MHS for the Media

HISTORY DRAWN WITH LIGHT: Early Photographs from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Seth Eastman on Dighton RockBOSTON, March 2011—In 1840, almost as soon as photography arrived in America, the Massachusetts Historical Society began to collect images of notable figures, artifacts, and landscapes recorded with "the pencil of nature." Examples of these early photographs will be on display 11 March to 3 June, 2011 in the Society's exhibition, History Drawn with Light: Early Photographs from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Visitors can view one of Boston's oldest photographs, taken of the Old Feather Store by MHS Member Francis C. Gray, together with portraits and views by early daguerreotype artists such as Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, and the later work of professional and amateur photographers who documented 19th-century American history as it unfolded. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday through Saturday, 1 PM to 4 PM.

One of the first demonstrations of Louis Daguerre’s new and revolutionary photographic process, the daguerreotype, took place in the Tremont Street rooms of the Historical Society. The MHS photograph collections began almost immediately with the receipt of a “well delineated specimen of a new art,” a daguerreotype view of the oldest building in Boston. Some of the first daguerreotypes made in Boston were of architectural landmarks, but improvements in photographic technology in the 1850s brought about a revolution in urban photography. Advances in camera design and the mass production of film negatives made it possible to systematically record streetscapes and create high-angle, panoramic views such as a large panorama of the Boston waterfront in 1877 which will be on view as part
of this exhibition.

Early daguerreotype portraits were physically uncomfortable, time-consuming, and expensive to make, yet they quickly became extraordinarily popular. By 1850, Boston was home to forty-three daguerreotype studios, including the notable firms of (Albert S.) Southworth and (Josiah J.) Hawes; and John A. Whipple—who soon would be joined in partnership by James W. Black. The exhibition features a range of daguerreotypes from the stern 1851 portrait of Daniel Webster by Southworth & Hawes to an evocative profile of Annie Adams Fields by Southworth & Hawes in 1853 to a curious image of Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock by Horatio B. King in 1853.

The introduction of small, “instantaneous” cameras and magnifying stereoscopic viewers in the late 1850s allowed photographers to create life-like, three-dimensional images of everyday human activity. The popularity of stereoscopic city views meant that in the aftermath of the Great Boston Fire of 1872, photographers were able to create before-and-after pictures of the enormous destruction caused by the fire. Visitors will have the opportunity to use a modern stereoviewer to view reproductions of these before and after stereoviews, as well as being able to view the orginals.

The Civil War saw an enormous increase in the number and types of photographs available to the public. Abolitionists enlisted the new medium in their cause and distributed powerful images of the cruelty of slavery. One such image is the iconic daguerreotype of Captain Jonathan Walker’s branded hand taken in 1845. Mass production made the visual record of the war truly democratic as senior officers and political figures appeared side by side with ordinary soldiers in carte de visite albums. The exhibition includes portrait albums; tintype and ambrotype photographs of Civil War officers and soldiers, camps and battlefields; and some portraits of the famous Massachusetts 54th Infantry—the first African American regiment raised in the North.

The introduction of dry-plate negatives and hand-held cameras in the 1870s and 1880s simplified photography and dramatically increased the number of amateur photographers. The dry-plate revolution made photography a popular pastime, but also led to the rise of a new category of technically accomplished amateurs who saw photography as a new form of artistic expression. Examples of the amateur photography movement that flowered in the 19th-century are on view, including notable portraits by Marian (Clover) Adams and early examples of high-speed photography by the inventor Francis Blake.

Generous support for this exhibition is provided by Eaton Vance Investment Counsel and The William L. Saltonstall Memorial Fund at the Massachusetts Historical Society.