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Victorian 'peeping Tom' used spy camera in 1890s to secretly photograph people

ladies photographed by Carl Størmer spy camera
(Image credit: Carl Størmer)

Candid captures can sometimes be frowned upon when the subject is unaware that they’re being photographed, but on the other hand it can be used as a tool to provide us with historical insight into the 1890s Norwegian lifestyle. We have Carl Størmer to thank for this, taking sneaky street shots using a spy-style camera while studying at University. 

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Carl Størmer (1874-1957) was a mathematician, astrophysicist and pioneer to the fundamentals of street photography. His hidden camera photographs documented famous and well-known individuals during the 19th century period of 1893 to 1897, walking along Karl Johan's street in Oslo, Norway. Størmer often exchanged pleasantries and suspicious glances with his subjects on the street and captured their reaction in a timely manner, a sample of the first street photography. 

“I was a young 19-year-old student at the time and had gotten hold of a funny detective camera,” wrote Carl M. Størmer, describing his amusing hobby in the St. Hallvard Journal 1942. The motivation behind his secret photography practice is said to be, of course, a woman. Størmer supposedly had a crush on a woman during his time at University whom he was too shy to approach, though, that didn't discourage him from snapping her portrait.

(Image credit: Carl Størmer)

(Image credit: Carl Størmer)

The camera used by Størmer had a thin, round, six-frame glass plate and is described as looking like a circular canister that was hidden under his vest. The lens of the "spy camera" would stick out through a button-hole with a string leading down into his trouser pocket which cleverly prompted the camera to snap a shot when the string was pulled. In the St. Hallvard Journal, Størmer recalls that he would capture six images at a time before heading home to switch plates.

Over the years of his adventures on Karl Johan street, Størmer would come to have a collection of over 500 secret captures in his portfolio. 

Evald Otterstad’s 2009 documentary “Carl Størmer and his Detective Camera” reveals that Størmer was only ever caught once, by renowned Professor Kristian Birkeland, providing humorous images that capture the Professor's fury. 

It's important to note that these images were captured during a time when we would often only see images of well prepared, composed and stoic subjects. Størmer's images, although an invasion of privacy, show a more natural and realistic depiction of the streets and fashion during this time period. 

Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society is a biography detailing Størmer's life work in studies of the aurora borealis, works in astrophotography and mathematical contributions as well as noting how he got his start through methods of secret street photography in capturing a shot of famous Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen.

For more of Størmer's images, see Imgur.

via MyModernMet

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Beth Nicholls

A staff writer for Digital Camera World, Beth has an extensive background in various elements of technology with five years of experience working as a tester and sales assistant for CeX. After completing a degree in Music Journalism, followed by obtaining a Master's degree in Photography awarded by the University of Brighton, she spends her time outside of DCW as a freelance photographer specialising in live music events and band press shots under the alias 'bethshootsbands'.