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Getty exhibits daguerreotypes from the collections of musician Graham Nash and collector Paul Berg
Horatio B. King (American, 1820 - 1889), Seth Eastman at Dighton Rock, July 7, 1853. Daguerreotype, 1/2 plate Image: 8.9 x 12.1 cm (3 1/2 x 4 3/4 in.) Mat: 10.8 x 14 cm (4 1/4 x 5 1/2 in.) Open: 24.1 x 14.9 cm (9 1/2 x 5 7/8 in.) Accession No. 84.XT.182. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Popularly described as “a mirror with a memory,” the daguerreotype was the first form of photography to be announced to the world in 1839 and immediately captured the imagination of the public. The “Daguerreotypomania” that followed may seem surprising today, as photographs have become an omnipresent part of contemporary life. In Focus: Daguerreotypes, on view from November 3, 2015-March 20, 2016 at the Getty Center, offers the photography enthusiast and the general visitor alike a unique opportunity to view rare and beautiful examples of this early photographic process. The works in the exhibition are drawn from the Getty Museum’s exceptional collection of more than two thousand daguerreotypes alongside loans from the outstanding private collections of musician Graham Nash and collector Paul Berg.

“Today, photographs can be taken, edited, and deleted within seconds and are the principal record of our everyday lives," says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. "It takes a leap of the imagination to appreciate what they represented to the pioneer inventors and to the public of the day. This exhibition explores how these first captured images ─ fragile, one-of-a-kind works ─ were treasured, not only by those who were just discovering the possibilities of the medium, but by those being photographed as well.”

By the mid-1840s, exposure times and costs had decreased markedly and, as a result, daguerreotypes became more accessible to a broader audience. Over the years, attempts were made to enhance the capabilities of the daguerreotype. To make up for the deficiency of color, many portrait daguerreotypists employed former miniature painters to hand-paint each plate; an example of which is Portrait of a Woman with a Mandolin (1860), where light specks of color enhance the ornamentation on the costume. Daguerreotypes were also nearly impossible to reproduce, though some attempts were made, including making the daguerreotype plate into a printing plate. Examples of this process will be on view in the exhibition.

Inside the Portrait Studio
Daguerreotype studios were plentiful by the mid-19th century, and each studio developed novel ways to create distinctive and personal images for its customers. Confined to a well-lit indoor or outdoor location, many daguerreotypists would stage everyday scenes that might include painted backdrops of domestic interiors and subjects posing as if in conversation or seated at tables with everyday props. As it was extremely difficult to capture a smiling face without blurring the features, most sitters wore somber expressions. An unusual exception on view in the exhibition is Portrait of a Father and Smiling Child (about 1855).

Customers remarked on the incredible fidelity of the silver image and praised it as a means of preserving a loved one’s presence. Some family members – often children – passed away before they could pose for the camera, and their likenesses were preserved in post-mortem portraits, as in Carl Durheim’s (Swiss, 1810-1890) Postmortem Portrait of a Child (about 1852), which creates the illusion of quiet slumber rather than death.

Prominent and well-known members of society also had their daguerreotype portraits taken, which made their likenesses more accessible to the public than ever before.“The exhibition will include daguerreotypes of the Duke of Wellington, Edgar Allen Poe, and Queen Kalama of Hawaii,” says Karen Hellman, assistant curator of photographs in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs and curator of the exhibition. “Because of the unique direct positive process, we find ourselves face to face with these historical figures.”

Outside the Portrait Studio
Some of the first subjects for the daguerreotype process were ancient monuments and far-off cityscapes that were previously accessible only to a small, educated elite. Some photographers traveled long distances to capture these remote locales; the exhibition includes images of the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, and the Temple of Seti I in Egypt. Others trained their lenses closer to home, focusing on vernacular architecture or such structures of national significance as John Plumbe Jr.’s (American, born Wales, 1809-1857) 1846 image of the United States Capitol.

Despite its inability to capture fleeting moments, the daguerreotype nevertheless was used to document historical events. The exhibition includes images of parades and military festivals as well as pivotal historical moments, such as Ezra Greenleaf Weld’s (American, 1801-1874) image of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law Convention in Cazenovia, New York.

Because it was perceived as a faithful record, it was difficult to elevate the daguerreotype to the status of an art form. Nevertheless some photographers attempted to expand their studio practice to create more artistic scenes, such as The Sands of Time (1850-52), a still-life by Thomas Richard Williams (English, 1825-1871) that features books, glasses, an hourglass, and a human skull. Daguerreotypes were sometimes used for scientific experimentation, as is the case with Antoine Claudet, who used the medium as an instrument to measure focal distance.

The exhibition also features a selection of distinctive daguerreotype cases – wrapped in leather or decorated with oil painting, shell inlay, and gold foil. These elaborate cases emphasize the care that families took in protecting these treasured images, and the value they held from generation to generation.

In Focus: Daguerreotypes is on view November 3, 2015-March 20, 2016 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. The exhibition is curated by Karen Hellman, assistant curator of photographs in the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs.

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