The Visual Preservation of Photography
“Photographing a culture in the here and now often means photographing the intersection of the present with the past.”
- David DuChemin
We’ve discussed the social impact of photography - now it’s time to take a closer look into the processes and pieces that began the evolution of the everlasting image.
With a myriad combined daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, this robust collection encapsulates a critical period in the birth of photography. Captured within these frozen moments are expressions born from extensive sittings, where an hour turned into an eternity. Imagine sitting motionless before an alien machine, awaiting the operator to snap the shot that will, for the first time, immortalize your likeness? Faces impressed on glass, painted background scenes, ghostly eyes and textured tintype landscapes peered out of these revolutionary images, introducing an entirely new way to preserve the present.
Because that’s what photography is - the ultimate visual preservation. It has created a way in which we can look back over the pages of time and see what came before us. It delivers clues as to ancestral likenesses and provides evidence of our roots. It proves the existence of our heritage and in some way, us.
This new means of preservation began to take hold in 1837 with the advent of the Daguerreotype process, in which images on silver-plated copper were coated with silver iodide and then developed with warm mercury. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer discovered a much more affordable and faster way to improve photographic resolution; by dissolving nitrated cotton in ether and alcohol and spreading the mixture on a sheet of glass, wet plate photography picked up where daguerreotype’s left off, allowing for unlimited reproductions. Tintypes were then created by utilizing a sheet of iron coated with enamel or a dark lacquer. Through this application, a direct positive could be made, supporting the process of photographic emulsion. With the rise in popularity of this application in the 1860s and 1870s, people enjoyed the instant gratification of receiving their image just moments after it was captured.
The way in which these evolving images were presented is just as noteworthy, as they were works of art in and of themselves. Elaborate Union Cases, whether leather-bound or molded from thermoplastic, provided a dignified display for family portraits, landscapes and wildly popular shots of pets. These book-like portfolios featured closure clasps, velvet lining and intricate gold frames, making them just as collectible as the photographs they housed.
Together, these presentations offer snapshot after coveted snapshot into not only the emergence of a pivotal art form, but 19th century society as they saw themselves, for the first time, reflected through the alchemic experimentation and application of light, glass and tin.
The power of this gathering lies within the visual lineage it creates. One can literally touch the raw building blocks of photography and conceptualize a map of aesthetic and societal growth through the changing processes, subjects, poses, backgrounds and props of these varied artifacts. Through the changing faces and backgrounds and landscapes of every day people in every day society, this comprehensive array of 19th century photography grants unique access into the art form that would come to shape the way we see and remember the world.
Joanna "Joie" Ware, writing desk, photos, correspondence, and diaries - MA & NH
Unique 19th century painted portrait, sixth-plate ambrotype with stereoscope in vintage Union Case
1870's - 1900's family photography album featuring members of the Lyle, Erving, Hawkins families
1880's family photography album featuring members of the Schultz & Sehutly families
Family archive from the Sleeper, Reeve, Gumpert and Snyder familys
Late 19th century gem tintypes album featuring 96 tintypes
19th century CDV by J. Gurney & Son Photography Studio
Vintage Carte-de-visite of the late nineteenth century