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A World Captured on Silver

'The Art of the Daguerreotype' at the J. Paul Getty Museum holds up a mirror to a time when image wasn't everything and photography was just being born

April 26, 1998|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

The more images proliferate in contemporary life, the harder it becomes to imagine a world where seeing a picture ranked as a momentous event. An altarpiece in a shrine, a window in a church, a mural on the wall of a government chamber, an engraving in a book, a decoration on a jar, perhaps a shopkeeper's sign--for most of human history, the encounter with pictures was more uncommon than ordinary. An engrossing new exhibition of mid-19th century photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood manages to make you feel the multifaceted magic of the brief period when, suddenly, all those long-established rules for seeing pictures changed.

Before photography, the relative rarity of a pictorial encounter made the experience automatically distinctive, which meant that control of the creation and display of images could function as a dramatic emblem of power and authority. Just by virtue of its being, a picture commanded attention. "This is important," pictures said, and it was easy to believe them.

Today, the rarity goes the other way. Try to imagine getting through a day without seeing a single image, never mind hundreds, even thousands of them.

The pivot between image-sparse history and image-glutted today is, of course, the invention of the camera, which had been dreamed of for centuries but was only realized about 160 years ago. Image proliferation had taken a big leap forward in the 15th century with the advent ofthe printing press, which could make pictures multiply, but the camera was an exponentially bigger step.

"The Art of the Daguerreotype" demonstrates why. This exquisite overview of pictures from the 1840s and 1850s, which surveys many of the finest examples in the Getty's large and critically important collection of early photographs, is seductive in the extreme. It includes many riveting pictures, among them an unknown American's haunted portrait of an emotionally bereft Edgar Allan Poe made a few short months before the writer's death in 1849; John Jabez Edwin Mayall's mammoth print of a contemporaneous--and similarly mammoth--engineering feat, "The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London" (1851); and, another unknown daguerreotypist's powerful double portrait of a black nurse holding a white child, which is like a devastating hundred-year-old echo of a famous 1950s photograph in Robert Frank's epochal "The Americans." The high level of quality maintained by the assembled works is such that it's easy to understand the public pandemonium for pictures that followed from the announcement of the daguerreotype process.

Organized by curator Weston Naef, the show coincides with the publication of "The Silver Canvas: Daguerreotype Masterpieces from the J. Paul Getty Museum." Authors Bates Lowry and Isabel Barrett Lowry have written a compelling, eminently readable account of the creation, refinement and almost instantaneous proliferation of the daguerreotype process. They also offer a thoroughly researched analysis of most of the show's exceptional examples.

The invention of photography is a notoriously tangled tale. So many technical experiments were being undertaken simultaneously by so many different explorers on the frontiers of visual science that it was only a matter of time before a solution would be found to the problem of how to permanently fix a transient image made by light passing through a lens. Among competing processes, which bear such romantic names as the heliograph and photogenic drawing, the daguerreotype is the one that secured photography as truly a done deal.

In fact, we typically date the so-called invention of the whole photographic medium to 1839--the year Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre sold the formula for his process to the French government, in exchange for a lifetime annuity. Widely published, the process was an immediate sensation. Within a decade, 3 million daguerreotypes a year were being made in the United States alone.

Daguerre's somewhat complicated process is spelled out in a helpful information gallery adjacent to the show, thanks to a display of vintage equipment loaned by Connecticut collector Matthew Isenburg. Characterized by extraordinarily precise and intricate detail, a daguerreotype is not a photograph reproduced on paper, as we're used to seeing, but a unique image on a copper plate. It's made like this: The plate is coated with silver, polished to a bright sheen, chemically treated and exposed to light focused through a lens. Then, the exposed plate is bathed in the vapors of heated mercury, blackening the fine mist of light-sensitized silver iodide until the picture is fully developed.

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