Pictures and Property: Photographic Wonders: 
American Daguerreotypes from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

June 21st, 2013  |  Published in *, June 2013

Pictures and Property:  
Photographic Wonders:
  American Daguerreotypes
from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

May 17–August 25, 2013

By Jonathan Kamholtz

“Photographic Wonders,” a selection of daguerreotypes culled from the extraordinary collection put together by Hallmark and then given in 2005 to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, is the real deal. In the ten years that Hallmark entered the market to put together a collection of early nineteenth century American photographs to complement their superlative holdings in post-1885 photography, they were able to purchase many of the best, the rarest, the funniest, the most eccentric, and some of the most revealing daguerreotypes on the market (though, it must be added, some of the most chaste).

The Daguerreotypist

The exhibition is particularly rich in the sorts of pictures that make the form and process of daguerreotyping more visible. There is a portrait of “The Daguerreotypist” (Unknown Maker, c. 1855), his hand raised, as if conducting a small piece of chamber music, to show the fine tuning that went into controlling the social ebb and flow as a picture was being made. There is Russell Miller’s “Painter and Backdrop” (c. 1855), showing an artist at work providing a semi-illusionistic canvas of grand columns to appear behind the subject of the photo being taken in a small and bare room. There are a bevy of photographs that show parents behind, in front, and off to the sides of their children, engaged–with varying degrees of charm or mild force–in the task of keeping the heads and bodies of small children from turning, squirming, being ostentatiously or damply unhappy, or simply walking off during the minute or so that it took to expose a plate. “Preparing for the Camera” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) shows four primping young adults engaged in some playful social grooming before—that is, while—their picture is being taken. In “A Showing of Daguerreotypes” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) one man shows another a daguerreotype picked out of a pile, presumably closing the deal with a prospective customer by showing off a sample of the final product. The two men do not look particularly different from each other, though it would hard to say whether that is because the photographer has decided to look like an ordinary middle class citizen or because the client has been elevated to the status of fellow artist. It is clear that in the development of this art form, subjects, photographers, and audiences each had—literally—roles to play.

A Showing Of Daguerreotypes

Daguerreotypes were not generally candid. The actor Edwin Forrest is going to look great in a daguerreotype because it is a form that favors the poseur. There is a theatricality to the daguerreotype’s idea of portraiture, one created by a genial collusion between the subject and the photographer. The daguerreotype is devoted to fantasies of the self. And it’s interesting in nineteenth century America how many of these fantasies center around work. Sometimes the pictures look like a game of dress-up. The clown wears a spotted outfit, the tightrope walker wears a white leotard. William C. North’s “The Fisherman” (c. 1850) wears or carries inside the studio everything a gentleman fisher might ever need in the outdoors: rod, creel, boots. The fabric salesman shows a bolt of cloth to a woman. These daguerreotypes represent the solution to this question: What is the thing, the prop, the costume, that will identify what I am when I am, by definition, not doing it, but rather having my picture taken? But the theatricality of the photographs reminds us that role players are always more (or less) than the roles they play. A “Black-Face Minstrel” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) is not only in black-face but also in drag, with a strip of white cloth wrapped around one hand and a dazed look on his face. The “Man with Hammer and Nail” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) might well be a carpenter, but really is neither more nor less than a man with a hammer and a nail. He does not exude expertise. His identity is both self-evident and completely mysterious.

One of the exhibit’s wall labels says that with daguerreotypes, we have “a synthesis of high art, folk art, and history,” and that seems apt, though one might want to add technology and commerce to the mix. The pleasure of the show is not so much from the “high art” portion. Southworth and Hawes, probably the best known of all American daguerreotypists, are represented by “The Letter” (c. 1850), which is technically fine but reminds one that at its most formal, mid-nineteenth century photography sought to model itself on conventions of mid-nineteenth century painted portraiture that are hard to enjoy today. I was grateful that the show called my attention to James Presley Ball, an African American who was Cincinnati’s most successful daguerreotypist in the 1850s. And there was a wonderful plate of “The Raymond Triplets” (c. 1845-48) by John Plumbe, where light from at least two sources highlights the faces and gives the photo the look of a publicity still for a movie some century or so later.

Plumbe – The Raymond Triplets

But despite having a section of the show called “Major Makers,” it was hard to end up thinking that this is an art form that would be best understood by following a few of the more important auteurs. It is not just because the names of the makers of such a large percentage of daguerreotypes have become lost to us that the show seems to have highlighted the energies of daguerreotypes’ “folk art” dimension. So many of the best pictures at the Taft bear witness to folk art’s vigorous playfulness and casual attitude towards rules and other solemnities. The “Young Man on a Chair Back” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) is precariously balanced and is making a face at us in a striking display of unruliness. Docents tried to get visiting groups of schoolchildren to see how long they could hold such an expression themselves.

Young Man On Chair Back

The exhibition has handsomely conquered one of the oldest of problems in displaying daguerreotypes, which is how to mount them on a wall so that they can be seen clearly when their viewers aren’t able to angle them against the light just right to make out the fugitive image. It used to be one of the received truths about daguerreotypes that they were designed to be hand-held, a hoarded treasure visible to only one person at a time, like a nervous student’s final exam. A daguerreotype was a portable image transformed into private property. But the show at the Taft argues against this, showing any number of pictures that are half plates (4 ¼” by 5 ½”) or whole plates (6 ½” by 8 ½”), which would not fit in anyone’s pocket or palm. The show reminded us about, though it did not have on display, the famous Porter and Fontayne panoramic view of the Cincinnati waterfront in 1848 owned by the Cincinnati Public Library. Consisting of eight full plates, the whole ensemble extended some 5 ½ feet long before framing. In a separate room, the Taft had on display an 1854 magazine insert describing James Presley Ball’s 4th Street Gallery and Studio: “The north wall is ornamented with one hundred eighty seven of Mr. Ball’s finest pictures. Babies and children, young men and maidens, mothers and sires look you in the face. Jenny Lind, with other distinguished personages, and five or six splended [sic] views of Niagara Falls are among the collection.” Whether these pictures were on display in order to advertise a product or for the pleasure of suggesting artificial intimacies with people you didn’t know (perhaps this is a distinction without a difference?), it is clear that the daguerreotype might have public purposes as well as private ones.

A wall label speaks of “the daguerreian aesthetic,” and it seems helpful to think about what might be some of its elements, the qualities of the art form imposed or invited by the technology. One might be its singleness. Daguerreotypes tend to favor individual portraits over groups; it is easier to get one person to sit still than several, as anyone will know who’s tried to take pictures of their friends at a bar or their relations at a wedding. But there’s also the singleness of the image. The daguerreotype image was made directly on a metal plate, and since there is no negative, no reusable template, there were no copies. (The Taft, in its small room about early photography in Cincinnati, includes a broadside from E. C. Hawkins, dated 1853, in which he offers to use “Circular Solography” to make “true artistic Pictures, either from life, paintings, or daguerreotypes”—that is, he can use a new photographic medium to make copies of the old one.) Ownership was virtually absolute, which in turn raises interesting questions about the audience for daguerreotypes. While it is a commonly made argument that daguerreotypes represent the spread of portraiture to the middle and working classes, the show includes a powerful and enormously suggestive picture of a “Virginia Plantation Slave” (Maker Unknown, c. 1850). It seems inconceivable that it was designed to be owned by its subject; it must have been owned by his owner, making the photograph an object as unique and commodifiable as the man in the picture.

Another element of the aesthetic would be time. Even though the technology improved over the three decades of the art form’s life, the photosensitive surface was slow and so exposure time was long, requiring that neither the camera nor the subject be able to move. The things that can change with time—the movement of water, the fleeting expression on a face—disappear from a daguerreotype because they are inessential. There is a natural alliance between the daguerreotype’s appetite for human stillness and the tradition of post-mortem portraits. “Mother with Dead Child” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) shows a woman who could have walked out of a Dorothea Lange picture who gently props up the painstakingly-curled head of the dead body and looks into the camera with a combination of tenderness, anger, and exhaustion.

For much the same reasons, the aesthetic tends to favor indoor and artificial spaces rather than outdoor and natural ones. You come to have your photograph taken rather than having the photographer come to you, and you get the chance to groom yourself according to the way you hope to be seen. The exhibit features a substantial number of significant exceptions to this rule. There are daguerreotypes of natural wonders, generally starting from the east side of the country (Niagara Falls) and moving west. There is a picture of a “Butcher Shop Interior” (Unknown Maker, c. 1850) that shows five men—judging by who’s wearing a tie, I would say four contemplative butchers and one assistant lugging a basket—in their store. The Taft’s own addendum included a remarkable picture James Presley Ball took out of his studio window of storefronts and workingmen in the street below. There was in interesting section on daguerreotypes and the Gold Rush. In addition to the portraits of prospectors posing as prospectors, there are pictures of mining camps, men working a sluice together or inspecting the tracks: people working together to master the home-spun machinery necessary for the refining and redistribution of wealth.

Howell Michigan

Perhaps the most remarkable of these outdoor photographs was “Howell, Michigan (quiet street with dog)” (Unknown Maker, c. 1854) that shows six houses or storefronts, the wooden sidewalk that connects them, and the empty street they face in which a dog has managed to stand remarkably still. The label notes that this picture “is unusual for its lack of an obvious subject,” but I think its true subject is civic pride, making the picture a predecessor to the hundreds of thousands of Main Street photographs taken and sold over the course of the next century. In doing so, the show helps illustrate an important dual stream in understanding the American character. While all the mass of single person or family portraits suggest America as an atomistic culture of individualists, “Howell, Michigan” reminds us of a more communitarian version of American identity. In sending a picture of oneself to one’s sweetheart, it is clear, more or less, what you wish to share, and what the audience’s function is in relationship to the image. But in buying a picture of Main Street, what exactly do you own? And even if such pictures fall under the heading of “conversation pieces” that might be displayed, as Ball did in his Cincinnati Gallery, in order to encourage more business, it still suggests that the work of art has its roots in something social whose life force can be found amongst groups of people. These pictures suggest a still-contemporary argument about the nature of the democratic citizen, an argument that has been reviewed and revivified in, for example, some of David Brooks’s recent op-eds in the New York Times. What matters most in a democracy: what we value one at a time or what we value together?

It is often observed that due to improvements in the technology of photography, the daguerreotype as an art form collapses in the mid-1850s just as everyone was getting really good at it. (But then perhaps this is the pattern of change in most art forms.) So what gets passed on to the history of photographic representation from the daguerreian moment? It will turn out to be a long time, as these things go, until film and camera technology improve enough to capture motion—and, perhaps, a long time until people will want to have motion captured. The theatricality of portraiture will endure, as there will continue to be pleasure received from engaging in and decoding our disguises. Photography will steadily move outdoors. If the formal design of photographs after the 1850s is still for some time guided by the aesthetics of painting, it will come more to be the aesthetics of landscape painting rather than portraiture. Scale will change. So will the occasions for taking a photograph and with them, the makers of photographs. We seem to be convinced that we need a professional photographer for fewer and fewer sorts of events, and every amateur photographer—that is, everyone–will take and distribute blizzards of pictures of their children, their gardens, their dinners, and their pets. (Which of the contending definitions of the democratic citizen does Facebook illustrate?) And—polaroids excepted, but who takes polaroids these days?—photography will leave behind its uniqueness and move towards mass reproduction. Photography’s world today is one of copying, duplicating, and multiple ownership—of the thing being copied and the image that copies it. A photograph’s preciousness—once intrinsic to the medium–will become artificial and market-driven. Seeing this remarkable collection of daguerreotypes on the walls of the Taft Museum should remind us of how much things have changed over a century and a half in the ways that images represent sharable property.

Comments are closed.