Southwarth and Hawes: Daguerreotypes and Young America
On a slightly different note from most of my postings: My wife and I finally went to see--on its closing day, January 8--the George Eastman House's display of early photographic daguerreotypes by Southwarth and Hawes, a pair of studio photographers who ran one of Boston's most prominent studios in the mid-19th century. Daguerreotypes were early types of photographs, first developed in 1839, that, in contrast to later chemical processes, left no negative:
- Instead, it is an image exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface of silver, which has first been exposed to iodine vapour, or in the later use of the process, bromine vapour, housed in a velvet-lined folding case. While the daguerreotype was not the first photographic process to be developed, images of earlier processes required hours of exposure. The daguerreotype photographic process was one of the first to permanently record and affix an image with exposure time compatible with portrait photography, and became the first commercially used photographic process.
So while the daguerreotype process was a key advance--perhaps the key advance--in early photography, they're pretty rare today, with most of these early examples lost to history. That's why this exhibition was so special. Titled Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes, the exhibition, which debuted at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City last June, shows how Southwarth and Hawes
- took artistic portraiture to a new level beyond common commercial photography. In service of an elite and famous clientele, they worked with large 8x6-inch plate sizes, technically more challenging but aesthetically more beautiful. As their unique daguerreotypes attest, Southworth & Hawes focused lavish attention on national and international celebrities who traveled to their Boston studio, capturing likenesses in picturesque fashion.
The startling fact that Southworth & Hawes retained copies of most of their works, rather than wiping clean old images and reusing their silver plates, makes this collection even more exceptional. There were many fascinating portraits of major figures of the early American Republic, including "statesman Daniel Webster and literary figures Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe;" but I found equally fascinating the images of ordinary men and women, boys and girls, most of whose names have been lost to history 150 years on. And the daguerreotype stereoviews were pretty amazing too! (See also the permanent exhibition website here.)