Daguerreotypes bring shimmer to antique photography

Daguerreotypes depict not only the elite classes of the 19th century, but also lower-class citizens. The earliest form of photographs are encased in beautiful cases and will be displayed in the Loeb. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Daguerreotypes depict not only the elite classes of the 19th century, but also lower-class citizens. The earliest form of photographs are encased in beautiful cases and will be displayed in the Loeb. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Daguerreotypes depict not only the elite classes of the 19th century, but also lower-class citizens. The earliest form of photographs are encased in beautiful cases and will be displayed in the Loeb. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations

This Friday, the walls of the Loeb will be shining with the unusual and unique photographs in “Through the Looking Glass: Daguerreotype Masterworks from the Dawn of Photography.”

Research Assistant of this exhibit, Kristen Cnossen ’15, has been researching and working on bringing this exhibit to Vassar since this past summer, and her work culminates in the exhibit which will last from April 10 to June 14. The daguerreotype is a very obscure form of art, and specifically of the subfield of photography, so Cnossen gave a description of the medium, saying, “So what the daguerreotype is, is a polished silver plate that has imprinted on it an image from sunlight. And so what it does is it imprints a negative and a positive image onto this plate, which gives it this surreal movement.”

She continued, “So it’s like a mirror with in image on top and on the side of it so when you move, you get this like different negative or positive and its very odd. There’s nothing quite like it…It was the first type of patent in photography.”

Not only did these virtual multi-layered photographs have a distinctive look on their own, the artists who assembled them added a stylistic and practical aspect. “They put them in these leather bound cases that had these flaps on them. The U.S. was known for creating very fancy cases. They ended up making these, like, plastic cases. They’re all beautiful with floral designs–quite lovely keepsakes,” noted Cnossen.

While the intricate and ornate production of these art forms would suggest a high-profile clientele, the actual subjects were lower-class than other documentation of that time period, the early-to-mid 19th century. Cnossen spoke to the novelty of this class of people being on the other end of the camera lens, “This is the first time that someone a little bit poorer might be able to get their image taken. So you see rural families, we get dresses, uniforms, not just the elite, we get images of daily life and this also starts occupational. so there’s this interesting desire to take the likeness of what a worker looks like; does a miner look different from a clam digger from a harvest taker?”

Cnossen continued, “In our show, there’s a lot of [daguerreotypes], with their tools and whatnot. You have portraits, like normal, with people wearing their Sunday bests. You have outdoor photographs, so taking pictures of your possessions, so like a barn or a cow.”

While upper class adults and children were better-documented around this time, we got a new view into the culture and traditions of the working class. Cnossen, through her research, noticed interesting differences in the historical convention in the 1800’s: “Children are really interesting…they wore their mother’s clothing–even boys. They weren’t considered men yet. They were still children, they were still innocent, they…weren’t men yet, so they couldn’t wear mens clothing. You could tell they were boys and not girls because of the parts in their hair. Women have straight [down the middle] parts and men had it on the sides…That was it.”

Although the photos are in black and white, and might not immediately make one think of brightness, Cnossen ensures that the exhibit will not fail to impress. “[We have] over 140 images; they’re beautiful. They shine–this is really bad, I’m going to quote Rihanna but–they shine like diamonds. They’re in these cases with individual lights and they really are on display. It’s not like something else we’ve had. I’ve never seen the Loeb look like this, it looks pristine, it looks nice. I’m very excited,” she said.

The art form itself and it’s subjects aren’t the only idiosyncratic aspects of the show; the way this specific collection was accumulated is in itself uncommon. Cnossen said, “When it comes to daguerreotypes, there are American ones and European ones, and they’re normally kept pretty separate because collectors are looking for different things.  American daguerreotypes have a certain aspect to them that are different from European ones. No one [has] really mixed them.”

This distinction between daguerreotypes from different continents usually is stark and separate, but the curator specially blended the two. “Well, Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, who the collection is from, they have a range from all over. This is the first time that we’re having a Daguerreotype show with American next to European, not [distinguishing] the difference. I think that’s what really drew Mary Kay [Lombino], the curator, to this show specifically, this idea that this is the first time that…we are trying to innovate and trying to close some gaps,” said Lombino’s research assistant.

As the opening of the exhibit approaches, the bigger vision is now grounded in reality, and Cnossen is excited to share her work with the viewers of the exhibition, “Everything was very well thought out and [Lombino] bounced ideas off of me in order to do that–in the layout as well. I think the main thing is this idea of the first type of photography, mirror-like images, they kind of look like jewels in the cases. And seeing a piece of the nineteenth century that you can’t see in books, you can’t see in painting, you can’t see in art. It is real life.”

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