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Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art highlights more than 50 daguerreotype acquisitions
Unknown maker, American. Woman telegrapher, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype, quarter plate, image size: 4 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2011.7.16. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.
KANSAS CITY, MO.- An exhibition featuring more than 50 daguerreotypes acquired by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art since 2007 opened on Jan. 24. In the Looking Glass: Recent Daguerreotype Acquisitions is a fascinating look at an early photographic process that was introduced in 1839.

“In the 19th century, daguerreotypes seemed to be magical bits of reality,” says Jane Aspinwall, associate curator of Photography. “Now, more than a century later, they still hold that kind of wonder and appeal.”

A precursor of printed photography, the daguerreotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface that is exposed to iodine fumes. The fumes produce a light sensitive coating. The plate is then covered with a protective dark slide and placed into a camera. An image is projected through the lens and onto the plate; the image is then developed using heated mercury. The distinguishing visual characteristics of a daguerreotype are that the image is on a bright, mirror-like surface of metallic silver and it appears either positive or negative depending on the lighting conditions and whether a light or dark background is being reflected in the metal.

Important additions to the Nelson-Atkins American collection include portraits by major makers, including possibly the earliest of only six known daguerreotypes of noted abolitionist John Brown. In the French holding, lively portraits, cityscapes, and archaeological images are highlighted. A 170-year-old daguerreotype from Egypt transports viewers to the shimmering banks of the Nile River, a place few would have been able to travel to at the time. British pieces are distinguished by elaborate hand-coloring.

Small, intimate American daguerreotypes, most housed in jewel-like velvet or silk-lined cases, were made to be held close and scrutinized. Because they are reflective, the Nelson-Atkins designed more than two dozen cases with special lighting features to provide optimal viewing conditions, bringing each detailed image to life. A daguerreotype of a young girl clutching a shawl around her bare shoulders seems to float; another sharply detailed, rare Gold Rush image depicts a small group of men standing in front of their grocery store located in a California frontier town.

“It’s an amazing experience to view these precious, one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes,” said Aspinwall. “Once you see one, you never forget it. It takes you back in time to share a mid-19­th century moment with the sitter.”

The Nelson-Atkins is recognized as having one of the top five American daguerreotype collections in the U.S. and loaned more than 80 to the Taft Museum in Cincinnati for the 2013 exhibition Photographic Wonders. Daguerreotypes are an internationally significant cornerstone of the museum’s photography holdings.

The Nelson-Atkins has not had an exhibition dedicated to the daguerreotype since 2007.

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