Anonymous American Photographer
- Anonymous American Photographer
TWO COUPLES IN A VERDANT SETTING
The present whole-plate daguerreotype, by an unknown American maker, is remarkable for the sophistication of its composition and the technical proficiency with which it was made. Outdoor daguerreotypes in the vertical format are unusual, as the horizontal format is the typical and intuitive choice for the majority of scenic imagery in any medium. The photographer of this scene has fully exploited the verticality of the frame to emphasize the arching vault of trees that overhangs the two couples. The quality of the exposure and resultant beauty of the plate demonstrate the photographer's firm grasp of daguerreotype technique; and while the impediments to making a successful whole-plate daguerreotype far from the controlled confines of a studio were many, this daguerreotype was executed flawlessly. The two couples, which a more conventionally-minded daguerreotypist would have placed squarely in the center of the image, are here set just below the center of the image in the frame's lower right quadrant. But they are not the sole subjects of this daguerreotype; as much—or perhaps greater—emphasis is placed upon the setting. The subjects are situated amidst of tumult of greenery which is moderated only by the geometries of the house and picket fence in the background.
The overwhelming number of extant outdoor or scenic daguerreotypes are primarily subject-motivated images, among them notable buildings, prize animals, celebrated features of a landscape, and the views taken in the California gold fields. In contrast, this daguerreotype moves beyond documentation of a single subject to capture a moment, on a spring or summer day, on the lawn of an American house. It is an ordinary scene portrayed in an extraordinary way by a daguerreotypist of great skill.
The maker of this atypical but thoroughly proficient image is unknown. The plate and frame offer several clues, although none of these is sufficient to make a definitive attribution. The high quality of the large plate and its sophisticated aesthetics suggests a daguerreotypist with an advanced degree of experience and expertise. Thus it is likely that the image was made in or near one of the centers of photography of the day, such as the cities of Boston or Philadelphia, both of which were home to many experienced and talented daguerreotypists. The penciled notations on the paper backing of the frame, likely in a 20th-century hand, indicate that it was made by the Langenheim bothers, William and Frederick, of Philadelphia. While this is a possibility, there is no other tangible evidence to suggest that it was indeed made by them. Close examination of the daguerreotype reveals that the center of the plate's top and bottom edges are bent down slightly (to help secure the plate during the pre-exposure buffing process). This was a technique used most notably, although not exclusively, by the partners Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes. Southworth & Hawes were known to have used brass mats like the one on this daguerreotype, and the thick but plain wood wall frame is also in keeping with their presentation style. More persuasive, perhaps, is that Southworth & Hawes took a number of outdoor whole-plate daguerreotypes utilizing the vertical format, six of which were offered in these rooms as part of the auction of The David Feigenbaum Collection of Southworth & Hawes in April of 1999. The locale of this scene has not been identified as of this writing, but the emphasis placed by the maker(s) on the verdant setting is consistent with the New England Transcendentalist reverence for nature.
Had this image been made later in the century, and on paper, it might have been mistaken for a preliminary study of an Impressionist canvas. The filtered sunlight, the shimmering trees, the beautifully-dressed sitters, the bright white fence in the middle ground—all would have served a plein air painter well. Indeed, one might assume that the author of the present image had been influenced by the tenets of Impressionism, had this daguerreotype not been made decades earlier.
In the 1880s, a segment of American photography would take an overtly painterly route, one influenced by European painting and culminating in the softened outlines and chiaroscuro of Pictorialism. The daguerreotype offered here, however, with its elegant realism and camera aesthetic, is not painterly, but photographic. Wholly modern in its vision and execution, it exemplifies an alternative direction in the development of photography, and in American photography in particular.