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Horace Matthius ENGLE

Geologist / Inventor / Photographer

Born: 23 November 1861, Marietta, Pennsylvania USA

Died: 26 February 1949, Bangor, Pennsylvania USA

Horace Matthius Engle was born and raised a few miles upriver from Columbia. He studied at Millersville State Teachers College and Lehigh University. He also taught at Marietta's Franklin School. His educational interests were diverse: geology, chemistry, electrical engineering, mathematics, mechanics, and... photography.


. . .

Horace Engle's photographs date from 1888 to the 1940s. They exist today only because unusual qualities in his detective camera images caught the fancy of a niece who accidentally found them stored in a corn crib

on a relative's farm. Ultimately this led to the uncovering of later photographs, a fair portion of his papers, and other details of his life. This collection is now housed at the Pennsylvania State Archives, stored within a few feet of Lloyd Mifflin's plates.


Horace Engle had some darkroom experience before enrolling at Millersville. Interviews, correspondence, and diary entries reveal that he conducted unspecified photographic experiments while there, and worked on designs for an exposure meter, and a wire-photo transmitting system, both exploiting the properties of selenium. Engle's camera work, however, became a serious avocation in 1888, with his acquisition of a Concealed Vest Camera.

This camera was variously known as the buttonhole camera, vest camera, button camera, and Gray/Stirn Concealed Vest Camera. Although its lens was of high quality, and produced circular-shaped negatives, it was as simple to use as a box camera. Designed to be worn under a coat, the lens simulated a button as it peeked through a buttonhole. The base model lacked a viewfinder. An early review described the user as composing the picture by "turning one's heart toward the subject." Many experts, noting the tiny image size, and the lack of focusing and other controls, considered this camera a toy, and not a serious instrument. Engle used it as if it had no limitations. In addition to the real-life portraits he captured of people, unposed and unaware

of any photographer, he used it for landscapes, construction sites, urban streets, architecture, etc. In the two years of its use, his camera produced a prescient collection of images, foreshadowing the street photography and candid work seen decades later.

Horace accepted the camera for what it was, and mentally cataloged its peculiarities-always ready to turn a "fault" or incapacity to advantage. In Engle's photographic world, qualities were neither good nor bad, they were appropriate or not, depending on the needs of his composition. Intuition and alertness were of prime importance. The moments recorded were too short for applying rules. In fact, Engle's photography could lead one to discover unexpected designs and compositions, and new ways of seeing. He sometimes persuaded photo-finishers to print his double exposures, the partial solarizations, the blurred images of a deliberately moved camera—all of them mistakes by conventional standards. He experimented with screens, supplementary lenses, and filters. He was also interested in exotic printing processes, in giant enlargements. But withal, the images made in the course of his travels met the standards of good commercial photography. The photography style Engle first adopted in 1888-1889 would today be called photojournalistic—exploratory coverage rather than disconnected single shots. It was suited to the wide-ranging existence he led, and it remained characteristic of his camera use for the rest of his life.* [Edward Leos].

. . .

Horace Engle has been described by a family member as 'a very strange man.' Others labeled him aloof and distant. I submit that all of these traits could fit into the category of 'genius' just as easily. He came from simple, hardworking Mennonite roots. His father owned a farm and nursery on the east side of the Susquehanna in Marietta. So, perhaps he did appear 'unusual' to family and friends. Yet, Thomas Edison seemed impressed enough to hire him as one of the 'experimenters' in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory. 

The Gray/Stirns Camera and

an example of the resulting round image.


Article: Mifflin and Engle, The Painter and the Practioner, by Edward Leos, date unknown.

Book: Other Summers, The Photographs of Horace Engle, by Edward Leos, 1980, Penn State University Press

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