Daguerreotypes: someone sitting stiffly, right? Or perhaps someone standing stiffly? That’s the way we think of those small, rather elegant, 19th-century first ventures into photography. Ninety-nine percent of daguerreotypes would fit that description, says Tamera Muente, the Taft Museum of Art’s installing curator for its current show, Photographic Wonders: American Daguerreotypes from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The surprise of the show, she adds, is that virtually all of it is drawn from that other one percent.
We see a tightrope walker in tights and lace-trimmed briefs, a clown in a full polka-dotted get-up and painted-on mustache. An indoor scene shows two people: a daguerreotypist displaying his work and a potential customer. In another, a boy sits back on a chair, eyes big, mouth open, making a face for the camera. There are outdoor city scenes and a few shots of people at work: gold miners operating a sluice is one of them. We can see exactly what a quiet street in Howell, Mich., looked like in 1854 and Front Street, Portland, Ore., in about 1852.
Curious people were exploring the idea of photography as early as the last decade of the 18th century, but its true introduction to the world came in 1839 when Louis Daguerre invented a way to make pictures using a camera, light and chemicals to record the image, develop it and permanently fix it on a metal surface. There was just one image, duplicates not yet imagined, but that image was a revelation.
It was literally a mirror image captured on a copper plate that had been coated with silver and treated with chemicals. At the very beginning, exposures were as long as 30 minutes — no wonder a certain stiffness can be seen! — but modifications quickly shortened the time, although never bringing it down to the brief exposures we take for granted.
These small and delicate images were usually looked at while being held in the viewer’s hand, not a model for a museum show. The 82 daguerreotypes in Photographic Wonders, in fact, present an installation challenge, inventively and successfully met at the Taft. The galleries are dim but the works are individually lighted, displayed in a manner that is the next best thing to holding one in your hand.
Famous people for the first time could be seen as they looked in a mirror, rather than as they looked to an artist representing them in a drawing or painting. Harriet Beecher Stowe is here, so is Tom Thumb, Frederick Douglass and Indian Chief Maungwudaus of Upper Canada, looking both dignified and splendid in feather headdress and silver jewelry. But perhaps more interesting are ordinary people, in the section called “Occupational Portraits.” Among them are a blacksmith with his hammer raised and a woman shown with the tool of her trade, an iron for pressing clothes. In the “Butcher Shop Interior,” close attention shows that the meat has been hand-tinted red.
Another revealing section is “Life in America,” where we see people playing games (dominoes, backgammon, cards), as well as a portrait of four Native Americans in what appear to be their everyday clothes and pictures that take for granted the presence of slaves in Southern daily life. The Victorian preoccupation with death and dying took quickly to this new technique and post-mortem portraits, often of young children, are a disturbing but touching section of the exhibition.
Cincinnati, busy and bustling, is represented here by “The Jacob Strader at Wharf, Cincinnati” (ca. 1853) and is probably the work of Ezekiel Hawkins, the city’s first daguerreotypist. More about Hawkins and the Cincinnati practitioners can be seen through July 21 in Local Exposures in the Taft’s Sinton Gallery, where 10 daguerreotypes include a street scene that rewards close attention as well as family portraits and one or two famous men.
Photographic Wonders comes from The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and is drawn from the Hallmark Cards Daguerreotype Collection, donated to the museum in 2005. The exhibition is an unusual opportunity to see uncommon works in what is now an obscure form of photography. We forget that at its height, up to about 1860, daguerreotypes were the only form of photography available.
PHOTOGRAPHIC WONDERS is on view at the Taft Museum of Art (316 Pike St., Downtown) through Aug. 25. Gallery talks, free with museum admission, provide interesting insights into the show at 1:30 p.m. June 20, July 26 and Aug. 16. More information: taftmuseum.org.