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Focusing on the Face

From Harvard's collections, a look at the origins and elemental appeal of photography

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Louis Jacques MandZˇ Daguerre, 1851, by John Adams Whipple.

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, 1851, by John Adams Whipple.

Courtesy of the Harvard University Art Museums, ©President and Fellows of Harvard College.


The photograph that opens the first chapter
of Melissa Banta's A Curious and Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard is of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre himself, the unlikely inventor of the first practical method of photography. One remarkable aspect of this photograph is the simple fact that it exists. Daguerre was an uneducated theatrical scene painter living in Paris when, on August 19, 1839, he culminated 12 years of experimentation with a public presentation of his method for photography, which he immodestly called the daguerreotype. Highly polished silver-plated copper was sensitized with iodine fumes, exposed in a camera obscura, and developed in mercury vapor. Today you will find none of these chemicals in a photographic lab.

The daguerreotype was a technological dead end in the history of photography and by the 1860s it would all but disappear. But the images it created were marvels of clarity and detail, and the public took to them with a speed and abandon that bordered on insanity. Within days of that summer afternoon, the world was exploding with practitioners, and within a year the craze would sweep the United States and places as remote as Brazil and China. From that moment on, what was to become a magnificent digression in the scientific development of photography forever transformed the way the world perceived itself.

A half-plate daguerreotype of Edwin Forrest as King Lear, attributed to the studio of Mathew Brady.

A half-plate daguerreotype of Edwin Forrest as King Lear, attributed to the studio of Mathew Brady.

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

The photograph of Daguerre is noteworthy also because it was taken in Boston and is now part of the Fogg Art Museum collection at Harvard. This country had embraced the new technology with an enthusiasm unmatched in the world and, as Banta shows, nowhere more so than in Boston, the very first American city that Daguerre visited to promote his invention. It is therefore not surprising that some of the earliest and best examples of the new medium found their way into collections at Harvard University.

A third noteworthy aspect of the photograph is the fact that it is a portrait. Daguerre might not have been able to predict what the new universe of imagery would look like, but the public knew exactly: the family! Of the millions of daguerreotypes made in the 20 or so years of their heyday, the vast majority were portraits of people, an "endless parade of relatives," as John Sarkowski, the former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, has written.

Portrait painters could painstakingly (and expensively) convey something of what Aunt Mary looked like, but the daguerreotypist could do it almost instantly, at a fraction of the cost, and give the illusion that this was exactly what Aunt Mary looked like. To the 1840s sensibility, these tiny, intimate pictures must have seemed truly lifelike, and for the burgeoning middle class they quickly became an essential part of family life that no previous generation had ever experienced. Of the 75 daguerreotypes reproduced in Banta's book, only four--three shots of the moon and one cityscape--are not of people.

And what wonderful people they were. From the impossibly coarse, rugged face of Massachusetts chief justice Lemuel Shaw to the wild-eyed look of the actor Edwin Forest as King Lear, this book explores the characters and personal stories of some of the most fascinating people of the mid nineteenth century: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James senior and junior, James McNeill Whistler, Dorothea Dix, Thomas Carlyle, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lola Montez, Jenny Lind, Horatio Alger, Junius Brutus Booth, and even "General" Tom Thumb.

View of the moon, February 26, 1852, by John Adams Whipple.

View of the moon, February 26, 1852, by John Adams Whipple.

Courtesy of the Harvard College Observatory

But Banta, the Adler curatorial associate in the Harvard University Library Preservation Center, provides far more than a mere parade of the century's elite. Perhaps the most remarkable of her 28 short chapters deals with the strange and troubling case of the slave portraits done for natural historian Louis Agassiz, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard. In the early 1850s, Agassiz spent some time in South Carolina, where he discussed his theories on polygenesis with an acquaintance, the physician Robert Gibbes. Agassiz, as Banta explains, had come to reject the idea of a single origin for human beings and believed in the existence of separate human species. He asked Gibbes to arrange for photographs to be taken of a number of slaves in the hope of revealing distinct anatomical features that would prove his thesis.

Unfortunately for Agassiz's reputation, this theory would be used by many to justify slavery. But as Banta points out, the photographs themselves have a quality that suggests something beyond mere scientific data. Gibbes chose to hire Joseph T. Zealy, a well-known Columbia, South Carolina, portrait photographer who photographed the slaves in his elegantly appointed studio and used the same lighting he used with the society ladies of the day. The results go well beyond objective science. The use of side lighting gives the pictures an elegant sculptural quality despite the otherwise dehumanizing treatment of the subjects. A good example is the photograph of "Jem, Gullah [tribe]," who was photographed nude and from behind. What would otherwise be a bland, if not crude, objectifying view seems transformed by the magnificent interplay of light and shadow caused by a human form that ironically depicts a beauty and commonality with the entire human species.

The daguerreotypes of various pathologies, commissioned by Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow of the Massachusetts General Hospital, to which Banta devotes a different chapter, were in many cases also made by highly skilled portrait photographers, including John Adams Whipple. That work, too, often resulted in strangely beautiful studies of "a humanity of suffering," Banta writes, "that is absent in the detached, clinical photographs of later years."

 

There is a final significant feature of the portrait of Daguerre that Banta reproduces. Close examination of his face reveals more than its mere contours. The expression is puzzling. Is it exhaustion, bewilderment, or perhaps wonder at this strange miracle he had unleashed on the world?

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852(?), by an unknown photographer.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852(?), by an unknown photographer.

Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library
A postmortem portrait of Samuel Charles Stowe, 1848, son of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Charles H. Fontayne and W.S. Porter.

A postmortem portrait of Samuel Charles Stowe, 1848, son of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Charles H. Fontayne and W.S. Porter.

Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library

The daguerreotype had not only produced a new democracy of imagery, it had made it possible to reveal subtleties of human expression never before realized. While the painter could synthesize the look on the face of the sitter over an extended period, photography revealed the facial patterns of a single moment--and forever transformed portraiture. From the sad, downcast look of Harriet Beecher Stowe to the bright, optimistic half-smile of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the strangely grave stare of his five-year-old son Waldo, photography would produce a new iconography of expression that seemed to take the viewer much deeper into the very essence of the subject.

And as the portrait of Waldo suggests, photography's very ubiquity would create a new genre of personal memento--the family album. Within a year of the picture, Waldo would be dead of scarlet fever, but, in the words of the daguerreotypist N. O. Burgess, "When the speaking eye and warm cheek of loved ones...have passed away and left only their impress upon the tablet, then...will this art assert its true greatness."

The new medium allowed families to collect images of whole generations in a way never before possible. Banta devotes a chapter to the daguerreotypes of Harriet Beecher Stowe's family found at the Radcliffe Institute's Schlesinger Library. They include a portrait of her father, the sternly Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, standing next to her younger brother (and childhood playmate) Henry Ward Beecher. There is a marvelous portrait of her older sister Catherine, Harriet's role model as an author, pen and paper in hand; a formal portrait of Harriet herself standing next to her seated husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe; and the affecting portrait, mentioned above, in which she rests her head on her hand. But perhaps most remarkable are two portraits of her children. One shows her eldest, Henry Ellis Stowe, holding the family dog. Within a year Henry would be dead, drowned while a student at Dartmouth. The other daguerreotype is a postmortem of her sixth child, the infant Samuel Charles Stowe, holding a sprig in his tiny hands and looking as if he were peacefully asleep. In an age of very high infant mortality, photography gave the Stowe family and others an exquisite tool with which to connect the living with the dead, a curious image of the continuum of the stream of life, not only as a unique gift to their families' future generations, but to historians, scientists, and all manner of scholars.

B-slave

Jem, Gullah, 1850, by Joseph T. Zealy

Courtesy of the Peabody Museum, ©President and Fellows of Harvard College

Banta's book shows how photography provides us with a window into nineteenth-century American intellectual and cultural life while reminding us of how little certain aspects of that life have changed. The emulsions and lenses in use today would dazzle Daguerre, but the eternal subjects he and his immediate successors chose have remained much the same in the 16 decades since. It is ourselves we still see most clearly through our cameras.