Tuesday, October 24, 2017
1839 photo of Newburyport displayed in D.C. Museum of Old Newbury loans daguerreotype by Dr. Perkins for exhibit
Dr. Henry Coit Perkins had a good eye, kept great notes, and probably had no fear of heights.
Those traits came together one day in October 1839, when Perkins hauled his daguerreotype camera and tripod up the steps to the top of a church on Harris Street and made a photograph of Newburyport and the Merrimack River beyond.
That photograph – one of five Perkins is known to have taken of the city, with notations, that are in the Museum of Old Newbury's collection – is one of 175 photos in a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The full-plate (an image about 6 by 8 inches) daguerreotype is on loan from the local museum and featured in "East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography" through July 16.
Susan Edwards, executive director of the Museum of Old Newbury, has studied Perkins' photographs and said the quality is very good, considering how difficult the early process was.
"You can actually hone in and pick out neighborhoods and buildings," she said. "We can get a really good idea of what Newburyport looked like in 1839" from the daguerreotypes. "It's amazing how built up it was. Of course, that was probably the height of its prosperity."
Edwards traveled to Washington recently for a preview of the exhibit.
"It was very exciting to go down and see (the daguerreotype) right in the beginning in the first room of the exhibit," she said.
Daguerrotypes were the first photographs made that were "fixed" to the plate so the image didn't disappear when exposed to light. Edwards said Perkins (1804-1873) was a doctor and inventor who experimented with the daguerreotype process in its earliest days.
"We know so much about him. He was a practicing medical doctor, designed his own microscope and telescope, he ground lenses – there are references that he actually made his own camera," she said. "He was a renaissance man."
Besides his scientific skill working with lenses and the chemicals necessary for making and fixing the photographic image, Perkins was a meticulous note taker, which is why "we can date them as closely as we can," Edwards said of the photographs.
Many early daguerreotypes are dark or "muddy," but, Edwards said, "his have such incredible clarity and detail to them.
"He had such great annotations on them. We have all the documents in this sort of crabby hand – how long he left the fixative in, what kind, apertures that he tried, and inside and outside with light on the back of the daguerreotype itself, what the exposure times were. So we could match up his notes to the actual daguerreotype."
Edwards said two or three of the Perkins daguerreotypes were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in the early 1990s in an exhibit called "Secrets of the Dark Chamber," in reference to the camera.
It was that exhibit and references to the bird's-eye photographs over the years that helped the National Gallery zero in on the Perkins image. Edwards said Diane Waggoner, curator of 19th century photographs for the National Gallery exhibit, came to Newburyport a few months ago to inspect the images, choosing one to be among the 175 daguerreotypes, stereographs, albumen prints and cyanotypes in the exhibit.
In a statement, Waggoner said, “Perkins was among the first to adapt the bird’s-eye perspective to the daguerreotype. Correlating to the kind of compositions found in topographical prints, his photographic town view was likely the first to be made in the United States.”
These images show rare true-to-life glimpses of a prosperous coastal community at a time when artists' renditions were the only means of visual documentation, the press release said. The daguerreotype on loan for the exhibit shows a northward view of Newburyport with the river and Amesbury beyond.
The National Gallery describes this as the first exhibition to focus exclusively on photographs made in the eastern half of the United States during the 19th century, "celebrating natural wonders such as Niagara Falls and the White Mountains, as well as capturing a cultural landscape fundamentally altered by industrialization, the Civil War, and tourism, these photographs helped to shape America’s national identity."
After the exhibit in Washington, the photographs will be exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art from Oct. 5 through Jan. 7.
A notice regarding Perkins’ daguerreotypes or solar painting appeared in the Nov. 8, 1839, edition of a Newburyport paper called The Watch Tower. The Newburyport Herald also recorded an account of a lecture by Perkins on his daguerreotypes at the Newburyport Lyceum on Feb. 14, 1840.
For more information on the museum’s photographic collections and archives, visit www.newburyhistory.org or call 978-462-2681.