American Photography: 1839-1900

At Worcester Art Museum.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June 1989)

Old photographs have an aura. Small, dark windows onto an unreachable past, they always seem profound.

As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography,

“Photographs are, of course, artifacts. But their appeal is that they also seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects — unpremeditated slices of the world.”

The earliest pictures in the Worcester Art Museum’s wonderful small show of early American photography are daguerrotypes — photographic images fixed onto a buffed silvered copperplate. A group of small, delicate daguerrotypes by unidenfitied photographers shows a brass ensemble, a surveyor, a butterfly collector, a group of men playing cards, and Lola Montez in a ballet costume. Silvery and almost transparent, their delicate faces float on the shimmering silver plates like ghosts. Marcus Aurelius Root‘s portrait of Edgar Allan Poe was shows him at the age of 39, the year before he died. With his sensitive face, long hair and dark dreamy eyes, he’s the perfect image of the romantic poet.

“Quoth the raven, Nevermore.”

Almost all the people in the portraits present worried, anxious faces to the camera; having your picture taken in the nineteenth century was a serious business. The camera was enormous, bulky, and expensive; the process was time-consuming and mysterious. (Several antique cameras are also on display, including an 1858 wet-plate field camera in a brass and mahogany case and a working replica of a 1939 Giroux Daguerreotype camera in an enormous box made from agathis, an evergreen wood from the Philippines. In their polished wooden boxes, the cameras look more like objets d’art than machines.)

An 1850 portrait of John C. Calhoun from Matthew Brady‘s Gallery of Illustrious Americans shows the abolitionist with hollow cheeks and staring eyes, a high forehead and a furrowed brow. Brady’s imperial albumen print of General Halleck’s wife shows a woman with a plain, distraught face wearing a voluminous dress covered with lace and pulled in tight and rigid as a column at the waist. An enormous distance seems to separate these people in their heavy, constricting clothes and dark, gloomy rooms from the great uncharted American wilderness — a distance almost as great as the distance between our world and theirs.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan was sent out on surveys to document the wilderness of the American West — vast, wild, and free. His beautiful bronze-brown albumen prints of deserts and mountains are still convey a sense of rapture and awe. O’Sullivan’s 1873 photographs of New Mexico show ancient ruins carved into a mountain that looks like a Gothic cathedral, and strange sacred-seeming monumental stones.

John Adams Whipple‘s 1851 daguerrotype The Moon, taken from Harvard College Observatory, is completely abstract. It’s a magical image — a perfect circle floating on the shimmering silver surface of a tiny mirror, enshrined in an elaborate golden frame.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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