Published: October 30, 2001
The American Daguerreotype Celebrated at Nelson-Atkins
KANSAS CITY, MO. – The daguerreotype, the world’s first successful photographic process, is celebrated in “: The American Daguerreotype,” on view at the Nelson-Atkins through January 6, 2002.
Introduced in the summer of 1839 by the Parisian painter and entertainer Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre, the daguerreotype became an immediate international sensation. It created a genuine revolution in visual culture and changed forever the way people thought about picture-making.
Between 1840 and about 1860, thousands of daguerreotypists were in business across the United States, making an unprecedented record of the nation’s people, cities, landscapes and newsworthy events. “: The American Daguerreotype” unveils more than 150 of these historically significant works, most of which have never been seen publicly before.
Visitors will be surprised by both the importance and beauty of these early photographs, and by the breadth and bold “modernity” of the daguerreian aesthetic as a whole. As a synthesis of high art, folk art and history, the daguerreotype challenges and expands our understanding of Nineteenth Century image-making, culture and thought.
The exhibit is presented in three parts: “The Daguerreian Era: The Birth of an Industry” focuses on daguerreian artifacts; “Unknown Maker: The Art of the American Daguerreotype” offers some of the finest examples of daguerreian art in existence; and “A Living Art: Six Masters of the Modern Daguerreotype” features work by some of the most talented and influential contemporary daguerreotypists.
This exhibition was conceived and organized by Keith F. Davis, fine art programs director, Hallmark Cards, Inc. This collection, begun in 1964, currently includes nearly 5,000 works by over 700 photographers; selections from it have been displayed worldwide over the past 20 years.
How is a daguerreotype created? The process begins with a copper plate coated with a very thin layer of silver. After this silver is rendered light-sensitive by chemical treatment, the plate is exposed in the camera, developed with the fumes of mercury, fixed (made permanent), toned with a heated solution of gold chloride, washed with water and then protected under glass in a small case.
Each plate is a unique direct-positive image; there is no negative from which identical images can be made. Daguerreotype plates are relatively small: the most common sizes were the sixth-plate (2¾ by 3¼ inches), quarter-plate (3¼ by 4¼ inches), half-plate (4¼ by 5½ inches) and whole-plate (6½ by 8½ inches) formats.
Daguerreotypes have a distinctive appearance: since the image resides on a mirror-like surface, they are highly reflective and need to be viewed under controlled lighting conditions. The process produces amazingly rich tones – far different from that of paper photographs – and an astonishing precision of detail.
The tools and social history of the daguerreotype are surveyed in the show’s first section, which showcases original daguerreian cameras; a typical daguerreian “taking room” of the 1850s, with camera and posing chair; processing tools and materials; various methods of presenting the finished image; and promotional and advertising artifacts. These objects come from Matthew R. Isenburg’s collection, widely recognized as the finest of its kind in the world, and Isenburg served as co-curator of “The Daguerreian Era: The Birth of an Industry.”
Selections from the Isenburg collection have been previously shown at the Yale University Art Gallery, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University and elsewhere. The objects on view are part of a fascinating narrative: the story not only of how the first photographs were created, but of the tastes, values and ideas of the people for whom they were made.
These objects also have much to tell us about the beginnings of modern commercial culture. The daguerreotype was big business: From a handful of images produced in 1839, the profession grew within a decade to an annual production of millions of plates. Large cities had dozens of daguerreian studios; small or remote towns were served by itinerant (traveling) operators.
Manufacturers of equipment and supplies competed for the business of these thousands of daguerreian entrepreneurs. Advertising played an important role in this competitive field, and daguerreotypists used sentiment, poetry and hyperbole to promote their work. On the retail level, photographers found clever and innovative ways to satisfy the public’s hunger to be immortalized through the most modern of processes.
The daguerreotype enjoyed its greatest popularity in the United States. It was a truly democratic art: for the first time, all but the poorest of citizens could afford to have their portraits made. As its applications grew, the daguerreotype became a faithful witness to myriad details of mid-Nineteenth Century life.
At the same time, the daguerreotype spurred a revolution in visual culture. It established a new standard of pictorial “truth” while reminding us that truths are rarely simple. The camera does not passively record the world – it shapes it according to optical and chemical law and, most importantly, the intentions of the photographer. This interpretive power was abundantly clear to photographers themselves from the medium’s very beginning.
The daguerreian aesthetic spans a wide stylistic spectrum, from a folk art to a high art sensibility, from a “snap shot” intimacy to the highest level of formal refinement. In tandem with this aesthetic diversity, a surprising variety of daguerreotypes were produced: portraits, landscapes, postmortems (records of the dead), comic and genre scenes, artistic and allegorical subjects and experimental images.
In order to emphasize the “collective” nature of the daguerreian vision, the works on display (with only a few exceptions) are by unidentified photographers and were made in the two smaller basic formats, the sixth-and quarter-plate sizes. These parameters emphasize the daguerreian vision itself – its basic syntax and visual traits. This vision is central not only to a richer understanding of mid-Nineteenth Century American culture, but of the nature and potentials of photography as a whole.
Today, paradoxically, the daguerreotype may be considered both the oldest and the newest of photographic technologies. A young generation of artists is making exciting use of this “antique” process. This is no mere exercise in nostalgia: the daguerreotype is now embraced as a means of purely contemporary artistic expression.
Why would anyone today make daguerreotypes? The process is exceedingly difficult and carries (due to its use of mercury as a developing agent) a real health risk. The answer can only lie in the daguerreotype’s unique qualities as a picture. A well-made daguerreotype possesses astonishing detail, an unmatched tonal brilliance, an almost holographic sense of three-dimensionality and a mysteriously elusive visual presence (at once hyper-real and almost invisible, depending on our angle of view). Artists also savor the process’s quirks – the tendency of over-exposed areas to turn blue, for example – and use these to deliberate aesthetic effect.
Ultimately, perhaps, contemporary artists have embraced the daguerreotype because it allows them to rediscover the sheer wonder of picture-making. Photography today is easy – perhaps too easy. By making the process difficult again, artists force themselves to rethink everything from scratch; in so doing, they rediscover something important about the act of making pictures.
Works by six of the most talented and influential modern daguerreotypists are shown: Irving Pobboravsky, Robert Shlaer, Kenneth Nelson, Mike Robinson, Mark Kessell and Jerry Spagnoli. The subjects and stylistic approaches of these artists vary considerably. However, their uniformly high level of quality suggests that – in addition to its glorious past – the daguerreotype has a most promising future.
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