Albert Burkhart Photography: Capturing History
Photography has come a long way since the beginning of the 19th century. It is hard to believe that we carry incredible cameras in our pockets every day. Albert Burkhart (1851-1930) was an amateur photographer from Georgetown, Indiana. He took an interest in photography when he wasn’t working at the sawmill. He captures scenes from everyday life in Southern Indiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with his Kodak camera, including portraits, landscapes, post-mortem, and candid photography.
Taking a picture during Burkhart’s lifetime is different than photography today–Burkhart used “glass plate negatives.” Floyd County Library has more than a few glass plate negatives in its collections. There are more than 500 in the Library’s Burkhart Glass Plate Negatives collection alone! The title “glass plate negative” accurately describes what these are, glass plates with the negative of an image. Photo negatives were not always flexible on rolled film.
There are two types of glass plate negatives, “wet” and “dry,” which refer to whether the emulsion on the plate was wet or dry in the camera and during the exposure, development, or completion. Dry plates surpassed wet because photographers have to work in a time crunch of roughly five minutes before the wet plate is no longer viable. Burkart explored photography right at the end of the dry glass plates innovation. The photographic process was simplified again in the late 1920s with the popular celluloid film, as seen below. The glass plates by Burkhart are now digital to create accessible resources and to print his photographs.¹
Burkhart’s photographs represent everyday life in Southern Indiana during his lifetime, just as his glass plate negatives represent the photographic medium of the time. His work documents residents, buildings, industry, transportation, and recreation in Georgetown, Indiana, and surrounding areas. Each photo gives a brief view of the past and its history. His photograph of the Edwardsville railroad tunnel leads our eyes to the passage and its history. This tunnel was completed in 1881 and was first used in 1882, providing an exciting rail service connection between New Albany and St. Louis. This railroad had three decades of use when Burkhart took this photo. According to a New Albany View News clipping in 1960, the history of the track and tunnel are unclear because of the multiple companies involved in the development, each depleting their financials to insolvency. After one company attempted to complete the tunnel and went bankrupt, another would come in with a “better way” to go through the hill and abandon the first uncompleted tunnel to start another! These abandoned tunnels are still out there today. Building tunnels was dangerous work, with mudslides and cave-ins; two individuals lost their life near the completion of the tunnel. It ultimately took nearly ten years to complete the track, starting in 1870. After all the plight, the railroad brought transportation and inspired town foolery–including a man who lived by the passageway and stood guard at the entrance and teens jumping to board a box car through the tunnel. Burkart’s Edwardsville Railroad Tunnel photo captures a landmark of New Albany and the history too.
Burkhart also pays tribute to Crawford County’s Wyandotte Cave, just west of New Albany. This photograph depicts a group crouching in Wyandotte cave, surrounded by rock formations. Native Americans first explored the cave as early as 3,500 years ago. Roughly six decades before Burkhart’s photograph, explorers discovered more passages that led to the commercialization of the boldly false claim that the cave was 23.5 miles long. This claim was corrected in the 1960s, stating the cave was 5.6 miles long until 1987, when the discovery of a neighboring cave contributed to the length, making it a total of 9.2 miles long. However, Burkhart took his photo decades before the correction, which means that the public was still under the impression that the cave was 23.5 miles long!
Each of Burkhart’s photos reveals the history of Indiana and references to the changing world around it, rather it is the medium of photography, a tunnel connecting towns, or knowledge of a local cave.
Albert Burkhart captured moments in history that fully embody the etymology of photography. Photography comes from the Greek word phos, meaning light, and graphê, meaning drawing. I believe Burkhart was truly drawing with light, do you?
Please join us at Carnegie Center for Art and History’s exhibition From Audubon to Sisto: Highlights from the Permanent Collection to view some of Burkhart’s photographs on view in the Newkirk Gallery.
- Glass plate digitization typically involves a flatbed scanner and calibration. For a thorough explanation of the process, please see source four. For a visual process of glass plate digitization, please see source five.
Explore more of Albert Burkhart’s photos at The Floyd County Library’s new Special Collections catalog, which includes the historic photographs collection, artifacts, artwork, and archival collections located in the Indiana Room and Carnegie Center for Art & History.
By: Sheridan Bishoff