Windows In Time
The Art Of Daguerreotypes
"This is the Daguerreotype!...
The New Yorker,
In today's heightened
market of fine art photography, daguerreotypes are among the most sought
after collectibles. Posh galleries and private collectors are ever on
the lookout for those unique gems from that time long ago when photography
was in its infancy.
Newly surfacing among the dealers
in daguerreotypes is Larry Collins, associate director of the Schoolhouse
Center for Art & Design in Provincetown, Massa-chusetts, who is assembling
what promises to be an outstanding collection for his patrons. Collins
became interested in cased-images while a professor of art and an antique
dealer in New York in the early '80s. "I look for the unusual
in daguerreotypes," he says, "such as the attributes a sitter
may have--their working implements, articles of clothing or jewelry that
might be different. The size and condition of the image also determines
the value. Occasionally I am able to identify a sitter by something that
was written and slipped behind the matte. Once I found a beautiful inscription
in a portrait of a 17-year-old Civil War soldier. It was from his family;
who he was and when he died and how they loved him and sent him off to
In the Naylor collection a
particularly elegant example shows a lady in black mourning garb sitting
against a black background. Her face is framed in white lace. "She
is not young," says Naylor, "but she is beautiful. That is
quality." One of my favorites is of General Tom Thumb standing on
a chair. He had just returned from England and is wearing a watch and
chain given to him by Queen Victoria. He was age 10 at the time the photograph
was taken in 1848 and it is a wonderful image, one of the very few pictures
taken of him. Its present value is about $20,000.
The silvery look he refers
to begins on a copper plate that has been electrocoated with silver, then
polished until it becomes a mirror. It is then sensitized with iodine
and put into the camera. The photograph is quickly exposed to light, removed
from the camera, and held over a bath of mercury fumes until the image
appears. Removed from the camera, the image goes through another bath
of sodium thiosulfate and a fixer. "However," Naylor explains,
"the image is transient and only fixed if it is protected. If I
take the glass off and rub a cloth or my hand over it, the image will
disappear--it is really just resting there."
The value of a daguerreotype
is not only based on the image. Many are in elaborate cases ranging from
wood and velvet to mother-of-pearl. Some are lacquer painted or, in rare
instances, cameos are carved in the wood. The most perfect presentation
Naylor says he has found is an 8x10" case of mother-of-pearl with
an illuminated painting inside. Another outstanding setting is a mahogany
frame holding 48 sixth plate daguerreotypes from 1855, surrounded in different
shaped mattes cut in the styles of the day.
The age of a daguerreotype
is not based on the image alone. Often it can be determined by the posing
of the subject. Many of the earliest subjects looked scared to death,
their eyes transfixed with fright as photographers were learning how to
pose them and deal at the same time with the primitive equipment and chemicals.
When the process was first developed in 1839 by Jacques Daguerre, the
exposure time was 30 minutes in noon sunlight but was soon reduced to
less than one minute.
It is the clarity of a daguerreotype
that seems unbelievable today and few photographs done now can surpass
them. The perfection has attracted over 850 members to the Daguerreian
Society which includes dealers who make their living exclusively on daguerreotypes
and sell them to museums. "They are the world's first images,"
says Naylor, "and they are unique. Each one is one of a kind and
there is always the element of history as well as a wide interest in owning
the first of something."
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