In the Looking Glass @ Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In The Looking Glass: Recent Daguerreotype Acquisitions is the current special exhibition in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s photography galleries. The exhibition includes 53 daguerreotypes and four ambrotypes acquired since 2007. The Nelson’s collection of daguerreotypes now numbers above 800, and is considered one of the best collections in the country, if not the world. The unusual beauty in this diverse collection will appeal to both photo history aficionados and casual museum visitors. The daguerreotype process, announced in 1839 by Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre, yields a one-of-a-kind photograph printed on a highly polished metal plate. For real exhibition buffs, this show also highlights the museum’s new state-of-the-art display cases designed specifically for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

 Attributed to: Tsukamoto, Japanese.  Portrait of a man in samurai armor , mid 1870s. Ambrotype, 5 x 3 ½ inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2011.12.44. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

Attributed to: Tsukamoto, Japanese. Portrait of a man in samurai armor, mid 1870s. Ambrotype, 5 x 3 ½ inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2011.12.44. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

Curator Jane Aspinwall explains that the museum seeks daguerreotypes, “…of exceptional quality and condition… made by daguerreotypists who really understood the art and used it to their advantage… The size of the piece is important… we [also] look for unusual or significant subject matter.” (1) These recent acquisitions also show an expansion of the museum’s significant American collection to include more pieces from Europe and Japan. (2) One of my favorite plates is a Japanese ambrotype, Portrait of a man in samurai armor, mid 1870s, attributed to Tsukamoto. It is enclosed in an ornate wooden case unlike any I had seen before.

 Unknown maker, British.  Portrait of a woman in shawl , 1847. Daguerreotype, three-quarter plate, image size: 8 1/8 x 5 1/2 inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2010.18.44. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

Unknown maker, British. Portrait of a woman in shawl, 1847. Daguerreotype, three-quarter plate, image size: 8 1/8 x 5 1/2 inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2010.18.44. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

Some of the highest quality plates are the handful that includes hand tinting, which elevates the already mesmerizing images to an even higher level of artistic craft. Images such as, Portrait of a woman in shawl, 1847, and, Actor in costume, 1850, both by unknown British makers, are prime examples of this artistry. For unique subject matter, Genushe (animal post-mortem), ca. 1845-46, by an unknown maker, shows a dead rabbit in a miniature bonnet and christening dress, resting forever in a tiny coffin. It is both macabre and cute.

The plates in this exhibition are roughly wallet sized to 5”x 7”, giving them a certain preciousness and intimacy. The largest plate in this exhibition—a whole plate at roughly 8”x 7”—is, Bond & Mollyneaux, Groceries and Provisions, ca. 1850, by an unknown maker. Showing a storefront in the gold rush-era American West, it is one of three or four fascinating plates documenting this rough and tumble era of American history. Another historically significant image is the portrait of radical abolitionist John Brown. It is an interesting portrait of a controversial American figure. But perhaps its real significance is the fact that it was made by an African American daguerreotypist, Augustus Washington. (3)

 Unknown maker, American.  Bond & Mollyneaux Groceries and Provisions , ca. 1850. Daguerreotype, whole plate, image size: 8 ½ x 6 ½ inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2008.6.3. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

Unknown maker, American. Bond & Mollyneaux Groceries and Provisions, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype, whole plate, image size: 8 ½ x 6 ½ inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2008.6.3. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

One of my favorite things about these plates are the cases in which they are nestled. With tooled leather and embossed velvet, ornate wood or intricate inlaid patterns, they are themselves works of art. One beautiful example is the image, Portrait of three girls, ca. 1850s, by an unknown maker. The graceful composition is accented by the ornate, colorfully inlaid mat, which gives the appearance of a ring of flowers surrounding the girls and echoes the delicate colors of the tinting.

I enjoyed the exhibition very much. It is a small show full of small images, but their importance is monumental. The exhibition shows that daguerreotypes were more than just documents. These images show a range of subject matter, technique, and geography (both in subject and in origin) that should expand the common notion of 19th century photography as dull and old-fashioned. Its practitioners were also artists that were as obsessed with beauty and poetry as artists are today.

 Unknown maker, American.  Genushe (animal post-mortem) , ca. 1845–46. Daguerreotype, sixth plate, image size: 3 ¼ x 2 ¾ inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2010.35.21. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

Unknown maker, American. Genushe (animal post-mortem), ca. 1845–46. Daguerreotype, sixth plate, image size: 3 ¼ x 2 ¾ inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2010.35.21. © Nelson Gallery Foundation.

                                   

In The Looking Glass: Recent Daguerreotype Acquisitions is on view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO through July 10, 2014.


Adam Finkelston is the Owner, Publisher, and Co-Editor at The HAND Magazine. In addition to photographing, Adam also teaches at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, KS. Adam would like to thank Curator, Jane Aspinwall, and Photography Department Coordinator, Natalie Boten, for their help with the article and image permissions.


1 Interview with Jane Aspinwall, Feb. 12, 2014.
2 Aspinwall, Jane, Exhibition guide to, In The Looking Glass: Recent Daguerreotype Acquisitions, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art , January 2014.
3 Ibid.