Mercurial Emulsion


The earliest movie audiences shrieked in fear at film footage of an oncoming train. With what wonder did people greet the first daguerreotypes, unique, shimmering images engraved by daylight upon silvered plates of copper, offering up the human face and figure in uncannily clear detail? Were these likenesses the product of science or witchcraft, a record of mere appearances or an unsparing account of the soul’s hidden recesses?

“There is a wonderful insight in heaven’s broad and simple sunshine,” says Holgrave, the hero of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel
The House of the Seven Gables, who rushes into a career as a daguerreotypist, as did the real-life Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, Boston partners whose achievements are celebrated in a glorious show currently at the International Center of Photography. “While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface,” Hawthorne’s hero continues, “it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it.”

“Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes,” organized by Grant Romer of George Eastman House and Brian Wallis of ICP, presents over 150 works. Southworth, who trained as a pharmacist, and Hawes, an itinerant painter, transformed this new photographic medium into a kind of psychic X-ray, which they trained upon a nation in crisis. Boston, where Southworth set up shop on a fashionable avenue in 1841 and was joined two years later by Hawes, at the time enjoyed a reputation as the “Athens of America,” its abolitionists rubbing elbows with advocates of women’s education and transcendental philosophers. The city’s social, moral, and intellectual elite—its stern men of justice and fiery preachers, energetic merchants and doe-eyed poetesses, literati, reformers, and spiritualists, alongside society brides tied up in ribbons and little boys with pet rabbits—all passed through their studio, pausing just long enough beneath the broad skylight to preserve their likenesses in mercurial emulsion.

In their pictures, politician Daniel Webster’s bald pate and bulging middle are molded into an image of implacable authority, while Reverend Rollin Herber Neale’s distant gaze and ecstatic hairstyle evoke a sublimely illuminated spirit. Lola Montez, the Irish-born “Spanish” dancer and sexual adventurer, leans gracefully on a column, wrapped in white lace, while the weary, unglamorized features of social activist Dorothea Dix suggest a personality cherishing plainness as a virtue.

And of course there are the legions of unknown, like the beplumed equestrienne with meltingly soft flesh, the elderly couple whose harshly lined features seem to stare accusatorily from beyond the grave, and the pudgy little girl in an off-the-shoulder dress, whose mouth is a study in sweetness. There are pictures taken postmortem, most heartbreakingly of infants posed as if sleeping. And there are marvelous portraits of the Southworth and Hawes families.

Nancy Southworth, Albert’s sister, who helped in the studio, gilding frames and arranging drapery for the ladies, married Josiah Hawes in 1849, the year her brother set off to make his fortune in the California gold rush. Chastened and no richer, Albert returned two years later. By then, daguerreotypes—one-of-a-kind, fragile, and weighty—were losing ground to more portable and infinitely reproducible paper prints, including cartes-de-visite. With their focus on artistic quality for a rarefied clientele, Southworth and Hawes never made much money. But their partnership lasted for over another decade, during which they stuck by the daguerreotype, prizing its subtle tones, glowing surfaces, exacting detail, and unparalleled illusions of depth and adapting it to new uses. They photographed warships in Boston Harbor, frost on a windowpane, the first surgical operations performed under anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital, and funerary monuments at the newly opened Mount Auburn Cemetery. Many of the notables who had sat for their camera were interned there.

Were they aware that their own oeuvre constituted a vast memento mori, like that beautifully landscaped park where the living could grieve and picnic at leisure? Probably not. What these busy, restlessly inventive artists valued, above all, was the precious illusion of animation they managed to extract from a medium that in other hands rendered its subjects cramped and wooden. And yet . . . weren’t the long, still poses the daguerreotype required a kind of little death? And wasn’t it easy (in a time and place where the Beyond seemed just around the corner) to imagine some layer of spirit residing in these evanescent, glimmering surfaces? Today the chill in the basement galleries at ICP (necessary for the preservation of these vulnerable works) feels almost sepulchral, while the haunting company gathered there fairly springs to life.