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Indepth Arts News:

"A Curious and Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard"
2002-01-19 until 2002-04-14
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA

The exhibition will include the original silver-coated plates, dating from the mid-1800s, that captured the reflections of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind, the young Henry James, artist James McNeill Whistler, and the physicians at the Massachusetts General Hospital as the era of modern anesthesia was born.

Daguerreotypy, invented in 1839 by the Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, was a method of capturing an image projected by a camera obscura onto silver-coated copper plates. In this process, the plates were sensitized with iodine vapor, exposed in a camera, developed with mercury vapor, and fixed with a solution of sodium thiosulfate. The result was a single, unique image.

This early process remains almost unsurpassed in producing images of near-grainless detail and extraordinary tonal rendition, said curator Melissa Banta, Adler curatorial associate in the Weissman Preservation Center at the Harvard University Library. A Curious and Ingenious Art brings together, for the first time, a representative sampling of Harvard’s internationally significant but relatively unknown collection of daguerreotypes, said James Cuno, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. These works are extraordinary examples of early photography in this country and Americans’ first reactions to the camera.

After word of Daguerre’s process spread to America, Boston became a center of experimentation with the new technique. American ingenuity brought the daguerreotype to a new standard of artistic and technical excellence, and many in the Harvard community formed close relationships with the leading Boston studios.

Most of the daguerreotypes were made for, by, and of members of the university community and have been part of Harvard’s holdings for more than 150 years. The collection holds pioneering examples of the medium as tool for scientific research and artistic expression. It includes the first detailed daguerreotypes of the moon, taken through the telescope (then the world’s largest) at the Harvard College Observatory in 1851; portraits of slaves taken in 1852 by Joseph T. Zealy for natural historian Louis Agassiz; physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital performing some of the first operations under ether in 1847; an image of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s five-year-old son, Waldo, just months before he died of scarlet fever in 1842; and portraits of author Harriett Beecher Stowe.

The leading daguerreotypists of the day are represented in the exhibition, including Matthew Brady and Bostonians Albert Sands Southworth, Josiah Johnson Hawes, and John Adams Whipple. Banta selected images from the university’s core holdings of 472 daguerreotypes across 14 repositories. She used the wealth of archival information available for each image to write A Curious and Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard, the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Deborah Martin Kao, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Fogg, said those who visit the exhibition may be surprised by the extraordinary detail captured by the daguerreian process. Daguerreotypes are made on silver-plated copper, she said. It’s essentially like making a photograph on a mirror. You don’t have things like paper fibers impeding your reading of the image. The mirrored surface also gives it a jewel-like quality. It’s also incredibly ephemeral -- depending on what angle you’re viewing it at, you’ll see the object or your own reflection.

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