Early Photography

I was thinking about this photo the other day.

What led me to this train of thought was this: Pinterest tricked me into looking at a postmortem photo. Someone wanted to see a picture of Rhoda, and I knew there was one on Pinterest, so I went to Google images and called it up. Well, Google slipped some other images in there without me noticing, and one of them was a photo of a Civil War soldier who … well, the caption was “I guess this soldier didn’t make it home”. I thought, “Wait, what? He obviously did, he’s standing right there, with his wife and daughter…” So like an idiot, I clicked on the caption and read the whole thing. The person who posted it pointed out that you couldn’t see the brace up the soldier’s back to prop him up, but his little girl was holding his hand and he wasn’t reacting to it.

Oh, and also, his eyes were PAINTED ON.

Again, like an idiot, I looked closer. Sure enough, the guy’s eyes were facing two different directions. It looked like someone had been at him with a Sharpie. (And no, I’m not going to post that photograph, because gross. You wanna see it, you can look it up your ownself.)

But that got me thinking. The picture below is the only known photograph of Rhoda Derry. It was taken sometime in the late summer of 1906. (It was taken in Dining Hall A, where Rhoda died of tuberculosis October 9, 1906, the day before her birthday. She would have turned seventy two.)

Rhoda was constantly in motion — twitching, muttering, jerking. Dr. Zeller HAD to have known the picture wouldn’t come out all that well, not with the primitive cameras of the early twentieth century. People were still doing post-mortem photography in 1906. If he had wanted a good likeness of her, he’d have been better off … well, waiting for a few months. (She had full-blown TB at this point. She wasn’t long for this world.) He could have posed her and had someone take a representative, if morbid, picture.

But he didn’t. He chose to have someone take Rhoda’s picture, and try to do the best job of capturing her they could. Even though he knew the picture would turn out blurry, he still had someone take it.

Dr. Zeller was all about promotion. He wanted people to see what was possible. He wanted people to see that his staff could take someone who had been trapped in a cage for decades, and treat her well and feed her and care for her. He wanted to save the most abused, wretched cases from the almshouses, and care for them in a clean, well-appointed state hospital.

And he wanted to celebrate Rhoda while she was alive.

This poor woman had suffered so much — it was a miracle she was alive to be rescued. That’s what Dr. Zeller was celebrating with this photograph. We are so lucky to have this one picture of Rhoda.

And she looks happy at last.

Rhoda Photo


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