The Hirsch Camera (1870)

A real object that has made its way into Ichor Falls folklore is the Hirsch Camera, on seasonal display at the tiny Rand Historical Society Museum near the town center. Its inventor, chemist Robert Hirsch, can claim ancestry back to the original eighty-two settlers of Ichor Falls. He remarked in letters to colleagues that the town “resided in a wonder-land of alchemical potential… I believe there is no more [diverse] geology West of the Alleghanies.”

The Hirsch Camera is possibly the earliest functioning camera that was capable of color photography, predating du Hauron’s color photographs by two years. However in photographic circles this point is in contention; most scholars argue that Hirsch’s work does not represent the first concerted effort at color photography, and many of his trial attempts from 1870 show either a lack of interest, or perhaps understanding, in accurately reproducing color images. These early developed plates show washed out or partially inverted colors, as though from a semi-exposed negative.

Hirsch’s process, however, is notable for its methodology. Rather than silver iodide, Hirsch used silver chalcides to create one of the first panchromatic solutions. This also reduced the plates’ dependence on mercury bath to develop the negative. Some chemical studies have been performed on the plates, but Hirsch’s original ratios have been lost to time.

Thus, the plates themselves are somewhat of a mystery. Hirsch himself took 103 photographs, but only personally developed twelve. (The other 91 were developed in 1997, not using Hirsch’s technique, but modern image processing. These are not usually on display to the public.)

The twelve images appear to be candid photographs of people in and around Ichor Falls. Three of them show the apparent christening of a building. Several more show the town square or natural environments with people present, usually moving into or out of frame. The last image is that of a young fair-haired girl, who is not looking at the camera.

When cross-referenced with dated newspaper articles from the Ichor Falls Gazette, public record, paintings, and even other existing photography, the Hirsch plates were found to be inexplicably wrong.

  • The building in the christening photograph does not exist, and several shops were on the wrong sides of the street or the wrong street entirely.
  • One photograph shows townspeople at a nearby quarry, apparently walking blindly into a ravine. This was believed to be an overexposure of two or more plates, but a man towards the bottom of the frame appears to have fallen.
  • Closer inspection of a forest scene shows all visible tree branches as terminating in human hands.
  • Another plate inexplicably shows the bustling town center, but all the people are either crawling or blurred, in mid-gallop, on all fours.
  • In another, a man walks to the right on what looks like Fourth Avenue, his head completely obscured by a irregular hanging sign or object blurred in the foreground. When viewed at an acute angle, it appears that this oblong object actually is a white, grossly-distorted head, with the blur not caused by focus issues, but a violent shivering movement as the shutter closed.

Hirsch’s chalcide technique also captured a quality that is not reproduceable by modern film photography. There is a translucency, a confusion of line and image in the Hirsch plates that implies depth or in some cases, motion, even though these flat plates possess no lenticular properties.

One photograph on display in the Rand, the one of the young girl, is mounted off the wall so visitors may view it from different angles. As the viewer walks slowly from side to side, the young girl appears entirely motionless except for her lips. This illusion is not a true capturing of actual movement, but a likely result of poor mixing of multiple exposures. Still, most agree that it appears she is mouthing the word “out.”

In 1872, Robert Hirsch left Ichor Falls and moved west.

The camera and Hirsch’s twelve plates are on display seasonally at the Rand Historical Society Museum at Main and Second.

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