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Photographer winding back the hands of time
Former Stafford resident perseveres at his craft, is praised as 'best historical photographer of our time'

 Szabo, a former Stafford resident, has been called 'the modern master of wet-plate photography.'
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Date published: 5/29/2012


Robert J. Szabo works magic.

He makes the present look like the past through the art of wet-plate photography.

Szabo, who practices his craft at festivals, re-enactments and living history events, set up shop May 18 at Spotsylvania Courthouse. He displayed his signs, "R. Szabo" and "Tintypes," on the sides of his 18- by 18-foot canvas studio.

And for both days of the Spotsylvania Civil War Re-enactment and Living History Weekend, business was steady as people streamed in and out of his tent to have their images frozen in time.

"I consider him the modern master of wet-plate photography," said one client, John Cummings of Spotsylvania, a visual historian.

"There are a lot of people who get more exposure, but Bob is a true artisan. He has a real eye for composition and lighting. His work looks more like original images than the others you see."

Indeed, Szabo's name is known far and wide among practitioners of living history, magazine editors and those who appreciate aesthetics of mid-19th-century photography.

When Parade magazine needed a cover for its April 2011 issue kicking off the Civil War sesquicentennial, Szabo was sent to shoot a portrait of Robert Redford--then coming out with "The Conspirator," his feature film on Mary Surratt, the Maryland woman who supposedly aided Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

When the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., wanted a period look, it commissioned Sza-bo to shoot its calendar.

And when National Geographic devoted most of a 2005 issue to Civil War battlefield preservation a few years ago, Szabo shot the cover image, a powerful portrait of a bearded re-enactor. Of that, he says, "I was just in the right place at the right time."

His luck must be holding up. The new issue of National Geographic Traveler uses his work to illustrate the article "Ghosts of the Civil War: Venturing Into the Past." (See on.natgeo.com/ghostscw for slideshow.)

But while Szabo, 60, is proud of his work, he doesn't brag. What he can do with his eyes, a lens, a glass plate and chemicals speaks for itself. Even his website's title, The Wet Plate Collodion Photography of Robert Szabo, is straightforward.

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