16 Amazing Studio Portraits From the Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography From the 1840s and 1850s

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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.

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 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.

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), 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), and Silas A. Holmes (1820–1886) could simultaneously record the city’s inhabitants and its streets and monuments, something not easily accomplished with the daguerreotype process.

1. Portrait of a Young Man, 1840

(Photo: Samuel F. B. Morse)

Samuel F. B. Morse met Louis Daguerre, the French inventor of photography, in Paris in the spring of 1839. Morse was the first American to see a daguerreotype and among the earliest artists in the United States to experiment with the new medium. This simple portrait of an unknown sitter, who clearly strains to keep his eyes open during the long, twenty-to-thirty minute exposure, is the only extant daguerreotype by Morse and one of the earliest photographs made in America. The strength of the portrait is in the young man’s rapt expression, which seems to reflect a subtle awareness of his participation in a grand endeavor. The mindful sitter is one of the first in photography to return the gaze of the viewer.

2. Blind Man and His Reader, ca. 1850

(Photo: Unknown)

Little is known about this enigmatic portrait except that the young reader holds a copy of the New York Herald. Known for its prurient interest in scandal and crime, as well as its pioneering use of the telegraph and railroad to gather news, the newspaper, launched in 1835, had the largest circulation of any daily in the United States. One wonders what was in the news the day this photograph was made. The outbreak of the Mexican-American war in 1846? The discovery of gold in California in 1848? Or perhaps an article from Brighton, England, on Dr. W. Moon’s system (1847) of raised type that allowed the blind to read with their fingers? Moon type, as it was known, pre-dated by more than twenty years the universal adoption in 1869 of Louis Braille’s system (1834) of raised points.

3. Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton), ca. 1848

(Photo: Unknown)

4. Lemuel Shaw, ca. 1850

(Photo: Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes)

The Boston partnership of Southworth and Hawes produced the finest portrait daguerreotypes in America for a clientele that included leading political, intellectual, and artistic figures. This first photographic process, invented by Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), spread rapidly around the world after its public presentation 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, viewed in proper light, exhibits extraordinary detail and three-dimensionality. Lemuel Shaw’s imposing presence, sculpted by intense sunlight and gifted artistic vision, is a startling departure from the conventional posed portrait, customarily set in a studio and lit indirectly.

5. Daniel Webster, ca. 1850

(Photo: Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes)

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was one of nineteenth-century America’s most imposing figures, a statesman and orator of staggering power and erudition. He sat for this portrait just one month before his controversial speech in support of the Compromise of 1850, which allowed fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners, a stance which subsequently contributed to Webster’s political downfall. Southworth & Hawes’ monumental depiction seems to embody Carlyle’s opinion that “as a logic fencer, advocate, or parliamentary Hercules, one would incline to back [Webster] at first sight against all the extant world.”

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