Campus & Community

Picture perfect

3 min read

New book shows off Harvard’s daguerreotypes

Picture of child
Banta writes, “In 1849, a cholera epidemic swept through Cincinnati, stealing the life of her [Harriet Beecher Stowe’s] sixth child, Samuel Charles. Infant mortality ran high, and the Stowes, like other poor families, were moved to capture a last likeness of Samuel in a graceful postmortem portrait.”
It was, some said, miraculous. In 1839 a photographic process developed by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was unveiled in Paris. Within weeks, the world was buzzing about the astonishing accomplishment. At Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. suggested that Daguerre had help from high places: “It will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress dates from the time when He . . . took a pencil of fire from the hand of the ‘angel standing in the sun,’ and placed it in the hands of a mortal.”

Holmes was just one local luminary captivated by the new process. At Harvard and its environs, daguerreotypes were produced by the hundreds. And this year, a sampling of these beautiful images can be seen in the recently published book “A Curious & Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard” (University of Iowa Press, 2000) by Melissa Banta, Adler curatorial associate at the Weissman Preservation Center at Harvard University Library.

Samuel Dwight Humphrey’s “View of the Moon, Multiple Exposure,” 1849, was a gift to Harvard President Jared Sparks. (Harvard College Observatory)

Says Banta, “The book grew out of a preservation project to conserve, rehouse, and enhance access to the University’s daguerreotypes. It focuses on what we call the core collection of Harvard daguerreotypes – approximately 470 images (found in 14 Harvard libraries, museums, and archives) that were for the most part made of, by, or for members of the university community.

“Bringing this collection together was particularly rewarding,” Banta continues, “because of the extraordinary photographers and portrait sitters represented and the wealth of supporting archival material that tells the story of how these images were created and used.”

And Banta has integrated some of these accounts flawlessly into the series of biographical vignettes that accompany the stunning reproductions. In a very few words, Banta contextualizes the daguerreotypes, presents the lives of photographers and subjects, and still offers evocative particulars and arresting insights. Banta and company (M. Susan Barger, Deborah Martin Kao, and Robin McElheny contributed to the book, and Sidney Verba wrote the Forword) have produced a picture perfect volume.

Henry James Sr. and
This daguerreotype of Henry James Sr. and Henry James Jr. was made by the Studio of Matthew Brady in 1854. As he became “increasingly bald and corpulent,” notes Banta, James Jr. did not like having his picture taken. (Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library)
The image on the cover of the book “A Curious & Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard” is John H. Fitzgibbon ad his daguerreian apparatus, made by the Studio of John H. Fitzgibbon. The daguerreotype is part of the Harvard Theatre Collection. (Courtesy of University of Iowa Press)