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Black, Chinese & White Laborers In A Gold Mine In South Africa [c1890-1923] Frank & Frances Carpenter [RESTORED]

Entitled Black, Chinese and White laborers in a gold mine in South Africa [c1890-1923] F Carpenter [RESTORED]. The original, created from a copy negative, resides in the LOC under Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-40653. I did the usual spot removal, edge repair, contrast & tone adjustments and added a sepia tone.


This picture provides evidence of the early and steady immigration of Chinese labor, often to take on the toughest and dirtiest jobs, at seemingly the most remote places of the world. By the late 1800's to early 1900's, driven outward by famine and social upheaval within China, Chinese labor was literally found on all continents except for Antarctica. Not only did this phenomenon create a huge diaspora that thrives to this day, it was also the reason for the spread of what was then Asia's longest surviving, but barely known (outside of Asia) culture to the other parts of the world.


In early photography Chinese skin tones tended to be rendered so dark that it made them seem almost African in appearance, here's a great example of that and the historic mistakes that it can engender. It had to do with the inability of early film emulsions to fully record the red end of the spectrum. Since Asian skin tones, especially those that are well tanned, have ample red hues, the early films recorded them so darkly that they often appeared to be black. If one were to closely and carefully examine each face in the above photograph for its features, it becomes readily apparent that all of the supposedly black miners are really Asians (presumably Chinese) instead. Hence, the title of "Black, Chinese and White Laborers..." is obviously wrong.


But why would the title be mistaken? One has to ask oneself, that certainly the photographer must have known what he was photographing, right? There may be two separate explanations for this.


Possible Explanation 1. One has to remember that this was made from a copy negative. That is, there was an original print, and someone then took a picture of the original print, creating a copy negative. The original (with proper title) was lost; subsequent prints made from the copy negative without a proper title were then inappropriately given one by a busy technician. He or she probably didn't remember or did not know of the historic color sensitivity quirk of early films, and must have assumed that, surely some of those dark faces must have belonged to Africans (being that they're of mines in Africa). Ergo, the picture gained that mistaken title.


Possible Explanation 2. Take a look at that picture and imagine oneself back in the late 1800's to early 1900's, standing in a South African mine shaft; what would the physical situation have been like? How light or dark would it have been? That black Africans were plentiful and probably constituted the bulk of the mine's work force is a historic given, being as they were in Africa after all. It would be safe to assume that Frank Carpenter (the photographer), would have probably seen and encountered many Africans around the mines. However, would he have actually seen them while within a mine? The answer probably is no, not unless they were standing no more than two feet from the oil lamp that Carpenter was holding. The mines, being underground as they were, were also in pitch darkness, and portable light sources in those days were limited to primitive torches or storm lamps. Thus, it was likely very hard to see anything at all.


So how then was this picture taken? That the photo was made with a single light source is apparent, as there is only a single shadow. The shadow is also indistinct, that is, it has no solid edge. This means that the light itself was not a single pinpoint (like that of a tiny flash bulb) but rather a broadened source that would be more characteristic with a large board on which magnesium powder was laid. Hence, my belief is that this is probably a good example of Magnesium Flash Powder photography, in which a rapid burning combustible powder made from Magnesium filings mixed with gun powder produced a brief but extremely bright light source that aided photographers in dim or lightless situations. Carpenter himself could have thus misnamed the picture. He had probably assumed that some of the dark skinned people were Africans, as there were many in the mine the day that he took the picture. However, he probably never actually saw the scene or the people captured in it clearly enough when it happened; at least not until he processed his plates in his darkroom. Once the developed picture revealed dark faces, he too, may have fallen into the visual trap of mistaking some of them to be African, and so mislabeled the original photograph accordingly.

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Taken on November 5, 2009