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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper, 1839–60

The daguerreotype, the first photographic process, was invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) and spread rapidly around the world after its presentation to the public in Paris in 1839. Exposed in a camera obscura and developed in mercury vapors, each highly polished silvered copper plate is a unique photograph that, when viewed in proper light, exhibits extraordinary detail and three-dimensionality. Although born in Europe, the daguerreotype was extremely popular in the United States—especially in New York City, where in the late 1850s hundreds of daguerreotypists vied for clients. The most successful artists built lavish portrait studios on the upper floors of buildings on and just off Broadway, and in other major American cities from Boston to San Francisco.

Fascinated by François Gouraud’s demonstrations in Boston of Daguerre’s new invention, Albert Sands Southworth (1811–1894), a pharmacist in Cabotville (now Chicopee), Massachusetts, went to New York in 1840 to study the technique with Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) (2005.100.75), who had learned about photography from Daguerre himself. Within a year, Southworth had opened a daguerreotype studio in Boston with Morse’s assistant, Joseph Pennell, who had been Southworth’s roommate in preparatory school. When Pennell left the firm in 1843, Josiah Johnson Hawes (1808–1901) took his place, and the celebrated nineteen-year partnership of Southworth and Hawes was born. The firm was known around the world for its aesthetic accomplishments and technical finesse. The Boston partnership produced among the finest portrait daguerreotypes in America for leading political, intellectual, and artistic figures, from Daniel Webster (37.14.2) to Harriet Beecher Stowe (37.14.40).

No artist is more closely tied to the early years of American photographic practice than Mathew B. Brady (1823?–1896). A skilled daguerreotypist, he learned the technical aspects of the process from the American pioneers of the medium, Samuel Morse and John Draper. Brady opened his first studio in 1844 and set himself the task of photographing the nation’s leading figures—presidents (56.517.4) and military men, business leaders and stars of the stage, writers and artists. In the mid-1850s, however, Brady and other artists began using collodion-on-glass negatives, or wet plates, and soon the era of the daguerreotype was over. By the onset of the Civil War, the paper print had replaced the daguerreotype altogether as the means by which Brady and other artists distributed the faces and scenes of their time.

Elite daguerreotype studios were outfitted with colorful velvet tapestry, frescoed ceilings, six-light chandeliers, and, of course, impressive daguerreotype portraits of kings and queens, politicians, and even Native American chiefs (2005.100.82) displayed on the walls, dressed up in fine frames. Nevertheless, the medium’s success in America was built upon the patronage of the average worker who desired a simple likeness to keep for himself, or more likely, to send to a loved one as the era’s most enduring pledge of friendship. Among the many momentous social transformations generated by photography’s invention was the possibility of self-representation by a large variety of groups previously excluded from official portraiture. Seamstresses, carpenters, actors (1999.481.1), goldminers, and even the recently deceased all sat for their official portraits, leaving behind an extremely valuable record of their anonymous, if not invisible, lives.

Early American Photography on Paper, 1850s–1860s
Although quite popular in Europe, photography with paper negatives as invented by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839 found little favor in America. The daguerreotype process, employing a polished silver-plated sheet of copper, was the dominant form of photography for the first twenty years of picture making in the United States. A notable exception is the work of the little-known French-born artist Victor Prevost (1820–1881) (40.102.9), who in 1853 undertook a speculative project to create a photographic catalogue of the changing shape of New York City—a monument constantly in the making.

By the late 1850s, most American artists had switched from the daguerreotype process to large glass-plate negatives and albumen silver prints that combined the exquisite clarity of the daguerreotype and the endless reproducibility of paper-print photography. The glass plates were also extremely light sensitive, making exposure times dramatically shorter. Photographers such as Mathew B. Brady, James Wallace Black (1825–1896) (1981.1229.4), and Silas A. Holmes (1820–1886) (1997.382.52) could simultaneously record the city’s inhabitants and its streets and monuments, something not easily accomplished with the daguerreotype process.

The vast majority of American photographs made before the Civil War era are portraits. Before the late 1850s, city and town views are rare; studies of the landscape exceedingly so. By 1860, however, city views such as those published as stereographs by the E. & H. T. Anthony Company soon fulfilled the population’s ravenous desire for nonportrait photographs, including busy urban scenes (1980.1056.3), genre studies, and unusual rural landscapes from Niagara Falls to Yosemite. A stereograph, commonly known as a stereo view, is a double photograph presented in such a manner that an observer looking through a stereoscope sees a single image in three dimensions. Introduced in 1840, stereoscopy did not become truly popular in America until the late 1850s, when stereo photography became a novelty collectible.