Issue #130  7/18/2007
Exhibition Review: Developing Greatness: Origins of American Photography, 1839 -1885

By Mack Lee

In late 2005, Hallmark Cards donated its remarkable, choice, and extensive collection of photographs (some 6,500 in all) to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. With the opening of the new Bloch wing on June 9th, and Keith F. Davis's formidable show "Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography, 1839 -1885," the geography of photographic collections has been redrawn. Kansas City is no longer a "fly-over" city for students and lovers of photography. In fact, if you're interested in understanding the origins of photography, or American art history, "Developing Greatness" is a "must see" show.

The show begins with over 165 daguerreotypes expertly lit with fiber optics in specially designed cases. There are several rare, small, primitive portraits from the first months of photography, including a previously unknown self-portrait by Henry Insley from about late 1839, and two works by Robert Cornelius. Samuel Bemis's whole plate view of the Lafayette House at Franconia Notch, NH, would be a masterpiece of composition from any point in the Daguerreian era, but the primitive quality of the technique and the other-worldly rendering of trees on the mountain side give the impression that the artist was an astronomer catching the first nanosecond from the big bang of photographic light.

Next is another previously unknown plate: an interior view of two rooms of a Daguerreian studio. The first and closest room could be the waiting room of a daguerreotypist of modest means; a common domestic interior with low ceilings, spare furniture and framed daguerreotypes on the wall. It is washed in gentle, low, early-morning or late-afternoon light. A man is seen through a doorway in a second room; he is seated in profile with a contemplative gaze, facing a window. It is apparent that he is in a workroom (above the doorway are the words "No Admittance") and is busy assembling a daguerreotype for a customer. A unique and innovative composition, the clarity, natural light and size of the image makes the viewer feel as if they have gone through a key hole with Alice to view a scene from another world.

Except for the radical leap in technologies, the daguerreotype was a direct descendent of hand-painted portraits on ivory made in similar scale and presented in similar hinged leather cases. While all daguerreotypists borrowed something from this earlier tradition, a few went far beyond any painterly precedents.

On view by Southworth and Hawes, for example, is a delicately rendered sixth plate of frost patterns on a window. This photograph is a radical departure from both the tradition of portrait painting, and from any "normal" use of the daguerreotype, which was largely applied to portraiture. All other photographs of natural forms are descended from this photograph and a small handful of remotely comparable examples. And of the progeny, few are as beautiful as this.

The show also includes a Southworth and Hawes portrait of Mary Hawes, the artist's daughter. The young girl is standing and holding on to a chair in an evocative and painterly pose. We would be viewing a masterpiece if that were all that was going on. However, her dress is beautifully tinted red and clouds have been painted in the background, probably by the child's mother. With no horizon line or other spatial reference, it's not clear if the chair is an oversized prop or if the young girl is much larger than a normal size chair. The space of the picture becomes intriguingly ambiguous, and the viewer is forced to wonder if the scene was made on a cloud or on earth.

The Russell Miller portrait of an artist painting a trompe l'oeil backdrop has been very well received since it first surfaced about 20 years ago. And elderly woman standing in front of it expressed a commonly held sentiment: "Wow!!!...Wow!!!...Wow!!!" The brilliance of this work is poignant. While very little else by Miller is known, it seems impossible that a work of this quality could have been a strictly "one-off" production. What else might this brilliant daguerreotypist have made, and where are the plates?

Next is a portrait of a young man sitting precariously on a chair with his mouth wide open and his whole visage expressing alarm or excitement. This marks an important point in the pioneering era of photography. It's one of the earliest photographs of human emotion.

The sixth plate of gravediggers may be unique in the Daguerreian era. The sky has a dense, iridescent blue color caused by over exposure, which gives a bizarre, otherworldly feeling. One of the figures is wearing an unusual Transylvanian-style cape. The image looks as if it could be an illustration from an Ambrose Bierce story or a still from a Rod Serling or David Lynch screenplay.

Other treasures include an astonishing whole-plate view of the interior of a butcher shop, a profile portrait of Frederick Douglass, a barn-raising scene, a uniquely artistic "trophies of the hunt" still-life from 1842, and an outdoor view of boys playing marbles. All of these are "new" additions to our historical knowledge: none have ever before been published.

At some point the reader may wonder whether the reviewer is suffering from irrational exuberance or whether this is really a great show. The curator, Keith Davis, often "blasted" many of the finest pieces out of private collections. Most collectors and curators have no choice but to wait for a great piece to come to the market place. However, thanks to the generous support and forward thinking of Donald J. Hall, Hallmark's chairman of the board, Davis was given the means to develop a collection of international importance. This was done through "blasting": steady travel, lots of study, networking, and a willingness to pay a fair (or even "full") price for great pieces. The result is an unusually large number of national treasures of photography in one place.

The 122 paper photographs are equally stunning and important. Many of the most famous practitioners are represented, with both familiar and little-known masterpieces. This section begins with pre-Civil War work by J. B. Greene, the brilliant young American based in Paris, Samuel Masury and Charles D. Fredricks.

A large group of Western landscapes includes signature works by Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and William Henry Jackson.

The Civil War section is equally memorable. A.J. Russell's photograph "Fredericksburg: Rebel Caissons Destroyed by Federal Shells" is a stark record of the impossible and unimaginable horrors of war. The dead horses are almost too contorted and abstract to be read as horses. The caissons look as if they have been up-ended and littered by a tornado. The three Union figures stand somberly staring at the ground as if they are wondering how such devastation is possible. Other prints in this section include Alexander Gardner's rare series of the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators and a previously unpublished portrait of General William T. Sherman and his son.

The show concludes with a variety of works from the 1870s and early 1880s, from lively cartes-de-visite and stereographs, to Lewis Rutherfurd's celebrated 1865 view of the moon, and a pristine copy of William Bradford's lavish album, "The Arctic Regions."

While large, this show is not overwhelming. Instead it is inviting and inspiring: a memorable overview of a most remarkable subject. One of the best shows of early American photography ever produced, it is a true "must see".

The exhibition runs from now through December 30, 2007 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansans City, MO. For more information on the exhibit and the museum, click on

http://www.nelson-atkins.org/art/Exhibitions/DevGreat/index.cfm .

Mack Lee runs Lee Gallery in Winchester, MA. He is a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) and has been dealing in photography for over 26 years. His website is http://www.leegallery.com.