The Daguerreian Society

From the Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin (New York) Vol. 20, (13 April 1889) pp. 214-216. Corrections to the spelling of proper names is provided in brackets.



[Address before Photographic Section of the American Institute.]

   Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:—It is now a half century since the daguerreotype process was first whispered to a distinguished American citizen, Samuel F. B. Morse. He says: “In the winter of 1838-39 I was in Paris, and was invited by Daguerre to see his results in sun painting. At this time, viz., early in the spring of 1839, he was awaiting the action of the government respecting the pension to be granted him in case he would publish his process.
   “I immediately wrote to my brothers, the editors of the New York Observer, giving an account of this visit, and this letter was published by them some time, I think, in April, 1839. So far as I know this was the first public statement of the discovery in America. In July and August of the same year Daguerre received his pension and the process was published. After my return to New York I received a copy during the latter part of August, and immediately I had made for me the apparatus as described in the book. When this apparatus was completed I commenced experimenting and soon verified the truth of Daguerre’s revelations.
   “The first experiment crowned with any success was a view of a Unitarian church on Broadway, taken from the third-story window of the New York City University. It was in September, 1839. I then immediately experimented with a view to make portraits, and my first attempts were on the roof of a building in the full sun-light. My subjects were my daughter and some of her young friends. Of these I still have portraits, made in October, 1839. At this time Professor John Draper was making experiments in the same direction, and also others who had received a copy of Daguerre’s first book. I cannot say, therefore, who made the first daguerreotype portrait in America, though I believe this country had the honor making the first.”
   Mr. John Johnson (of the firm of Walcot & Johnson) exhibited before the Mechanics’ Club, April 14, 1858, a daguerreotype portrait which he states was made on the 7th of October, 1839.
   Messrs. Morse, Draper, Johnson and Prosch all lay claim to making the first daguerreotype portrait; and the testimony of either of these gentlemen without a knowledge of the affirmation of the others, might appear quite sufficient to award either of them the honor they claim.
   Quickly following these were Drs. Bierd, Godard[Goddard], Wildman and Parker; Messrs. Reed, Cornelius, Mason and Professor Johnson. All these were citizens of Philadelphia, and the last named (Professor Johnson) was the first, no doubt, who took a daguerreotype portrait in that city. It was a likeness of Dr. Kenedy, the Principal of the Polytechnic Institute, and taken some time during the year of 1839.
   In 1845-46 Frederic Langenheim was generally acknowledged to be the most successful practitioner of the art, and following him were Messrs. Van Loan, Mayall, Plumb[Plumbe], Simons and Root. Of all the cities in the Union, Philadelphia appears to have been the most noted for its distinguished daguerreotypists. It is worthy of note, that the name of no distinguished artist appears among these experimental lists. In fact, the practitioners of high art entirely ignored photography, and yet it has proved to be a greater help to their profession than to any other. The apparent simplicity of making sun pictures led a great variety of talent to engage in the business. Many believed it was a field in which there was but little labor, and much profit; that it required neither capital nor brains, and was just the kind of work for those who had failed in every other enterprise. Hence, mechanics and traders of all kinds, as well as those of the learned professions, were soon found exploring its mysteries. It was commonly believed that this art was within the reach of almost any class of workers, and thus it was more rapidly developed than it might otherwise have been; for the mechanic soon learned how he could make many improvements in the mechanical devices; the chemist how he could add new compounds with great advantage; the trader how he could attract public attention, and the optician how he could construct lenses that would make his name famous for all time to come. Thus this great variety of talent soon became classified, and so specialists were developed in every branch of photography. Hence we have now in every well organized gallery a positionist, a chemist and a mechanic, all experts in their several branches. This division of labor is no doubt a great advantage to the patrons of the art, as they thus get better work for less money; and it is also an advantage to those who invest their capital in the business, as it is only the combination of money and skill that can insure success. The day is past when the jack-of-all-trades can make photography a means of support. And so fifty years of unceasing progress has convinced the most skeptical that photography has come to stay, and will continue to win the approbation and support of the public.
   In 1840 the daguerreotype art was first practiced in New York City as a business. During this year Mr. J. Gurney was the most conspicuous. He was soon followed by Messrs. Van Loan, Lawrence, Burgess, Brady, White, Beckers, Anthony, Edward & Co., Plumb[Plumbe], Lewis & Holt, Haas, Insley, Thompson, Gardner, Bogardus, Meade Brothers, Fredricks, Anson, and Harrison & Holmes. There may have been others whose names have escaped my memory, but a large majority of those mentioned no daguerreotypist will be likely to forget who came in competition with them, for they were the giants of their age and generation, each contributing something to the development of the art that can never be forgotten; for these contributions combined formed the foundation of all subsequent progress and success. These men, or a portion of them, after some ten or fifteen years’ practice in this first dry-plate method, turned their attention to the collodion process, and a few of these pioneers have followed up the art through all its changes to the present hour; and some of these are with us tonight, and will, no doubt, add their mite toward the entertainment of the hour. We have with us to-night of these, Messrs. Gurney, Beckers, Bogardus and Gardner, all of whom have promised to contribute their mite toward the entertainment of the hour. Hence, where a number are expected to take part in the programme of the evening, it would be inapropos for me to consume the time with any elaborate paper. I will, therefore, simply relate an incident or two, and then give place to others more competent both to instruct and to entertain.
   During the early days of my daguerreotype practice I had a business circular printed, and among other things were the words: “Instruction given in the Art.” What presumption! What did I know of the art? What did any of us who were then engaged in the business know about it? Even the best of us scored more failures than successes. And with us every picture was counted a success that was accepted by our patrons; and that this success might be made doubly sure, we were always careful to have our pay in advance. This of course we regarded as a simple preservative of our good nature, and a means of maintaining our equilibrium in case our customer failed to perceive and duly appreciate our labors.
   A few days after issuing the circular referred to, I called on one of my neighbor daguerreotypists on Broadway. He at once began to chide me, not for my presumption in assuming the role of teacher, but for thus trying to increase competition in the art. He affirmed that the practice of the art was a secret, and for our own protection should be kept to ourselves; and that his establishment, without the aid of another in the city, could make all the daguerreotypes New York demanded. My reply was, that what he said might be true, and yet I must differ with him in regard to keeping the art a secret. In my judgment it was good policy to induce as many as possible to invest their time and money, and to make them co-laborers with us in attracting public attention and thus aid in creating a greater demand for our services. Or, in other words, the more money and brains we could bring to bear upon the art, the more assured would be our success. But with all the arguments I could bring to bear on this question, I am quite sure I failed to convince him, for today he is as secretive as ever and continues the old cry: “Too many in the business.”
   In this endeavor to justify myself in advertising for pupils, I became thoroughly convinced of the truth of my position, and I have seen no good reason to abandon it up to the present hour.
   I therefore hail with pleasure the rapid growth of amateur photography throughout the world, and expect from it as in time past, the most useful and entertaining literature, the most valuable scientific discoveries, the most skillful applications of high art, and the highest social conditions due to the profession.

(End of text. Please refer to our textnote regarding this text.)

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