An Antique Reality Shines With Everlasting Beauty

Ethereally beautiful and wonderfully anachronistic, daguerreotypy is an art of an earlier age. Founded by its namesake, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, it was the Victorian-era precursor to photography, but has since largely been forgotten and its products mainly lost. In something of a resurrection, daguerreotypy is the subject of an exhibit, “A Curious and Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard,” at the Fogg Art Museum.

Although the exhibit currently resides in an art museum, daguerreotypy is as indebted to science as it is founded on aesthetics. The technique required a delicate mix of noxious chemicals, absolute stillness on behalf of the subject and precise timing from the operator. Error yielded cloudy phantom shadows, but the hands of a master consistently produced images with clarity paralleling—and more frequently exceeding—that of modern single-reflex lens photography.

However, daguerreotypy, in its execution, is a far more compelling art form than its more advanced sibling. Projected against a brushed silvery-gray background, the images emerge from the surface and possess an almost three-dimensional quality. The images shift slightly and appear to rotate as the viewer’s perspective changes, giving them a sense of life. Moreover, daguerreotypes possess greater individuality than photographs. Where from a single photographic negative, innumerable prints can be struck, each daguerreotype is composed of a single silver-coated copper plate from which no exact copies can be created. When viewed straight on, the image presented is the traditional positive, but as perspective shifts, the negative appears—in this manner, simultaneously occupying the normal and reverse of photographs, the singular uniqueness of daguerreotypes becomes wonderfully apparent.

Ranging in dimensions approximately equal to a sheet of letter paper to pocket-size, smaller daguerreotypes were housed in ornate keep-safe folders that are almost as compelling as the images themselves. In this form, the plates were passed down as heirlooms from generation to generation imbuing each daguerreotype with a unique aura. On that historical bent, daguerreotypes also presented the first opportunity for artists to capture the world in concrete faithful representation, and in a fit of nostalgia, a handful of American artists have founded a daguerreotypy renaissance over the past few years.

All these elements demonstrate the contemporary relevance of this rather archaic and fastidious art form, but daguerreotypy would forever remain in the realm of quaint anachronism were it not for the plates’ absolutely stunning qualities. Museum-supplied magnifying glasses allow for detailed scrutiny of the plates and reveal the incredible resolution produced by accomplished artists. Where photographs enlarged to increasing degrees will at some upper threshold reveal halftone dots and grainy images, daguerreotypes are virtually flawless in that even at highest magnification, the images never blur or distort.

The exhibit, thematically organized under five headings—the Scientists, the Professionals, the Families, the Collectors and the Daguerreotypists themselves—encompasses every facet of the 20 years, 1850 to 1870, when daguerreotypy was popularly practiced. The world’s “first” daguerreotypes, Sandworth and Hawes 1846-47 “Operations Under Ether,” underscore daguerreotypy’s scientific foundation, used here to capture the first instance of anesthesia-assisted surgery. Stoic and stern of countenance and apparel, the surgeons contrast in sharp relief with the patient, who, exists a blur in the center, a wild, smeared profusion of thrashing limbs and jerking torso. The picture is ultimately posed and gives the air of calm composure, but these stately figures also exude a certain palpable unease and skepticism, presumably from the fact that at the time, daguerreotypy was a new and untested art form.

From this beginning, daguerreotypy was also employed in cataloguing, in exquisitely grotesque detail, any number of deforming physical ailments confounding Victorian doctors. Contorted limbs, lesions and cancerous bumps provide morbid fascination as representative instances of medical and record through daguerreotypes.

The current paparazzi cult of celebrity is reflected in the vast array of portraits from actors and popular figures. Jenny Lind and Lola Montez, respectively a singer and a dancer, may have had their careers bolstered—or indeed wholly founded—on the strength of the gorgeous daguerreotypes of them and the lithographs copied from these, but they are overwhelmed by the star of this show. Edwin Forrest, an actor from the 1850s, was renowned for his portrayals of theater’s great heroic figures, and his huge twelve-inch-by-ten-inch daguerreotype reflects in faithful detail that summation of his character. Huge and hulking, his portrait seems to extend beyond the planar surface to surreally three-dimensional proportions and his face, slightly jowled and obstinate, demands nothing short of rapt attention. He must have been a commanding bull of a thespian.

Aside from the clinical and the stern, selections from “Curious and Ingenious” also demonstrate moments of tangible pathos. Head-shots of Louis Agassiz’s African slaves were initially taken to aid in the Harvard philanthropist’s desire to “prove the existence of a separate human species,” but now, the delicate, minute plates reveal something more. Viewed frontally and in profile, his four slaves exude a mournful yet dignified air. It becomes clear the torment and strain that incarcerated life has wracked on their bodies, but still, their strength is plainly evident in their sullen faces and sunken eyes. Surprisingly, there is nothing of anger or resentment, just a sense of resignation to fate, and this lamentable acceptance of reality simply makes their emotive power that much more heart-rending and painful to behold.

Despite the numerous compelling aspects of daguerreotypy, the Fogg exhibit also unconsciously reveals the art form’s limitations. Given the need for subject stillness, daguerreotypes obviously cannot capture action, and this realization is perhaps no more acutely realized in plates from the Harvard Theater Collection. In the 1860s, attempts were made to represent and immortalize college’s dramatic theater productions. It was certainly a worthwhile goal, but its execution ultimately falls short of any merit beyond strict documentation. The scenes portrayed ultimately feel forced and contrived; granted, photography is somewhat of an artifice itself, but in these instances, doubly so. Frozen fight scenes captured in daguerreotypes lack animated force and physical drive, and vignettes depicting cooing lovers have been robbed of amorous depth. It becomes clear that daguerreotypes are best left to focus on static portraiture.

Daguerreotypy may be an antiquated art of a simpler age, but for its complexity and breathtaking artistry, the technique certainly warrants attention in the here and now.

a curious and ingenious art

Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard

Through April 13, 2002

Fogg Art Museum