It’s hard to imagine in the age of Instagram, but there was a time when taking a photo wasn’t just a simple click. The first practical method for permanently capturing an image involved an elaborate box-like machine and required the person being photographed to hold his pose for a minute or longer. While much more cumbersome than today’s easy smartphone captures, daguerreotypes were revolutionary when introduced in 1839.
Visitors to the Wichita Art Museum can see the invention that spring-boarded the art of photography in the exhibit “Photographic Wonders: Daguerreotypes from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,” which features 82 works from the Kansas City-based museum’s extensive collection of America’s earliest photographs. An opening party will take place Feb. 7.
“Photography is ubiquitous today,” said Wichita Art Museum director Patricia McDonnell. “I’m always amazed at how many images people are capturing on their iPhones. Photography is absolutely everywhere. This exhibit allows people to take themselves back in time to this rare, special moment when something that is so commonplace today was just being invented.”
McDonnell said that any reservations she had about the impact of the images were overturned when she saw the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s collection of nearly 900 daguerreotypes. The collection was donated to the museum by Hallmark Cards, which had amassed them since 1970 before handing them over to the museum in 2005. The exhibit has since been dubbed “one of the best shows of early American photography ever produced” by a reviewer for the Association of International Photographic Art Dealers. While the offering at the Wichita Art Museum is a slice of the larger show, McDonnell thinks the works will resonate just as strongly.
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“I find the daguerreotypes absolutely enchanting. I personally am mesmerized by them. They are magical bits of American history,” she said.
Though other, more crude ways of capturing a likeness before 1839 existed, the daguerreotype is largely considered the first true form of photography. It was invented in France by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, and its popularity quickly spread. A single impression captured on a piece of metal, the earlier models required subjects to hold poses for minutes and often developed relatively faint images. Improvements happened rapidly, though, and by 1843, daguerreotypes were an American enterprise, with studios in every major city.
There were no negatives involved and the images are embedded on a highly-polished, mirror-like surface that is reflective and best viewed by hand or hung under controlled lighting. The 1840s-1860s were the main years for the technology’s use, with other methods overtaking it by the 1870s. During its heyday, daguerreotypes were considered magical contraptions by many, a fascinating pre-cursor to a medium that would become a staple in the art world.
“There are any number of single images that are painterly, so they are quoting artistic genres from the painting world,” McDonnell said. “In reaching to have itself understood as an artistic practice, they emulated the conventions of fine art. That aspect is there — but also even in portraiture and some of the landscape images, the technical capacity of some of these early photographers in how they frame, color, focus on — all of that shows a very refined eye that we now have come to understand is the eye of the artists. Sure, it’s a photographer, but it’s an artist whose medium is photography.”
It’s the slice of early American life captured in the collection on view that McDonnell thinks viewers will find most fascinating. She also noted that the photos were taken “pre-Kodak moment,” and that people had yet to learn what today is routine photo etiquette, like smiling while being photographed.
The images themselves offer a unique and surprisingly candid glimpse into the past. Most are black and white, with occasional hints of color. There’s a spontaneous quality to many of them, including a young man sitting on chair back making a quirky facial gesture and a group of men snowball fighting with a polar bear atop a snowy mountain. The traditions of the time are telegraphed in many, including one striking image of a Native American chief profiled in full headgear, with faint hues of red and blue in his feathers. Several occupations are profiled, from doctor and lawyer types to a goofy clown and a tightrope walker. Mundane shots like a dog sleeping by a window to a man resting his hand atop one of the daguerreotype machines transcend context to become interesting gateways into the past.
“This is pre-Civil War era and given the diversity of the kinds of images that were taken, depending upon your interest, any different aspect of life really was recorded. It is a full spectrum of experience in American culture. There are bits of artistry, but it’s also very important cultural imagery.”
In addition to the exhibit, which is on display through May 10, there will also be two lectures offered that provide more insight into the images and art process. Keith Davis, senior curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, will speak Feb. 19 about his role in helping amass the collection. An artist talk on Feb. 26 will feature Heidi Kirkpatrick, whose cyanotype photographs are featured in the Five Alchemists show opening Feb. 7 at the museum. McDonnell said Kirkpatrick’s talk will not only explain her own unique process but also touch on the revived interest in vintage forms of photography.
“Everyone who comes to this show has a point of reference. That’s not true for all art forms,” McDonnell said. “We are all either photographers, or we have had countless photographs of us taken. We have a starting point for appreciating this exhibition.”
If You Go
‘Photographic Wonders: Daguerreotypes from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’
What: A selection of 82 works from the collection of nearly 900 daguerreotypes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Where: The Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and Noon to 5 p.m. Sun. through May 10. Opening party 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Saturday. Curator’s talk with Keith Harris at 6 p.m. Feb. 19. Artist’s talk with Heidi Kirkpatrick at 6 p.m. Feb. 26.
How Much: Free for members and children under 5. Adults $7; seniors (60-plus) $5; students with ID and youth (ages 5-17) $3. Admission free on Saturdays. Opening party free with museum membership, $10 for general public. Artist talks are free and open to the public.