Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

by Martha A. Sandweiss

Alexander Gardner's traveling darkroom, 1867 (LOC Prints and Photographs Div)During the mid-nineteenth century, American commentators pronounced that new technological innovations in transportation and communications represented nothing less than the “annihilation of space and time.” On steamships and railroads, travelers could now cross vast distances in days rather than weeks. With the telegraph, Americans could communicate across the continent with astounding speed. Though rarely mentioned in the same breath, the new medium of photography similarly transformed American life: it brought the distant near. With photographs, Americans could become familiar with far-off places. Because photography allowed a glimpse of the past in new and utterly novel ways, it altered the perception of familiar places and things. Suddenly, one could move away from home but preserve a photograph of a birthplace, study the likeness of a dead relative, or see what a parent had looked like as a child. Photography let Americans feel a more immediate connection to people and places removed by geographical distance and time.

Photography came to the United States in the fall of 1839, when word arrived from France of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s marvelous invention, by which nature herself seemed to inscribe her own image on a sensitized sheet of silver-plated copper. Men of science embraced the new technology and quickly improved upon the process, reducing exposure time so that the camera could capture not just immobile buildings, but portraits of human subjects. And indeed, more than 95 percent of American daguerreotypes—the prevailing form of photography in this country from 1839 until the late 1850s—were portraits. Since the daguerreotype process did not involve a negative, each daguerreotype was a unique image (much like an instant camera or Polaroid picture). The daguerreotype’s singularity, coupled with its small size and distinctive surface glare, made it inherently ill-suited to become a medium of mass communication or a tool for the documentation of places and events. But it served beautifully as a new, more democratic form of portraiture. In 1853, at the peak of the daguerreotype’s popularity, Americans produced some three million daguerreotypes. Photographic portraits had become commonplace objects of middle-class life.

Photographic technologies evolved rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, each new advance allowing photography to be put to new uses. In 1856, the development of a method for making tintypes, unique images on inexpensive metal plates, brought down the price of photographs and resulted in a sturdy sort of image that could be shipped through the mail. More significantly, the increasing use of the “wet-plate” negative process in the late 1850s gave photographers a way to make glass negatives from which they could print a theoretically unlimited number of positive prints on paper. This process made it more profitable for photographers to venture far from home to make a photographic image. From a single negative of Yosemite or a Civil War battlefield, a cameraman could make a great many prints to sell to the general public. Nonetheless, the wet-plate negative process remained slow and tedious, requiring photographers to sensitize their glass plates immediately before exposure. Not until the emergence of a dry-plate technology in the early 1880s did large numbers of amateur photographers enter the field. With the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888, photography became a truly popular pastime. Lured by the slogan, “You push the button and we’ll do the rest,” consumers flocked to George Eastman’s camera with the flexible roll of film.

Photography captured many of the signal scenes of American life beginning in 1840, such as the Gold Rush, the explosive growth of San Francisco, the construction of the transcontinental railroads, the plantations of the antebellum South, and the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. Photographers documented the growth of the East’s great urban centers and the exploration of the Rocky Mountain West, and recorded the faces of presidents and soldiers, actors and immigrants. But photographs did not simply capture neutral records of these people, places, and things; they helped inscribe them with meaning. Often distributed in albums or in sets with descriptive titles or explanatory captions, photographs could weave complicated narratives about their subjects. The photographs of the West published by the federal surveying teams in the 1860s and 1870s, for example, helped argue for the beneficence of westward expansion. The Civil War photographs in Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book reiterated the righteousness of the Union cause. The many portraits of western Indians published in the 1870s and 1880s subtly endorsed the idea of a vanishing race.

Most historians (and the textbooks they write) use photographs primarily as illustrations, to reiterate ideas developed from the analysis of literary evidence. But we ought to be mindful of photographs not just as images, but as primary source artifacts in and of themselves. To do justice to nineteenth-century photographs and explore their rich potential as historical sources, we need to ask questions about the photographers, about the photographs as physical objects, and about the ways in which we encounter them across the divide of historical time.

Photographs, like literary documents, are not to be taken at face value. Despite their seeming realism, they are actually constructions of the human imagination, made by individuals with particular cultural or economic ambitions. Like a memoir or a letter, a photograph may describe events, but it does so through the lens of the recorder’s own experience. No photograph can fully convey the complexity of a single unfolding event or the experience of being in a particular place. It necessarily reflects the photographer’s choices about what to photograph and when. Why, we must ask, did a photographer make a particular image, and for whom? Who paid for the picture? How did the available technology shape or limit what the photographer could produce? As observers with particular political, social, and moral perspectives, photographers inevitably assess and judge what they see. Their work is no more to be embraced uncritically than the work of letter writers, memoirists, or journalists.

The physical form of the image, as much as its content, can be useful to historians, conveying information about the picture’s likely audience and intended uses. The digitized versions of photographs that float around the Internet today mute the distinctive features of the originals. But just as a personal letter differs in important ways from other literary documents such as newspaper articles or government papers, so too do different kinds of photographs. A one-of-a-kind daguerreotype portrait likely stayed in the family that paid for it. A stereographic view of Yellowstone would have been widely reproduced and sold for a modest cost. A deluxe album of Civil War views would have been produced in small numbers, marketed at considerable cost, and seen by relatively few.

It is useful to think of photographs as primary source documents that we can encounter in history and through history. To consider the photograph in history, we must ask about the circumstances of its making, the photographer’s intent, the public function of the picture, and the ways in which contemporary audiences understood it. Reinserted into the world of its production, the photograph becomes more than the visual record of a material fact. It becomes a tool for understanding larger issues about patronage, civic boosterism, and national values. To consider the photograph through history, however, without the ties that once bound it to a particular historical moment, we need to give attention to the picture’s fate across time. We can learn something by asking why one picture got relegated to the attic while another appeared as a magazine illustration, why one album got preserved in an archive while another got broken apart and sold. And we must always be aware of how our own experiences make it impossible for us to understand nineteenth-century photographs precisely as their original viewers did. For one thing, we know what comes next. To put the point in a modern context, we might argue that it is impossible to see a 1995 photograph of the New York City skyline precisely as a viewer did then, because we cannot erase from our memory the knowledge that those twin towers will meet a tragic end.

Photographs spark the historic imagination. They give us a powerful way to visualize the past, with all of its startling similarities and unexpected differences, and they inevitably spark our human empathy. To gaze into the eyes of a sitter who sat before a camera 150 years ago is to recognize the human bonds that connect us to our predecessors. That empathy for the past lies at the heart of every historical inquiry.

Martha A. Sandweiss is professor of history at Princeton University and the author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception across the Color Line (2009) and Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (2002).

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Really a nice photography but I'm astonished to know that the photo still now live instead of long had been passed. Now, I'm enthusiastic to know which camera device was used for the photo snap.
Dalton perry

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