50 Years of Looking at Daguerreotypes

Grant Romer of the GEH at the PHSC

Grant Romer is a very gifted and natural speaker with the depth of knowledge to answer questions and offer ideas with easy grace. He has been associated with George Eastman House for almost 26 years. In his talk this evening, Grant placed the Daguerreotype in perspective and encouraged us to look at the garden variety images more closely.

A decade ago these images changed hands for just a few dollars. Today they command $60.00 to $100.00. A recent auction high in the United States was an image that sold for $500,000.00 dollars!

Niagara Falls early train image

The Daguerreotype was a very practical invention with its long term preservation exceeding 150 years (3 generations). 90 to 95 percent of the Daguerreotypes created during its 15 years of popularity have been lost. Only a small percentage of those remaining are in good shape and even fewer are considered pictorially worthwhile (based on the subject or the photographer).

Niagara Falls was a popular view for Daguerreotypists. Most collectors have at least one. Museums concentrate on extraordinary images like this train.

Grant feels the Daguerreotype is undervalued, Its characteristics distinguish it from other photographic images. In spite of the studies to date there is much to learn about these early images. Following are some of Grant's observations on common Daguerreotype images.

old folks early portrait studio

White male portraits are the most common and least interesting compared to ethnic images.

Early portraits used ad hoc set ups and borrowed from the other arts, but near the end of the Daguerreotype era a unique photographic style emerged as you can recognize below.

Look at these grandfolk. Born in the 1700s, alive during the war of 1812-14, yet strip away the period clothes etc. and they become people just like us today.

taking a shot who's afraid of the camera

To many, taking a likeness was a scary event -- like facing a cannon or big gun. Look closely at many images and you will see wariness and fear more often than not.

This image of actor Edwin Forrest is in its way a memorial image too. With his piercing look, he seems to be aware he is looking into the future, Not just the camera. He looks like Elvis a century before the King.

Greek memorial painting actor Edwin Forrest
early ad for Daguerreotype

Most sitters in the early days demanded the flat front view shown in this old ad. Of course there were those who could do a successful sitting with character like these two party types!

party guys

Memorial images date back centuries. Less than 100 of these painted memorials on wood exist. This Greek boy has his image, name and other details noted.

This picture of Dr. Rochester was donated to GEH by his family. It was taken just before he left for the California Gold Rush of 1849.

Doc Rochester heads west to the gold
the boys in the band

Look closely at any group image like this band, and you can see the individualism in the look and body language.

All decked out in his gold hunting gear, this was the last picture of the good Doctor. He never made it to the gold, instead he died in the mid-west of Cholera during his trip.

a child's gaze good lighting on young girl a charming Daguerreotype of a girl who says you can't have fun? there's one in every family

Grant chose these four images to demonstrate that Daguerreotypes didn't need to be wooden two dimensional portraits. The expressive gaze in the child's eyes, The high quality, modern day look of the young girl next to her, The natural look of the young woman and the kooky antics of the young girl on the right sitting backwards on a chair pulling faces.

..and you can find lots of the "Oil Can Harry" types too.. with a dour serious look at life.

In his closing remarks and Q&A session, Grant offered these observations:

** pictures are basic to human life
** more is less. today we are a walking gallery of images
** old images belong with the family where they will have meaning
** we are seeing more Daguerreotypes today then ever since the 1850s
** the number of images today reduce their value
** 10 images are enough to document the key events in one's life
** the Daguerreotype's long term preservation (over 150 years) was key to success
** after the 1950s the industry cheated with short life span images (15 - 35 years)
** ten years ago Daguerreotypes were a few dollars, now $60 - $100 common.
** todays chemical imaging is fading as digital arrives, but it too will blossom in future

ABOUT THE IMAGES. Click on any image and in a few seconds you will see an enlarged view in a separate window. The pictures were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera directly from the screen during Grant's presentation and cleaned up in Photoshop 6. This is my first layout using GoLive 6 which has improved its layout grid tools.


Bob Carter

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