Issue #93  9/21/2005
Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes On Exhibit

By Matt Damsker

From October 1, 2005-January 8, 2006, George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY; January 28, 2006-April 9, 2006, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Gallery, Andover, MA.

A thorough overview of the work of two of photography's earliest achievers, "Young America" makes clear that Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes were as good at marketing their wares as they were at making them. Partnering in 1843 at a studio in the heart of Boston, MA, Southworth and Hawes spent the next two decades bringing style and substance to the then-novel daguerreotype process, which had captivated the metropolitan corners of a youthful United States.

Claiming to offer "perfect Daguerreotypes," Southworth and Hawes never wanted for customers--nor for famous sitters such as Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lola Montez, and Daniel Webster, all of whose Southworth & Hawes portraits are iconic images today, and several of which are on display here. But as this exhibition details, the partners were not content to merely expose their silver-coated plates and collect their fees. Instead, they trumpeted their innovativeness by offering their "Heads simply" images--cameos, essentially--which produced artful busts, along with delicately hand-colored portraits (thanks to Hawes' background as an oil painter), children's photos, and images of the recently deceased.

They also crafted their own "parlor stereoscope," to which they circulated season tickets to prominent citizens, who would extol the wonders of three-dimensional photography and generate even more business for the partners.

Working versions of the stereoscope are on display at this exhibit--along with such other S&H inventions as a brass photographic-plate polisher--and they still convey the charming illusion of depth quite well. The success and drive with which Southworth and Hawes drummed up revenue suggests that they had more than a touch of P.T. Barnum in them, but at the same time they were deeply serious about advancing the range of photography, and this show offers superb examples of their best efforts. They were, for example, determined to break ground by offering daguerreotypes that captured large groups of sitters as well as single portraits, and there are several plates that show how carefully they would arrange groups in their studio, which relied on natural lighting and posed a challenge for more than a few subjects at a time.

Southworth and Hawes were also among the first commercial American photographers to venture beyond the studio for subject matter, bringing the daguerreotype process outside and into an historical documentary role. The exhibition includes a wall of fascinating S&H studies that depict a recreation of one of the very first surgeries performed under anesthesia, as Dr. John Collins Warren used an ether-soaked sponge on a young seamstress named Athalana Golderman at Massachusetts General Hospital. The daguerreotype provides a window on this medical milestone with haunting clarity and immediacy.

So, too, did Southworth and Hawes train their lens on the simpler photographic pleasures of a cloudy Bostonian sky above the squat buildings of the day, or a military parade that passed below the high windows of their studio, along with pastoral images of Massachusetts scenery.

Throughout, the exhibit, which was reviewed while it was still up at the International Center for Photography in New York City, makes clear that Southworth and Hawes were as dedicated to the early evolution of photography as they were to their careers. The portraits of young women, for example, are careful studies of mid-19th century personality, capturing spirit and intelligence in simple, well-posed exposures that do not seem fussy or stilted today. Likewise, famous personages such as Daniel Webster are given their due, in a painterly style with sculptural detail, as stewards of the young republic.

For all their artistry, of course, Southworth and Hawes were no less scrupulous in their chemical-mechanical technique, which led to plates that are about as well preserved now as one could hope for after a century and a half. The daguerreotype process is a fairly complicated procedure involving highly polished silver-plated copper which becomes a black board (by reflection) upon which to make a picture. The light-sensitive coating of iodine, bromine, and chlorine acts with a vapor of mercury to form contrasting images, and the timing of the various parts of the process were, at the time of S&H, matters of trial and error. The plate would be further coated with a pure gold leaf to protect the image like varnish on a painting, after which it would be sealed under glass, with a border between to prevent any chafing.

Southworth and Hawes accomplished all this better than just about any other practitioners, and they preserved their work in special metal containers, so few of their surviving plates have the original period framing or casing. But they are well represented here with period reproduction matting by Alan A. Bekhuis of CasedImage.com, and wood frames from A.J.VanDenburgh Wood Products.

As for the lighting, daguerreotypes are best viewed in strong natural light from a horizontal source in otherwise dim conditions. While not utilizing this form of light, the exhibition still does a decent job of illuminating these treasures with carefully aimed overhead spots that allow for good, minimally reflective views. Thanks to this lovingly crafted show, the proof of Southworth's and Hawes' committed--and commercial--genius is still there for everyone to see.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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