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Tracing America’s Earliest Photography

Rare images from the 19th century on display at the MIT Museum

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History, technology, sociology, and art converge in a picture-perfect exhibit currently on view at the MIT Museum’s Kurtz Gallery for Photography.

Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840–1900) from the Wm. B. Becker Collection features more than 100 photos taken between 1840 and 1900, a period during which photography transitioned from an obscure new technology to a major industry and art form. The exhibition showcases a variety of early photographs, including images from the 1840s and 1850s that aimed at documenting the unembellished characteristics of the human face, traditional family and individual portraits, and examples of turn-of-the-century “photographic fictions” in which photographers would capture images of staged storms or fabricated spiritual encounters.

The show takes its title from Louis Daguerre, the French artist and chemist who invented the daguerreotype—the earliest known photographic process—in the late 1830s. Developed using a polished silver surface and a copper substrate, the daguerreotype ushered in the birth of modern photography and was the most common form of portraiture in the United States through the 1850s. Soon American photographers refined and made improvements to Daguerre’s invention.

Because of its relatively low cost, photography had a democratizing effect upon 19th-century American society. Formal painted portraits were usually reserved for members of the upper classes, but as the MIT show reveals, the arrival of daguerreotypes meant that ordinary Americans could now afford to have their likeness captured. Daguerre’s American Legacy focuses on these ordinary Americans: the show includes images of abolitionists, slaves, family portraits, and pets. It also offers a fascinating glimpse of working life in 19th-century America through photographic portraits of newsboys, farmers, telegraph operators, and authors.

The exhibit features not just daguerreotypes, but other forms of early photography, including tintypes, ambrotypes, and paper prints, all of which remained popular until the turn of the 20th century. The photographs in the exhibit were provided by William B. Becker, the director of the American Museum of Photography and a prominent collector and historian of early photography.

On its website, the MIT Museum says that photography is “the closest thing we have to a time machine.” And that’s exactly what this show does—in more than 100 unforgettable images, it traces the rich texture of ordinary life in 19th-century America.

Daguerre’s American Legacy: Photographic Portraits (1840–1900) from the Wm. B. Becker Collection is on display at the Kurtz Gallery for Photography at the MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, through January 4, 2015. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 7 p.m. on Thursdays (July and August only). Admission is free for children under 5, MIT ID holders, and Cambridge Public Library Card holders (July and August only). Admission is $5 for students, youth under 18, and seniors, and $10 for adults. The museum is free on the last Sunday of each month (September through June). To get there by public transportation, take an MBTA Red Line train to Central Square. For more information about the exhibit, go to the museum’s website.

Samantha Pickette can be reached at pickette@bu.edu.

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