Baseball’s Golden Age:

The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon

By Neal McCabe & Constance McCabe

There is a richness of detail and a subtlety of tone in old portraits that you cannot find in modern pictures. Old-time photographers used large glass-plate negatives. When they made a print, no enlargement was necessary—they just contact-printed it. Nowadays the norm is 35mm, tiny in comparison, and it must be greatly enlarged to get a print. The more you enlarge, the more you degrade the quality, and grain becomes more visible.

Of course those old 5x7 glass plates were heavy as hell. And the cameras that used them were heavy and hard to manipulate. The only people still doing this type of work are Ansel Adams-type fine art photographers. It’s hard to imagine anyone lugging all this stuff to a ballpark, and indeed Conlon was one of the first. He carried glass negatives around until he was about 70 years old, finally switching to celluloid film.

This book was done by Neal McCabe (who wrote it) and Constance McCabe, his sister, who is a professional photograph conservator. She knows how to print old-time negatives, an extremely difficult and exacting task. She’s done an excellent job here, and some of the well-known Conlons (like Cobb sliding into 3B) look a lot better than we’re used to seeing them. The portraits really glow with life. There are several pairs showing the same player as a rookie and a veteran. You can see Leo Durocher turn into a wise guy, while Charlie Gehringer doesn’t change at all.

Looking at these pictures I start to wander into the stands, looking at the popcorn vendor and the blurred fan. I get immersed in a whole world. One of the most startling shots is of two players throwing on the sidelines before a game, something every ballpark visitor has seen hundreds of times. These two just happen to be Ruth and Gehrig. It’s sort of like a picture of God brushing his teeth.

The authors state that Conlon was in a class with Eugene Atget and Walker Evans, which for photography fans is like saying Nap Lajoie and Hans Wagner. I guess I’d put him up there. There’s a shot of John McGraw in a black uniform against a black background that’s a knockout on that level. It’s refreshing to learn that Charles Conlon was an amateur photographer—a 35-year old hobbyist when he first took his camera to the ballpark one day in 1904. He made his prints in his home darkroom. His pictures were ubiquitous for 35 years but often ran uncredited. He never made much money from them, but had a lot of fun. There’s a popular Conlon card set on the market; I hope the cards were done with as much care as this book.
 

Reviewed by David Nevard (1994)

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