Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Early Photography, Meet 21st Century Technology

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

It seems like not a day goes by that I’m not working on something that involves a camera. When you have upwards of 150,000 objects to manage, it’s no wonder that when you work with something, you photograph it, upload the image into the collections database and add a few details about the object here and there. The image saves the next person time and acts as a record of the object's condition when the photograph was taken. But what about photographs themselves? What more can they tell us about a particular time period? The short answer is plenty, if you know what you’re looking at. Many historians will tell you that photographs provide a wealth of knowledge and always tell a story.

The first photographs are nothing like today’s photographs, and they involved far more time and patience than a simple point-and-shoot camera of today. Imagine sitting in front of a camera for several minutes while trying to hold a pose so as not to alter the final image.

The first form of commercially available photography developed around 1839 and was called a daguerreotype, after the inventor of the process, Louis Daguerre. The photograph above is a great example of an early daguerreotype (ca. 1850) and if you look closely at her ears, neck and her index finger, you can see that this image was embellished with a bit of gold to enhance the jewelry. This embellishment, common on daguerreotypes, is echoed in the image below, as well.

The embellishments didn’t stop there. Many daguerreotypes, and later tintypes and ambrotypes, were hand tinted to emulate a color image. Cheeks could be made rosy red, a Civil War soldier’s pants could be tinted blue, and the list goes on.

Since most of the processes for early photography are easily identified, researchers, curators, and historians can easily find a date range for an image. The best example I found for this is in the image below.

It’s probably hard to see, but at the base of this image, on the metal framework, there are two crossed cannons, one with a mark of “76” and the other of “61.” It seems likely these refer to 1776 and 1861, the start of the American Revolution and the beginning of the United States Civil War. At the top and bottom are the Union shield, American flags and “Union” arched over the image. This image therefore likely dates somewhere between 1861 and 1865 (give or take a few months). It may have been carried by a Union soldier to remind him of his children back home, but that’s just a guess. Because of its date, and from evidence on the image itself, this is a tintype, a photographic process that began around 1855 and was popular up until the 1930s.

Unfortunately we don’t know too much about the individuals in these images, but the photographs provide a wealth of knowledge, from dress, to jewelry, to national events.
Even today photography is used to document events and everyday life, but like the images of the 19th and early 20th centuries, they are so much more.

Images, from top to bottom:
Daguerreotype, ca. 1850, Photographer unknown. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0087.1945(01)
Daguerreotype, ca. 1850, Photographer unknown. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0149.1976(01)
Tintype, ca. 1861-1865, Photographer unknown. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0266.1976(07)

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