A new era for an old Era

I have been working on a variety of tools to explore the contents of the monthly magazine Photo-Era, which was published from 1898 to 1932. I have just made one of those tools freely available: a way to search the text of all of the issues: Photo-Era Search.

In doing our research on early women artisan photographers, Lee and I came across the fact that a couple of them were editors, at different times, at Photo-Era. The magazine seems to have been popular since it stayed in business for so long. It evolved over time, starting as:

“A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Artistic Photography”


“An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Progress in the Science and Art of Photography”

Photo-Era May 1898 vol 1, num 1

And ending up, following the trend of moving pictures, as:

“For the Photographer and Kinematographer”

Photo-Era March 1932, vol 68, num 3

Photo-Era had a wide range of articles for both professional and non-professional photographers, but a large part of its intended audience was the “talented amateurs”: people who took artistic photographs for their own pleasure. To that end, it had many “how to” articles, as well as monthly competitions and photography critiques.

While ideas about artistic photography were in flux during this time period, with Pictorialism coming into prominence at the beginning and the rise of “straight” photography during the middle period, Photo-Era was definitely in the Pictorialist camp. We can get a little sense of the flux and Photo-Era‘s stance by searching for the term “pictorialist” as well as for 3 prominent photographers and proponents: Gertrude Käsebier (a Pictorialist who was once the highest paid photographer in the world), Clarence H. White (another leading Pictorialist), and Alfred Stieglitz (who was influential in promoting both types of photography). If you click on the chart, you can go to the tool and see the full search results, including snippets from the articles and links to the original issues (on Internet Archive).

Frequency of mentions of Gertrude Käsebier, Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White and “pictorialist” in Photo-Era magazine, 1898-1932

As the search term “pictorialist” suggests, you can look for any text. For example, you might be interested in the Autochrome process, an early form of color photography (click on the chart to see the full results):

Frequency of mentions of “Autochrome” and “Autochromes” in Photo-Era magazine, 1898-1932

There’s lots to explore in Photo-Era, and we will have blog posts about some of the things we have found, both here and on Lee’s blog Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols. In the meantime, see what you can find!

Technical notes

The Photo-Era Search tool works entirely in the browser (so if you want to look for cat pictures, no-one will be the wiser — unless you share the resulting link), using a version of SQLite compiled (not by me) for the browser, and I use its FTS5 extension for the (simplified) full text search. I manually downloaded the text versions of Photo-Era from Internet Archive, and wrote a python script to create the database. The “several seconds” to set things up is the time to download SQLite and the database. The chart is done using Chart.js, and the data downloads are facilitated by d3.js. I’ll have more to say about searching for names in another post.