Photography, American

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In the United States, as elsewhere, images fixed by chemical responses to light excited widespread interest as soon as the process became available. Although photography's “truth” to reality appealed to a large audience, from its earliest days sophisticated observers realized that the medium offered aesthetic as well as utilitarian potential. Europeans produced the first permanent images, but Americans quickly contributed to photography's technical and artistic development. Press reports of the photographic process initially appeared in the United States in the early months of 1839, shortly after the first successes abroad. Samuel F. B. Morse proved instrumental to the introduction of the daguerreotype process to the United States later that year. Photographic portraits almost immediately caught the popular imagination, and in the 1840s daguerreotype studios dotted the nation. Outstanding practitioners included Albert Southworth, working in partnership with Josiah Hawes, and Mathew B. Brady. Because of the daguerreotype's limitations, few photographers attempted subjects other than portraits. However, some took their cameras into the street or even into the country to capture the earliest photographic views of cities and their rural environs.

Daguerreotypes are unique images on silver-plated copper. (There are no negatives from which copies can be made.) Because their image surfaces are delicate, they were fitted into cases, under glass, for hand viewing. Daguerreotypes recorded minute detail with extraordinary precision, but their dimensions remained small. The standard “sixth-plate” portrait measured 2.75 × 3.25 inches. Whole plates were 6.5 × 8.5 inches; few daguerreotypes were larger. To increase the effect of realism, subtle hand-tinting of flesh and perhaps a few details became common in portraits. The time required for a sitting decreased rapidly, within a decade from several minutes in bright sunlight to less than thirty seconds in a studio interior. As the daguerreotype's circumstances imply, throughout the history of photography, technical factors have limited or stimulated aesthetic qualities. Although the best daguerreotypes are objects of great beauty and refinement, under pressure of faster and more flexible methods, the process virtually disappeared from American photographic practice after about twenty years. In England and France, where early photography also flourished, it fell from favor even earlier. There, a process for making photographic prints from paper negatives came into use during the 1840s, but this technique found little appeal in the United States. Indeed, American fondness for daguerreotype portraits sustained their popularity for at least a decade after the next decisive improvement appeared in England.

Introduced in 1851, the glass-plate technique offered exposure times of a second or two. Only the plate and its camera size limited dimensions, and duplicate prints were easily produced. In the early wet-plate method, glass negatives coated with a substance known as collodion had to be exposed while still damp. Practitioners therefore had to carry with them not only the heavy and fragile plates but also an instant darkroom. Despite these impediments, the method's documentary potential was firmly established during the Civil War. Although action shots still were not possible, this became the first major conflict in history to be extensively photographed. George Barnard, Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O'Sullivan numbered among the most distinguished pioneers of this early photojournalism. After the war, the still little-known American West drew adventurous documentarians, including William Henry Jackson, Eadweard Muybridge, O'Sullivan, and Carleton Watkins. From the 1860s, nearly all landscape and other reportorial photographers produced a sideline of mass-market stereographs. Widely popular in American drawing rooms into the early twentieth century, the paired images originated in cameras fitted with double lenses set about as far apart as a person's eyes. Mounted on cardboard, these twinned pictures produced remarkable three-dimensional effects when examined through a hand-held viewer. The collodion process also made possible several popular portrait types. In imitation of the daguerreotype, the ambrotype image on glass was backed with dark material and sealed in a daguerreotype case. Secured on black-enameled metal, tintypes appeared in vast quantities as inexpensive, small, and generally unpretentious portraits for ordinary Americans. Cartes-de-visite became a rage in the early 1860s, as these 4 × 2.5-inch paper photographs mounted on stiff cardboard came into use as calling cards. A 6.5 × 4.5-inch variation, the cabinet photograph, soon followed.


Subjects: Art.

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