Greg French

                          Early Photography

specializing in nineteenth-century photographs            
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A BEGINNER'S PRIMER:
TEN CRITERIA FOR EVALUATING DAGUERREOTYPES.

In 1994 the Daguerreian Society Symposium was based in Boston. I gave a presentation entitled 'Outdoor Scene Daguerreotypes' and listed nine criteria for evaluating daguerreotypes. This list can be applied to evaluating other antique photographs as well, keeping in mind that with later dates and larger formats the photographer's attribution becomes increasingly important. Presentation, in the form of frames, cases and mats (or any display material) can affect the overall aesthetics. Original presentation' is valued highly by collectors and historians. Therefore there's a balancing act between 'dressing up' an image and staying true to the original artifact. Presentation is crucial when discussing collectible cases. Check out available reference guides. Presentation is also at the forefront with multi-image wall frames. However, with most daguerreotypes, it's a minor consideration. The image usually holds the power.

1. THEME. Theme is linked to content. What was the daguerreian artist trying to convey? Or was it simply a commercial exchange of money for likeness? How did the subjects want to be depicted, or were they simply mesmerized by the process? is it a family portrait? Is it an occupational? Is there a business being advertised? Is it a commemoration of a special event?


2. CONTENT. Content supports theme Faces are content and for various reasons, some faces compel us more than others. Some faces are photogenic, and some faces just emit that quality we call 'character'. What artifacts of the material culture are presented? What does the clothing tell us? What studio furniture do we see? What are the extra details that compel our eyes to stray from the sitters? In the case of an outdoor scene: are there barrels and piles of lumber for our perusal? What tools are on display? Are there readable signs?


3. HISTORICAL DATA. Photographer identification is an obvious form of historical data. The identity of the daguerreotype studio can be a valuable clue that can be followed up by consulting regional directories. 'Craig's Daguerreian Registry' by John Craig is particularly helpful in this regard. Note that most daguerreotypes are not attributed and that some of the studios had operators under their employ. Historical data is sometimes provided by accompanying notes on paper or inscriptions inside the case. Some of these notations are 'period' and others are from later generations. Notes should be scrutinized with suspicion as unscrupulous dealers will sometimes 'marry' such notes to an image. However, I find that most of these 'notes' are honest or earnest. Many are completely accurate and can lead the way to much research. Those that are merely earnest are by well-intended later generation family members, who often used guesswork and memory on establishing dates and even identities. Learn how to distinguish 1840s daguerreotypes from those of the 1850s.
HIstorical data is also gleaned from the material clues within the daguerreotype.. Any clue that establishes certain attributions, or points the way to further research falls into this category. Famous persons and readable signage are each a big jump start in this direction.


4. CLARITY. Clarity can be divided into two components. The first is preparation-based and the second is execution. a) Physical Properties of the Plate: Is it a 'bright plate'? Does it 'jump' at you? Can you see the image from several feet away? Or is it faint? If it's a faint image chances are that the plate was not prepared properly or the chemistry wasn't precise. b) Focus: Is it in focus? Is it sharp? Can we see details? Often one part of the plate is in focus and another is not. Did the daguerreotypist emphasize the right details to your satisfaction? We have to keep in mind that some daguerreotypes were deliberately soft-focus for artful effect.


5. CONTRAST. Is there a wide range from light to dark? if so, we might use the term 'rich tonality'. Great contrast is sometimes reason enough to buy a daguerreotype. Or do the clothes blend into the background? Does nothing jump out? I've observed that even novices react negatively to lack of contrast. Of course, strong content or historical intrigue can change that in a hurry.


6. COMPOSITION AND ARTISTRY. How is the sitter posed? If there is more than one sitter, are they interacting? Is there a balance to the composition? Or is it delightfully off-center? Is there a nice interplay between shadows and light? What are the contours and textures within the image? How is the use of space? Is it carefully composed, or does it seem spontaneously conceived, even as the daguerreotypist labored hard? Has color been tastefully applied?


7. SIZE. THe essence of daguerreotypes is that they were meant to be held in hand, or propped up close by on a night table. So size sometimes doesn't matter. The sixth plate portrait of an animated young man can be more exciting than his dull full plate daguerreotype where the camera has seemingly robbed him of his life. So size is de-emphasized in daguerreotype collecting. However, if you're a museum curator and want 'wall power' you tend to feel differently. Even then, I'd suggest displaying a masterful ninth plate daguerreotype alongside a wall graphic that shows a high-quality enlargement of the same. But there are collectors who just prefer larger plates and that is their prerogative. Of course, in a discussion of whole plate daguerreotypes by Southworth & Hawes, size is a big matter. Size does affect pricing.


8. CONDITION. Condition is often the first criteria for rejecting an image. Scratches, wipes, dents and green spots are all distractions to the viewing process. However, certain factors can cause one to 'forgive' condition issues. While I have a critical eye for condition and reject many daguerreotypes on this basis, I'm a big believer that content, historical data and even artistry can triumph condition issues.
Some of us are not bothered by a 'halo' of tarnish. Others prefer their images without any tarnish. Likewise, some of us aren't fazed by old glass and can see through to the plate below. However, this isn't always foolproof.


9. PRICE. The price is often the biggest deterrant to buying an image. All of the other criteria may be aligned perfectly, but price is the obstacle. This is when we learn that we don't have to own everything, that there's satisfaction in just viewing a great daguerreotype.
The discussion on criteria steers us away from the fact that a daguerreotype is a holistic entity. It is one object. Pricing daguerreotypes is inexact and often arbitrary, but is based on the whole, not the parts. To paraphrase a statement I made at the 1994 Boston Athenaeum lecture (I've lost the notes and therefore exact wording):: "We can't start with two people on a porch and start counting at $500, adding $200 for the broom, $100 for the rocking chair, $50 for the straw hat, and an extra $50 for what-seems-like-a-cat's shadow in the corner."
Check the marketplace to get a sense on pricing. Check on-line auctions, and seek out the shows. Consult dealers and examine their wares. Remember that we're often comparing 'apples and oranges'. A dull portrait featuring a blue dress is not the same as an exquisite tour-de-force with an accent of blue. There is no set price on painted backdrops and no set price on men wearing top hats.


10. THE EXPERIENCE ITSELF. In 1996, the Daguerreian Symposium was held in Atlanta. In my talk "Building a Collection' at the Atlanta HIstory Center I added a tenth category. That's the experience itself. It could be that a bookseller ushered you into a back room and pulled out an old shoebox of dusty daguerreotypes. Or it may be that you drove an hour and a half on a rainy evening and met someone at a diner. It simply could've been at a show on a sunny day and the dealer was just so pleasant and enthused and informative that you connected and felt a bond. Whatever, our experiences in the procurement of these images matters. Conversely, a negative experience can impact your feelings about a daguerreotype. Being pressured into a purchase, being 'fed' erroneous information or even testy negotiations can leave you with ambivalent feelings about a very satisfactory image.
Lastly, what should you buy? I'm a big believer that the buyer should buy what 'speaks' to him or her. Over time you will notice your own tendencies. You may like hand-coloring or you may be drawn to early primitve daguerreotypes. Or you may be someone who simply likes a wide palette. Maybe your decisions are mostly based on your cash flow. Whatever, you don't need to justify your orientation to anyone.
Some dealers argue that daguerreotypes are a good investment. That can be true, but it is not universal. There is no way to predict the marketplace. My advice would be to always buy for the pure love of the medium and the image. That way, when commerce falls by the wayside, you'll still be in awe.

Re-printed from The Daguerreian Society Quarterly Vol. 23, April-Kime, 2011, No. 2, Pages 6-7.


DAGUERREOTYPE SIZES:
Approximate sizes of the images, including the portion of image hidden under the mat, but not including the case:
Whole plate   8 1/2" x 6 1/2"
Half-plate   5 1/2" x 4 1/4"
Quarter-plate   4 1/4" x 3 1/4"
Sixth-plate (the most common size)       3 1/4" x 2 3/4"
Ninth-plate   2 1/2" x 2"
Sixteenth-plate   1 5/8" x 1 3/8"

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