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Sunday, 27 July 2008


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Wow, thanks for posting this. First, the photographs are amazing. Second, that George Eastman House uploaded them to Flickr is pretty much the ultimate marriage of old school and new school.

I have to ask: are these really good portraits, or are they just good, straight-forward portraits considering the state of photographic craft when they were taken?
IMO their interest is historical only, because any half-way decent portrait photographer (with his studio up a set of stairs over the hardware store on Main Street) could have done just as well or better, once the dry plate became available.

"IMO their interest is historical only, because any half-way decent portrait photographer (with his studio up a set of stairs over the hardware store on Main Street) could have done just as well or better, once the dry plate became available."

Think so? I think you need to look at these considerably more carefully....

Mike J.

Bill, these daguerreotypes must be seen "in the flesh" to be judged fairly. Most of their character is lost in a jpg.

Thanks very much for this, Mike (and "els"). It's a bit of a revelation that the GEH is posting image sets at Flickr.

Most of these portraits really are of exceptionally high quality for their period. They're remarkably sharp (especially considering the length of most of the exposures), beautifully illuminated and the scenes are dressed as if the photographers actually anticipated that the images' visual integrity would have to endure hundreds of years.

Two things strike me looking at these.

Daguerreotypes look vastly inferior in reproduction. They look almost the same as tintypes or ambrotypes in reproduction , but the things themselves are another creature entirely, looking like your breath on a mirror and appearing almost 3D on account of being so reflective that each of the viewers eyes sees something slightly different.

Daguerreotypes are all one of a kind originals, so that the surviving work was either sold to and then lost or discarded by the original owner or their heirs , or remained unsold and kept in the studio archives. Either way , one would assume that the best work is still out there hidden away as family heirlooms. With a positive negative process the photographer can preserve the negatives , or make additional prints of their best work. Most portrait photographers are known by their reprinted work, not the originals unless the subject was famous.

I've seen a lot of these at the Met in NYC and they are pretty amazing things

Is it my imagination, or my monitor, but do I see a little colouration on some of the images. The early pictures of girls in what appear to be bridal gowns seem to have rose tinted cheeks. Is this deliberate and if so how was it done ?

Mike, Thanks for the info on this site--Great collection of two great photographers of their time.
The George Eastman link to more info on them and their process.
Thanks again.

I agree that daguerreotypes have to be seen in person to be appreciated, but that even as reproductions, these are well composed, well lit portraits for this era.

Some of the color on the plates is an artifact of the process. I think the blue comes from overexposure, for instance. Some daguerreotypes were hand colored, so that may explain a few rosy cheeks.

Thanks for the pointer. These are excellent.

Dear Folks,

I think I'm gonna side with Bill on this one, kinda, sorta, mostly, maybe (I am nothing if not firm in my convictions).

I think I like the work, overall, a lot better than Bill, but...

Many of these are not good portraits. Some of them are exceedingly bad portraits-- frankly, failures, even for the time (photographs of children who have moved so much that they are blurred beyond any recognition come to mind).

(It doesn't matter that fidgety children are a near-impossible subject with that technology. I have a number of photos in my files of near-impossible subjects that just aren't very good because I could only push the technology (and luck) so far. I get an E for effort; they're still bad photos.)

It doesn't matter that S&H were great portraitists. That doesn't make every one of their photos great. Many of these are not.

Now, I do think some of these are great, don't get me wrong. But not all, not even most. When I consider that this was culled from 1200 photos, I'd never consider S&H great photographers EXCEPT by viewing them in their historical context. Do understand I think that context is important; Bill never said different.

An aside: this could well be the fault of the curator. I am seriously unimpressed with the quality of the online information that was presented. Even the most basic edifying and illuminating information that would assist viewers' appreciation (e.g., identifying the deathbed portraits) is lacking.

As for the repro quality, I'm impressed with how good it is. Reproing daguerreotypes is really tough. Cudos to whoever physically produced the show; the originals are shown off well.

It's possible Bill might like some of the photos better if he saw the originals, but then he'd be liking them for their exquisite quality as artifacts. Nothing wrong with that, but I honestly don't see much here that would make someone like the originals *as photography* if they didn't like these repros.

pax / Ctein

I found these photographs wonderful for evoking some of the impact photography must have had over 150 years ago. Are they "excellent" portraits? (And by the criteria of what age would one judge that anyway?) I have no idea but to me they are quite compelling viewing and I'm glad to have been made aware of them on Flickr.

Dead children made exquisite photographs in the nineteenth century. Thanks to large families and childhood diseases, it was a common photographic subject, but alas, not all of them could be photographed in such a restful state.


Hope for the living came with negative/positive processes that allowed for the possibility of retouching the negative. If you see a nineteenth-century portrait of a living child with sharp hands in an animated pose, they've almost always been etched.

I must disagree with the observation that many of these are poor portraits. Given the process was technologically and aesthetically new, and given the limitations of long exposure, to my eye many of these portraits are excellent, as they appear to reveal the sitter's character and personality. Even in the age of instant digital photography, this is not easily done, as anyone who has attempted photographic portraiture will attest. To capture these faces in this particular way, with multi-second exposures, reveals a great deal of understanding of what individual portraits need to show, and a great technical knowledge of how to achieve it. IMHO, YMMV.

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