In 1839, two new processes for capturing "reality" were announced, thereby changing forever the way we would see the world. William Henry Fox Talbot presented to the public in London photogenic drawing, or what he first called the paper image, while across the channel in Paris, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, through the French Academy of Sciences, announced the invention of the daguerreotype.
Talbot's system would eventually lead to the more familiar negative to positive process that can replicate images almost endlessly, and is still in use today, but Daguerre's process, which he perfected on his own after the death of his partner Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, was unique and unduplicatable. Although the Talbot invention would later surpass it, the Daguerreotype was extremely popular in the beginning.
Despite the difficulty of the daguerreotype process (exposing a silver-coated copper plate sensitized in iodine vapor and then developing the latent image by fuming in mercury vapor), it did provide the possibility of a fairly inexpensive way to make portraits. The process became so popular that in 1853 three million daguerreotypes were made, and there were an estimated 10,000 daguerreotype studios in the United State alone.
One of these studios was located in Boston. Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes were partners from 1843 to 1863. The enduring product of this commercial partnership is the subject of the exhibition on view at the George Eastman House, Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes.
There are more than 150 daguerreotypes, most of them portraits (including the faces of a number of well-known 19th-century Americans) but there are also cityscapes, still-lifes, event documentation, and even photographic copies of portrait paintings. These portraits are particularly important today for two reasons. First, the images, which exude a strikingly "modern" minimalist sensibility, are of extremely good quality. Second, these are the faces of an America that is not yet even a century old.
Appropriately, the first image you see as you enter the gallery is that of a young woman looking at the painted portrait of George Washington, who stares back at us. This triangulated viewing experience allows for the connection of three moments in history: The photograph of the girl is "proof" that, at some real point in time, she stood in front of a painting of George Washington, who would have had to be in front of the artist who painted him, and now both the painting and the girl are in front of the camera operated by Southworth and Hawes.
The photograph implies a seamlessness of both vision and history but history exists in the gap between what we see and what is not there. Who was this young woman? While the beautiful surfaces and interesting faces give the viewer all that is there in front of the camera, these pictures withhold much more than they show.
We can imagine the stories behind the sitters and the lives they led. In that way, these images form a window into life in Victorian America. Sure, it's a window with many panes, some of which we can see through and some of which we can't. In the course of their 20 years together, Southworth and Hawes took artistic portraiture to a new level. They believed their customers should be seen as they wanted to be seen rather than as they really were.
Consider, for example, a pair of photographs of an unidentified woman. Southworth's sister Nancy married Hawes and became a part of the business, assisting sitters and hand-coloring exposed plates. Included in their advertisements were the words, "woman on site."
In this particular pair of images, the version on the right is of a weary-looking middle-aged woman wearing a plaid silk waist. We guess at her age based on the slightly sagging face with slightly pronounced smile lines and the hint of darkness under her eyes. But the version on the left has not only been hand-colored but the colorist has also revived the face. The facial lines have been smoothed out, the cheeks tinted a rosy hue, and a more youthful, pretty appearance has been left in place.
The bridal portraits, virtually unknown in the work of other daguerreotypists, are yet another example of how Southworth and Hawes were sensitive to the needs and social aspirations of their elite and famous clientele, even displaying what some critics have termed "artistic taste" (although how and where Southworth and Hawes acquired this taste is not clear).
In an image dated circa 1850, a young woman with gloved hands stands facing the camera in an elegant, multi-tiered wedding gown. We know from the accompanying label that the portrait was for display in the Grand Parlor and Gallery Stereoscope, a major feature of Southworth and Hawes' exhibition room. As one of the curators remarked, "From a mile away you can tell this is a special photograph."
Looking at daguerreotypes has never been so easy. The museum pulled out all the stops and figured out how to light each and every one so that you can see them easily. There is no need for head bobbing or weaving. No need to try to jockey your body around so as to remove a distracting reflection.
Ironically, this accomplishment makes you forget that what we're really looking at are objects, beautiful and mesmerizing, but remote and silent. Though easy to look at, these photographs cannot literally speak to us. We have to fill in the stories ourselves.
You should go if you want to see a daguerreotype like you'll never see again.
Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes, through January 8 | George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue | 271-3361, www.eastmanhouse.org | Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m., Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. | $8, $6 seniors, $5 students, $3 children