make up for the deficiencies of this one, and that I may have an opportunity of communicating our results to The British Journal of Photography.

A. Conan Doyle, M.B.