Albert Sands Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, ca. 1843, Daguerreotype, ¼ plate, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Unknown Maker, Clown, ca. 1855. Daguerreotype, 1/6 plate, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Charles Fredricks, Fredrick’s Photographic Temple of Art, 1857, Salt Print, 16-1/8 x 13-¾ inches, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., P5.390.001.95.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
4525 Oak Street
Developing Greatness, The Origins
of American Photography
June 9-December 30, 2007
Organized by the Museum and culled entirely from the recently-acquired Hallmark Photographic Collection, the exhibition explores the artistic and cultural importance of the first generation of American photography, from 1839 to 1885. The exhibition features almost 300 works, from one of the earliest known daguerreotypes to one of the first hand-camera snapshots. Important sections of the exhibition are devoted to the Civil War, pioneering Western landscapes, and portraits of the era’s leading personalities.
Organized chronologically and then subdivided into major themes, the exhibition takes a fresh perspective on a period of great expansion and enterprise in American history. Photography was the cutting-edge imaging technology of the day, a radical new means to both record and invent the world. Photographers responded accordingly: many were dedicated documentarians, while others explored the medium’s expressive and artistic possibilities. Together, they fashioned an endlessly rich collective image of both the facts and the spirit of the age.
The exhibition explores the broad cultural applications of photography. It was used not only by professional portraitists, but by artists, scientists, adventurers, and, eventually, by the amateur public. Images by all major photographers of the period are represented, including Southworth & Hawes, America’s first masters of the daguerreotype; Mathew Brady, the flamboyant portraitist of the rich and famous; Alexander Gardner, Brady’s assistant who went on to produce some of the most powerful images of the Civil War; Carleton Watkins, the greatest landscape photographer of the era; and many more.
The exhibition’s earliest works, from the first months of photography’s development, in 1839-40, reflect the uncertain excitement of discovery. As the technology swiftly advanced, these pioneers went on to capture the diversity of America’s people, cities, and landscapes. Portrait photography became common around 1843, as studios opened in the major cities and self-taught entrepreneurs traveled the nation’s back roads. The result was an unparalleled vision of the nation’s people, from its richest citizens to the working class. Outside the studio, Americans made landscape photographs for the purposes of both art and science, from the White Mountains of New England to the Yosemite valley in California, and as far afield as Egypt and the Arctic. The Civil War of 1861-65 was recorded in truly unprecedented detail — from portraits of the soldiers themselves, to graphic images of the bloody battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. At the forefront of the nation’s expansion west, photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson worked with official government survey projects to bring back images of the unexplored territories of the West.
The exhibition explores American places, events, and ideas, as well as the diversity of the American people. Race, gender, occupation and social status are a few of the focal points of the extensive collection of portraits — seen in the form of both daguerreotypes and paper photographs. Beginning in the mid-1850s, paper photography reduced the cost of images, further democratizing the process. Photographers captured ordinary men and women in the studio, and at home, and at work. Many aspects of nineteenth-century popular culture — such as phrenology, spirit photography, and the tradition of making portraits of the deceased — are touched on in the exhibition.
The camera played a key role in the rise of mass modern communication and the cult of celebrity. In the early 1850s, daguerreotypes were made of dramatic and newsworthy events, and then often reproduced in the nation’s illustrated papers. By 1860, inexpensive paper photographs were being produced in volume for a mass public: portraits of celebrities, public events, and scenic views. The exhibition includes pictures of many notable figures of the day, from Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jenny Lind, and Frederick Douglass, to Tom Thumb, General William T. Sherman, and Abraham Lincoln. Also well represented are 3-D stereographic images. While these relatively small images have received little attention as works of art, they were some of the most popular and widely circulated images of the period. The parlor stereoviewer was, in essence, the television of its day — a means of bringing virtual images of the larger world into the living room.