More than a century before digital camera phones became part of daily life and long before the use of film in modern photography, an early successful photographic technique swept both sides of the Atlantic. Daguerreotypes, the images made from this method, are the focus of a new exhibition on view April 10 through June 14 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
Through the Looking Glass: Daguerreotype Masterworks from the Dawn of Photography brings together a comprehensive collection of close to 150 daguerreotypes, offering an extensive look at this 19th-century medium. The show, which is the largest ever of its type in this region, includes all the major genres of the form – portraiture, landscapes, architectural studies, occupationals, erotic stereoviews, and post-mortems. Also featured in Looking Glass are such rarities as a previously unpublished image of a female gold-rush miner, whole plates of Boston’s upper crust by Southworth & Hawes, and an archeological whole plate by Girault de Prangey, one of the medium’s masters, that is one of the earliest photos of Jerusalem. Each has been beautifully preserved; many are in gilt frames and some have been gently hand-colored. All the objects come from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg of Westchester County, New York, and many of the pieces have never been exhibited before. (For a full list of objects in the exhibition, see the checklist.)
Daguerreotypes consist of a unique positive image that lives in a highly polished silver-coated copper plate. The technique was introduced in France in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, and was exported to the United States later that year. Its invention was announced to an electrified audience in Paris on August 19, 1839, at a joint meeting of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie des Beaux-Arts. A joint forum was the appropriate venue, as Daguerre’s invention would prove equally revolutionary in science and technology, in social history, and in the arts.
Also at the meeting was the “American Leonardo” and local Poughkeepsie hero Samuel Morse, the painter, who was being honored for his invention of the telegraph. Before returning to New York, Morse learned daguerreotypy from Daguerre himself; in turn, Morse taught the process to interested colleagues in both the arts and sciences who would go on to open portrait studios of their own.
Mary-Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning at the Art Center, says visitors to the show will be afforded a glimpse of the past. “The exhibition offers a window into history as captured by the cutting-edge imaging technology of the day,” says Lombino.
"The daguerreotype is the chameleon of early photography: hold it in your hand and see yourself reflected in the mirror of the silver surface, now tilt it one way and see a startling negative image, now another angle and see the positive image revealed in its infinite detail and three-dimensionality,” says Mattis, who has been collecting photography for more than 30 years. “It is indeed a looking glass held up to the soul of its subject, a time-machine to the early Victorian era."
While daguerreotypy swept both France and America, it was in America where it had its greatest social and commercial impact, as portraiture of the common man captured the essence of Jacksonian democracy. The daguerreotype would be the dominant mode of photography in France in the 1840s, but in America it actually lasted through the 1850s. By the time of the Civil War the daguerreotype had been supplanted by the ambrotype, the tintype, and especially the albumen print from a collodion-on-glass negative, which would prevail until the turn of the century.
The exhibition, selected entirely from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg, is organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, LLC. Local support is provided by The Horace Goldsmith Exhibition Fund and the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Exhibition Fund.
Exhibition Special Events
Opening Lecture and Reception
Friday, April 10, 2015
Lecture: John Wood, “The Daguerreotype and the Democratization of Portraiture”
5:30pm, Taylor Hall, Room 102
Reception, 6:30pm, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
John Wood, one of the premier historians of early photography, has authored several books on daguerreotypes that are widely recognized as landmark publications. His books include The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, named the outstanding book of the year by the American Photographic Historical Society; America and the Daguerreotype, named one of the outstanding academic books of 1992 by Choice; The Scenic Daguerreotype: Romanticism in Early Photography; Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype; and In Primary Light, winner of the 1993 Iowa Poetry Prize. Prior to his recent retirement, Wood held a dual appointment at McNeese State University in Louisiana as professor of English and professor of photographic history. At McNeese, Wood was the founder of the Creative Writing MFA Program and its director for more than two decades. He now lives and works in Vermont.
Curator’s Gallery Talk
Thursday, April 16, 2015
4:00 pm, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Daguerreotype Masterworks from the Dawn of Photography
Curator Mary-Kay Lombino leads an informal discussion of the Through the Looking Glass exhibition in the galleries. Participants will enjoy a unique curatorial perspective on the show as a whole and have the chance to explore some of the works in detail.
Framed: An Evening of 19th Century Portraiture
Thursday, April 16, 2015
6:30pm, daguerreotype lecture by Jerry Spangoli, Tyalor Hall, room 203
7:30pm, reception and photo booth, Art Center Atrium
Jerry Spagnoli, one of the world's foremost contemporary daguerreotypists, will discuss the development of the daguerreotype process and the invention of photography. The presentation will include images of early cameras and apparatus as well as samples of early imagery. There will also be a practical demonstration of polishing and sensitizing a plate. This event, which is organized by the Art Center Student Committee, will also feature a reception and an opportunity to have your photo taken in a style inspired by 19th-century portraits.
Walk-Through with the Collector
Friday, May 29, 2015
Through the Looking Glass: Daguerreotypes from a Collector's-Eye View
Michael Mattis, whose objects featured in Through the Looking Glass, will give an informal walk-through of the exhibition. Mattis and his wife, Judith Hochberg, are both avid collectors of daguerreotypes.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 19,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.