Lee of Portrush: an introduction

One of the projects I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while is scanning and dating a boxful of old cabinet photographs and postcards produced by Lee of Portrush in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

At least five members and three generations of the Lee family worked as professional photographers in this small Northern Irish town – the last of them was my grandfather, William Lee, who carried the business on into the 1970s. Their later output doesn’t turn up much – I don’t think I’ve run across anything post-1920s – but a steady trickle of their older photographs appear on ebay and on family history sites. They produced a range of monochrome and coloured postcards of Portrush and the surrounding area, did a good trade in portrait photographs, and at one point ended up proprietors of (both temperance and non-temperance) hotels. Briefly, one brother decamped to South Africa (before deciding to come home again) and they proudly announced “Portrush, Coleraine, and Cape Town” – a combination rarely encountered. A more unusual line of work, however, was that they had a studio at the Giant’s Causeway.

The Causeway is the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland, and was as popular a tourist attraction then as now. A narrow-gauge electric tramline was built out from Portrush to Bushmills and then the Causeway in the 1880s, bringing in a sharp increase in visitors. And – because the Victorians were more or less the same people as we are now – they decided there was no better way to respond to a wonder of the natural world than to have your photograph taken while standing on it, so that you can show it to all your friends. Granted, you had to pay someone to take the photo, sit still with a rictus grin, then wait for them to faff around with wet plates and developer; not quite an iPhone selfie, but the spirit is the same even if the subjects were wearing crinolines. There is nothing new in this world.

The Lees responded cheerfully to this, and in addition to the profitable postcard trade, made a great deal of money by taking photographs of tourists up from Belfast or Dublin, or even further afield. (They then lost it again over the years; Portrush was not a great place for long-term investment once holidays to the Mediterranean became popular.)

Many of these are sat in shoeboxes; some turn up occasionally on eBay, where I buy them if they’re a few pounds. It’s a nice thing to have, since so little else survives of the business. One problem is that very few are clearly dated, and as all parts of the family seem to have used “Lees Studio”, or a variant, it’s not easy to put them in order, or to give a historical context. For the people who have these as genealogical artefacts, this is something of a problem – ideally, we’d be able to say that this particular card style was early, 1880-1890, that address was later, etc., to help give some clues as to when it was taken.

Fast forward a few years. Last November, I had an email from John Kavanaugh, who’d found a Lee photograph of his great-great-grandfather (John Kavanagh, 1822-1904), and managed to recreate the scene on a visit to the Causeway:

Family resemblance, 1895-2015
Courtesy John Kavanaugh/Efren Gonzalez

It’s quite striking how similar the two are. The stone the elder John was sat on has now crumbled, fallen, or been moved, but the rock formations behind him are unchanged. The original photo is dated c. 1895, so this covers a hundred and twenty years and five generations.

So, taking this as a good impetus to get around to the problem, I borrowed a scanner yesterday and set to. Fifty-odd photographs later, I’ve updated the collection on flickr, and over the next few posts I’ll try and draw together some notes on how to date them.

Carolyn Mayben Flowers: the Lady Prospector of Porcupine

Working my way through some of the Canadian Collection on Commons this morning, I discovered a rather eye-catching picture:

Porcupine's lady prospector (HS85-10-24373)

“Porcupine’s Lady Prospector”, photographed at the Porcupine Gold Rush in the summer of 1911. Two things immediately strike the viewer: one is that the woman in the photograph is dressed decorously by the standards of Edwardian Canada, with a white blouse and a long dark skirt, despite the searing heat of that summer – Porcupine would later be devastated by wildfire – and the second is that she has a revolver slung casually on one hip.

There has to be a story here.

It turns out to be quite quick to put a name to her; the Timmins Daily Press captions a copy of the picture as Carolyn Mayben Flowers, and the Timmins Museum gives us still around in 1915, giving piano lessons. I haven’t been able to trace her after that, or indeed before. There is a “Cathaline Flowers” in Gowganda (aged 26, married, with a six-year-old daughter), but Gowganda is a long way from Timmins, and she doesn’t list herself as American…

I really should have thought of this earlier

Every now and again, I find myself with a pile of telephoto shots of something which was very hard to focus on properly, where I want to select the best few images and crop them for display. If I’ve made a hundred images, this can get very tedious – I have to manually zoom in on each one to see how sharp it is before comparing it to the next.

Tedious, repetitive, tasks. Surely, this is something a computer can do for me? Lo and behold, imagemagick saves the day…

convert -crop 1024x768+1632+1040 *.JPG -set filename:f 'crop_%t.%e' +adjoin '%[filename:f]'

..takes a series of 4288×2848 pictures, crops out the centre 1024×768, and drops this into a seperate file called crop_FILENAME. Skimming through these is far quicker…

I know, I know, trivial solutions. But it saves me a lot of time. And as a result:



…pictures of the woodpecker outside my living-room window, shot with a D90 and an old manually focused f/5.5 300m lens.

It works! I had almost two hundred frames to run through to find these (which may explain why they waited a month and a half for me to get around to it…)

Crustacean crossings

Things you never quite expect to see in suburban English cities: crayfish carefully picking their way across the road.




The first photo feels like I should edit in some 5mm-tall people fleeing the monster.

Photography was suspended briefly for a car to drive over it. (Literally: the wheels passed several feet to each side) The driver couldn’t see what was in the road, but guessed we were photographing something small and fragile, and looked at us with a very guilty expression as she passed…


I used bellows for the first time today – a bizarre-looking Heath Robinsonish contraption, but they worked. The camera was a modern dSLR, the lens a standard Olympus OM-mount 50mm, and the bellows unit emerged from a Soviet factory sometime in the 1970s. (It still has the factory inspector’s slip, signed in Cyrillic…)

These photographs were all taken in natural light with the bellows extended to around 350mm; I haven’t yet calculated the effective magnification, but from counting threads, my best estimate is that the field of view is on the order of 8mm across. The main problem was successful focusing – even at f/8 or f/11, the depth of field is still very low, and it’s possible to watch the area in focus travel up and down a surface as you move the lens.

These are all “horizontal” shots, with the item held up vertically in front of the lens – the bellows is set up for a tripod mounting, but it’s a very light tripod and the camera doesn’t lock on the mount firmly, so there’s a good bit of vibration in the system. Next time with mirror lock…


The rear of a cork-based tablemat.


Cotton weave on a (very worn) teatowel.


The tip of a pair of nail-scissors.

New lens

Three photos of a coot from last week, testing the new lens on an unexpectedly sunny day:




All three taken at 150mm, uncropped, at f/5.6 and 1/320s. I’m quite pleased, on the whole; this does feel better quality than the older 150mm lens. The focus isn’t quite right, but I think that’s the camera autofocus being set wrongly – I still need to work on this!

Step 2, I suppose, is now sell the old one on ebay and recoup the cost…

Telephoto webcam

Whilst playing with my webcam tonight to try to get the mike to work – which I can’t, because I screwed up the audio settings somewhere, and it’s a real slog to get them back to normal – I noticed it was manually focused, and some quick experimentation confirmed that it could focus down to a point very close to the lens.

Sitting on the other side of the room is an old 260mm f/4 lens mounted on a tripod – it’s heavy enough that it needs the tripod mount on the lens rather than the camera body, and when I was done with it the other night I just left it there.

The webcam is just the right size to poke its lens inside the back of the larger one, so it was the work of a minute to fiddle the two focus rings and produce this:


…which is all very nice, and makes me feel I’ve sort of achieved something, but, well. It’s a camera lens, it has a real mount, I could wire up a real camera and get a photo which is about fifty times the size and without the lens barrel in it. From a practical standpoint, this is not the greatest of achievements.

I’m sure it must be useful for something, but right now I have no idea what. Perhaps I could tape them together and point it at the bird-feeder in the garden…